On Punk Rock as a Conservative Political Force

One of my resolutions this year is to make this blog less “political” in nature, so you can expect me to write more about the two other things that interest me a lot: music and professional sports.

I consider myself a life-long fan of rock music — especially the rock music that extends from the punk rock tradition (most of the music that came to be known in the 1980s as “Alternative).  So, musically speaking, if I don’t consider myself a punk, I certainly consider myself a descendant of them.  It’s hard to be a punk now anyway: so much of the music that gets called punk today is over-produced pop candy for the Hot Topic set of adolescents (which is to say that it distances itself from the historical aesthetic and ethical commitments of punk music).

Recently, a few people who know me have mentioned that my politics and my musical tastes don’t really square: how can an adherent of conservative political philosophy have such a reverence for the tradition of punk and alternative rock?  Or course, there have been a number of “conservative” punks (most notably Johnny Ramone), but I think there is a stronger argument to defend myself against these implicit charges of political (or musical) heresy (depending on which side you’re coming from).  So many people believe that a) punk rock is a political force, and b) that its political commitments neatly parallel those of the Democratic left.  I argue that while the former is certainly true, the latter is false: there is a strong case to be made for the conservative spirit of punk rock.

First, since its inception, punk has been more invested in creating a tradition than perhaps any other new sub-genre of music.  From the clothing to the instrumentation to the production to the song structure to the attitude to the marketing practices, the punk community has worked to uphold a tradition of how punk music should sound, how it should be produced, how (and where) it should be performed, and how it should be disseminated.  This reverence for tradition is certainly a hallmark of conservative politics, and although the political left certainly has its traditions, it nevertheless pushes its critique of the value of tradition ever further.

In the punk community, these traditions are enforced through a logic of authenticity: if you don’t make THIS type of music in THIS particular way, well, then you just aren’t REALLY punk.  Casualties of this authenticity game are bands like Blink-182 and Green Day, who deviate from these historical norms in certain ways.  I will be the first to admit that this authenticity game can be over-simplistic, exclusive, and damaging for the health of a community, but aren’t these some of the very criticisms that the left throws at conservative thinking?  Further, I will also be the first to say that this authenticity game does some important and legitimate work in maintaining the historical narrative of punk music: I don’t think Blink-182 should be mentioned in the same breath as Husker Du or Minor Threat, and I think it is a good thing that there is a critical mechanism in place to ensure that they aren’t: after all, Blink-182 really isn’t punk.

Another way that the punk tradition parallels conservative politics is in its vision of individual agency and freedom.  Punk music demands that YOU write the songs, YOU play the instruments, YOU do the singing, YOU do the recording, etc.  In other words, it valorizes hard work and the individual (rather than collective) pursuit of personal goals and aspirations.  Punk music has little patience for compromise or the intervention of “well-meaning” institutional interests — it is for that reason that the punk doctrine insists that YOU do all the work: to ensure that those compromising interests stay out.  This do-it-yourself ethos stands in stark contrast to the collectivist impulses that saturate left liberal American politics.

Punk also has a healthy suspicion of rapid innovation or change that is also latent within the American conservative tradition.  This was the reason for the rejection of New Wave in some parts of the 1980s punk community: what place does synthesized sound have in rock music?  Using a sampler is just a way of dehumanizing (and thus de-personalizing) art.

The punk insistence on independent marketing and production of music is often viewed as a rejection of rapacious market capitalism, but it can just as well be read as an endorsement of private property.  In claiming a right to decide how their work will be promoted, where is will be sold (and for how much), punk musicians implicitly claim a personal ownership of their product.  This claim flies in the face of modernist claims that art is irrevocably separated from the “author,” and challenges the leftist assertion that art should ideally be a communal experience.

All of the arguments presented above are value-based or ethical arguments, but there is also more tangible historical evidence, such as most second-wave American punk bands’ explicit rejection of the politics of the New Left and the hippies of the 1960s.  This rejection was usually undergirded by a critique of the left’s suppression of individual agency, its ambivalent views regarding the value of hard work, its unwarranted idealism, its beatification of peace at all costs, and its general intellectual laziness as embodied by the slogan “Turn on, tune in, drop out.”

All of that said, in the true tradition of punk, there isn’t really any need to defend one’s politics: why should one move with the herd?


