Saturday, July 2, 2011

Lessons from the 70s: the Bicentennial: A Seventies journey via youtube

For the past forty odd years since 1976 we have lived in the most dramatic of times. The other superpower and empire fell, we've had the rise (and takeover) of the internet (which I needn't remind the reader is as revolutionary as Gutenberg's printing press), the Reagan revolution, the terrorism of September 11, our current economic collapse with the housing and banking crises, and much more.

When we think of recent US presidents, though they are widely divergent in sensibilities and politics, one thing they have in common is that they do not generally arouse indifference. Reagan, Bush the Second, (Bush the First seems to me an anomaly-almost a throwback to the fifties and sixties), Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama are all people that tend towards the charismatic, arousing passions from all sides, the strongest hatred and love, a kind of celebrity consciousness, and all of them analyzed in millions of volumes, whether on paper or on line. Whatever you might think of that lot of men, they proclaim their own seriousness and that the times in which they reign as serious - as uniquely important and special in some way. Whether it is climate change or Al Queda, an air of heaviness weighs upon the shoulders of Americans, like the ghosts of so many wars past.

The seventies is in part so interesting to me because of its inability to be that serious.

Whatever you might think about these United States and world leaders none of them is anything like Jerry Ford who was the president in 1976:

Notice his dry, completely unexciting and anti-charismatic midwestern Michigan delivery. This is a man who was an accidental president, who did not want to be president, but was nevertheless forced to be president, dragged kicking and screaming into a thankless job. He was a national substitute teacher: all owing to the disgrace and failure of his predecessor.

I have often described the 1970s as a time of contradictions. In many respects it was an earnest, on the nose time. But in other ways it was a time that went out of its way to be undramatic and unexciting. It saw lack of pretensions as a badge of honor. I am only too happy that our nation was founded in 1776 and not, say 1756, or 1766. I get a real relish, perverse perhaps, when I think of our bicentennial, that it occurred during a time of rather mediocre synthetic clothing and a president who was neither left wing nor right wing, liked golf and football more than the arts and was accident prone.

How I long for Republicans like Jerry Ford. So anti-ideological. Our current Republicans are so extreme in their views, they make pronouncements against masturbation in public, have anti-liberal and anti- democratic (or hyper-democratic) beliefs, and peddle a cheap religiosity, or belong to dubious religious denominations.

I am currently reading Jimmy Carter's White House diaries. Two things that strike me about it are Carter's enormous sensitivity and intelligence, both in his distrust of extremism and fanaticism of all kinds, and the great difficulties he experienced with increasing dogmatic partisanship, in bringing diverse interest groups together. In these matters he is rather like our current president Obama. But many people hated Carter in his time, though Carter was very much a man of the moment, going out of his way to exalt casualness and relaxation. Though he had the Iran hostage crisis with which to deal in public, in private Carter had an oddly eccentric Southern family. His brother Billy had a mediocre beer named after him, after all.

I need not note that Carter was marked by a most extraordinary lack of chemistry and charisma, perhaps not as flat as Ford, but still charisma-proof nevertheless. I feel economic troubles and the Iranian crisis may have insured the election of Ronald Reagan. But Reagan begins the new age of earnestness. In his own way Ronald Reagan - that conservative and decidedly "old fashioned"and square opponent of all things that smacked of the counterculture - was more earnest than any anti-war folk singer from fifteen years earlier. Think of him exhorting to Gorbachev: "tear down that wall!" We have been suffering from a kind of hypertropic hyperbole ever since.

But maybe the earnestness really begins with Jimmy Carter.

Jimmy Carter gave an address that is probably one of the wildest addresses any U.S. president has ever given. Obama is more of the eloquent poet and a noted intellect, really a Formalist but Carter was the wildest Romantic. That address by Carter has a truly seventies wildness to it that cannot be duplicated today. At once "touchy feely" and intellectual he sounds more like a psychotherapist at a couples retreat, and like a lecturer in ecology in philosophy department at a state college than an American president. At times he sounds like Werner Erhard!

Everything he says in that address applies more today than at the time it was delivered, with talk now of flooded cities in the future, polar ice caps melting, and above all, peak oil. Indeed Carter's was an address in which the content was and is all true. He said then that we had been putting off the environmental problems for too long. Yet that was thirty years ago. He was a wild Jeremiah, a prophet. Yet the scientific credentials were sound. I love how he talks about "the meaning of our lives" and lists the complaints and comments of regular folks in letters to the White House. This is a transitional speech, full of the enormous seriousness to come, but full of the risk-taking, playful adventuresome of that period.

(Some would argue that the pop cultural embrace of a cheapened irony - David Letterman - contradicts my charge of earnestness, but in fact the need to resort to such a mode of playfulness seems forced: an obvious reaction to having to live in such evidently self important times. By contrast, the 1970s took each day at a time and saw what would happen if we just winged it. The eighties was a counterfeit version of such casualness.)

Let us do a close reading of television coverage: notice this introduction to the coverage of our nation's bicentennial with Harry Reasoner.
Notice the visuals and music for the introduction. There is the use of a kind of funky blues riff, with unison string writing, and the patriotic drumbeats are made to sound like an approximation of music meant to represent Native Americans in a second rate Republic pictures Western. The singers chant "Happy Birthday Uncle Sam" in an unenthusiastic and sad monotone. The music is kind of astonishing, its net effect more like background arranging studio orchestra figures from a disco song, but maybe not as trippy as the long, vast streams of red white and blue stripes and Harry Reasoner's wide lapelled baby blue sports jacket and almost clownish, wide red necktie.

Reasoner's delivery is noticeably unexcited, a mode I have been emphasizing all along. He is a little wry but there is something unusually relaxed about all of it. Though he looks stiff because of the tightness of men's design in suiting and jacketing in that period, at the same time he appears relaxed, befitting a time dedicated to oxymoron.

