Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Charbeneau on culture and politics '08

"A House Divided"
by Travis Charbeneau

Never mind the issues, recent presidential elections have all degenerated around the "Culture Wars." Even now the McCain campaign has finally resorted to exploiting once again a looming threat of "the Other." Why does this old trick still work? Because the "threat" is real.

The Culture War probably began during the Renaissance, when science first butted heads with the Church. But the modern front opened with post-war "Beatnik" ferment over 50 years ago. The Beats brewed the "Hippie" stew of the Sixties for the huge Baby Boomer cohort, and nothing has been "the same" since.

Of course, "the same" -- the American Fifties -- is just what alienated non-conformist Beats from mainstream culture, creating Counter Culture v.1. By the time of Counter Culture v.2, perhaps 1965, Hippies were on their way to making the rejection of mainstream values their prime directive. By 1974, following the assassinations of the Kennedys and King, and the debacles of Vietnam and then Watergate, our two opposing cultures were locked in a permanent state of conflict. Every candidate since Nixon has played the demagogue with it.

Upset by ever more rapid change, mainstream culture longs for "the same" Golden Age we enjoyed under Eisenhower: a globe-dominating national security state built on cheap energy, credit card consumerism, the nuclear family, a traditional "Sky God," and unapologetic corporate conformity, racism and sexism.

CC v.3, the counterculture in midlife, consists of those Boomers who managed to spurn Yuppiedom and still "grow up," pay those orthodontia bills and save for the kids' education. These folks, and those of the X and Y generations who follow them, retain a sufficiently crucial level of idealism (or, if you will, naiveté) to dream still of progressive change: peace, civil rights, an accommodation with materialism and technology.

Add to this list a confrontation with new realities that diehards of "the same" ignored to the peril of all: Ike's forewarned "military-industrial complex," now in full power, nuclear terrorism, frightful environmental challenges, global economic competition, multiculturalism, expanded realities of "family," and technological challenges of a thousand stripes. The Culture Wars skirmish on all these fronts and reliably appear at every election, recently in nearly equal proportions.

Of course, the Great Mandate for all life on Earth is "change or die." Plants and animals, so far as we know, accept this without complaint. But, mainstream or countercultural, humans hate change. When it's "too much, too fast," we suffer from what futurist Alvin Toffler in 1970 termed "Future Shock."

It took centuries for us to accept a Universe that was not centered on the Earth. We still resist Darwin's 19th century assertion of a Universe that is not centered on man. And, by "we," I refer particularly to Americans, now unhappily bringing up the rear of post-industrial civilization. It is beyond ironic that America was once blamed for inventing modernism and inflicting Future Shock on the world! Feudal nations still hate us for it. And yet, where once we were leaders, Americans are now sliding backwards by nearly every measure.

The peculiar tone of America's Culture Wars provides the most likely reason. A current history would almost certainly show mainstream culture, despite howls of protest and doom, as having dominated the field in policy, even as the counterculture dominates pretty much everything else: the arts, media, academia, environmentalism, and, most important overall, the discomforting-but-necessary adaption to change.

Barack Obama is one amazing indicator that this evolution is still in motion. Longer term, if we get one, should prove that counterculturalists are no longer off-the-grid, penniless bohemians. The countercultural faithful possess not only whatever wealth they themselves have been able to save from pre-9/11 America, but legacy wealth from "The Greatest Generation," who profited most from the post-WW2 American hegemony. Old Hippies can still make a lot of mischief, including a "mainstreamed counterculture."

Alternately, already future-shocked Americans could become even more reactionary. Continuing Culture Wars fuel the seductiveness of "End Times," a traditional value which neatly resolves everything in obliteration. As H. G Wells said, "History is a race between education and catastrophe."

"The same" never is. Unless the culture at large shifts to managing, rather than denying change, it will be "End Times," as defined by actual time, not Revelations. Our divided house could fall from economic mismanagement, imperial overstretch, environmental decay, civil unrest, or as-yet-unforeseen disasters.

If the lights go out, counterculturalists will be able to say, as we did with Vietnam and Watergate, "we told you so." And, as with Vietnam and Watergate, there will be no satisfaction in the telling.

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Ed. Note: Travis Charbeneau is a writer/musician living in Richmond, who occasionally contributed/contributes to SLANT (now SLANTblog). Click here to visit Charbeneau's MySpace Page. Click here to hear/see his steel guitar improvisation on the blues classic "St. James Infirmary" at YouTube.

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