Saturday, February 23, 2008

America now and then

I just read some essays from a collection ("Styles of Radical Will") that Susan Sontag published in 1966.  Throughout, I was struck by the difference that forty years have made.

Sontag's chronicle of a solidarity mission to North Vietnam during the war ("Trip to Hanoi") is as honest an attempt to sort out cross-cultural interactions as I've ever read, avoiding both the temptations of a know-it-all travelogue on the one hand and extreme self-consciousness and self-criticism on the other. But her musings about different modes of thinking, East vs. West, revolutionary societies vs. the United States, comes across as quaint today. 

It is incredible how much more familiar Asia now feels to Americans than when she wrote the essay and how concrete and mundane conflicts in different lands now appear---even if, unusually, those conflicts are in fact rooted in deep political convictions as, I believe, the Vietnam War was. Social science, with its numbers and comparisons, its economics and its models and "failed states", has won out, for now, over the epic, the ideologue.  

Her response to a series of questions from Partisan Review ("What's Happening in America") feels even more revealing period-wise.  Sontag blasts all of us for "the pollution of American space, with gadgetry and cars and TV and box architecture" and concludes that "today's America, with Ronald Reagan the new daddy of California and John Wayne chawing spareribs in the White House, is pretty much the same Yahooland that Mencken was describing." Addressing the Vietnam War, Sontag implies that violence and tackiness extend from our culture to our foreign policy.

She defends the counter-culture.  But she does so as essentially a reaction to the hopelessly corrupt mainstream---mainstream America AND the mainstream of the Old Left ("no need for dismay if the kids don't continue to pay the old dissenter-gods [Freud and Marx] obeisance").

What we want now, in 2008, is, basically, the opposite.

People long for a tradition to be a part of.  I think the popularity of the Obama celebrity music video lies in part in how it ties today's young people to "union organizers" and "abolitionists" and, of course, through its monumental feel, to Dr. King---mighty traditions, mightier than anything people can think of today.  

The same, to a lesser degree, goes for the old-fashioned silkscreen Obama posters you see sometimes, the return of Johnny Cash to center stage near his death, the craze for revolutionary green caps, boot jeans and singers channeling the IWW or Pete Seeger (the Springsteen album before last, for example). Or Wild West TV shows ("Deadwood") and movies ("3:10 to Yuma," "There Will Be Blood," "The Assassination of Jesse James," "No Country for Old Men," etc., etc.")---wild west stuff having long been a playground for progressive narratives.  

Not real populist stuff, most of this---not any more than the folksy symbols in a Ben Harper album's artwork.  

But what people want now is not to trash unthinking squares and jingoists---the targets of Sontag's ire---but to have some sort of affirmation that the Left and progress are rooted in squares, too.


Anonymous said...

I think that this contrast in perspectives and styles is what made Sontag so open to criticism in her later years, even as the criticisms became less and less relevant. She was a wonderfully incisive voice, a radical who maintained her perspective in rocky times, but our times are not hers. To be a radical now means different things and chief among them is the disentanglement of radicalization from the traditional left-right political axis.

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