From 1970: Say Easy Rider

This is from the first issue of a two-issue, tabloid-format newsprint magazine Stephen Williamson (no, not the economist) and I published as undergraduates in 1970, and which I long thought had been lost forever. Steve, as it turns out, is — fortunately — more of a packrat than I am, and preserved some copies, so I get to republish it 50 years after its first appearance. I’ve corrected a couple of typos, but otherwise left it as it was, including the abhorrence of contractions which I’ve long since overcome, assorted capitalization and punctuation crimes, and a grating insensitivity to 21st century gender pronoun and racial nomenclature norms, which I’ll just have to live with. We all have a past, no?

If the twentieth century had any essential lesson to teach us, it is this: we are finally on our own. Kings have been dead since the French Revolution. Nietzsche broke the news about God a century ago, and to any perceptive observer it is obvious that the state suffers from a terminal cancer. We are running out of history. What has brought us the concentration camp and the H-Bomb no longer has much to offer us.

For anyone born after 1940, independence is the natural attitude; the illusion of authority has evaporated. Our generation feels free to snicker when the thought police masquerade as destiny, an achievement George Orwell clearly believed to be impossible.  Nevertheless, the baggage of the past has not been as easy to dump as we thought. What began as the Aquarian Age has recently come to look more like a kind of simultaneous rerun of all but the most irrelevant episodes in history. The remnants of the student radical movement have restricted themselves to recovering the nineteenth century millennium, as though they somehow had forgotten that Stalin was the result of the first run-through. People in communes wait patiently for technology and international culture to disappear. What a damn shame it would be if someday their descendents had to fight the Sioux-Blackfoot wars over again!

There is certainly a kink somewhere when a generation with as good an understanding as ours has had of the gap between reality and human perception starts producing astrologers, communists, and subsistence farmers. Given what we know, it makes as much sense as Free Enterprise or the Cold War. I suspect the explanation lies somewhere in the difference between the extent of the possibilities we can see and the amount of personal energy required to realize even the most limited of them. We want a lot, and we can have only a little. Our tendency is to make up the difference by magic. We blame our impotence on a “Power Structure” that is already discredited, and play at revolution. We’re more ready to believe in Tarot cards or the Great Spirit than to live with our natural limitations. We have yet to learn that ending repression does not give anyone supernatural powers, or maintain his innocence.

The issue isn’t whether or not other cultures and ideologies reveal wisdoms ours lack, but whether we’ve picked up on them for the sake of wisdom or for an easy way out of our own troubles. There is quite a difference between learning from the Indians to respect the ecological balance and believing yourself to be the reincarnation of Crazy Horse. Like practicing astrology seriously or advocating guerrilla warfare, living in tepees in the twentieth century United States amounts to schizophrenia, and it’s dangerous. The bombs and concentration camps will remain, and we won’t be able to see enough of the world that produces them to discover where they are coming from. Chances are we won’t be able to understand even the simplest of things that happen to us from one day to the next.

There is good evidence that this is going down already. The illusions of youth culture or hip culture or whatever are almost as strongly defended as the illusions we call the American Dream. Everybody is hip to what the cops did in Chicago, and says so. With considerably less provocation the Hell’s Angels did a lot of the same at Altamont, and no no seems to notice the similarity, let alone the analogy it implies between us and Mayor Daley.

When we don’t notice, people get hurt, just like they did when the Haight went under and acid visionaries were replaced by needle freaks; just like they did when the Weathermen decided they had a right to crack heads, or Charles Manson decided he was Attila the Hun.

Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper have noticed and they’ve made a fine film about it. I can’t think of a more convincing image of the unpleasantness that can come from parts of the world a man has chosen to ignore than the end of Easy Rider. A lot of people have put it down for being paranoid, but they are missing the point. Of course it’s paranoid — a paranoid dream from beginning to end. That is its strength.

