Monday, November 29, 2004

the new temperance

This passage from The New Temperance: The American Obsession with Sin and Vice, by David Wagner, quoted in a MAPS (Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies) email today, reminds me of the way certain reactionary elements on PYNCHON-L critique Vineland, demonizing the novel's portrayal of '60s counter-culture from the same Reagan Administration perspective that the novel undermines so thoroughly:
Demonizing the 1960s

It is not coincidental that advocates of the New Temperance have so strongly attacked behavior that they claim was at the heart of the "excesses" of the 1960s. The war on drugs and on many forms of sexuality has been fought as much for its symbolic value (i.e., as part of a strategy of eradicating the mythologized "60s") as for any of its more manifest purposes. Writing late in his life, Richard Nixon forcefully pointed us back to Woodstock as a symbolic reason for continuing the war on drugs: "Even today, when most of the prestige media have managed to crowd onto the anti-drug bandwagon, they could not help indulging in a revolting orgy of nostalgia during the twentieth anniversary of Woodstock. The smarmy retrospectives glossed over the fact that Woodstock's only significant legacy was the glorification of dangerous illegal drugs.... To erase the grim legacy of Woodstock, we need a total war against drugs."

Similarly, former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was fond of attacking the sexual doctrines of the 1960s, holding promiscuity and free love responsible for the AIDS epidemic and the widespread child sexual abuse reported during the 1980s: "We are reaping what was sown in the 1960s. The fashionable theories and permissiveness claptrap set the scene for a society in which the old virtues of discipline and self-restraint were denigrated."

The historical events of the "60s" (in actuality including much of the 1970s) have been repainted in dangerous and frightening hues. Consider this vitriolic comment by conservative historian Joseph Conlin regarding the "60s" lifestyle: " [L]ife in the New Age communes of the 1960s and 1970s . . . [was like living in] 'garbage dumps' and 'hells': children smeared in their own filth for days, hysterical under the LSD given to
pacify them.... [V]enereal infection, pneumonia, influenza, and the unprimitive affliction of hepatitis reached disastrous proportions."

For many people alive at the time of the 1960s counterculture, this sinister and bizarre reconfiguration of history has a clear agenda of vilification. Of course, not everything that occurred in this (or any other) time period was positive or worth repeating. But the presence of a few dirty and sick children on a commune somewhere by no means sums up the reality of this period, any more than conservatives of the time were correct in summing up the French Revolution as primarily about terrorism
and guillotine practice. The popular movie Forest Gump similarly portrays 1960s "long-hair radicals" as violent and misogynist, and the movie hero must save his girlfriend from their abuse. Perhaps there were a few more people of this sort than I was ever aware of in the late 1960s, but it is still absurd to portray "60s"-style radicalism in this way. If anything, the image of the peaceful hippie flashing a peace sign would be closer to the mood of the times. In short, the retrospective portrayal of the "60s" has little to do with veracity. Rather, it is an attempt to take the essence of the social and cultural revolution of the 1960s and convert it to one primarily of sin and vice.

[...] I make no claim of originality in drawing a connection between the mandatory drug testing of the current period and the McCarthyism of the 1950s. As early as 1986 a leader of the Civil Liberties Union called drug testing a "form of social McCarthyism aimed at getting rid of people who won't buy the line. It's a step away from an authoritarian society." In addition, writer Ellen Willis has observed a link between the drug test and the loyalty oath: "The purpose of this '80s version of the loyalty oath is less to deter drug use than to make people undergo a humiliating ritual of subordination: 'When I say pee, you pee."'

[...] The urine test - along with mandatory sentencing and other severe behavioral controls central to the drug war is a power strategy that mirrors the "personal is political" radicalism of the 1960s. It takes seriously the proposition that those who resist the dictates of power, whether or not such resistance is framed as "political" in the conventional sense, are enemies and are undermining production, public order, and rationality. Like the loyalty oath and the "naming of names," the policing of everyday lifewhich in schools, for example, focuses on behaviors such as smoking, speech, and sexuality requires Americans, from an early age on, to comply with the norms of the powerful without asking questions, and to accept the right of the state and corporate power to hold their bodies captive. Ultimately, it is not important whether drug testing finds traces of a drug in a student's urine or if locker searches turn up cigarettes or guns or pornographic literature. Rather, it is the policing itself that makes the point about who is in control.

Another key point about the role of the New Temperance in symbolically eradicating the "60s" is its constant use against members of the baby boom generation, particularly those who might be charged with having some relationship to the social movements of that period. It is not coincidental that Democratic Party politicians from Gary Hart to Bill Clinton have come under relentless questioning about their sexuality, prior drug use, and past participation in political demonstrations (although some Republicans such as former Supreme Court justice nominee Arthur Ginsburg have been caught in the net as well). Reminiscent of McCarthyism's "Are you now or have you ever been a Communist?" questions, political leaders (and many potential civic, corporate, and bureaucratic leaders) are now asked "Are you now or have you ever been a '60s'-style person?" That is, did you use drugs, engage in nonmarital sex, attend anti-war rallies, or burn a flag?

As in the ritualized hearings of the 1950s, most members of the 1960s generation either admit guilt and purge themselves of sin or minimize their past guilt ("I didn't inhale") and promise future clean living. To some extent, liberals and former leftists have been forced, far more than conservatives and moderate politicians born before the baby boom, to actively repudiate the 1960s. And like many liberals in the late 1940s and 1950s who dissociated themselves from communism, they have, for the most part, happily obliged. Some sociologists studying the drug war, for example, have observed that, in the election campaigns of 1986 and 1988, liberal Democrats hammered home the attack on drugs far more than Republicans did, and charged government leaders with being "soft on drugs."

The reason that Bill and Hillary Clinton, Gary Hart, George McGovern, Tom Hayden and Jane Fonda, and other leaders or public figures must constantly answer McCarthyite questions about the 1960s, and reveal their views on issues like drugs and sex, is that their opinions on these issues and their distance from the tradition of the 1960s are considered a measure of their respectability and readiness to accept political, corporate, and civic leadership. Conversely, there is little reason to question the Bob Doles and Dan Quayles whose loyalty to dominant norms has never been in doubt. But among those who have had any association with the dreaded "60s," only a repudiation of both the politics and the culture of the times is deemed acceptable by the media and political elites as a measure of their potential to serve as responsible leaders.

Novelist Sol Yurick captures the sense of this constant need to repress the 1960s: "[T]he 60s, like some compulsive recurrent nightmare[,] still persists in the consciousness of the ruling elites. They must exorcise and reexorcise it, demand acts of contrition, to ask of its adherents that they confess that they were possessed by the devil.... We are asked to admit, once and for all, . . . [that we] were wrong, to make
penance and obeisance, to hypostatize those sins into those devils now on trial."

Vineland, p. 313:
"Just please go careful, Zoyd. 'Cause soon they're gonna be coming after everything, not just drugs, but beer, cigarettes, sugar, salt, fat, you name it, anything that could remotely please any of your senses, because they need to control all that. And they will."