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On Crony Capitalism: Its Origins and the Perils of a Hybrid Economy

Perhaps more so than at any other time in the past sixty years, the American left is predominantly anti-capitalist.  The most recent example of this is Occupy Wall Street, an ideologically incoherent movement, but one that more or less shouts its vote of no confidence for free markets.  I don’t disagree with the idea that there are people who abuse the capitalist system: rigging deals, engaging in insider trading, ensuring disproportionate bonuses for executives.  The question is “Why does that happen?”

The answer on the left is that there is something about capitalism itself that encourages this sort of behavior, and it is here that I strongly disagree.  If the alternative to this economic order is socialism or communism (or some “softer” diluted version of capitalism that looks more like these), we have to ask ourselves: Is there any historically-based reason to believe that these arrangements are less prone to abuse and manipulation?  I think the answer is no.  Rather than cite the many actual historical examples, I will recount a scene from Orwell’s 1984 that struck me as a young teenager (some of the details are probably off now).  After his capture and detention in the crypto-communist dystopia of Airstrip One, Winston is finally given an audience with a party insider (a character I think was named O’Brien).  During their discussion, Winston marvels at the quality of the wine and tobacco that O’Brien shares with him throughout the interview: out in the world no one has such luxuries.  Socialism and Communism both create their “1%,” they just choose different people and can’t bring themselves to admit that it exists.  Worse still, their “99%” is generally about 99% worse off than our 99%.

I am not saying that socialism or communism are more prone to abuse and disparity than capitalism: I am trying to get to the idea that the drive for material self-gain (by whatever means) is unfortunately an inherent one in the human character.  But there is one other reason for crony capitalism, and that is our government’s rejection of the free market model.  The proper operation of capitalism depends on non-intervention; in other words, the market is not supposed to have a “will.” Surely, capitalism produces winners and losers, but the economic structure itself doesn’t choose who they will be: individuals win or lose based on individual choices, ideas, and risks.

As an extension of our democratic insistence upon equality, we have lost our ability to accept the existence of the loser: everyone, the story goes, should “share in the prosperity.”  And everyone does, albeit to different degrees.  Thus, at the governmental level, we have pursued policies that provide a check on the forces of the free market.  We have sought to insulate individuals from the consequences of their choices and penalize other individuals for being beneficiaries of certain accidents of birth.  Put differently, we have introduced a “will” into the free market: the market no longer produces winners and losers, the people who control it choose them.  The outcome of this fence-sitting (should we choose the free market?  or the socialist model?), this hybrid economy, is that those entering the “free” market are less willing to take risks because they (rightly) perceive that in some way, the game is rigged.  Thus (wrongly), they sometimes seek illegal means to mitigate or insure against their potential losses.  I guess I’m saying that capitalism might be more ethical if we would trust it, stop trying to make it work like something it is not, and stop believing that the primary virtue of an economic order is its ability to bring about some abstract “social justice” and/or equality of outcome.  To set those goals as the ends of economic interaction is to ignore human nature and to negate so much of the individual drive to innovate, invent, produce, strive, win, prosper, and give.  Two cheers for capitalism.

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Suburban Hatred

Why do we hate the suburbs?  I guess using the word “we” might be a bit misleading.  A less opaque question might be “Why does the mass media hate the suburbs?”  I ask the first rather than the second because I assume that in some distorted and perverse way, the mass media simply reflects back to us twisted up versions of our collective hates, fears, loves, worries, passions, and appetites.

When I suggest that the mass media hates the suburbs, I cite as evidence mainly the television shows that depict suburban life on the four major television networks.  Shows like “Suburgatory,” “Desperate Housewives,” “The Secret Life of the American Teenager,” and others are all obsessed with showing that just beneath the happy veneer of the American suburbs lies a malevolent spiritual abyss — dysfunction reigns, deceit is the norm, despair is irrevocable, hypocrisy is rewarded, and the sum of all these things leaves suburban people to quiet lives of seething self-hatred and helplessness.  But why?

Disclaimer: I assume that the ideological investments of the creators and producers of these programs lies solidly on the left side of the political spectrum.  And it is for that reason that the disdain for the suburbs seems (at first) like a paradox.  After all, the left is steadfast in its celebration of the “people,” by which I think most leftists mean “everyday, normal individuals like you could meet anyplace.”  That’s who lives in the suburbs, right?  The people who are neither exceptionally poor nor exceptionally rich? Yes and no.