This film, unlike any other I have seen in a long time, openly prefers the psychological reality of experiences to the realistic description of an objective world in which such experiences presumably take place. Nearly everything which happens in Easy Rider is seen as Billy and Wyatt, the two main characters, would see it, and every character except them and possibly their lawyer is as two-dimensional as their understanding of him. I wouldn’t argue that Fonda and Hopper intended to make the film that way, but I would argue that they showed good sense in leaving it that way once it was edited. It sets up the audience beautifully.

Billy and Wyatt are not aware of what is going on around them outside the limits of their perception. Neither is the audience — the film represents Billy and Wyatt’s perception as reality. For those in the audience who belong to our generation the identification is particularly strong. Like Billy and Wyatt, we know that the world is fucked, and that there isn’t much we can do about it. We are on the same trip. Making a big dope deal, buying a beautiful motorcycle, and heading down the road to Mardi Gras appeals to us. There doesn’t seem to be anything wrong with it.

No one discovers what is wrong with it until Billy and Wyatt do themselves. From the second shotgun blast to the silent end of the film, it breaks in a long wave over both the characters and the audience; the horrible surprise of an intrusion from the world outside the myth both are sharing.

What surprises Billy and Wyatt is that the rednecks really are out to get them. What surprises us is the sudden end to the illusion we are into too deeply to back out of in time. The shock of the last scene isn’t the shock of death, but of its opposite; of waking up. When Billy and Wyatt are murdered our fantasies die with them, and for that moment we are uncomfortably exposed to the reality of the theater around us. Psychologically it is akin to being discovered masturbating. The sadness comes in having to stop too soon, not in having to experience someone else’s death. Our sympathy is for ourselves.

Had that been all there was to Easy Rider, identification with the characters, titillating violence for a minute or two, and then a return to our unexciting lives, it would have compared favorably with Goldfinger or Bullitt, but it wouldn’t have had anything to say. The film is important because Fonda and Hopper enclose within it a comment on both the psychological processes involved in identifying too strongly with a myth, and the dangerous consequences which are in store for one who lives his life inside this myth. The danger is not to be taken literally; it isn’t that the rednecks will shoot us down, although that is one possibility. The danger lies in the destruction of our humanity. Being on our own trip isolates us from one another. When finally no one can recognize the real existence of anyone else, just being alive will be danger enough for all of us.

Fonda and Hopper have left to many clues in Easy Rider for us to miss the point, although none are so obvious that they prevent us from making the emotional identification with Billy and Wyatt that gives the film its power. They are there for us to discover in retrospect. After the film is over it remains to us to separate the myth from the reality; to understand what it is that we’ve felt so deeply.

The first hint of what is really going on in the film is, of course, the title. As Fonda has explained it in interviews, easy rider is Southern slang for a pimp — the only one who doen’t have to pay. Responsibility is the price of freedom, deadness is the price of living in a myth — those are the obvious implications.

Again, it is hard to escape the fact that the road Billy and Wyatt are traveling doesn’t lead where they think it does. Instead of ending in Mardi Gras, it ends in death. A night in jail and the murder of their friend the lawyer were warning enough. There were alternate routes, such as that of the rancher who loaned them his tools and fed them. They were even given outright invitations to try another one. As wrapped up in themselves as they were, they were welcome at the commune, and obviously, to at least the whores in New Orleans, they were attractive. What kept them on the move was not really a quest for freedom — possibly just the opposite.

There are reviewers who have pointed out what appears to be another inconsistency. Although it is Billy and Wyatt who introduce him to pot and give him lectures on the evils of society, the lawyer seems a much more well-rounded character than either of them. Whether or not this was the result of better acting on the part of the man who portrayed him, as reviewers have suggested, is not what is important. His presence in the film serves two purposes. First of all, it shows that Billy and Wyatt’s analysis of society is essentially correct. Society is stultifying, and any man who prizes his self-respect would like to break out of it. Hippies don’t bother the lawyer; he recognizes that they have some good ideas. But he does serve also as a kind of contrast to Billy and Wyatt. He is much more firmly rooted in the world than either of them. He feels no need to style himself “Captain America,” but, as the flying saucer tales shows, he is more creative and alive than the two characters for whom freedom is supposedly a specialty.

