Maybe the best CAT-scan of your sensibilities these days is your reaction to an anti-war rally. Historian Victor David Hanson, fresh from observing the festivities at recent anti-war rallies, saw the outline of decline of the entire culture of dissident leftists through the sorry state of their speeches. Hanson deftly analyzed the major themes, "no blood for oil," "on the right side of history," and "anti-militarism," and found them wildly irrational and ahistorical.1
While welcome, this suggestion of decline may be premature. The culture of the American left, it’s values and the institutions that convey them, is truly pervasive, acting primarily through those heavyweight institutions of modern culture, mass communication and education, which outpace traditional cultural institutions like family, religion, and community.
In education, we are just recognizing the scale of the ideological capture of American higher education by Sixties boomers for whom the Civil Rights and Anti-War Movements along with avant-garde aesthetics were formative. We now have some shocking external measures of this capture, such as the wildly unbalanced political affiliation of Ivy League faculty.2
The shape of the ideological landscape is just becoming apparent. Radical aesthetic values are easiest to identify, rooted in the development of the Western avant-garde from the 19th Century onward, with its central proposition that the artist is in the front rank of a war with conventional reality, politically, culturally, or even perceptually, and its attendant aesthetic of modernism in most of the arts. Malarme hoped to wring conventional discourse by its neck, Rimbaud to disorient our senses and find a new language, and these have been central aims of the avant garde since, through Stravinsky, Picasso, Becket, Godard, and so on.3
The elevation of the transgressive artist at the cutting edge of revolt, the exclusive conspiracy to destroy traditional forms, the wondrous shock of the new, these have been the reigning values in the arts, their practice and evaluation, especially as nurtured in the academy. You would be hard pressed to find a fine arts program, study or practice, which cultivated any version of classical or enduring values as a cornerstone.
Regarding social values, there are entire academic disciplines, the foundations of the scholarly enterprise, which are dominated by essentially Marxist principles and methods, mostly among the social sciences, which adopted various versions of the materialist dialectic of class conflict as the engine of history, then finessed Frantz Fanon’s influential substitution of mind for material and race for class,4 which allowed the endless substitutions of gender, orientation, difference, and so on. All these variations maintain an analysts "objective" position outside the problem as declassed, vanguard elements, like the avant-garde, which is to say intellectually and morally, as well as artistically, superior. Add to this superiority Lenin’s license of practical cadre nihilism, updated for America by Herbert Marcuse as "polymorphous perversity,"5 the revolutionary prankster, the wicked shape shifter stepping off on Gramsci’s long struggle across the dominant cultural institutions, and you have a formidable mindset.6
This mindset has self-replicated in the academy through the committee hiring process. This is not easy to prove, but is implicit in the cases of first rate non-left scholars unable to land an academic position and entire departments and even disciplines dominated by a single perspective. An obvious example of the latter is Middle Eastern Studies, recently dominated by the followers of Edward Said, to the virtual exclusion of those reflecting the scholarly tradition of Bernard Lewis.7
Also, much of college curriculum itself, sometimes including even the natural sciences, has been affected, through the projection of such criteria as diversity or multiculturalism onto general undergraduate education. These criteria are administered throughout the internal curriculum approval process by diversity gatekeepers, commissars of multiculturalism so effective they could spin Lysenko’s head and roll him over to tell the socialist realists the news.
The process by which curriculum meets multicultural criteria inevitably involves the revision of course materials and methods to include consideration of non-Western/non-white/non-male elements, whether or not they have any bearing on the subject, and results in at least a module in many general education courses under the purview of the multiculturalists.
The enticing appeals of inclusion or community suggested by labels like diversity or multiculturalism, evoking images of a happy UNESCO family picnic of every human type morphing peacefully into one another, has been a complete canard. These folks were in no way purveyors of a classical liberalism like that of Isiah Berlin, with its core notions of a civil community brokering an eternally tentative, foxy pluralism of competing values. These folks were and are full tilt hedgehog monists, shifting shape as they exclude their intellectual adversaries, through ideology, hiring, campus speech codes, and even the commandeering of student mobs.8
But the real monster in all this has been the post WWII arrival of true mass communication. Among media of information, the influence of the left in print and television journalism is just becoming legitimate as a topic. For instance, we might consider the enormous role of Watergate in changing the basic stance of journalism, turning it away from the prevailing norms of objectivity and balance and toward modes of commitment, muckraking, and sensation. Consider a recent seminar in the elite journalism program at Northwestern whose project was combing through death row records in Texas in search of possible DNA proof of injustice as an example of training in populist advocacy journalism.9
But it may be the aesthetic experience that’s been most telling. What can be more telling than the movies, regarded everywhere as the essentially American medium? While old studio Hollywood probably fashioned some regularly left leaning genres, like the populist screwball comedy or the violently amoral classical gangster in the Great Depression, as well as the naturally conservative ones like the Western, the major changes came after WWII. The studio system collapsed, under the weight of a Supreme Court decision divesting it of its theaters and the arrival of television. The American industry went into freefall as the mass market went to TV or fragmented, as meanwhile European cinema revived. The US industry would not fully recover until the late 60’s, when it combined its newly defined audience, the youth market, its new style, modernism borrowed from contemporary European cinema, and its new protagonist, the counterculture rebel, in a fresh formula. The Hollywood Renaissance, created by a new generation of filmmakers just emerging from film schools, delivered a distinct mythology and aesthetic. The myths of rebels, bikers, alienated outsiders, nubile young lovers on a crime spree, were wildly successful, the living dreams of the emergent youth market.10
The combination of myths of rebellion and modernist aesthetics have prevailed for decades, even in such supposedly conservative genres as action-adventure and science fiction, where a protagonist, even a cop, must at least be a diffident outsider or loner, usually with outsider allies. Aside from the occasional terrorist or wacko, the antagonists or bad guys are overwhelmingly corporate or government. The malefactors in our movies are mostly attached to American politics and market capitalism. The aesthetic is still the modernist fragmentation we borrowed from the French New Wave and beyond, now mutated into a post-modern, ironic wink, still deeply respecting of the audience’s avant-garde sensibilities.
