Thursday, November 23, 2006

What was it all about, man?

I recently saw the first part of the Scorsese documentary on Bob Dylan, No Direction Home, which my sister blog about quite eloquently, here. It helped her rediscover her love for Dylan and the role he played in her life. It was a bit different for me. I was a huge Dylan freak up until I was about 16 (I still know all the songs from his first six albums, although verses 11 and 14 of Desolation Row will elude from time to time), and he will always be a big part of my musical DNA. For me it was more an understanding of how Dylan the chimera (what comes across plainly in the film is how unconnected Dylan felt from Hibbing, MN - probably not hard to do - and how easily he slipped into whatever role served him best) merged with the times he was in. Would Dylan have been as successful in any other period? My guess is not. He claims that he never felt a part of any movement, but when you see him, Pete Seeger, Joan Baez and a whole gospel choir (largely black) do a flat-out soulful version of "Blowin' in the Wind", it is easy to see how the movement embraced him, a mysterious but sincere kid with a genius for a phrase. And the Scorsese doc is extremely good (though painstaking) at capturing what a time that was.

At least in Greenwich Village, the early sixties were this time when things kind of exploded and everything seemed possible. It is popular to rag on the sixties now, the usual complaints being that the hippie movement never translated into a political movement (only partially true, see below) and that the "anything goes" philosophy lead to evils like multiculturalism, rising divorce rates, excessive drug use, lax educational standards, more abortions and homosexuals. The purveyors of these accusations (esp. the last few) are often hard core conservatives who resent the whole idea the Sixties happened (Karl Rove is said to have been motivated by feeling left out of things in the Sixties), but even good liberal types say these things, often while at the same time espousing New Agey type philosophies and lifestyles that come straight out of the Haight @ 1967 (veganism, yoga, crystals, Goddess worship, they were all there).

Someone said that were are perpetually reacting to the Sixties, either good or bad. Yes of course for every Woodstock there was an Altamont (yin-yang, man) but there was a feeling of openness then, of possibilities that we have been retreating from ever since. Disclaimer: I was nine years old in 1968 when hippies first starting appearing in the parks in Portland, OR., my mother (and as a consequence, I) worked for Eugene McCarthy, I was ten when we went to some outdoor rock concerts near Portland, and then I was twelve when American Pie came out and declared the whole thing over. So even as a youngster who was not doing drugs or free love (damn! damn!) the sense of excitement at what could be was obvious.

So it is important to understand what happened then. Certainly, as pointed out above, many of the cultural changes that happened then are a part of mainstream American now, and no amount of regressive thumping by the hard right is going to undo that*. As for raising political consciouness and forming an effective political movement, well first of all, that's a pretty tall demand (how many political sea changes have there been in the US, total? Two? Three? It doesn't happen that often.) It also ignores the fact that there was a little thing called the Civil Rights movement then which did change the political face of the country irrevocably, and for the better (sorry, Trent and Strom). Critics of the Sixties often claim the Civil Rights movement had nothing to do with the white counter culture, but as the Scorsese makes clear, they were clsely linked, esp. in the early days. All those folkies were going down to Mississippi to work for the Freedom Fighters (as did my rather conservative father, surprisingly), and there is a great clip in the film of Dylan singing in Greenwood in front of an all-black crowd.

The other major charge against the Sixities is that it lead to multi-culturalism which as we have heard many times is destroying American education, and single-issue politics, which is gumming up our political system (sort of conflicts with the charge that there were no lasting political consequences, but let's ignore that). While I often have had problems in my academic career with the need for separate treatment of any particular sub-group (e.g. women's studies, black studies, gay studies, disabled studies), the notion that they are ruining academia is absurd. If the scholarly process is followed honestly, it is independent of the particulars of the subject matter. So what if dissertations on Angela Davis might not seem as prima facie worthy as those on Pericles, I am a firm believer that more knowledge is good and good knowledge will drive out bad. Further, the shift of emphasis from the hoary Dead White Men to more marinalized groups was a needed corrective, even though, like most corrections in our unbalanced society, it over-corrected. What is needed is not and over-over-correction (elimination of specialized stuides in favor of more Dead White Men) but a renewed commitment to following the academic process properly and being scurpulous about which contributions are a real contribution and those which are not.

The response to critics of single-issue political entities (e.g. NARAL, Greenpeace) is the same. While there agendae may at times be counter-productive to a more general progressive movement (such as this past election when NARAL endorsed that slimebag Lieberman) they were needed to bring attention to fairly complex and neglected issue to the fore. The main problems with groups like NARAL and the Sierra Club (although to a lesser extent) is that they have been institutionalized and like any institution, their main goal is to preserve their status. So they lost the ability to discern when their particular concerns should take a backseat in the short term to more long-term issues of coalition building.

Well, I've drifted a bit away from Dylan here, but I would encourae everyone to see the movie and tell me if you don't also feel the headiness of the time and a tinge of regret that it was lost.

*There was recently a brief attempt at a "Crunchy conservative movement" by a writer who claimed to be both a vegan-yoga-practicing-laternaitve lifetsyle follower and a hardcore Christian Bush supporter, but that quickly collapsed under the weight of its own absurdity (when your icon is Ned Flanders, you've got problems).

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