Thursday, October 13, 2016

The Fear Of A Just World - The Backlash Against The 1960s


Who controls the past, controls the future. Who controls the present, controls the past.
– George Orwell, 1984
Forget about Trump. Forget about Clinton. There is far more going on than the personalities and flaws of these individuals. There is a far larger frame here and a picture that needs interpretation and possibly curating.
Those of us left who lived through the 1960s, who experienced the upheavals of that era understand that the project of transforming our world towards a more democratic, just, ecologically balanced future has deep roots. Straddling confidently atop the long sturdy roots laid down by labor struggles and previous movements for social justice transmits the possibility and hope that we can indeed change the world. I know this is so because my friends... because we already have. Indeed, the civil rights, anti-Vietnam War, women’s rights, LBGT, and environmental movements movements begun in the 60s era successfully challenged the dominant capitalist institutions of the U.S.
So much so, that those institutions have been scrambling for the last 50 years to systematically minimize the possibility of any future freedom struggles. Pretty much that's all the last 50 years have been about...attempting to negate and deny the impact of the 1960s rebellions on society.

There has been an ongoing campaign to denigrate and obscure the democratic promise that the movements of the sixties still hold, while at the same time co-opting the symbols and imagery of that era to trivialize the meanings as well as make Corporate America seem “cool” and sell more products. This reaction has gone hand-in-hand with material forces, such as student debt and coercing the population into inactivity and obedience. The result is a “depoliticized society,” with a diminished ability to make history.  Knowledge of this campaign is a weapon against rootlessness and despair.
This is the product being sold now in every media market...rootlessness and despair.
It's why we see the political campaigns we see today.
It's why we are not talking about Native Americans struggling to protect their water supply, or global warming... but instead the absurd antics of a narcissistic billionaire with the intellect and vocabulary of a carrot or the tired stories of misogyny and alleged 'crookedness" that has been investigated ad nauseum over and over. It's all designed to distract, disgust, repel, and lower the IQs of those outside the power network that revolves around the extreme concentration of wealth and the power that goes with it. It's all meant to make you feel rootless, disparate, and hopeless.  
The 1960s are typically remembered as a time of turbulence and change.
Even if you did not live through it, you know the iconic images of assassinations, war, protests, urban riots, men on the moon, long hair, drugs, sex, pop art, and fantastic music.
The underlying story of that decade was the clash between capitalism and democracy, one in which  millions of Americans participated in social movements and challenged the country to become more just and more democratic.  In some ways it succeeded and in others it failed. The true history of that struggle has been consistently distorted and hidden from view. What the power network and the media they own still cannot comprehend, or perhaps would most like to forget, is the democratic promise that formed the basis of those sixties social movements. In his book, Obscuring The Promise of Democracy; Edward P. Morgan suggests that the surge in democratic empowerment in which large numbers of Americans of all ages organized themselves to confront and transform a range of injustices rooted in American institutions has largely disappeared from memory. 
The sixties’ social movements, at their best, were not just about stopping racism or war on a systemic scale, but also about the self-realization of the millions of individuals involved on a personal level. Morgan calls that“democratic empowerment.” and describes it  as “one’s unfolding ‘freedom to,’ a lifelong discovery of one’s authentic self, the discovery of which progressively frees one from manipulation by others and potentially by the disabling scripts of the unconscious”
You may have experienced this, it's a rush of sorts...perhaps the first time you participated in some type of organizing meeting for a cause you knew was a just one, and realized that in working with others you had the power to impact the world for the better. The meaningfulness and self-confidence that comes from a politically active and engaged life contrasts dramatically from the dominant modes of apathy and self-loathing inoculated into us by capitalism and its occupied mass media appendages. The experience of acting together allows people to see themselves differently and to grow into their full potential, to gain courage in the face of challenges – from registering people to vote, speaking at a meeting, to holding a picket sign, or risking arrest in direct action.  Jim Lawson, the civil rights organizer is quoted as saying, “ordinary people who acted on conscience and took terrible risks were no longer ordinary people. They were by their very actions transformed”. 

