What does it mean when organizations like Antifa and BLM lead the national conversation but are led and populated by arrested, overfed, near-sighted, screen-addicted, basement dwellers? How can these loosely defined groups and others like them write and profess to follow manifestos built on concepts like fascism and communism, the nuclear family and non-binary identity, equality and liberty while clearly not understanding any of them. If we suppress the urge to laugh it off for a few seconds and consider what it means about our country and the West more generally, would that be useful or at least entertaining?
And finally, that our president uses these same concepts in the same contexts as these groups without pausing to at least try and clarify them, does that mean he’s actually their leader too or just the world’s greatest comic?
When you look at the endless tape of the peaceful demonstrators or if you’re lucky as I am and can simply look at the window and watch them at a distance, it is easy to be lulled into a lazy sense of voyeuristic unease. From far away the individuals in the crowds are reduced to hats and black raincoats all carrying some kind of staff and easily mistaken for at least a potential threat. Of course, when the camera pans to ground level or you even walk among them you realize they are those kids you remember from high school, if that was your terminal level of formal education, or junior college, or grad school, even a familiar post doc. Whatever larval group of which you were a graduating member always included the kids that just weren’t ready, would never be ready, for the real world.
Our peaceful protesters are not the serious kids that just quit school to pursue real careers in crime, banking or software. I’m talking about the ones with the anachronistic long or shaved hair, over decorated skin and clothes, downward facing and backward looking. The basement dwellers, scared of life. Say what you will about Mao and Hitler, they weren’t scared of life. So how did our heroes become their self-appointed fellow travelers?
What brought our contemporary heroes out of the basement to frighten America? More interestingly, how could they frighten anyone? If you’re old enough to remember the summers of rage at the end of the 1960’s you know what real racial unrest looks like. Or anyone that has seen strike violence knows why it scares the average citizen. Those mobs were manned by the citizenry. However segregated Newark was in 1965, the city couldn’t survive with twenty percent of the population burning down buildings, and it didn’t. The Newark of 1962 was disappeared by 1975. Depopulated, de-educated, de-legitimated, poof.
But clearly our heroes didn’t, couldn’t, do that in 2020. The viral panic set the stage. It emptied out the streets like the white flight of the ‘60’s but didn’t spark the theatrical violence we see today. So, what did? Beyond the familiar slacker jobless ennui that inspired the Occupy Wall Street encampment and their occasional traffic-arbitraging self-immolations, what caused this moment? Racism? The word is its own answer. In 1968, even in Jefferson and Baltimore during the Obama years, the putative victims of racism did the rioting. Today it’s largely The Muppets.
The Muppets, hmmm, TV….is that a clue? Roger Scruton, who died in January of our anni mirabiles, took pains to remind us that it is culture, more specifically our definition of aesthetics, precisely the meaning of beauty that is the best way to understand a society. The poor man described the pain he experienced standing on a train platform while traveling in America and finding no escape from “the beat”, the deadening, soulless rhythm of western pop music. The reader can imagine how he felt about our other contemporary cultural products. Our visual arts, our architecture, the terrible things we expose and teach to our children. He no doubt finally rests in peace.
In pacem para bellum. In peace, for war. If you want peace, prepare for war. If we want beauty, if we want wisdom, if we want a growing and enterprising society, what kind of citizens do we need? Citizens. Growing. Are our heroes citizens? Are they growing? They do somehow look familiar? Like the barricade denizens of ’68? No, no they were rich French student hippies. More like tropes from the movies or even a comic book. Yes. But not old movies or comic books, more recent, like graphic novels or The Matrix. Yes, that’s it, they all seem to be aspiring to the art direction that gussied up Keanu Reeves (I only now realized that he has that most famous of comic book actor last names). I get it, our heroes want to be real heroes. But they only know Keanu or Deckard, a few other dystopian action figures. They are graphic heroes. We might charitably call them expressionistic.
Like all contemporary culture actors, our heroes carry the contradictions of Cultural Marxism. They attack the culture, humiliate the bourgeoisie, their parents, their schools, their unemployment offices, then retreat to the basement and their protection. It’s easy to hate them, but for America it is hard to admit she created them. How did it happen, they happen?
For me, it is far more interesting to answer the question by looking at the cultural collapse they reflect. When we do, we will know what the Muppets mean and why America chose them to use to frighten itself.
Why would America want to frighten itself? It’s evident it wants to, hosting all the Devil’s Nights it has in 2020, long before Halloween in places like Portland, Brooklyn and The Loop. In the shadow of the protests the professional criminals can come out of their nests, wave guns at their rivals and redraw their maps. America suffers all this to stir herself, especially our suburban cousins that so swear by the “peaceful protests”, so long as they only burn urban America. It is said when the protests came to Portland’s burbs, the curtains were drawn. Mission accomplished, the brief, but cold snap of fear did penetrate the high-tax school zones.
But from what do we now stir? Covid, Trump, the caliphate, financial collapse, Iraq, Afghanistan, The Towers, the Kennedys? No, these were mere media trifles, like the Beatles. But they seemed important at the time, serious, didn’t they? In sleep even a fly seems serious and we fell asleep long before the Kennedys. What are the symptoms of sleep that can tell us when we fell? And why do we sense it’s time to get up?
Let’s follow Sir Roger’s advice and take America’s vitals through whatever we can call its culture for ten seconds without laughing. We are told that American popular music was born out of traditional, gospel, anthem and transplanted light opera genres. These genres evolved into what we call R&B and Jazz, Country. The ethnic music of Southern and Eastern European immigrants mixed together with native genres in vaudeville and Tin Pan Alley. All of this seemed to gel on the Broadway of the twenties to become what we today call the American Song Book.
You could argue that the ASB did not reach the high musical standard of the opera Toscanini brought to New York and later popularized through radio broadcasts on NBC. But looking back from today’s vantage, in the context of twenty first century western pop music, it sure seems to fit the label of art.
You can make a similar case for American movies. It’s true, there was no visual equivalent to Jazz to act as a foundation for American cinema. But the originality and popularity of Chaplin and Keaton’s output, their success at creating visual conventions that became an almost universally accepted, but wordless, language convinced even arid academic critics that the movies were developing a set of aesthetics that would one day support an artform.
None of this can be said of the other plastic visual arts in America such as painting, sculpture and with the exception of Wright, architecture, all of which were mired in the outpouring of European Modernism throughout the first half of twentieth century. And while there were many interesting American poets and writers, even leading figures such as Stein, Pound and Eliot, their work was primarily grounded in European ideas and precedents.
The fiction of the American Naturalists, Norris, Crane and Dreiser, could be argued to be American originals, but theirs was at best a minor native movement that did not blossom greatly as a literary genre, but did interestingly have an impact on film. Faulkner and his “school” could also be added to this list and can be usefully tracked as we diagnose what ails America.
Another fruitful area of American creativity and certainly the most materially successful is what is today referred to as innovation. Defined simply as growth generating change, innovation is an almost perfect, if indirect, measure of American culture. To innovate a culture must have intact, functioning communities capable of supporting a network of collaborating and competing enterprises. These simultaneous conditions can only exist in places where the culture not only supports the formal rule of law, but voluntary associations such as craft clubs that create the social capital needed to invest in creating new products and services. Innovation shares these requirements with all native American artforms.
We will use these cultural creations, American music, movies, some of its literature and compare it to the advance of innovation in the twentieth century, the American Century, to understand why in the twenty first, the homeland finds itself nurturing fear through home-grown hobgoblins in the form of hand puppets.
End of Part 1