Belaboring the Obvious

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Cultural Abyss, Anyone...?

First, we had the "Top 50 Conservative Songs," which one could understand, except that meant ignoring the lyrics of about forty-seven of them, which were decidedly not in keeping with conservative "values."

Then we had a bit of wanking from the 101st keyboaders over the iconic status of one of worst bits of propaganda ever filmed, "Red Dawn." (That is, if we don't even consider the truly awful, such as Jack Abramoff's venture into the snake pit of Hollywood, "Red Scorpion.") Notice how "Red" seems to get these guys' rocks off?

Then there was all the hoopla surrounding Mel Gibson's "Passion of the Christ," which, if anything, proved that you could get the churchgoing crowd in to see a slasher movie.

Then there were the inevitable screams of blasphemy over "The DaVinci Code." (Guess everyone completely forgot the similar screams of outrage over last generation's "The Last Temptation of Christ.")

Then, most recently, we had the announcement of the glory brigade's version of Grand Theft Auto, an unseemly bit of mayhem put out by the "Left Behind" crowd, called, "Eternal Forces," which will be available before Christmas. Nothing like giving the gift of machine-gunning the agnostic masses.

What this may point to is a cultural divide in this country that's not likely to be bridged anytime soon.

There are people in this country who do think that any creative enterprise must fit into neat right-wing ideological boundaries, and if it does not, then it's propaganda. A book with an Hispanic, Asian or black protagonist? Well, hell, it's propaganda for multiculturism. Movie with some nuanced anti-war theme? Geez, Hollywood is out to sap our will and our precious bodily fluids, too. Homosexual in it? Stand back, the flood of indignation at "pushing the homosexual agenda" is coming.

I tend to forget that there are people in this country who believe that the blacklisting of the `50s was a good thing. Today, this tendency toward cultural suppression may be a result of a relatively small segment of the population being stuck in the `50s. It was, for some, a golden age, and that can't be discounted, culturally. Nostalgia is a powerful emotion, and nostalgia for a time when conformity was valued cannot help but produce desires for a national culture built upon conformity, hence the desire to eradicate or denigrate cultural influences which do not reinforce the stereotypes prevalent during the `50s.

Looking at the objects of derision on the right these days, it's not difficult to see that the intent is to preserve stereotypes and myths that gained strength in the `50s. Homosexuality is a big bugaboo to the right, because all that could be seen of it in the `50s were the stereotypes, which often had the effect of driving homosexuals further into the closet, if only for their own economic, social and personal protection. The odd thing about this is that the `50s saw a resurgence of somewhat underground writing on homosexuality. Even Allen Ginsberg was able to tap into why the culture was awry, in 1956, in his "America":

America you don't really want to go to war.
America it's them bad Russians.
Them Russians them Russians and them Chinamen. And them Russians.
The Russia wants to eat us alive. The Russia's power mad. She wants to take
our cars from out our garages.
Her wants to grab Chicago. Her needs a Red Reader's Digest. her wants our
auto plants in Siberia. Him big bureaucracy running our fillingstations.
That no good. Ugh. Him makes Indians learn read. Him need big black niggers.
Hah. Her make us all work sixteen hours a day. Help.
America this is quite serious.
America this is the impression I get from looking in the television set.
America is this correct?
I'd better get right down to the job.
It's true I don't want to join the Army or turn lathes in precision parts
factories, I'm nearsighted and psychopathic anyway.
America I'm putting my queer shoulder to the wheel.

America is this correct? Of course, it wasn't, as Ginsberg knew well. But, the perceptions upon which right-wing nostalgia today depends heavily are the stereotypes of the `50s. Everyone got their hair cut every week. Everyone dressed up for church on Sunday and went. Everyone aspired to work for a big corporation. Everyone watched "Gunsmoke." There were no queers, because no one actually knew one or saw one, or so they believed. Hispanics were all illegal Mexican wetbacks that worked for whatever white America felt inclined to pay them. Poodle skirts and saddle shoes were the acceptable limit of teenaged rebellion. America's enemies were known and their hostility to us was palpable. If you drove a big car, it was evidence you were better than those that did not. It was "liberals" that drove McCarthy from his exalted position as defender of the country against godless Communism. Good black people knew their places. America was perfect, and the rest of the world was not--and was envious of us because they weren't. Everyone thought the same way, did the same things, had the same materialistic goals and aspirations. No good person thought otherwise.

Look at any right-wing cultural icon today, and you'll find a nostalgic, but misperceived, avatar of the mythical `50s. The forces then driving American culture were, pretty much, full of themselves, full of self-righteousness and priggishness. The right wing today thinks it still ought to be that way, even if it never was exactly that way. There's a fondness today among the right wing for the America of a fledgling Madison Avenue and a blacklisted Hollywood and the Cold War. They'd like to ignore the intervening decades of change that are also uniquely American.

Those decades of change are American, because those changes happened here. Because they happened to us. Whether by accident or intent, we made those changes ourselves. We are as American as our history. That's part of the reason why historians such as Howard Zinn, and cultural and political observers such as Noam Chomsky, are so particularly reviled by the right these days. They remind us of our real history, rather than the artificial one that the right has resurrected from the Frigidaire commercials of 1954 and the televised tent meetings of Billy Graham from Madison Square Garden in 1957.

Few then knew that Allen Ginsberg really would be putting his queer shoulder to the wheel. Or that his friend, Jack Kerouac, would be writing books that would put millions of kids in the `60s on the road. Or that a virtually unknown corporate lawyer by the name of Lewis Powell would be so scared shitless by a generation that he didn't understand that he would write, in 1971, a prescriptive plan for the preservation of corporate power in this country that is now funding the dissemination of a right-wing ideology anchored in a `50s that existed only in white-bread minds then, and currently, only in the minds of the unimaginative who were mostly not around to experience the real `50s, and is now, at any rate, irretrievable.

What the right hasn't yet figured out is that not only is Howdy Doody stone-cold fucking dead, he didn't have much life in him to begin with.


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