Saturday, November 6, 2010

Requiem for Aquarius

Last night my wife and I were watching cable TV, and we ran across "The Forty-Year-Old Virgin". I had seen it before, and wanted my wife to share in the fun. I think the movie is hilarious, on top of having a sort of uncomfortable sincerity that ends up being really sweet. Ultimately the movie's message is that many people are way too hung up on sex. Sure sex is important, but it shouldn't be the main thing you think about or the main thing that drives you. It's odd that the vehicle for this message is a movie consisting in two straight hours of sex gags.

I think my favorite part of the film is the ending sequence. After finally losing his virginity with his new wife, the main character celebrates by singing the Age of Aquarius/Let the Sunshine in medley from Hair, complete with a silly hippy dance montage true to the aesthetic spirit of the original musical. I love the music, and I think the dancing is great too, despite their both being a sort of parody.

Inspired by this, today I checked Youtube for the original musical sequences of Age of Aquarius and Let the Sunshine in from the 1979 movie version of Hair. I have never seen the film or the play in their entirety, though the music is such a cultural phenomenon that I'm familiar with much of it.

As I watched the film clips I was overtaken by a sort of melancholy. Age of Aquarius and Let the Sunshine in were originally part of a daring theater piece protesting the Vietnam War at the very moment it was escalating. Hair was a raw, sincere effort to stop senseless killing in the war. Forty years later the songs are parodied in a silly flick about sex and losing your virginity. Despite my liking the Forty-Year-Old Virgin, this is a sad fate for the music, and I feel like it's an analogy for what happened with the progressive sixties movement. In that decade people were proposing radical changes to improve the world, but many of them seem not to have panned out. Today we are scrambling to fix many problems that people were starting to deal with back then. If only they'd been a bit more diligent in their efforts, maybe we wouldn't now be dealing with things like global warming, economic inequality, and horrid foreign wars.

It seems that in the 1960s a sizeable group of people in the US were really pushing to create a new, better society. They were questioning certain sacred cows that they felt stood in the way of peace and justice. The different progressive groups in that era took aim at Jim Crow, poverty, the Vietnam War, consumerism, patriarchy, industrial pollution, and a number of other ills plaguing the country and the world. Coupled with these noble and just aims, the movement criticized and experimented with a number of other things that we today do not have such a unanimous opinion on. Some people wanted to tear down marriage, monogamy, collective identity, the US government, the middle class, and a number of other institutions that they lumped together with the old, ugly status quo. Experimentation with sexuality and drugs was another challenge people posed to the established order.

What is the legacy of the 1960s? My initial response would be that the movement for real social change didn't accomplish much, and today we're left with merely a caricature of the excesses and silliness of weird clothes, promiscuous sex, and irresponsible drug use. But this isn't a fair assessment. Let's look a bit more objectively at the results of the 1960s progressive movements.

I think progressives effected a number of positive changes in the way our society works. Since the 1960s we are generally more tolerant of each other, more critical of the status quo, more progressive in many personal attitudes. The government enacted legislation like Medicaid, Medicare, the EPA, and federal school support as a part of the progressive agenda. Most strikingly was the destruction of institutional and legal racism in the US.

But it seems that economic issues were given short shrift in the 1960s. After hard fights to change cultural and legal norms, progressives either didn't have the steam or didn't care to address economic injustices. Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were murdered just as they began to pursue economic justice and equality. The Black Panther program of economic revitalization didn't pan out either. Most ironic of all is that the complacent, bourgeois society that hippies so despised in the 1960s was about to be dismantled in the 1970s and 1980s, not by progressive social changes but by industrial decline, corporate greed, and growing inequality in the US. Maybe I'm being too harsh, maybe it's not that people stopped caring about economic injustice, but rather that this was the toughest problem to deal with. Certainly in the 1970s there were a number of movements to address poverty in the US and abroad. But they coincided with a general macroeconomic meltdown in the US, which I am not sure we ever recovered from.

I'm not sure if the fact that the 1960s didn't result in a major political revolution qualifies as a failure. The political changes like the creation of the EPA or Medicare were incremental improvements in the nation, and I don't think incremental improvement is what many leftists were aiming for. But given the messy, crappy outcome of most radical government overthrows (Afghanistan from the 70s to the present, Ethiopia in the 80s, etc.) and the relatively tolerable conditions under our present constitutional democracy, I think it's a win for the rest of us that society wasn't totally upturned and reworked in the 1960s. That said, I have to qualify as a big negative the precedent the 1960s set for disturbing constitutional democracy via general citizen mayhem. Though I agree with the things they were fighting for (voting rights for blacks, an end to Vietnam, etc.), I have to acknowledge that the 1960s counterculture serves as a tactical inspiration to the Tea Party barbarians at the gates in the 21st century US. In 2010 sowing chaos and mistrust and anti-system attitudes doesn't seem so romantic or noble, and certainly not progressive.

Anyway, I guess my main disappointment is that when we think of the 1960s the strongest images that come to mind are the sex, drugs, and rock n roll of the era, as opposed to the sincere striving for societal change. Surely this is due in part to the cynical discrediting of the movement by the conservative establishment and the ultra-corporatist upstart culture that overtook the US in the 1980s, but the 1960s progressive movement itself is also to blame for mixing loopy drug and sex escapades with a serious agenda for social reform.

The Stanford University show Uncommon Knowledge treated the topic of the legacy of the 1960s in a conversation between Christopher Hitchens and William F. Buckley. The host offers a summary that the social agenda of the 1960s counterculture won out, but that the political and economic agenda of the counter-counterculture won out at the same time (Buckley, Goldwater, et al.). This coincides largely with what I'm arguing here, which probably means that it's an overly facile treatment. But if it's true, I think it's a damn shame, because the ills and excesses of the US today seem to derive in equal measure from the moral laxity, lack of restraint, and navel-gazing individualism of the hippie movement, and the hateful, doltish greed and insensitivity of the 1960s far right.

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