You have to wonder about a world that would create something like that.

Here is a local news observation and report on July 4th 1976, in Miami. I need not comment on the raiment represented therein, to say nothing of the design of the news studio.

You have to wonder again about sartorial matters. What kind of world would create necktie knots that appear to be the size of some children's heads, and coat lapels that take up the entire space of the chest. The sheer outrage of such disproportionate design will tell you that this was no ordinary time indeed. There is air of the clown in it, stagflation and energy crisis or not.
Style is the of the essence. The manner is the matter. If you examine these modes over time as an artist might examine a great painting or poem, you will learn much more about what is going on in the fullness of time than you ever will by reading, say, some book by David Halberstam.

Happy Birthday "America".

A Personal Declaration of Independence

On this long weekend of the July fourth, I hereby declare my own independence. I hold to an independence from all that is systematized in our daily lives, to all narrowing of possibility and stunting of imagination.

Through an act of will, however unfree that will may in actuality be, I wish an independence from any creed, doctrine or guru that would have us be in any way finished, finalized, understood and explained. I recognize that such explanation explains away.

There are many facts to be said about us, and our structures and institutions might hold necessity, in much the same way as a flower needs soil in which to grow and flourish. But this necessity does not give any of us the justification to forget our inner conscience or real nature. At every moment of life we must take an inventory of these structures and ask if they are good for us, or just so much convenience and habit. This sense of being that resides in all of us, from the most abject to the most elevated among us, always holds great promises and powers. One has only to listen, but what if it were only that easy! What will be heard is different for every human being yet nevertheless is the only way to know how or where to turn, and most importantly, why. Any compromise of the truths to be found in that place of being ends in some kind of ruination. If we coast along in ignorance of the truth in question we may be happy half of the time, and we may even find a degree of comfort, but we will be only half alive to this world.

And we must ask ourselves if an alleged necessity is right by our nature. It will be very different and vary from one to the next. A scholar who tends to their garden knows it is not right for their constitution to be in an after hours club in town. But someone whose heart is in the bustle of that club and is invigorated and fortified by the electricity of the human connections to be found there does not belong on the farm or even in the study holding the world’s greatest wisdom. What would be noisome and empty to the scholar, is, for the partygoer, a living human comedy with vibrancy, with all of its glories and all of its flaws. Somehow, by each following their nature, in the apparent chaos that ensues, some measure of harmony will be achieved.

I remember some time back in the early nineties when I was discussing with an anarchist friend the dissolution of the old Soviet empire and its replacement by independent and sovereign states based on tradition and group identities with shared history. Although nobody in their right mind would have been sorry to see that awful empire fall I was suspicious and confused about the prospect of all of these new nations and histories to take into account. It seemed like a great deal of trouble to me. Moreover I wasn’t sure independence wouldn’t form new tensions and excessive tribal pride. My anarchist friend was only happy about the turn of events. As he succinctly put it: “I think everybody should get out of everything.”

Everybody should get out of everything. John was surely unto something. It is not merely that as a nation we are entangled in a barbaric war as wasteful of spirit and body as much as purse. It is not only that each of us, as a result of having made a bargain for temporary security, is mired in a complex interdependent system whose success threatens our very survival.

The problem lies rather in the province of ontology. As never before in human history, with the likely exception of the medieval period in the West, we are constantly told, by way of mass communications of all kinds, who we are, what we are, and what we are meant to do about it.

We are told of how every gesture we make and every though we think is incredibly important, of what evolutionary purpose all of our vanity has served. The lowest habit of the most abject, pitiful creature and the highest reach of the most elevated Samaritan are flattened onto the same plane and analyzed and explained to us in the most banal of terms: perhaps as positive and negative sides of a single coin.

One time, not so very long ago, we were told who we were on the recommendation of arcane, incongruous, and improbable texts believed to be penned by a god. Now we are told who we are in the form of brute facts, with which nobody dares to argue on risk of being though delusional or worse. That what we are told now is demonstrable or true is scarcely an improvement. The net effect serves only to limit human possibility, all the more so, since today’s map of the human has that blunt force of fact in its favor. Never before have we been so systematized and. It is little wonder, then, that leading research neuroscientists seriously consider the possibility that robots or machines that resemble us in every way from the outside would ipso facto be indistinguishable from us on the inside, since the private experience inside of our skulls that each of us lives all of our lifelong days is thought to be unreliable at best or literally an illusion at worst.

Doubtless, we can all appreciate the pleasures of certain knowledge. Much like that which can be gleamed from a PBS science special or the daily act of reading the morning paper, there are things about us which can be understood and quantified. There is more to us than that, however. That this something more, has been the cause of much religious nonsense and fanaticism is most unfortunate, as it is no cause for denying the obvious.

But that sense of our own existence - call it consciousness if you will - is the one thing of whose existence we can be sure. Ironically, the very thing thought in certain respectable quarters to be utterly unreal - because they are out of reach of the third person, objective view - turns out to be all that, in the end, we have. Descartes had a real sense of this insight in his “I think; therefore, I am” quote. One might reverse this formulation. At first we are. There is being. There is something prior to thought, whether that thought be discursive or transcendental in nature. That something has no proper name, brooks no easy explanation and is slippery when one attempts to grasp it. Yet each of us knows it and knows further that “it” is the only thing to which we can turn to remedy any problem. It is intensely personal and unique yet has universal import. In my more elegiac moments I might call it love. Fear has no place here; indeed, it is stronger than any clumsy caution we might feel to be necessary. That is why we can escape any systems laid out for us. We can surprise ourselves and others. We are but works in progress and it is work never done.