But even beyond the movies, if that is possible, the core aesthetic experience for most post-WWII Americans has been the music. If we regard rock and roll as roughly the synthesis of rhythm & blues and country & western, it necessarily offered post-war middle-class teenagers the sounds and images of the underclasses, complete with rebelious and sexy attitudes, an irresistible mix for teens. Little Richard and Elvis brought home the postures of zootsuiters and hillbillies, roadhouse Baptist shouters and backwoods Pentecostal pickers, followed by an unending line of alienated underclass poses becoming styles and products, personas and clothes. With its frank eroticism and transgressive avant-garde stance, it awaited only drugs to become the complete kit for a generation and more, the new rites and sacraments for a reinvigoration of the left’s spirit.
To look back over the last half century is to recognize that the pop culture wars have been won by the left, in a route as total as Desert Storm. How can anyone who has at least one working TV set in the home believe in capitalist cultural hegemony? Confounding the expectations of the Frankfurt School of cultural analysis, it has not been bourgeois values but rather underclass identity and avant-garde aesthetics that have been reified by mass culture, made into perfect commodities for adolescent consumption, the rope sold to the children of affluence.11 Capitalist cultural hegemony ranks as an analytical mistake alongside the failure of the German working class to revolt, again indicating the breathtaking inability of the social science left, who are out there at the nearest university teaching it to the kids, to comprehend how things actually work and what would actually happen.
This line of reified poses of alienation extends all the way forward to today’s pastiche of street and prison chic, hordes of middle class kids at the mall pierced and tattooed, seemingly decked out like tenderloin hookers and Pelican Bay killers on the yard, shaved and mutilated, speaking and moving in media rhythms and images of underworld gang toughs manqué, beyond Bakunin’s wildest fantasy of criminality informing revolt.
If this sense of a reified, mass market culture of rebellion seems far fetched, you need only reflect on the stacks of Noam Chomsky’s 9/11 next to the cash register at Virgin Records12 to recognize how perfectly these elements come together, the seductive conspiracy of a savagely deracinated Jeremiad, the vanguard cult of revolt and art, the teenage sympathy for the devil’s pleasures.
We are back to an anti-war rally. There is an unbearable question in the air: is this radical cultural predisposition so strong that it naturally and inevitably values a figure so transgressive he would kill even us over any figure of normalcy, a bin Laden over anybody’s parents. Adorno thought that mass culture was ultimately narcotic. Would a junky bring home someone who would kill the whole family?
So it seems this has all been a long time in the making, runs deep to the bone of modern American popular culture. Perhaps Hanson has the classic conservative’s problem, assuming a solid argument will win the day, as if arguments and history hold sway against a culture of dreams and believers.
1 Victor David Hanson, "The End of an Era," National Revue Online, November 8, 2002.
2 David Horowitz, "The Problem with America’s Colleges and the Solution," in "You Can’t Get a Good Education if They’re Only Telling You Half the Story," Center for the Study of Popular Culture, Front Page Magazine, September 2, 2002.
3 Roger Shattuck, The Banquet Years, 1955.
4 Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, 1963.
5 Herbert Marcuse, Eros and Civilization, 1966.
6 Antonio Gramsci, Selections from Prison Notebook, 1971.
7 Martin Kramer, Ivory Towers on Sand, 2001.
8 Isiah Berlin, "The Hedgehog and the Fox," 1953.
9 CBS News, July 12, 2000.
10 Peter Biskind, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, 1998.
11 Theodor Adorno, The Dialectic of Enlightenment, 1947.
12 Stefan Kanfer, "America’s Dumbest Intellectual," City Journal, Summer
Edward Azlant, Ph.D. in Communication, has worked as a record producer, screenwriter, and college professor, and written for Rolling Stone and Film History.