Historically speaking, the “people” that were celebrated by the left were the poor, the disenfranchised.  This wasn’t because of some irrational love of the underdog — it was because the poor WERE the everyday people.  In other words, in the (19th century European) societies that gave birth to the political philosophies of the 21st century left, poverty WAS the norm.  And this was important, because it genuinely indicated the fundamental injustices of those societies.

However, America did something that those societies had been (to that point) unable to accomplish: it produced an extremely vast, stable middle class.  In America, the “everyday person” ceased to be poor factory worker struggling to feed his children and became someone much different.  The American norm was someone who owned a modest home, an automobile, took an occasional non-exotic vacation, someone who could afford relatively simply luxuries (a television, a telephone, a set of golf clubs).  And this new everyday person did not feel “victimized” by a fundamentally unjust social order; on the contrary, he endorsed it — he had embraced its values and reaped the rewards of that choice.

And this is why the suburbs are held up as an object of disdain: it does not reflect a true American hatred, but rather reflects the resentment of the left that the “everyday person” has become “everyday” in the wrong way.  The vastness of the American middle class not only reflects that capitalism isn’t the hideous beast that its enemies need for it to be, but also that most Americans don’t have a need or a desire for the controlled, regimented, risk and reward-free society that the left wishes to impose.  It is not the suburban life that is the object of their hatred, but the efficiency, happiness, and satisfaction of suburban people that is intolerable.  And thus, we are told again and again that this happiness is merely an illusion, that it is fundamentally (and worse, secretly and self-knowingly) corrupt, vapid, and unjustified.  Put differently, the old leftist myth re-invents itself — the everyday people need our intervention more now than ever, if only because they believe they don’t need our help.  There.  I’m going to go mow my lawn.

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Fight the Occupation

What follows are brief and unorganized thoughts on the “Occupy” protests that have been popping up over the last month.  One interesting and more or less unreported fact: the original Occupy Wall Street demonstration was about to fold a few weeks ago because of its small numbers and lack of media coverage.  THEN a rumor sprung up that Radiohead was going to play a concert at the protest on a Friday.  Predictably, the numbers immediately swelled into the thousands that day.  When it turned out that Radiohead wasn’t going to play, the kids got angry, resulting in the first of many arrests.  That shocking and immediate growth in the number of demonstrators was reported by the media as if it was an organic, unexplainable event, which gave legitimacy to the protest at large.  Closer to the truth is that a lot of people between 20 and 30 years old like the band Radiohead — so, Radiohead more or less single-handedly saved Occupy Wall Street (without even showing up!). 

The first real point I want to make about the Occupy protests is that they have explicitly adopted a martial rhetoric to describe themselves.  There is no question that the word “occupy” used in this context is taken from its use in wartime.  And as you may or may not have gleaned from the leftist commentary on war, wars kill people.  Personally, I could give a damn about the war metaphors that the movement is using, but the public silence on this matter is important: where are the public-speech moralists now?  Where all the high-minded lectures about how the words we choose really do matter?  Of course, while Obama insists that his Jobs Bill &etc. are “not class warfare,” the administration periodically gives veiled statements of support to the Occupy protests.  This is interesting only because the Occupy people are explicitly advocating class warfare, through their use of war metaphors and the occasional acts of violence that have been perpetrated by the demonstrators.

But what is an “occupation” in wartime?  We should know: we keep hearing about how bad it is that we are “occupying” Iraq.  An occupation is a holding of a particular type of space: a space to which you have only an illegitimate claim.  Thus, conceptually, the idea of occupation upholds the notion of private property — in order for one party’s claim to a space to be illegitimate, someone else must have a legitimate claim to that space.  Usually, in a real war, an “occupation” is the result of some victory (even if only temporary): you won the battle, now you occupy the space.  In contrast, the Occupy protesters are implicitly claiming that their occupation of the space IS their mode of combat — it is by holding that space that they believe they will eventually get what they want (not that they have even offered one coherent statement of what that is).  This begs a question: can you accomplish real change on a societal level simply by holding space (especially if you concede implicitly at the outset that your claim to that space is illegitimate)?  I believe the answer is no.

