Saturday, July 30, 2005

Commodifying Nostalgia

A pretty interesting article by Bernardine Dohrn, formerly of the Weather Underground, over on the online version of The Monthly Review. Her message is simple enough, and reminiscent of a conversation I had with a friend earlier this week: Beware Sixties Nostalgia.

It is clear that the Sixties, which was never really The Sixties, is being wielded as a bludgeon against today's young risktakers; a barrier, a legendary era which can never be equaled today. In fact, the Sixties was annually declared "dead" by the pundits of Time magazine and Newsweek beginning in 1963 and throughout the mid-seventies. During the subsequent three and a half decades, there has been a relentless campaign to promote four myths about those radical social upheavals. These legends about the so-called Sixties must be on the table to be scrutinized by today's young activists.

First, the '60s is enshrined as a heroic time of huge demonstrations, militancy and organizing. It was never all that.

Sixties activism was almost always small, isolated, surrounded by hostile, angry crowds. The groundbreaking actions of the students who joined the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the women who stood for an end to patriarchy, and the veterans, draft resisters and deserters who defied the military machine are legendary now because they were right about history and morality. Overwhelmingly, their courage was the quiet kind, the inventive sort, often unrecognized, not showy.

[. . .]

Second, and paradoxically in counterpoint to romanticization, there has been a relentless thirty-year campaign to demonize and criminalize the Sixties. Militant resistance is portrayed as criminal, mass rebellion transformed into mob action, courageous choices derided as self-serving, moderately outrageous comments in the heat of the moment seized upon and repeated ad naseum as if they were the whole story or true.

[. . .]

Third, the struggle has been commodified, sold back to us as clothing, music, drugs, and film. It is trivialized, sucked of content, leaving only the husks of oldies, tattoos and faded murals.

[. . .]

Fourth is the lethal, deceptive telling of Sixties' history as if it were predictable and known, smoothing out the turmoil, the turbulence, the anarchy, and the ethical choices. The pat illusions that "we" all opposed the Vietnam War, "we" all were relieved that civil rights were granted to African Americans, and the "media" helped end the Vietnam war.

All four are really good points, but I'm of the mind that the third one really holds them all together -- and is, in a perhaps anachronistic way, the reason for the remaining three. Dorhn complains there that the Sixties have been commodified, and that this is problematic. And I would agree. However, the real problem isn't that the Sixties are now but a t-shirt and a CD. As she points out, that took a while to happen; the problem is that the processes of commodification have become that much more advanced, and far more capable of incorporating dissent. To the point, for example, that Starbucks can sell bottled water and use a portion of the proceeds for famine relief, and Macy's can sell Rwandan baskets -- and thus effectively squash any real debate about how the free market in which these companies clearly participate is very possibly culpable in both famine and the collapse of native markets. In this way, resistance to -- or at least a self-conscious analysis of -- the fundamental structures of western civilization, which clearly go beyond protesting a single presidential administration, or even the rights of one race of people (as recognized by Martin Luther King, Jr., just prior to his assassination) is almost immediately incorporated & copyrighted as a capitalistic endeavor, and thus drained of its life and vitality.

This is why, I suppose, so much 'revolutionary' political philosophy has turned to religious imagery: i.e., because the more prophetic elements of religion are highly resistant to commodification. The prophetic can be watered down or ignored; but it also always returns if it is truly representative of the True & the Just. I don't know that this is necesarily a good way to approach one's political resistance -- and I know that readers of this blog, as well as that of another, are bound to disagree with me and with one another -- but it is certainly worth thinking about & discussing.