It’s curious that American culture and history are still so commonly viewed through a New Left prism, by means of which 1964 or thereabouts has become a Year Zero of political enlightenment; as a consequence, the preferred stance remains that of the outsider looking in, or in this case back, at a supposedly gullible and delusional pre-Sixties America. It’s certainly preferable to right-wing orthodoxy, but that’s hardly a compliment. The New Left is now very old but its rhetoric lives on, many times removed from its original context, and that rhetoric seems to have found a welcome home in film criticism.Jones nails it: despite the fact that we should know better, that we've seen the past products of American culture ourselves and know they're more complicated than that--and that our own era is always more complicated, more two-steps-forward-one-step-back than the surface narrative would suggest, we're still stuck in this very 1960s mode of gawping at history. The past is littered with moral failures; the present is as well. Saying that we've gotten better at recognizing humanity and fighting injustice need not require us to simplify the past nor amplify its flaws.
Can we really afford to keep saying “them” instead of “us?” Is it useful to keep looking back at the past, disowning what we don’t like and attributing it to laughably failed versions of our perfectly enlightened selves?
The only other time I've encountered thinking this cogent about our lingering Boomer cultural mindset, and its insistence on opposition and outsiderism (which necessarily requires insiders and villains) is in a post from New York magazine music critic Nitsuh Abebe a few years back. The post, titled "You Are All Still Boomers: A Sort of Modest Proposal," highlights the degree to which we're still wedded to that worldview:
We often worry about the health of our undergrounds, or worry about the possibility of having one. If we can’t find one, we get sad. People get older and shake their heads about it: where are the vigorous pop-culture insurgencies of yesteryear? It’s just a basic of our rhetoric: if I’m trying to explain to you why one piece of art is better than another, it’s a standard tactic to say, well, this thing represents an underground, a revolution, a next thing. And I don’t want to turn into Thomas Frank here, but this is so rote that it’s long been part of advertising, even, which’ll pitch almost anything as a counterculture alternative. Because advertisers know that’s just how we think.Acknowledging the lens is the first step to actually seeing what it reveals.
And there are loads of perfectly good reasons for this — this whole map/narrative is often a workable and effective way of looking at things. I’m not necessarily arguing with it. The thing I find myself dwelling on lately, though, is that it’s also a pretty old way of looking at things. We could trace it backwards through art far enough into history that I wouldn’t know what I was talking about anymore. Wikipedia tells me the first use of the term “avant-garde” to describe the purpose of the artist came in 1825. And there’s the rise of a western-European bourgeoisie, with the image of the artist as anti-bourgeois. And there’s modernism. And then most of all . . .
Well, if you’re American, here’s the part that might depress you: the map/narrative we’re talking about is basically a Baby Boomer thing, isn’t it? Isn’t the use of this map basically an attempt to relive the narrative Boomers brought forward out of the 1960s? Obviously I’m pretending to be a bit naive here, because I think you probably realize this already: the template and narrative for how modern Americans think about counter-culture and social change is insanely influenced by the Boomer experience.
I'll close with a (perhaps inevitable?) turn to Mad Men, our culture's most prominent current ongoing engagement with history. Simply put, it is dull when it focuses on the sins of the past--Look, pregnant ladies are smoking! People are homophobic!--and fascinating when it shows us that every life is lived within constraints, and that the individual struggle to escape or come to terms with those limitations is what is interesting. The past may have been less enlightened than the present, but it was no less complicated and multifaceted. As Jones says, it shouldn't be "them" and "us"--it's all us. We'll be the past ourselves soon enough.