In the 1960s we rode a wave of personal and political transformation. It exploded in the black freedom movement as African Americans of all ages stood up against terrorism and oppression and found pride and voice, it contagiously spread out from the South to other areas and populations in the country. White students returning to campus from battles against segregation began to question and stand up against the U.S. invasion of Vietnam. Women involved in these movements connected their gender experiences with the role of women in capitalist patriarchal society, and fought for a world without sexual inequality. LGBTs, Chicanos, Puerto Ricans, American Indians, Asian Americans, factory workers, prisoners, and many others also joined in to the wave of democratic empowerment, finding  allies & greater confidence and higher expectations for the world around them. 
In concert these social movements pointed the way towards a vision for a radically democratic society, in which capitalism would be replaced by the participation of diverse constituencies in the decisions which affect them. Such a vision was spelled out in many places including Students for a Democratic Society’s famous Port Huron Statement, which coined the term “participatory democracy.” This vision absolutely mortified the ruling class of the time, prompting such responses as the Trilateral Commission’s 1975 publication “Crisis of Democracy,” which defined the “crisis” as an “excess of democracy,” or too much democracy for the correct functioning of the U.S. in its role as “the hegemonic power in a system of world order


The fear of rising democracy was the prevailing attitude of elites long before 1975.
Corporate power riddled the impartiality of the news way before Reagan came along and removed all the stops.
 Morgan’s book, (mentioned earlier) in fact, documents media distortions of sixties social movements at the time they happened. Rather than the right-wing myth of a “liberal media” bias, Morgan documents how the mass media in the 60s consistently misinterpreted the democratic surge of social movements in order to discredit them in the eyes of the public and prevent them from picking up too much steam.
This was done much more intently after the 60s on two fronts: a right-wing “ideological backlash” which bore poison fruit in the policies of the Reagan-Bush era in the 1980s (which still continues to this day), and  a “commercial exploitation” of sixties sights and sounds to sell “a feeling of empowerment as a partial compensation for the real thing”.

Anyone who has read Chomsky and Herman’s critique, Manufacturing Consent, will recognize that while the United States has freedom of the press, the reality is that the press is largely in the hands of 3 owners...this corporate media defines “legitimate” points of view and excludes contradictory ones.
They design the public consumption of a limited range of viewpoints that embrace rather than challenge the system’s foundational myths, ideological beliefs, and institutions.
Many of the perspectives and actions of the earlier black freedom movement, which challenged racist segregation in the South, were considered “legitimate” and were covered at times sympathetically by the mainstream press. Yet, once that same movement turned its sights from regional (Southern) to national or economic targets, the press swung against it. For example, The Washington Post reacting to Martin Luther King’s first anti-war speech in 1967, “Many who have listened to him with respect will never again accord him the same confidence. He has diminished his usefulness to his cause, to his country and to his people. And that is a great tragedy”
MLK had stepped outside the boundaries of "legitimate" discourse. Questioning Jim Crow segregation was “useful,” but questioning a US foreign policy which ultimately killed 3-5 million Vietnamese was interpreted as betrayal.
Many Sixties historians draw a line between earlier civil rights activism, most of which was explicitly nonviolent, and later post-1965 struggles, including “Black Power,” anti-war organizing, the women’s movement, etc. and create a “Good Sixties” vs. “Bad Sixties” mythology. Research highlights how this was entirely a media construction, mostly due to the movements moving their criticisms of American society beyond “legitimate” media boundaries. As the press turned from sympathetic to unsympathetic, the official story got further away from the issues that movements were raising and increasingly focused on the protesters themselves as “outsiders.” Unable to comprehend or transmit growing moral outrage against the war in Vietnam, white supremacy in the North, or male domination of women, the media became fixated on the idea that all this protesting was due to “a new, postwar baby boom generation that was  merely restless, questioning, and ultimately rebellious. The “baby boomer” story or the “family quarrel” frame therefore was used to characterize protesters’ actions as errant and their causes as unworthy.  Similarly, the media sensationalized appearances over substance, constantly revisiting the “dirty hippie” theme as a way to ridicule those involved in grassroots movements.
Other right-wing anti-sixties backlash frames have so thoroughly poisoned much of the media’s coverage of protest and activism that they have graduated to the level of “common sense.” Thus, attempts to challenge racism, sexism, homophobia or other oppressive behaviors are lumped into the belittling term “political correctness” Feminism has become almost a dirty word in much of society, associated with “man-hating” and a completely fabricated, over-sexualized “bra burning” myth. Another commonly-held belief which Morgan’s book reveals to be a total myth is the story that veterans returning home from Vietnam were “spit on” by anti-war protesters. Instead he found, "A search for documentation of spitting incidents found only a few press reports of pro-war people spitting on antiwar veterans” (pg 279 of his book). Nevertheless, this myth serves the larger establishment goal to “shift historical guilt from those who instigated and ran the war to those who opposed it”.
I can personally attest to not only being spit on, but actually being physically attacked by a group of pro-war men in their late 30s in front of the Smithsonian Natural History museum during a peaceful demonstration when I was 17...oddly my 2 companions had been drafted and were off to boot camp the next day...but we looked like "hippies" I guess.  Ironically we weren't even there for the protest on the mall...merely to visit the museum. It was a volatile time. But a time I'd not trade for any other.
I'm thankful to have experienced it. And those experiences inform and enrich my life to this day.

