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How ‘Revolution’ Became an Adjective

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Posted on Mar 17, 2014

Photo by XXX

By Lewis Lapham, TomDispatch

(Page 3)

The multiple wounds in the body politic over the course of the decade—the assassination of President Kennedy, big-city race riots, student riots at venerable universities, the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Senator Robert F. Kennedy—amplified the states of public alarm. The fantastic fears of violent revolt awakened by a news media in search of a profit stimulated the demand for repressive surveillance and heavy law enforcement that over the last 50 years has blossomed into one of the richest and most innovative of the nation’s growth industries. For our own good, of course, and without forgoing our constitutional right to shop.

God forbid that the excitement of the 1960s should in any way have interfered with the constant revolutionizing of the bourgeois desire for more dream-come-true products to consume and possess. The advancing power of the media solved what might have become a problem by disarming the notion of revolution as a public good, rebranding it as a private good. Again it was impossible for the technology to do otherwise.

The medium is the message, and because the camera sees but doesn’t think, it substitutes the personal for the impersonal; whether in Hollywood restaurants or Washington committee rooms, the actor takes precedence over the act. What is wanted is a flow of emotion, not a train of thought, a vocabulary of images better suited to the selling of a product than to the expression of an idea. Narrative becomes montage, and as commodities acquire the property of information, the amassment of wealth follows from the naming of things rather than the making of things.

The voices of conscience in the early 1960s spoke up for a government of laws, not men, for a principle as opposed to a lifestyle. By the late 1960s the political had become personal, the personal political, and it was no longer necessary to ask what one must do for one’s country. The new-and-improved question, available in a wide range of colors, flower arrangements, cosmetics, and musical accompaniments, underwrote the second-stage commodification of the troubled spirit of the times.

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Writing about the socialist turbulence on the late-1930s European left, Weil lists among the acolytes of the magic word, “the bourgeois adolescent in rebellion against home surroundings and school routine, the intellectual yearning for adventure and suffering from boredom.” So again in America in the late 1960s, radical debutantes wearing miniskirts and ammunition belts, Ivy League professors mounting the steps of the Pentagon, self-absorbed movie actors handing around anarchist manifestos to self-important journalists seated at the tables in Elaine’s.

By the autumn of 1968 the restaurant on the Upper East Side of Manhattan served as a Station of the Cross for the would-be revolutionaries briefly in town for an interview with Time or a photo shoot for Vogue, and as a frequent guest of the restaurant, I could see on nearly any night of the week the birth of a new and imaginary self soon to become a boldfaced name. Every now and then I asked one of the wandering stars what it was that he or she hoped to have and to hold once the revolution was won. Most of them were at a loss for an answer. What they knew, they did not want, what they wanted, they did not know, except, of course, more—more life, more love, more drugs, more celebrity, more happiness, more music.

On Becoming an Armed Circus

As a consequence of the political becoming personal, by the time the 1960s moved on to the 1980s and President Reagan’s Morning in America, it was no longer possible to know oneself as an American citizen without the further identification of at least one value-adding, consumer-privileged adjective—female American, rich American, black American, Native American, old American, poor American, gay American, white American, dead American. The costumes changed, and so did the dossier of the malcontents believing themselves entitled to more than they already had.

A generation of dissatisfied bourgeois reluctant to grow up gave way to another generation of dissatisfied bourgeois unwilling to grow old. The locus of the earthly Paradise shifted from a commune in the White Mountains to a gated golf resort in Palm Springs, and the fond hope of finding oneself transformed into an artist segued into the determined effort to make oneself rich. What remained constant was the policy of enlightened selfishness and the signature bourgeois passion for more plums in the pudding.

While making a magical mystery tour of the Central American revolutionary scene in 1987, Deb Olin Unferth remarks on the work in progress: “Compared to El Salvador, Nicaragua was like Ping-Pong… like a cheerful communist kazoo concert… We were bringing guitars, plays adapted from Nikolai Gogol, elephants wearing tasseled hats. I saw it myself and even then I found it a bit odd. The Nicaraguans wanted land, literacy, a decent doctor. We wanted a nice singalong and a ballet. We weren’t a revolution. We were an armed circus.”

As a descriptive phrase for what American society has become over the course of the last five decades, armed circus is as good as any and better than most. The constantly revolutionizing technologies have been spinning the huge bourgeois wheel of fortune at the speed of light, remaking the means of production in every field of human meaning and endeavor—media, manufacturing, war, finance, literature, crime, medicine, art, transport, and agriculture.

The storm wind of creative destruction it bloweth every day, removing steel mills, relocating labor markets, clearing the ground for cloud storage. On both sides of the balance sheet, the accumulations of more—more microbreweries and Internet connections, more golf balls, cheeseburgers, and cruise missiles; also more unemployment, more pollution, more obesity, more dysfunctional government and criminal finance, more fear. The too much of more than anybody knows what to do with obliges the impresarios of the armed circus to match the gains of personal liberty (sexual, social, economic, if one can afford the going price) with more repressive systems of crowd control.

To look back to the early 1960s is to recall a society in many ways more open and free than it has since become, when a pair of blue jeans didn’t come with a radio-frequency ID tag, when it was possible to appear for a job interview without a urine sample, to say in public what is now best said not at all. So frightened of its own citizens that it classifies them as probable enemies, the U.S. government steps up its scrutiny of what it chooses to regard as a mob. So intrusive is the surveillance that nobody leaves home without it. Tens of thousands of cameras installed in the lobbies of office and apartment buildings and in the eye sockets of the mannequins in department-store windows register the comings and goings of a citizenry deemed unfit to mind its own business.


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