Holy Wall of Text, Batman!
Ooph, its been even longer than I thought since I updated. Not exactly off at the starting gun am I? Well, sometimes you need a kick in the ass, and today I got one. As someone with a historian’s training, I can’t help but flinch reflexively when popular myths are thrown around under the “history” label. Normally this is something I simply wait out. It isn’t worth the fight, the conversation moves on, the pedantic ire recedes. Of late though, it has been difficult to ignore the steady stream of historical revisionism and wholesale myth-craft coming from the Right of the political spectrum, particularly from Newt Gingrich, having escaped from his tomb to menace humanity in a sequel nobody asked for. Now, I’m not going to try to claim that the Left never engages in this sort of thing, or that the very art of history is not a dialogue between sometimes drastically different interpretations of events, but the neoconservative assault upon the discipline has been both insidious and vitriolic. To offer an alternative interpretation of available facts is one thing, it is another to ignore those facts entirely and substitute a set of misrepresentations and fabrications. This is not always done with malice aforethought, in many cases it is simply an issue of insulating a particular memory of events from complicated realities. It has been said that history is the enemy of memory. In this way much neoconservative revisionism is couched in terms of protecting “true” history from nefarious Left-leaning revisionism. Again, I’m not going to assert that this has never occurred, but the Rightward versions of the events they posit are often deficient in, if not wholly bereft of, acknowledgement of uncomfortable facts; of academic rigor.
Speaking of academic rigor, we return to Newt Gingrich. The lich-king himself. Newt Gingrich possesses a PhD in history, a fact he is all too willing to trot out in defense of his pseudo-factual polemics. Conservative historians are far from unheard of, but the question must then follow; how many scholarly works of history has he researched and produced? I don’t mean his Barnes and Noble hit parade, I’m talking about actual theses in respected peer-reviewed forums. The answer in this case is none. Zero. Less than all the numbers. This is a large part of the reason he was denied tenure while teaching at West Georgia College and ultimately pursued politics. He dismisses this fact as well, seeing it as “meaningless.”
Well, that being that the case, I don’t think Newt would object to my offering a rebuttal to his particular history of American culture. Seeing as we’ve both published the same number of papers and it apparently doesn’t matter to him anyway. I can’t promise a wholly cogent work of brilliant revelatory merit, or even really anything more than a mediocre essay, but I’m a part-time blogger with a full-time job trying to make ends meet through tax season. I’m sure Newt would understand.
I’m going to try to not turn this into a rant (too late). I also don’t necessarily want to reduce Newt Gingrich to a straw man (too late). That said I don’t really have the space or the time to fully express his varied suggestions about the history of the republic. One recurrent theme however has been that the so-called “counter culture” is a new and poisonous development in American society, one that arose from misguided and malicious malcontents and which is alien to traditional American values. Chief among the diseases brought on by these malefactors are, In Gingrich’s words, “drug use, multi-partner sex, and hedonistic criminality.” In Gingrich’s particular conception, he links these to developments from the nineteen sixties onward. It is on these particular points that I feel Mr. Gingrich has missed the bus. I retort that American history has been full of “counter-cultures” from the union’s inception through the present day, and that each in its way has been a natural outgrowth of American ideals. One could argue (and in fact I think I will) that America is effectively a massive machine for producing these counter-cultures, the true crop of her fertile soil. In order to prevent this exercise from becoming overly long-winded (far too late), I will attempt to limit my examination solely to the past one-hundred years.
First, let’s talk about Prohibition. The right wing likes to attribute this amendment to liberal social engineering, while the left prefers to lay blame with conservative puritanical zealots. Neither is wholly wrong. The Temperance movement which ultimately successfully lobbied for Prohibition had both conservative and liberal dimensions. The movement’s motivations were couched in equal parts old-fashioned christian evangelism and then-radical feminism. The cultural climate for such a drastic value realignment (or attempted realignment) was made possible in part by the upwelling of participatory democratic sentiment immediately following the end of the First World War, coupled with the feeling throughout the Western world that the war had effectively destroyed many of their long held mores. It was this same climate which facilitated Mussolini’s March on Rome three years later; a moment in which all bets were off. Whether Prohibition was rightist or leftist in character, it required a consensus of both sides to achieve it birth, and is generally regarded today with equal unanimity to have been a terrible idea.
One thing which Prohibition did help create though was an early twentieth century counter-culture. A cross-section of the American populace, rich and poor, black and white, men and women, all took it upon themselves to knowingly and flagrantly disregard the Constitution of the United States of America and consume alcohol. Given that this culture was rather inescapably a drinking culture, certain activities between men and women became more and more likely to occur the longer one was in its proximity. By a similar token, since one was already a criminal the moment spirits touched their lips, it became less difficult to justify engaging in other enterprises of extralegal variety, particularly given that Prohibition had overnight created a black market of unprecedented scope and opportunity. Drug use? Multi-partner sex? Hedonistic criminality? Even Hemingway and other authors of the period, when they weren’t ruminating on their own masculinity, counted drinking and womanizing among their honored past-times. Then there was jazz, a musical form today considered almost PC, but which at its birth was considered fundamentally subversive.
Fast forward to the Greatest Generation. The moniker is not undeserved. A generation which grew up in the throes in the Great Depression, hard working and hard bitten, that then rose to the call of national service and fought in the most incredible war in all the history of mankind, triumphing in a battle for the very soul of humanity and securing that freedom should endure for all time. This is what Gingrich and his peers generally see as the last generation to get things right before the crumbling of America’s moral bedrock, nuclear families and white picket fences. It isn’t wholly wrong that the culture of this generation was conservative and even somewhat materialistic. Why shouldn’t it have been? Was it unreasonable for a generation whose childhood was spent in the crushing poverty of breadlines and shantytowns, who came of age witnessing firsthand the horrors of fascism at Normandy and Dachau, to want material prosperity and quiet politics? It is true, but Gingrich’s conservative memory has some holes in it. It was disaffected veterans of World War II who came together to form the Hells Angels and other outlaw motorcycle gangs, an alternative American thesis to the white fence consensus, a counter-culture and an accompanying ascetic which would influence later trends on the underside of society.
Once we get to the nineteen sixties we are exposed to counter-cultures with which Gingrich already seems familiar. Those dirty communist hippies and their love not war shenanigans. It is true that many undertakings of this particular generation may have seemed strange or alien when looked at from such a close temporal distance, but in the broader perspective of American history it loses some of its unique character. Though I don’t think its a comparison either side would be comfortable with, these flower children were not terribly dissimilar from the religious revivalists of the Second Great Awakening in the nineteenth century. Particularly, both exhibited a tendency towards removing themselves wholly from the mainstream culture and attempting to create self-contained utopian communities distanced from the perceived decadence and spiritual bankruptcy of society. In this respect, one can continue the line of counter-cultural inheritance even further back to the Pilgrims, Puritans, and Quakers; all radical sects who disavowed their ties to traditional society and religion and fled across the Atlantic to build idealist enclaves. Enclaves which today are considered part of the same moral bedrock Gingrich accuses their tradition of eroding. Turning on, tuning in, and dropping out are as American as apple pie.
There is honestly even more I could say, but frankly I’ve gone on much too long already. Suffice it to say that Gingrich’s version of history is not only deficient in facts but also deficient in richness. The Republic could never have endured if it followed the dialectic lines he proposes. America’s counter-cultures have always been an intrinsic part of the American identity. Their dream is our dream, let’s live in it together.
Anyway, this has all been rather heavy stuff. Next week: Vampires!