There are other indications that Billy and Wyatt have a harder time relating to themselves and others than should be true of free men. Wyatt is rebuffed twice by the leader of the commune — once when they are smoking in the abandoned adobe, and later in the commune when he is trying to ball one of the women. It could happen to anyone, but Wyatt doesn’t understand that. He freaks, just as both of them freak later on acid in the graveyard. Despite the jumbled cutting in the graveyard scene, there is solid evidence that both characters have their share of personal demons.

The key to all these indications that Billy and Wyatt are not what they imagine themselves to be lies in the character of the more introspective of the two, Billy. Wyatt is a kind of Sancho Panza — a man interested only in what he can get. Billy is a little more cautious, a little more aware, and consequently a little more stylized, especially as Fonda plays him. His “we blew it” and the image of the burning bike that intrudes on his thoughts provide the context for not only his withdrawn personality but for all the rest of what happens in Easy Rider as well. He begins bit by bit to become aware of what is wrong, but the film ends before he really gets to the heart of it. The rest of the task in dumped in the lap of the audience, where, in fact, it has lain all along.

For those of us who went to this film just to get stoked up on our own innocence and the evil of rednecks and other oppressors, there are a couple of other scenes that remain to be considered. Neither are acted in the usual sense of the word. The first is hardly more than a couple of seconds long, and appears to have been shot in the streets of New Orleans without any prior planning.

Billy is careening down the street during Mardi Gras with an open bottle in his hand, which, in the spirit of things, he offers to a passing black. The look on that man’s face and his gesture of refusal are enough by themselves to sum up the whole peculiar history of the South. His is the classic double-bind. A drunken white has offered him a drink, a drink which other whites might beat him or worse for accepting. Yet, when he turns it down, he must also keep smiling. Otherwise his refusal might be interpreted as an insult to white generosity, also a dangerous offense. Billy doesn’t understand the black’s behavior and blunders on down the street. He is too busy with his own problems.

The other scene takes place in a southern cafe. All those rednecks trading jokes about how people in their county customarily handle “Yankee queers” were real live rednecks, not actors. They were showing off, of course. The movie people indulged them in a little play-acting, and they enjoyed themselves at it, that’s all. Still, there was no script. Just where in hell did they get that long list of epithets and tortures they were tossing back and forth, I wonder.

At that point in the film everyone should wonder. The boundaries between acting and reality are not clearly drawn in Easy Rider, but neither are they in the world of experience. From the black man’s point of view, there must not seem to have been much difference between the man whose dream prevented him from noticing another’s pain, and one whose dream is to inflict pain. One of the corollaries to the central point made in Easy Rider is that the two dreams lie very close together, and the transition between them is as hard to spot as it is frequent.

If that seems hard to believe, get a copy of the January 21st Rolling Stone and look at the picture of Mick Jagger at Altamont. There he stands, with his high-heeled boots, and his knuckles in his mouth, watching four or five Angels butcher a man on the stage ten feet away. It must have been one hell of a rude awakening for the author of Street FIghting Man, and for the other 300,000 people who were watching, too, for that matter.

It is the same kind of awakening that is previewed for us in Easy Rider, one which awaits every one of us, who, considering ourselves beyond the errors of past times, refuse to pay attention to anything but our own dreams. In the twentieth century, we are all being forced to live outside the law. If there is one thing for us to remember, it is this: to live outside the law, you must be honest. (Anybody can say that.)

