The other day I got a call from a student working on a college paper about Coffee ‘n Confusion, a Washington coffeehouse the local police had tried to close down in the late 1950s as an offense against the community’s welfare. I had covered the story as a radio reporter and still had the tape of Texas lawyer Harvey Rosenberg’s magnificent plea for unfettered artistic expression:
“We have been accused of a cultural dearth in the United States. Wherever you go in Europe they talk about the cultural lag. Personally, I must admit that I have very little knowledge of poetry, or the bohemian atmosphere that is found in Coffee n Confusion. But I have been informed by personages who have visited Paris that this is the way that numerous writers and poets who have reached the French scene, and are recognized as outstanding authors and poets, began their struggle in the artistic world.
“There must be some area where people can get together and present their views, whether it be on art, politics, chess or women. We have in the fair city of Washington a number of emporiums dedicated to the latter search. We have in Washington a number of emporiums dedicated to the search for art in the sense of the Mellon Gallery. but we have no place where the poet may congregate and present his work . . .”
In Philadelphia, police official Frank Rizzo didn’t have to face such legal eloquence and managed to close down three or four similar establishments. This success, combined with later convincing the mob to do their murders anywhere but in his district, helped Rizzo eventually to become mayor.
But during a time when history insists nothing was happening in America there were still about 1,000 coffee houses across the country catering to the quietly alienated and gently rebellious with poetry, guitars and bongo drums. It would turn out later that the 1950s had been the sleeper cells of the 1960s.
But why was there so much counter-movement in the 1950s – including coffee houses, cool jazz, the civil rights drive, existentialism, and the beats – and so little today? Why, at a time when the country is more bitterly divided and more overflowing with alienation than at any moment in modern history is so little of the angst expressed in alternative action, culture or community rather than largely in criticism, complaints, protests, depression and despair? Where is the counterculture when we need it?
To be sure, elements can be found on a localized, random, or individual scale. Temporary autonomous zones, in Hakim Bey’s fine phrase, exist across our land – from persistent strains of rebellion of the west coast to smaller and more fragile manifestations such as the Ugly Fishermen, a book club I visited the other night comprised largely of former peace corps volunteers in their 20s and 30s that was stocked with more conviction, consciousness and thoughtful self-examination than I ordinarily encounter in a whole month. There are also punk musicians, alternative agronomists, utopian urbanists, struggling ministers, stubborn social workers and others whose lack of mention here merely supports my point: although they share courage and conceptions, attitudes and ideals, we don’t think of them as one, but only as lonely candles in the dark. And it is easy to forget they are even there.
Some, mainly younger Americans, have told me that a counter-culture is too much to expect. Every promising rebellion in our society these days quickly becomes commodified and corporatized. Certainly the road between Stonewall and Queer Eye has become stunningly short. MTV and record companies have stolen whole age cohorts for their rapacious purposes and Starbucks has even made the word coffeehouse suspect.
This is all true enough, but as one who has spent a lifetime of rebellious non-respectability without even a hint of cooptation on the horizon, there seems to be more to the vacuum of cultural alternatives than just the manipulative mischief of corporate marketers.
For example, part of the problem appears to be an unconscious acceptance of behaviors and ways of thought promulgated by the very forces one wishes to overcome. Big business, big bureaucracy, and big everything else have brought with them a language and routine as well as a faux logic that is semi-autistic in its inability to relate facts, principles and theories to the social ecology in which they exist. We know logically what is wrong and what needs to be done but limit ourselves to the rigid and unresponsive tools and rules of large rigid and unresponsive organizations.
It is what John McKnight noted over a decade ago in describing the difference between institutions and associations:
“The structure of institutions is a design established to create control of people. On the other hand, the structure of associations is the result of people acting through consent. . . You will know that you are in a community if you often hear laughter and singing. You will know you are in an institution, corporation, or bureaucracy if you hear the silence of long halls and reasoned meetings.”
I don’t go to as many activist meetings any more in part because the laughter and singing has largely disappeared. No more standing in a church holding hands and singing 20 choruses of “We Shall Overcome” because the SNCC speaker hasn’t shown up yet. No more interrupting city council meetings with musical parodies celebrating the cause at hand. Instead, an agenda posted on the whiteboard indicates by the minute what is to be accomplished with only six at the end devoted to the cause that brought you there in the first place. And that at a Green Party meeting.
