Monday, August 17, 2009

Woodstock, Leftism for Hippies vs. Conservatism for Punks (3 of 4)


Drudge and Breitbart yesterday noted punk bands in Russia who are outspokenly anti-Putin, a valuable reminder that while punk may not be inherently conservative (I have no illusions there), it is undeniably anti-authoritarian. That will at least sometimes pit it against left-spawned leaders (as any ex-KGB man must be regarded, macho tiger-hunting and so forth notwithstanding), given how much of the world is ruled either by formerly-socialist regimes (Russia, China, in a more benign way India) or by regimes drifting toward socialism (such as the U.S., unless the Tea Parties and town hall protesters are the start of something much bigger). It takes guts to speak out against Putin after all the dead journalists who’ve littered Russia in recent years — I have journalist friend who spends a lot of time over there, a quasi-native, and would hate to see anything happen to her.

Hippies, by contrast, are undeniably creatures of the left (with some admirably libertarian impulses, of course). After decades of successive counter-culture and subculture movements (including aesthetes, flappers, zootsuiters, beatniks, hippies, punks, grunge fans, ravers, skatepunks, and — if it is now safe to use this as a specific historical label — hipsters), it’s easy to forget that the punks and hippies hated each other back in the 70s and 80s (before they sort of merged during the grunge phase and it became acceptable to have both facial piercings and tie-dyed shirts). Recall (the fictionalized) Johnny Rotten complaining about “hippie free-love bullshit” in the early minutes of Sid and Nancy.

Given the optimistic hippie belief in the power of sincere emotion to transform the whole world — and what is to my mind the more realistic, epistemologically humble, and tragic punk conviction that the world sucks and everything is bullshit — one could do worse than use hippie/punk as a dyad with which to evaluate the world. The friend who tries to convince you that going to a Landmark Forum seminar on self-empowerment will completely transform your life is more like a hippie, whereas the friend who warns you that there are always a lot of bad characters in this bar and a fight may be inevitable is more like a punk. As a guy who’s empirical first, normative second, and almost never starry-eyed optimistic, I tend to the think the second friend is more useful. Every last one of us has an obligation to keep an eye on the truth, not just believe what sounds nice or what we wish were true. Obvious negative consequences can follow from hippie-dippy wishful thinking or misplaced belief.


Of course, one should never get too caught up in any given explanatory dichotomy, even broadly-useful ones like right vs. left (my legislator friend Dan Greenberg is wary of any observation that begins with “There are two kinds of people in this world…”).

For one thing, simple dichotomies may lead to overly-sweeping generalizations (say, claiming that because so many reform efforts go badly, we should turn around and actively praise corruption, say — or in perhaps history’s most tragic example, embracing Stalinism as the only antidote to Hitler or vice versa).

Another problem with over-reliance on one dichotomy is simply that it may cause you to forget that the rest of the world isn’t carving things up according to those two categories the way you are. Certainly the right-left model tends to lead to frustrated people trying to shoehorn pre-twentieth-century American political currents into misleading models that don’t apply, for instance. Or to take a more jarring example, try telling Protestants and Catholics you’re neutral if you live in Northern Ireland, a place that sorely needs more neutrals and fewer people buying into one or the other side in the familiar schism.


Even two close acquaintances of mine whose thinking is like my own in many areas — Helen Rittelmeyer and Michael Malice (in some sense “conservative punks” in their own right) — have been a recent reminder to me that we don’t all share the same explanatory dyads. For instance, for conservatives Helen’s age, the neoconservative-vs.-paleoconservative split has become almost as important a divide as right/left — whereas Malice, a man well-informed about politics (and not just philosophy but also electoral history), surprised me when we were on our way to the Pat Benatar/Blondie concert last week (about which more tomorrow) by noting that he hadn’t been aware the neos and paleos often hate each other.

I don’t blame him for ignoring this spat and often wish I didn’t know about it myself, since for all my grousing and philosophical hairsplitting, I really would like to see broad coalitions maintained and everyone trying to get along — something that I fear is getting harder and harder for many neos, paleos, and libertarians to imagine. We’re in big trouble if, in a remarkably short time historically speaking, these groups have all fallen more in love with their own unique branding than with, oh, I don’t know, maybe, say, defeating creeping socialism, if they can spare some time for that.