Playing the Piety Card Yet Again

So…a secular attack on religion is what’s wrong with us. This from Donald Trump’s latest bagman/consigliere, William Barr. I’d love to be able to say with a straight face that God is not mocked, but I’m well aware that every time one of these pious hypocrites’ bosses gets caught with his hand in the cookie jar, we’re in for another torrent of God-mockery. It might be a Billy Graham wannabe calling the Almighty’s wrath down on us liberal perverts at a congressional prayer breakfast, or a cameo appearance on Fox News by a semi-professional Jesuit sophist like William Bennett, or maybe a diatribe on Twitter from some finger-wagging moral majoritarian of unknown provenance, one of the legion who once flogged their handicraft spiritual wares on Sunday morning local TV, but now all seem to work for Koch Industries or the National Rifle Association. The sad truth is, we’ve seen it all before, and we’ll doubtless see it all again. (I wonder, did Barr take off his American flag lapel pin for this speech in order to avoid being accused of secular idolatry, or did the White House dry cleaning service just forget to reattach it?)

Punishments To Fit the Crime

Donald Trump: Strip him of his iPhone, his Secret Service protection and all his assets. Dress him in overalls and a court-mandated ankle bracelet. Give him a bible, a bullhorn, and a family-size bottle of Oxycontin. Order him to remain within the city limits of Bluefield, West Virginia for the rest of his life.

John Bolton: Equip him with an M4, a Ka-Bar, a pair of camouflage cargo pants, and a Rambo wig. Parachute him at midnight into the outskirts of Teheran or Aleppo or Pyongyang.

Betsy DeVos: Require that henceforth everyone who performs a service for her, from plumbing to asset management to sex, be educated exclusively at the University of Phoenix.

Stephen Miller: Confiscate his passport and deny him access to currency or credit of any kind. Require him to choose between being chased barefoot across rural Mississippi for the next 20 years by mounted prison guards and bloodhounds or speaking only Spanish for the rest of his life. Depending on which he chooses, make sure he wakes up outside the Parchman Farm perimeter fence, or in the center of Tegucigalpa.

Mitch McConnell: Confiscate his principal residence in Kentucky under federal asset forfeiture laws. Provide him with a new principal residence in the Fillmore District of San Francisco. Require him henceforth to run for the Senate from California.

Dick Cheney: Waterboarding, I think. No less than 183 times. Then, if he survives, Guantanamo for, oh, I don’t know how long. Until the last of the other detainees is released, maybe. Let me think about it.

Sean Hannity: Arrange (through the customary diplomatic channels) a papal order of excommunication. Deliver him, bound and gagged, to the leadership of Opus Dei. Invite them, as true servants of the Living God, and of Holy Mother Church, to perform the first auto da fé in almost 200 years.

If We Can Somehow Bring Ourselves To Take the Long View, We Probably Should….

Revised from a recent comment of mine on this Crooked Timber thread:

A sort of Marxist point about our present distempers: the conditions of existence have changed, probably irrevocably, for the Scots-Irish coal miners of West Virginia, the libertarian ranchers of the West, and the industrial workers of Ohio and Pennsylvania, and they’re not happy about it. Should Tim Cook, Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos, or Elon Musk feel any more sympathy for them than their own ancestors felt for Chief Joseph, Sitting Bull, or Geronimo? A similar observation could be made about our lack of sympathy for the Taliban and the Salafists.

One difference is striking, though, about our current last-ditch defenders of traditions outmaneuvered by modernity. They’re more widely distributed, and they’re also much better armed. The consolations of Whatever happens — we have got — the Maxim gun — and they have not have succumbed in their own fashion to a modernity not even the Moderns themselves seem to understand. Not yet, anyway.

Marx thought that once the conditions of existence had changed sufficiently, the past would be, or could be, swept away by revolutionaries with their eyes on the future. Seen up close, from the vantage point of an individual life, the process is far uglier, no matter what subsequent theoretical revisions from the foundries of Marxist ideology, or cheerleading from neoliberal think tanks promise us. Somewhere between Faulkner’s The past isn’t dead, it isn’t even past, and Gibson’s The future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed, there’s a place to stand that won’t offend either our conscience or our common sense. Maybe. One hopes. YMMV.

