by Victor Davis Hanson
One of the great themes of the 1960s was to “do your own thing.” But usually “liberation” distilled down to creating your own rules and norms to justify allowing the appetites and passions to run free, while offering some sort of exalted cover for being either gross or mediocre — or both.
The hip generation that came of age talked about a new, perpetually youthful world that would supplant the values and aspirations of a fading bankrupt establishment (e.g., cf. Bob Dylan’s “the order is rapidly fading”). And in time the promise of the sixties, in fact, did permeate the last half-century, creating a contemporary culture of perpetual adolescence, of defying norms and protocols without offering anything much in their place.
From Lady Gaga to Iranian Nukes
Witness current events. A 22-year-old PFC Bradley Manning, without much experience, knowledge, or maturity, somehow becomes a “military analyst.” (I thought those were 2-star generals, RAND Ph.Ds, decorated colonels, or old Kissingerian National Security Council pros.)
And in our culture without hierarchy and requisites that title apparently allows him — in between downloading Lady Gaga music while in a combat zone in Iraq — to tap into the secret cables of the US State Department, and destroy two decades worth of diplomatic contacts, trust, and friendships.
No matter — you see poor Bradley was also upset, depressed, and he felt underappreciated. In part, that was because his drag-queen boyfriend had recently dumped him. He was, in his own words, “regularly ignored except when I had something essential then it was back to ‘bring me coffee, then sweep the floor.’ … [I] felt like I was an abused work horse.”
Iranian nukes? North Korean missiles? Again, no problem. Bradley, you see, was depressed and in response had the desire and the power to change the global order. (Or in 60s parlance, “who is to say that Bradley doesn’t have the right to shut down the diplomatic world?”) Even Bob Dylan would be impressed with how “the times they are a-changin’.”
Next, enter one Julian Assange — himself on the lam, avoiding a little sexy horseplay that the uptight Swedish authorities for some reason deemed thus far sexual battery and molestation. Jason is also angry at “them,” the Western world that does horrific things like guarantees enough affluence and security for those like Julian to jet about at will without any visible means of support. In the tradition of sixties nihilism, Julian, of course, tries to gussy up his destructive egotistical angst into some sort of cosmic humane call for more transparency and nice behavior on the part of the US State Department and military.
In more earthly terms that means he is supposed to be something more than a two-bit computer punk that he is, one who would be terrified to extend his online liberationist creed to Iranian mullahs, Chinese communists, Hezbollah terrorists, or Russian gang lords. The latter do far more to trample the human spirit than does any Western nation, but they also at times tend to decapitate, blow up, or jail permanently any would-be Julian who dares to cross them.
While this is all going on, we have the spectacle of brave curators at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery offering us for Christmas season a new exhibit , emblematic of this current post-“piss-Christ”/Andres Serrano age of art.
Its title is coyly encrypted in postmodern bipolarity: “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture.” And the exhibition apparently is full of Mapplethorpe-inspired gay-related imagery and offers us an image of Jesus being swarmed over by ants. Clever, brave, bold, shocking. Or in the words of the overseers of the federally-subsidized National Portrait Gallery, such artistic courage proves how the gallery is now “committed to showing how a major theme in American history has been the struggle for justice so that people and groups can claim their full inheritance in America’s promise of equality, inclusion, and social dignity.”
But once more all that verbiage turns out to be just sixties-ish lingo for about the same old, same old:
- Abject cowardice — since if a theme were really religious intolerance, why not portray Mohammed in lieu of Christ, inasmuch as contemporary Islam is far more intolerant of gays and liberated women than the so-called Christian West. Such a video might better exhibit just how “committed” these federal artistic bureaucrats were to “equality, inclusion, and social justice.”
- Mediocrity — dressing up talentless soft-core pornographic expression with federal catch-phrases and subsidies ensures a venue for junk art that most otherwise would neither pay to see nor ever exhibit.
- Politics — all this is supposedly sort of revolutionary, full of neat phrases like “committed,” “struggle for justice,” “full inheritance,” “equality,” “inclusion,” and “social dignity,” and all the empty vocabulary that mostly upscale white nerds like a Bill Ayers employ when they want to tweak and embarrass the gullible liberals who support and pay for their nonsense.
On a more global front, we are seeing the children of the sixties deal with debt, as in adolescents buying things even when their parents say they cannot afford them. Sometimes we euphemistically call the binge spending “Keynesian,” sometimes “stimulus,” sometimes “borrowing.” Then when we cannot do it anymore, we look for a “bailout.” That means if you are California, a parent like the federal government should print some money; if Greece or Portugal, parents intervene like those automaton Germanic tribes up north who cluelessly love to work rather than enjoy cappuccino from 1-3 each afternoon.
The EU, after all, was a utopian sixties-style project to the core — multicultural (we can by fiat make all cultures equal); nonjudgmental (lifestyles in Greece are just “different” not more laid back or, I dare say lazier, than in northern Europe); dishonest (why be tied down by “their” archaic notions of percentages of GDP, when creative bookkeeping is a revolutionary tool to help the helpless?) — and thus bound to fail. What kept such an anti-democratic, anti-free market, anti-sovereign ruling elite so powerful for so long?
A number of things: free, US-subsidized defense that gave them 2-3% of GDP for social spending right off the top; German industry and greed that, in a two-decade shell game, kept making the money to export luxury goods and machine tools to those who bought on credit at cheap interest with no ability to pay anyone back; shared cheap anti-American rhetoric that replaced former unifying commonalities like Christendom and Western civilization; the work of prior generations who rebuilt Europe through thrift and sacrifice after the war and passed on a workable economy and new infrastructure.
Unfortunately, our parents are dead. So who cleans up the messes?
Former Yale Law Dean Harold Koh (author of Can the President Be Torturer in Chief?) now works for Obama and is no longer suing to close Guantanamo, but writing briefs to protect ongoing Predator drone attacks, and shaking a finger at Julian Assange to stop it. Hillary Clinton (“suspension of disbelief”) is angry that Bradley Manning leaked information that her subordinates were told to spy on the UN (My God, the UN, no less!).
Oh, and Barack Obama is “not pleased” either.
©2010 Victor Davis Hanson