They also make it possible to understand and deconstruct all the backlash that we are still dealing with. When we watch films about or alluding to the 1960s...like CNN's series on the decade or even the backstory in "Forrest Gump". It's sanitized, re-arranged, the message controlled.
It wasn't black and white, but many shades and hues.
It's a fine movie with a wonderful soundtrack mind you, but there is an underlying propaganda message...intentional or merely subliminal.
  The Forrest Gump film  unquestioningly contains and propagates many right-wing backlash frames, reinforcing them in the public mind. The protagonist is a white man from Alabama, home of the most vicious racism and some of the greatest racial battles of the 1960s. The innocent and mentally challenged Gump remains oblivious to this racism  and therefore provides an avenue for today’s viewers to “move past” or “get over” racial conflict by simply ignoring, Gump-like, that it is still a problem  More blatant right-wing themes fill other scenes in the movie, including Jenny’s physically abusive boyfriend being “the President of SDS at Berkeley,” who hangs out with threatening, rhetoric-spouting Black Panthers, and the portrayal of the Vietnam War reduced to one in which invisible Vietnamese inflict gruesome damage on young American men. (One thing about the "real" 60s folks, is news reporters didn't filter footage from the war...how anyone ate dinner back then I have no clue). Most of all there is the incredibly problematic portrayal of the Jenny character herself. Instead of remaining with slow-witted-but-loyal Forrest, Jenny’s crime is in her seeking independence (perhaps an allegory for the women’s movement?) As punishment, Jenny then becomes the butt of a long string of right wing backlash myths. Joining up with hippies she doesn’t know, she then begins to smoke dope, performs naked in a club, is featured in Playboy, gets strung out on hard drugs, and eventually dies of an AIDS-like disease. Along the way, Jenny is also shown with a large number of strange men, and even contemplating suicide. Think of it...Jenny is the one character who happens to be the only sympathetic character involved in any kind of protest or movement activity in the entire film, Jenny embodies not only the myth that 60s activists had too much sex and took too many drugs, but that these behaviors led directly to the social problems of the 70s and 80s, the AIDS epidemic. This history revision is easy to point out in this film, but it's rampant in all forms of media.

History is constantly being revised and sanitized for the benefit of  corporate capitalism. You can recognize this "backlash" against the 60s and positive social change as a crusade in which one's material interests are suspended in favor of vague cultural grievances that are all-important and yet incapable of ever being assuaged.While earlier forms of conservatism emphasized fiscal sobriety, the backlash mobilizes voters with explosive social issues...which is then married to pro-corporate empire economics. And in particular any honest view of the 1960s is purposefully obscured or erased entirely in all of corporate media and indeed even pop culture to a degree.