From 2008: A House Divided

This was written at the invitation of the founder of a Web site which unfortunately never saw the light of day. Waste not, want not, right?

 

A House Divided: Can Independent Thinking Flourish in the No-man’s Land of the American Culture Wars?

When I was asked recently if I thought that our increasingly vicious culture wars were stifling independent thinking in the United States, my answer was an immediate and unqualified no. Now that I’ve had time to consider the question a little more thoroughly, my answer is still no, but I no longer believe in dismissing out of hand the concerns which originally prompted it.

The truth is that human beings, those at any rate with the spirit and the leisure to work at puzzles or dream dreams, are always going to think what they think, regardless of whose agents are looking over their shoulders, or what orthodoxy of the moment is threatening to vilify or imprison them. The real question is whether or not all this thinking can have any lasting effect, beneficial or otherwise, on the civilization which spawns it.

Despite the several centuries which have passed since the first impact of the Enlightenment on our epistemology, this is still an open question. For all the recent furor which they’ve created in the United States, the culture wars declared by the right have in fact been an epiphenomenon, an engineered distraction acting not so much to prevent independent thinking per se, as to prevent that thinking from entering our political discourse, or finding expression in the policy decisions of our government. In that, of course, the right has until very recently been remarkably successful. Its success, however, has come at a price.

That price is blindness. The enemy of conventional wisdom and the status quo, and of its die-hard defenders, has never been the free-thinker, but reality itself. You can imprison the advocates of inconvenient discoveries, but you can’t imprison events. When the Spanish Inquisition institutionalized the search for heretics, and industrialized the lighting of autos da fé all over the country, smart people found a home in Holland, or England, or in the New World, and Spain entered a long decline which persisted, in one form or another, until the death of Franco. More recently, the fan dancers of unfettered capitalism have held not just the usual rubes in thrall, but our policy makers and soi-disant intellectual elites as well. Then, quite unexpectedly for them, reality turned up the house lights and set fire to the fans. Suddenly, we’re once again talking publicly about the responsibility of governments to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common Defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.

Even if you accept, as I do, that politics broadly defined is the only effective instrument for mediating which ideas will become the currency of the realm, and which will be relegated to bric-a-brac in the museums of memory, it’s clear enough that no matter the necessities of human nature which force us to rely on politics for this mediation, there can be no blunter instrument for the purpose, nor any which affords us less comfort in the wielding.

Tyrannies are real enough, after all, and so are the ideologies which give rise to them. Even if you have confidence that they can in the end be overcome, the millions slaughtered and enslaved by them in the 20th century, beginning more than a hundred years after the Declaration of the Rights of Man, must give an honest person at least some pause to question that confidence. George Orwell understood this, and in 1984 presented us not only with a haunting butcher’s bill for the previous half-century’s devotion to armed isms, but also a warning that by adhering to them, we were flirting with an end to history, and not a happy end at that.

I found 1984 profoundly disturbing, but I remain an optimist nevertheless. Orwell was prescient in many ways, but in the end, his inner Jeremiah outmaneuvered his sense of history. No boot, however determined, however well-funded, can stamp on the human face forever. Other boots may in time come along, but they will always have to take their turn, and then, inevitably, pass into oblivion. There is such a thing as the dialectic, after all, even if, after all these years, its nature is still to a great extent a matter of debate.

That debate has interested me ever since I first discovered it as a young man. Even when I was still a child, the dynamics of my family were such that I quickly developed grave doubts about the sufficiency, if not the necessity, of a rational approach to problems, as well as a perpetually nagging curiosity about why what I was told, both by my elders and my peers, was so frequently at variance with my own experience.

Perhaps that is actually why, more than forty years ago, I went to hear a public lecture by Herbert Marcuse on the campus of UC Berkeley. At the time, it was the hottest ticket in town. Ronald Reagan had already accused Marcuse of trying to make communism safe for undergraduates — in the catechism of the right wing, the moral equivalent of dispensing poisoned candy to children — so of course the lecture amphitheater was packed, and not just with those who’d read his books, but also with the rebellious, the curious; all those passionate advocates of generational solidarity who were already fashioning the Sixties into either a revolutionary epoch or a silly season, depending on how you judged the culture wars which were already underway.