Space isn’t the only thing that the demonstrators are claiming.  They are also claiming a right to other people’s money.  IF we are being generous, the single univocal statement of the Occupy protests is that “The rich have too much, and we have too little” (a deeply problematic assertion).  Still, in this statement, they argue that the rich people’s claim to their money is illegitimate and the Occupy people’s claim to that money is legitimate (ostensibly because their claim to that money is motivated by a concern for the general good).  However, another problem arises: the Occupy protesters’ admittedly illegitimate claim to the space that they insist on holding neutralizes their moral claim that the rich must acknowledge the illegitimacy of their claim to the money they hold.  Put differently, the problem of the Occupy movement boils down to the same philosophical stalemate that has plagued left politics since the 1960s: if no one holds any more authority to advance any particular claim than anyone else, how can we view the Occupy protesters as having any more of a legitimate claim to that money than anyone else does?  Further, by using the term “occupation,” you admit that private property exists, but these protests then turn around and argue that the public has the true claim to the private property owned by the wealthy.

It is also of passing note that the media is trying to shape a coherent argument from the Occupy protests, arguing that they are an authentic, grassroots expression of anger at the lack of good jobs and the “shrinking middle class.”  Ironically, that anxiety about the fate of the middle class was precisely what united the earliest Tea Party protests, but that was met with derision by the mainstream media — after all, what does the middle class have to complain about, right?  Now that the protesters are wearing Che shirts we need to take them seriously.  Pah.

Despite all of this contradiction, I expect that the Occupy protests will be around for a while.  This is mainly because they have become a tourist attaction for America’s un-occupied youth.  It is important to note that in so many cases these young people are NOT un-occupied because they “can’t find a job,” but because they are fortunate enough to come from prosperous middle-class families who can support their pseudo-bohemian lifestyles.  Still, most educated young people are interested in politics and are seduced by the easy comfort of the leftist worldview.  These protests are big — and the kids don’t want to miss the moment.  They need to go there, get the t-shirt, so their kids can know that Dad was cool enough to be there when the shit (almost) went down.  At the end of the day, the protests are something to do in Manhattan.  Hey, it’s better than being bored.


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American Jobs Act, AKA Another Stimulus

Last night, the President gave a speech asking Congress to pass the new “American Jobs Act” which will borrow another $500 billion dollars to “create jobs.”  But don’t worry: after we borrow this money, the Super-Committee that is required to find 1.5 trillion in cuts will just find an additional half trillion — to pay back the money we are borrowing to create jobs.  What?  You’re worried that this super-committee might not be able to agree on 1.5 trillion (let alone 2 trillion)?  Don’t worry.  It will happen.  The plan will create jobs and it is fully paid for (in borrowed money).

Of course, we know that this is just another stimulus.  What was the first stimulus of 800 billion for if not to boost employment in order to jump start the economy?  Remember all the talk about “shovel-ready” jobs that Obama later admitted don’t exist?  Thus, the American Jobs Act is just a doubling-down on a failed plan.  The unstated premise of the speech was that “The first stimulus wasn’t big enough.”  Thanks, Krugman.

More interesting to me though, was the Democratic response to the speech: lots of progressives are saying that “This is the Obama we have been waiting to see!  Angry, tough, activist.  Huzzah!”  This is interesting because like so many of Obama’s speeches, it was completely reactionary/reactive.  The whole speech was calibrated to preempt certain types of responses from Obama’s political enemies.

Examples:  “The question [facing us] is whether we can stop the political circus,” “There should be nothing controversial about this legislation,” “Everything in this bill will be paid for.  Everything.”, “It’s not just Democrats who have supported this type of proposal,” “This isn’t political grandstanding.  This isn’t class warfare.”, “What I won’t do is let this crisis be used as an excuse to wipe out the basic protections Americans have relied on for decades,” “[I reject] this larger notion that we [should] just dismantle government, refund everyone’s money, let everyone write their own rules, and tell everyone they are on their own.”

There are lots of other examples peppered throughout the speech, but this list is representative: they all allude (with varying degrees of distortion and dismissiveness) to the positions of his political opponents, who (as usual) are implicitly demonized as unpatriotic, divisive, self-interested, ignorant zealots and “carnival barkers.”  What this means is that for all the talk about Obama getting tough, he is still on the defensive (in every sense of the word).  Defense, in whatever context, is reactive.  I think that the supporters of the President want to see an active rather than a reactive leader.  Somehow, (it bewilders me), they see that active orientation in this speech.