I mentioned this problem to a national figure in the Greens and he explained that the party had become leery of things seen as idiosyncratic, tired of being made fun of for being different and so, for example, hands wiggled in the air as an alternative to applause was on its way out as the Greens tried hard not to act and look too much like Greens.
This started years ago. As far back as the 1970s, activists in Washington were making their organizations appear more like traditional lobbying groups and dressing to match. Gone were the days when Ralph Nader was the only progressive in town who wore a suit and his was never pressed.
Today, the trend has expanded into what might be called corporatized activism, in which the iconic goals are admirably progressive but the means of achieving them virtually indistinguishable from how those being fought would organize themselves.
The virtues of democracy are constantly praised but the responsibilities of the targets of this enthusiasm are largely limited to signing things – letters, petitions and checks – while the practitioners have replaced the rally and the caucus with the self-addressed return envelope. It is not that Move On or Rock the Vote are wrong; it is just that they are merely marketing strategies and not movements.
There is a similar problem with segments of the alternative media. For example, the so-called alternative weeklies are anything but. With sadly few exceptions they foster a compliant corpacool culture in which hipness is defined by one’s purchases; dissent is limited to critiques of style, activism is something you do at the gym, and politics the last refuge of the hopelessly dull.
It is a well kept secret that many of the articles in such publications are not meant so much for the reader as for the clip file for when the authors abandon their alternatives ways in favor of employment by more upscale media.
Neither has the Internet, all its virtues notwithstanding, proved particularly effective at building an effective counterculture save for the part-child part-adult world of toys and trends inhabited by the techno-nerd. I’m just not confident that when the revolution comes it will need a grenade shaped like a Pac Man or a MP3 player stuffed into a Pez container.
As for politics and news, one gets the sense hanging around the Web that many people come there not so much for information as for confirmation. With the natural atomization that such a truly free press produces there also seems to be a strong bias towards the journalistically evangelical. I have long been convinced that we could greatly increase our own readership if we were to drop the facts in favor of polemics. To test this I compared the Alexa rankings of two differing approaches to progressive journalism. On the one hand, there is the ancient Nation which, whatever its faults, offers readers at the end of their visit a strong dose of information to go along with whatever opinion has been given. On the other hand is the Internet creation, Buzzflash, which presents its case with headlines such as these:
“If you wondered what the snake looked like who whispered into Eve’s ear in the Garden of Eden, just go to Tom DeLay’s website and take a look at the man’s photo. Tom ‘Dioxin Brain’ DeLay is Our BuzzFlash GOP Hypocrite of the Week.”
“The Schiavo State Judge is a Conservative Christian and Republican: So His Church Kicked Him Out and He Needs Armed Guards to Protect Him from the ‘Pro-Life’ Death Threats. The Radical Christian Right Are Deranged Thugs. Fits Right in with the Bush Mob.”
It turns out that the daily traffic ranks of the carefully constructed Nation and the off the handle flights of Buzzflash are virtually identical.
This, reflecting our politics generally, represents a triumph of virulent antipathy towards the existing situation over the construction of an alternative worth fighting for, a tsunami of disgust and deconstruction overwhelming the creative, imaginative and hopeful.
I do not say this with any clear conscience. After all, criticism is to the journalist as heroin is to the hood. It’s a lot more fun to write about what’s wrong with the right than to try to get labor and Democrats and Greens and Naderites all working together, or figuring out what the waiting room of utopia should look like, or discovering how to make rebellion a community as well as a cause.
But I also feel the vacuum, the loneliness, the silence, the dehydration of the soul as people who want desperately to save our Constitution, country, and planet still wander the streets without even knowing how to say hi to one another.
Perhaps that’s how it could begin, nothing more complicated than a new peace sign or maybe a sort of high five that salutes the decent and the democratic. Or perhaps a song to which we can all nod in agreement. Or perhaps new special places we can meet in order to – as C.S. Lewis put it – discover that we are not alone.
If we think of our rebellion as only a means of destroying the evil around us we will go down with that evil. We must not only bring an end to the wrong but give birth to the good, the community, the culture and the values that will replace it. We can’t wait for the former to begin the latter. And if we do, we will have failed.