I don’t know what any of us expected, but what we got was an elf — a slight, decidedly unheroic looking man talking to several early arrivals in the pit below the stage. Already nearly seventy, he didn’t look it, except for the almost white hair cropped close over his ears. Very professorial, very European, I thought, yet as informal in dress and manner as his audience. Once the last of the late arrivals had arranged themselves around the edges of the room, and the sponsors had managed, with a flurry of hand waving and restrained begging, to quiet the crowd and make their introductions, the old man skipped up the steps to the stage, walked over to the rickety podium, and started to speak.

Most of what he said that evening I no longer remember. I was, in any case, already familiar with much of it from reading Eros and Civilization, and One-Dimensional Man. What I do remember, though, what has in fact stuck in my mind from then until now, was his opening line:

As I often seem to be doing these days, I shall begin with Hegel…and I shall end with…love.

Like Professor Marcuse, I also began with Hegel, and like the good professor, I very much doubt I’ll end up in the promised land. No one should assume, however, that I don’t believe it exists, or that, somehow or other, love will prove the key to getting there. I know very well that independent thinking, and thinkers, aren’t immortal, but they are eternal. All you have to do, if you want confirmation of that seemingly bold assertion, is to stop for a moment and walk away from the megaphones.

Discomforting the South

From Ta-Nehisi Coates, this eloquent re-statement of fundamental American principles still being trampled on by a legion of racist Dixie apologists. It should be read aloud from every pulpit in the nation. Re-light Frederick Douglass’s torch — here’s someone more than worthy to carry it forward.

History is identity. When we erase the painful portions, we lose texture, color and we are reduced. Patriotism, in my eyes, has always been about the strength of seeing those rough spots, of considering your home at its worse, and remaining enthralled, nonetheless. That is how we love our daughters, our husbands, our mothers. That is how we make family.

I have come to a fairly recent regard for Lincoln. He rose from utter frontier poverty, through self-education and hard work, to the presidency and the upper reaches of American letters. His path was harsh. His wife was mentally ill. His son died in office. He was derided in newspapers as ugly, stupid, a gorilla and white trash. For his patience, endurance, temperance and industry in the face of so many troubles, Lincoln was awarded a shot to the head.

Now in some sectors of the country for which Lincoln died, patriotism means waving the flag of his murderer. The party he founded supports this odious flag-waving and now gives us a candidate who would stand before that same flag and peddle comfortable fictions. What hope is there when those who talk of patriotism brandish the talisman of bloody treason?

The matter falls to you. Don’t [be] conned. Don’t be a mark. Live uncomfortable.

Amen, brother Coates.

Eminently Good Sense

Listening to Noam Chomsky for the first time can be a little like discovering a new species of orchid sprouting in a Wal*Mart parking lot. We think we know where we are — everything looks and sounds the way it’s always looked and sounded — and then, suddenly, familiar perspectives seem to shift. It’s not that Chomsky’s take on things is entirely without precedent, but it’s a genuine shock to encounter anything like it in the familiar American here and now. If you’ve ever thought about looking for an antidote to all those hours of mindless pontification from Washington Week in Review, or Charlie Rose, this Noam Chomsky interview isn’t a bad place to begin:

The Republican Alternatives

Bachmann: Why can’t somebody as ignorant as me make a good President? Think about it.

Perry: I’ve always liked tearing the wings off flies, and setting fire to cats. I’m exactly what America needs right now.

Romney: I only used to be somebody. Now I’m just like you, so it’s okay to go ahead and vote for me. Honest.

Paul: I don’t like black people, or women, or abstractions. I also don’t like war.

I could go on and on, but why bother? Fox News will take care of it.