Part of the reason that Obama is chronically unable to overcome his tendency towards reactive politics is his sophomoric proclivity for political meta-commentary.  He just cannot help but vent his resentment at the fact that he has had some difficulty passing certain proposals through the Congress.  At every step, he must pontificate on the toxicity of our political discourse: he notes that toxicity, and then explains that the only way to actively reject that toxicity is to pass whatever happens to be the comprehensive reform o’ the week.

A suggestions for the President and his people (not that this suggestion will ever reach him): by refusing to comment on the political climate, the President could show that he is above it.  He always tries to TELL us he is above it, and that is the problem — in saying “I’m above this petty squabbling of you (fill in the blank) people,” one PARTICIPATES in the petty squabbling.  This is why Obama is mired in reactive politics.  It reminds me of Nietzsche’s victim of slave morality — the reactive man who only knows how to look at what he does not have or cannot do and lashes out in resentment.

We need the active man: Rubio/Ryan 2012:


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Evolution as (Pointless) Political Chesspiece

Much has been made this week of Rick Perry’s comments about evolution.  In New Hampshire, Perry was confronted by a cowardly parent who made her little boy ask questions on her behalf — forcing the child up to the governor, the boy asked “What do you think about evolution?”  After the governor said that he believed that both evolution and intelligent design should be covered in schools, the mother pushed her poor child further, shouting at the child “Ask him why he hates science!  Ask him why he hates science!”  How shameful.  Later in the week, Perry said to an audience that evolution is a theory that “has some gaps in it.”  Of course, objectively speaking, that is true — we cannot explain the biological history of certain evolutionary adaptations in specific creatures.  That doesn’t scuttle the whole theory though.  Nevertheless, these comments prompted a nationwide freak-out on the part of the left, which has such a devout faith in science that in their view it must go ever-unchallenged. 

The public debate over evolution, creationism, and intelligent design is pointless and irrelevant.  This is not to say that it is not illuminating. 

Why does it matter whether someone believes in evolution?  Why does it matter how we got here?  Whether God Breathed Life Into The World, whether we evolved from apes, whether we are actually an alien race that colonized this planet…the end result is the same, right?  How does the question of how we got here inform any of the problems that we face as a nation?  It doesn’t.  And this is how we know that when we talk about evolution, we aren’t really talking about evolution.

When we talk about evolution what we are really talking about is the proper ideological function of public schools.  We can likely agree that the role of the schools is to produce “good citizens,” but we all define that differently.  In taking positions on evolution, what we are really doing is taking positions on the characteristics of the “good citizens” that the schools ought to produce. 

It’s rare that you encounter someone who argues that public schools should ONLY teach creationism.  The people who believe that are a particular breed of religious fundamentalist, and if they had their way, the State probably wouldn’t run the schools to begin with.  So, that fringe minority must be excluded from the debate (they really exclude themselves).  Most proponents of evolution and intelligent design argue only that these theories should be covered as alternatives to the theory of evolution.  In other words, most creationists don’t want an all or nothing solution — they just want students to be aware of the creationist position (not its validity, but its existence).  If we extrapolate their position, it seems that for them the good citizen is the citizen who is aware of the diversity of perspectives on a given public issue.  They assume that either the parents or the students themselves can make a choice as to which perspective is best.

On the other hand, militant evolutionists aren’t fighting to have their position heard in the schools: it already is heard.  Instead, they are fighting for exclusivity — they want evolution (and ONLY evolution) to be taught.  Why?  Well, partly because of their devout faith in science (which is evangelical in character and views any challenge as heresy).  But mostly because of the religious orientation of the alternatives to evolution; God has no place in the schools, they say.  These people fail to make a distinction between preaching and teaching; they don’t recognize that you can discuss religious issues without the evangelism.  They see that boogeyman everywhere, trying to convert our children to God!!  But just because I may talk to my students about the Jewish position on abortion doesn’t mean that I am attempting to coerce them to adopt that position. 

