Some Initial Observations on the Dirty Hippy Meme
by Matt Stoller, Thu Dec 28, 2006 at 08:58:52 AM EST
Last week I asked you about the 1960s. There are a few easy ways of generating a whole lot of comments on a blog post. One of them is to analyze a netroots-friendly Presidential candidate. Another way is to talk about the netroots itself. And another way is to bring up a piece of liberal history from 1960 onward. I believe the reason we want to talk about our history so fervently is because there is a hunger that we have to understand the roots of modern politics and the name-calling directed our way. A lot of the arguments I hear in elite discourse seems to presuppose that liberals, especially those on the internet, live on hippy communes and disdain the establishment in some revolutionary spirit, as opposed to being mainstream professionals who are seeking relatively tame political reform in the face of an extremist right-wing. Even though we are who we are, the elites seem to think of us as part of one of several political factions from the 1960s.
Speaking personally as the child of two very non-radical apolitical middle class professionals (both of whom grew up in the 1960s), it's been quite frustrating to essentially be called a dirty hippy for opposing the way that power lies and insults us. Chris has documented the way that new progressives are called emotional children with no credibility by mainstream pundits and old leftie types alike. This is a result of many forces, and one of them is ignorance. They don't know who we are and they don't know how we can possibly differ ideologically from the 1968 convention protesters. And while there are those among us who know and have been through those fights, until recently I wasn't really aware of the 1960s experience except through the hollow and annoying shell of the single-issue groups and a legacy of a shattered and self-hating collection of frightened liberal politicians.
So let me humbly try to sketch out a few differences between who we are and the 1960s left, and then seek feedback once again.
The first difference is the energy animating our origins. While we are products of an insane right-wing that impeached Clinton, stole the 2000 election, and took us to war in Iraq, the 1960s left was the product of a tired set of liberal elites that had failed to deliver on a full set of promises towards social justice. While we saw Iraq and an out of control set of religious conservatives in our formative political experiences, the 1960s generation grew up with the New Deal rhetoric and suburbia clashing deeply with the reality of racial segregation and a McCarthyite political culture clashing with a new hypersexualized youth culture. In other words, while we are a reaction to insane conservative elites, the 1960s left was a reaction to liberal elites that couldn't deliver.
While there were commonalities, it's almost impossible to consider what they did as similar in any way to what we're trying to do. The crucible of the New Left, before Vietnam, was the civil rights struggle and the McCarthy era anti-Communist crusade. For 1960s era youth, loyalty oaths and crushed career paths based on radical politics were a very real source of fear. Free speech on college campuses was not taken as a given, and genuine racial equality as a moral good was still a radical idea.
The white part of the New Left was a youth movement, essentially liberal college students who had grown up in suburbia and accepted a more liberated culture as the norm. The youth component of their movement was critical - black-infused rock music and cultural modernism was a real and stark dividing line that couldn't really be overcome between generations. Their left-wing elders were split between Communists and Communist-sympathizers who had been driven underground, and liberal internationalists who had accepted a sort of managerial liberalism that took as its defining axiom a rabid anticommunism. The right was a joke and nonplayer in their formative years - 1960s leftists was birthed in many ways with the Democratic Party and old labor as a reactionary enemy. Because of its initial struggle, the movement was necessarily racially integrated and was built completely outside of both parties. White liberals were a distinct part of the movement, but the movement was multiracial.
While the 1960s left came out of an era where liberals held substantial power, we have been birthed in a time when those in control are mostly insane theocratic right-wingers and a press that slavishly worships power and celebrity. I'm dating our movement from 1998, the Clinton impeachment, and see us moving through a series of shocks, including the recount, 9/11, and Iraq. There are so many differences it's hard to know where to start. First of all, we're not a youth movement, but a group of accomplished professionals who operate in the cultural mainstream and seek political reform. Our opponent isn't labor or Democrats, but Republican and right-wing extremists, and as such, strategically the Democratic Party isn't an obstacle for us but an effective vessel for political reform. Unlike the 1960s left, this movement is not about experience or cultural transformation, it's about politics and institutional reform. The internet left is also as of yet still mostly white; while 1960s liberal youth were pulled into the extant civil rights struggle by the NAACP and Martin Luther King's associated groups, there is no analogue for us. We're angry about Iraq, corruption, elitism, and cronyism, but race is a subtext not a major source of motivation. We aren't a multiracial movement yet, and we don't put our bodies on the line in the form of mass protests. There's just no point in doing so, since that doesn't serve to stop reactionary forces from doing whatever they want.
Now, there certainly are latent movements that exist in parallel, such as the immigrant rights movement, but there's very little direct interaction between the immigrant rights community and us. I expect this to change as the forces that have created us are quite massive and are empowering reformers in other communities - it's only a matter of time before we form alliances. But race came first in the 1960s, then came the stupid war. The opposite is true for us.
There are a lot of other differences. The 1960s saw a series of assassinations and deaths of important cultural and political figures, from JFK to MLK to Janis Joplin. These only served to highlight the impatience and urgency of the 1960s youthful leadership, who already existed in a kind of pressure cooker because of the specter of the draft and various evil institutions (like Hoover's FBI). We face no such pressure, and our movement's organizational principles in some ways eschew charismatic leadership as a guiding principle (consider Wikipedia versus the Yippies). The deaths, the turbulence, the draft, the race riots - all of this served to create an atmosphere of faux revolution and instability, which cut against the idea of building long-term institutional fabric to build progressive power. By contrast, we're constantly talking about the need to build liberal infrastructure to rival what the New Right built in the form of their think tanks and party machinery.
There's a lot more, obviously, and I still don't have a totally clear organizational framework. I will say that the most obvious and probably most important difference is that the 1960s white left was a political and cultural reaction to top-down liberalism, whereas we are most directly a reaction to right-wing extremism.
Anyway, I would LOVE your thoughts. Does any of this even start to make sense?