by Lee Siegel
Source: Daily Beast (9-15-09)
[Lee Siegel has written about culture and politics and is the author
of three books: Falling Upwards: Essays in Defense of the
Imagination; Not Remotely Controlled: Notes on Television; and, most
recently, Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob.]
Let's all calm down. The Tea Party Express rally in Washington wasn't
the beginning of some political apocalypse that is going to plunge
the country into civil war.
If anything, its noisiness was inversely proportionate to its
powerthe ugly images and inflammatory rhetoric were burbles of
helplessness. Without cable TV's magnifications, the peaceful, even
cautious, demonstration would have come and gone with barely a notice.
Fundamentally, the gathering in the nation's capital last Saturday
was something entirely different: the rise of a new counterculture.
We've heard for years how the subversive culture of the 1960s has
been gradually assimilated by the manic commercial culture of the
1980s and 1990s. Free love, drugs, "do your own thing," public
obscenity, provocative dresswhat once shocked the American middle
class is now the stuff of everyday American experience. (Viagra is
Woodstock in pills.)
Up until now, society may have changed, but politics remained the same.
As the go-go imperatives of commercial life seemed to make just about
every solid social norm melt into air, politicians went about their
routine business. They cut or raised taxes, balanced the budget or
ran a deficit, made war or preserved the peace. Through it all, they
kept their hands off any legislative engine that would have a
transformative effect on everyday life.
Predictable, routine, unchanging government became something like a
sanctuary from the Animal House atmosphere of much American social
and cultural life. The halls of power seemed a refuge for all those
who had been terrified of the counterculture in the 1960s, and felt
alienated by the commercial assimilation of countercultural values
post-1960s. Patriotism, religion, moralityin the form of
Christian-tinted government that promised stability amid all the
social and cultural daily upheavalbecame the war cry against the
destabilizing culture of gratification.
But now, government itself seems dynamic and full of change. It
promises to sweep away the familiar contours of everyday experience.
The mainstream assimilation of countercultural values is no longer
just a social phenomenon. Government seems to have become
countercultural, too. A black man in the White House. A
transformation between our health and the public realm (Our Bodies,
Our Politicians). A fundamental restructuring of the government's
relationship to American business.
In society, culture and now politics, what was once considered
countercultural is today the establishment. And so it's no surprise
that what was once considered the establishmentthe war cry of
patriotism, religion, and moralityis the new counterculture.
The parallels between today's right-wing radicals and radical tactics
of the 1960s are striking. Sixties' Dada theatricse.g. Allen
Ginsberg leading people in an attempt to levitate the Pentagon (my
favorite)are echoed in the alarmist and conspiratorial theatrics of
right-wing cable television. Then, too, just as the radical left was
inspired by a few personalitiesAbbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, Mark Rudd
et al.today's radical right is whipped up by Glenn Beck, Rush
Limbaugh, Sarah Palin et al.
And while the new counterculture's racist images of Obama are
sickening, they are similar in their emotional violence to the images
of the old counterculture's Representative Villain, Richard
Nixoncaricatures which ran the gamut from violent to pornographic.
Just as Nixon exemplified middle-class, middle-aged white, repressive
stasis, so Obama exemplifiesfor his hatersceaseless, wearying,
Each man presented the perfect vexation to enraged opponentsNixon a
hurdle to change, Obama a wide-open door to an uncertain future...