Of course, the irony is that keeping people on the same page often requires, if not delusions, at least some sort of shared optimistic vision, and in a world full of despairing, pessimistic paleo types and panicked anti-immigration activists, it’s worth reminding ourselves that the right’s greatest success story, Ronald Reagan (mentioned now for the third day in a row), was profoundly optimistic — and broadly appealing to Americans (not to mention at least some people overseas) because of it. Recall, if you will, the final paragraph of his final in-office speech, which sounds as optimistic as Star Trek compared to the dark, cautious, protectionist visions of some more recent conservatives:

I’ve spoken of the shining city [on a hill -- that is, America] all my political life, but I don’t know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind it was a tall proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind-swept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace, a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity, and if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here. That’s how I saw it and see it still.

Of course, Reagan lived in California and even expressed sympathy for pot-smoking, so maybe he wasn’t so unlike the hippies after all. We’re all Americans.


In any case, optimism tends to win in the end, at least in America, despite the way intellectuals of both right and left often seem to envy Europe’s sense of tragedy and pessimism. Pure pessimism is no way to build the future or keep people from turning, frightened, to government — and much as I love the current anti-Obama anger, something more appealing has to rise up to give the free-market coalition forward momentum.

And now, at the risk of sounding like I’ve dialectically refuted my opening anti-hippie statements, I’d love it if someday soon I can look back and say my life has spanned educational, useful ten-year anniversaries in the history of optimism — Woodstock (1969), Thatcher’s election (1979), the collapse of Communism (1989), the climax of the tech boom with its Matrix-like expectations for tomorrow (1999), and whatever comes out of the Tea Parties and town halls (2009), which may for starters have stopped socialized medicine in its tracks. History reminds us of the limits of what is possible but also shows astonishing evidence of how much the hopeful can achieve, I suppose, and it’s foolish and stunting to ignore either.

One final vaguely-Woodstock-related thought tomorrow.


David said...

I think the split between hippies and punks may be fuzzier than you wish. Devo’s earliest roots can be traced to a performance in response to Kent State. The B-52s talk of their start amongst Georgia’s hippies. Heck, the two singers from the Cars recorded an album as a folk duo before that band formed. I’m tempted to say that perhaps in those distant backwaters, those who stood in opposition to the silient majority in any direction were pulled toward each other, while perhaps the dichotomy was clearer in places like New York – but then again, Steve Howe of Yes played on Lou Reed’s first solo album.

Todd Seavey said...

True enough, and one obscure 1968 folk rock band, Wind in the Willows, included none other than seminal alternative rocker Debbie Harry — about whose performance at Coney Island last week I will write more tomorrow, in my fourth-and-final almost-about-Woodstock entry.

In the meantime, here’s folk rockers Fairport Convention’s awesome tragic love song “Matty Groves” (since I already linked their “Tam Lin” in an earlier entry, both songs to which Helen exposed me):

Lefty said...

As’s resident arbiter of all that is punk, I would like to gently point out that neither the Cars, the B-52s, nor Devo were punk bands (some peripheral punk influences notwithstanding.)

And all good punk rockers hate hippies, as well as hair metal.

As you were.

David said...

Boy, is Devo ever punk. Go beyond “Whip It” and you’ll find (more) hard, loud, fast, angry music. Don’t be swayed into a narrow a definition of punk that’s calcified as time moves forward. Look at how wide the spectrum was at the start.

Todd Seavey said...

_Urgh! A Music War_, the old punk concert documentary I saw a few months ago, is good evidence for that position, moving between what we now think of as punk and New Wave bands interchangeably, recalling a time when it was all equally fun/legit.

The DVD set of Tom Snyder’s interviews back in the day also contains a very interesting moment in which Paul Weller says he and the Jam would prefer to be called New Wave because _punk_ — punk! — is more of a corporate album-selling niche word.

Ah, for the days when New Wave was dangerous.