TORPOR

Posted in Rants on December 15th, 2010 by Ed

In the broadest sense "The Sixties" have been inflated and distorted in the American historical memory. We won't stop hearing about how amazing and revolutionary the decade was until the last Boomer is removed from the ventilator in his Sun City nursing home, but there is no disputing that, although overstated in hindsight, the decade was a remarkably turbulent time both socially and politically. People who did not live through it, myself included, have a hard time understanding it. When I teach about the history of the presidential nominating process, I always find it quite challenging to set the appropriate context and background for the 1968 convention and the subsequent McGovern-Fraser reforms that created the primary-driven system we use today. It is one of the few occasions on which I show video for instructional purposes (1968: The Year that Shaped a Generation, easily the least annoying collection of footage of hippies, riots, napalm runs, and MLK speeches with a soundtrack of wah-wah music) for lack of a better way to explain the backdrop for the election.

The kids never fail to be at least moderately shocked by it (I admit that I am too sometimes). Why wouldn't they be? What experiences have they had, bearing in mind their 1986-1991 birthdates, that can compare? What events have they witnessed in their lifetimes that bear even a passing resemblance to assassinations, riots, and legitimate protests? And covering this topic never fails to get me thinking about what it would take to get this generation to take to the streets in any significant numbers. Yes, the easily-derided campus socialists and hippies stage a sit-in every so often, but not in numbers great enough to draw attention and rarely for a coherent purpose. What would actually get substantial numbers of these people to, you know, riot? For real, not for show.

Rome has dealt with moderately heavy rioting for the past two days (good photo spread here). When the Greek government announced its "austerity" measures over the summer, riots broke out across the nation. The mere suggestion that the retirement age in France would be upped to 62 led to riots in Paris (a regular occurrence, it seems). In the U.S. we sit with our thumbs in our asses as they propose pushing it to nearly 70. And then we vote for the people who will make it happen, because the power structure has only our best interests at heart. Awfully ungrateful of you to criticize our benevolent ruling class.

It's pathetic, really, to watch what passes for a social movement in the U.S. these days. I would even have some respect for the Tea Party, as numb-nutted and vapid as they are, if they would, for lack of a better term, show some fight. Flip over a goddamn car or something. Set a fire. Punch a cop. Do something. Anger might not be the most useful emotion but at least it's an emotion. We have the same limp-dicked reaction to everything. Sit on our asses, watch people argue about it on TV, and change the channel. I suppose it is more realistic to expect Teabaggers, fighting as they are on the side of big business and authority, to fellate a cop rather than punch one. The left's meager efforts to get riled up are no better, though. We don't have "rallies" or "protests" in this country; we have the occasional well attended circle jerk at which everyone shows up at the same place and stands around taking pictures to post on Facebook before quietly going our separate ways back to the Holiday Inn Express.

This is a problem that has been building for many years as successive generations of young adults get more and more used to a world in which actions involve no action and interpersonal exchanges are impersonal. Long-time readers have heard this rant before, but it is relevant here (for a change). "Taking action" means clicking "like" on a Facebook group. Talking to someone involves no actual talking. Meeting new people doesn't require putting on clothes and leaving our bedrooms. If something is particularly infuriating and important, we might blog about it. Issues have been reduced to brand names and logos; we express ourselves with magnetic ribbons on our cars, we fight breast cancer by buying pink shit, and we Make a Difference for Mother Earth by purchasing only the overpackaged consumer goods with the particularly effective greenwashing campaigns. In 30 years, what kind of memory is "Hey, remember when we changed our profile pictures to cartoons to stop child abuse?" going to make?

These are not terrible things individually or together; the problem begins when we treat the whole world, including politics and the societies in which we live, as something that happens on a TV screen. People are Facebook profiles, conversations are chat logs, activism is buying stuff, and taking action involves the fraction of a second required to click a button on the screen. What would happen if we had a riot and no one showed up? You're looking at it. God forbid the government or society get to the point where an actual riot would be necessary. I doubt we'd even remember how to do it. A million people would stand around, google "riot footage" on their smartphones, watch a few YouTube clips, and then get distracted by the cornucopia of kitten videos and pratfall montages on the sidebar until no one could quite remember what everyone was so angry about in the first place.