I was going to be angry about these kids, but one look at the profoundly sixteen-year-old-girl expression on that sixteen-year-old girl’s face and I didn’t have the heart. (If you’d like to get real sad, you can read a blog written by that poor girl’s mother, in which she calls Barbara Boxer a “moronic twit.” The badge on the right side indicates that she’s made the list of “best conservative blogs on the net,” which is apparently determined by total word count.) That’s her boyfriend on the left, proving again that teenage boys will do anything under certain conditions. And what are these desperate youths and the ragtag band behind them protesting for? Lower taxes on the rich, reduced social services, deregulation of business and conservative fiscal policy.
To hear Frank Rich tell it, protests like these are harbingers of a new era of cultural and political upheaval. Last weekend was the fortieth anniversary of Woodstock, which television raised me to believe was the most important moment of the 20th century. It turns out that was all to promote The Wonder Years, though, because this year’s commemoration was overshadowed by the season premiere of Mad Men. First of all, if you don’t watch Mad Men, you should start immediately. It is the Cadillac of television shows, or the Combat! blog of television shows in that Frank Rich and I agree with it more than anyone else in America. Second of all, Frank Rich is right. The year that resonates with our present cultural moment isn’t 1969; it’s 1963.
There are some obvious parallels, which Rich enumerates: the young, dynamic President whom a quarter of the country regards as the end of the world; the accusations of a push toward socialism; the push toward socialism in the form of plans to increase the federal safety net; the massive cultural gap between conservative and liberal. Most importantly, there were the protests—not the flower power spectacles of ’69, but the angry gatherings of culturally disenfranchised Bible Belters who thought that Kennedy’s Democratic Party had betrayed America. They hit Adlai Stevenson with a placard in Dallas. When he asked the woman who smacked him what the matter was, she said that if he didn’t know, she couldn’t tell him.
Of course, she was the one who didn’t know. The most profound similarity between 2009 and 1963 is that one segment of the country can feel the future slipping away from them, but they don’t know where it’s going. They’re angry about White House policy, but they haven’t actually read the health care bills. They’re convinced that gay marriage will be the end of orderly society, but they don’t know any gay people. And they regard virtually every politician, journalist and person they see on television as an “elite.” In short, they feel profoundly alienated from American culture. Their social and political identity is almost entirely oppositional. They are—ready for this?—a counterculture.
In that way, at least, 2009 looks a little like 1969. The counterculture of the early sixties had a political agenda: racial integration, reproductive rights, the expansion of social services. They may have been beatniks and folkies, but they could articulate the future they wanted. By 1969, the counterculture movement in America had devolved into conspicuous consumption. “Radical” went from a political position to a mode of dress, a style of music, a dope habit. The hippies made the revolution we remember—the one we are constantly reminded of—because it’s the one you can sell. The political platform that launched the decade was reduced to one word, and it’s the single most empty, abused word in contemporary America: love.
Ironically, love manifested itself primarily as vague resentment. The hippie imagined a square world in league against him; he looked at the existing American system and decided that it all needed to come down. The optimism of the civil rights era, when college kids got on southbound buses to convince basically good people to do the right thing, gave way to the rejectionism of “turn on, tune in, drop out.” Eventually the hippies were against everything except rock ‘n roll, and round three of the countercultural revolution gave us Altamont and Charles Manson. Their politics had become a lifestyle, and their plan for America was that everybody should get laid. Not surprisingly, they failed to articulate a comprehensive policy for health care reform.
Town Hall protestors and Tea Party activists are the hippies of 2009. They imagine a totalizing system against which they must fight—sometimes violently—but their lifestyle is their means of struggle. For them, the personal is political. Going to church, raising school-age children, running a small business, living in a small town—this is their platform. They don’t care about whether a public option will encourage competition among the seven major health insurance companies, or if increased consumer spending as a result of lower premiums will offset early deficit spending. They care about who is a Real American, and who is an elite. The hippie believed that all of square America was conspiring to make him cut his hair. The Town Hall protester believes they’re conspiring to make him eat soyrizo.
There are two major differences between the counterculture of 1969 and the counterculture of 2009. First, no matter how blurry their vision of the future, the hippies were looking forward. They craved change, and whether they could bring it about or not, at least they were hopeful. The conservative counterculture movement is fundamentally atavistic. They fear change, and they long to return to a past that probably never existed. The hippie hoped that free love would change the modern world. The Tea Partier hopes that free markets will undo it. In their resentment of the present and their false memory of the past, today’s populist conservatives are essentially nihilists.
Second, thank god, they are old. Their adolescent children notwithstanding, the angry people shouting down Town Hall meetings bear more than a touch of gray. They hate the idea of government health insurance because they already have health insurance, and they’ll trade anything for lower taxes because their investments are maturing. They are, as my mother puts it, pulling the ladder up after them. Change terrifies them because they have everything to lose, but that includes the numbers game. For the moment, there may be enough Baby Boomers to freeze the federal government in 2008, the last year one of them was President. Sooner or later, though, they will have to relinquish control. We don’t need Palin’s Death Panels to assure that.
For now, the generation that gave us Woodstock refuses to give us health insurance. To paraphrase Jim Morrison, they’ve got the guns and they’ve got the numbers. But Jim Morrison died and his band is a joke. The counterculture of 1969 was the future—so much so that they have found their echo in the counterculture of 2009. It is only an echo, though, and like all echoes the Summer of Hate must die away.