At the bottom of the insistence on evolution (and only evolution) is an anxiety about the effect of religion on citizens.  The evolutionists implicitly further Dawkins’ idea: religious people are a blight on democratic secular society.  They claim that religious faith is either the product of stupidity or ignorance, and as such must not be tolerated in a political system that depends upon rational and scientific deliberation.  In other words, they conceive of the good citizen as one who is wholly taken in by ideology, even if that ideological orientation is only enabled through an ignorance of its alternatives.  The scientio-rational worldview flirts with totalitarianism — as long as there is any resistance to “science” (whatever that is; frequently it seems to mean “left politics”), science cannot effectively bring into being the cold, sterile, monochromatic world it is always willing into existence.  In the words of George Will, these people are for the diversity of everything but thought; a tragedy given that diverse thought is the only thing that is truly necessary for the proper functioning of democracy.

We would do well if we had the courage to talk explicitly about the points of our disagreements.  Let’s stop bickering over the irrelevant question of how we got here, and start directly defining what the good citizen is and how he can be produced through the schools.


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Turns Out the Revolution WAS Televised…

I am currently reading Jean Baudrillard’s The Transparency of Evil.  Those familiar with the author know that he is no friend of the right.  The central premise of the book is fascinating, given Baudrillard’s political associations.  He argues that the left (even today) is still talking about the revolution as a future event — an event that will finally liberate humanity from all sorts of social, sexual, and economic repressions.  This means that the left believes that the events of the late 1960s and early 1970s were merely a partial revolution or a failed one.  Baudrillard’s big claim is that the Revolution happened and it was complete.  The left simply cannot admit that this is the case: it turns out that the liberated world that they sought looked much different in theory than in practice.  Instead of the re-orientation of values that the ’60s radicals wanted, their critical attack on normative values was so successful that they ultimately liberated the concept of value itself (rather than the humans who live according to those values).

In other words, the great success of the revolution was that values could no longer be effectively transmitted culturally — there is no way to posit any particular value above another.  What you say is good, I say is bad.  What you say is pretty, I say is ugly.  What you say is hot, I say is cool.  What you say is a problem, I say is a blessing.  And we’re stuck with that.

A practical example of my own that shows the ineptitude of the left in bringing about the world they wanted (but their adeptness in changing the world irrevocably): war.  The ’60s radicals wanted to bring about a world without war.  They failed miserably (in part because so many of their tactics furthered their cultural objectives via a pseudo-military engagement with the demos).  Nevertheless, the ways that wars are fought have undeniably changed.  The Revolution didn’t abolish war, it just made wars unwinnable.

Since 1970, every US military engagement has resulted in an American loss, a partial American victory, or a pyrrhic American victory.  Interesting timing.  Why is it that the most powerful nation in the world can only muster a half-win, no matter how ill-equipped the opponent is to fight a war?  Only because the revolutionaries did not eliminate the need for war, but only introduced a morality into a necessarily immoral human endeavor.  We can no longer win a war because we cannot bring ourselves to fight one in the way necessary for victory: it would be too bloody, too vulgar a display of power.  After all, don’t we have an obligation to meet the enemy half-way, at least give them a chance to win?  A chance to defend themselves?  Turns out that perhaps the most ethical way to fight a war is to fight to win — to do whatever it takes to win quickly and decisively, even if that means a bit more blood.  Is it any wonder we are now in what appears to be only the second half of the longest war in American history?

The revolutionaries won, but their victory looks much different than they thought it would, and a bit of buyer’s remorse has set in because even if we now have a bit more respect for humanity, we have less reverence for it.  Human beings don’t seem to be much happier for this change, and human happiness was THE primary objective (if we are being generous) of the ’60s left movement.  Liberation meant something different than they imagined: the attack on the concept of value ensured that there would be no social glue left to bind the re-configuration they enacted.  So, instead of a new order taking form, the ’60s radicals simply made an unanchored tower of concepts, blowing precariously in the wind — “a heap of broken images.”  That tower blew over a few decades ago, but those remaining of the ’60s left still haven’t completely understood why they failed in their outcomes, while succeeding in bringing about the revolution.  In fact, I think many of them can’t admit it to themselves, which is why they take refuge in indictments of their own generation: they didn’t go far enough, they sold out.

The liberation they wanted did happen: it was just unthinkable in 1968 that its legacy would one day be embodied by a Viagra commercial.

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