This is all related to the overall power structure in the U.S.

While Forrest Gump transmits anti-movement backlash messages, the film is remembered more for its heavy dosage of iconic sixties imagery and its classic countercultural soundtrack. This illustrates the second prong of mass media’s reaction to sixties-era social movements which is cultural co-optation. However much the conservatives may froth and moan about the 60s, the truth is mainstream culture was tepid, mechanical, and uniform; while the revolt of the young against it was a joyous and even a glorious cultural flowering, though it quickly became mainstream itself.  It was a time when the gray  cold 50s cracked open and springs of contrarian sentiment began bubbling into the best minds of a generation raised in an era of unprecedented prosperity but well versed in the exquisite existential subversions of the Beats and Mad magazine. The story ends with the noble idealism of the New Left waterboarded and in ruins while the art and music of the counterculture was sold out to Hollywood and the television networks. 
The music industry of the 1960s was wonderfully chaotic and diverse with far too many small entrepreneurs running record companies to control "the message". By the end of the 1970s the corporate world bought them up and controlled "the message" which is why music no longer plays the crucial role in people's lives it once did.  Film industries & TV especially, adapted itself in the late-60s/early-70s to attempt to absorb the attention and market of “rebellious youth,” through such shows as “Mod Squad” and “All in the Family”. While these and other shows communicated various liberal ideas and attitudes prevalent in sixties counterculture, they effectively exploited them in order to sell corporate goods and culture. At the same time, this commercial co-optation took people off the street and plopped them onto the couch, it worked hand-in-hand with the government’s repression of social movements to demobilize  and anesthetize the population.
The corporate mass media’s post-60s adaptation of the tools of the counterculture elevated irony, self-satire, and absurdity in an attempt to stay “hip.” “The introduction of ironic, hip advertising became a magic cultural formula by which the life of consumerism could be extended indefinitely, running forever on the discontent that it itself had produced.
Watching TV commercials in 2016 is a drastically different experience than watching ads from forty years ago. If you go back and watch old commercials, it’s a startling experience. Not only do they run at a much slower pace, without constant cutting from one shot to another, and of course making use of far fewer computer generated effects, but the tone of the commercials was very different.
Older ads tried to convince the viewer that their product was quality, useful, and affordable.
Today’s commercials often have nothing to do with the product in question.
Although they display the company’s logo and deploy clever techniques to slip the brand into dialogue, the vast majority of today’s ads are 30-second comedy routines headlined by celebrities or wacky characters who are involved in some satirical or absurd plot. Corporate brands actively parody themselves in order to present the impression that they are perhaps cooler or hipper than other brands. This transformation is part of a truly subversive dynamic that effectively preempts dissent and criticism because the media themselves are self-parodying.
Interesting to me is that parody, satire, and irony remain the most common cultural weapons utilized by those of us on the left or in the counterculture. It is as if we are attempting to stay one step ahead of capitalism’s cultural co-optation, mocking them faster than they can mock themselves.
Yet, sadly I would suggest that we have entered a race we cannot win.
This is no longer 1968, and the vast majority of youth in the US today are completely plugged in to the mainstream media’s constant hum, while most are probably unaware that a counterculture or left movement even existed in this country.  Thomas Frank speaks of the media as “cultural machines that transform alienation and despair into consent,” the left’s use of satire reverses this transformation. But yes,  we may know how to use our words and images to break down consent and conformity, but in doing so I fear we may generate more cynicism and despair than we do hope or inspiration, qualities that are absolutely necessary for building a mass movement for any sort of social or economic justice. I don't like saying this...as satire and parody are personally very valuable to me.
But I don't think they work as effectively as they once did, and may actually contribute to the effect desired by our dark corporate overlords.







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