Hawking the CounterCulture
I haven’t seen more than ten minutes of the Democratic National Convention coverage yet, preferring to spend my evenings watching the Red Sox knock the baseball around, but I have read enough news to know that a picture of John Lennon hangs in the Fleet Center as part of the iconography John Kerry wishes to present to the people of the US. Another aspect of his cultivated image was present on Sunday when Mr. Kerry attended the ESPN-televised Red Sox-Yankees contest in Boston’s Fenway Park. Like any genuine Red Sox fan, Kerry was into the game. He jumped up and helped will outfielder Johnny Damon’s ball fair for a three-run homer along with the rest of the crowd. He high-fived Kevin Millar as he headed home after hitting a long home run into the seats over the leftfield wall. He seemed to be truly enjoying the win as much as I was in my house in Vermont.
But, back to that John Lennon poster. Somehow, I just don’t think that Lennon’s picture will be hanging in Madison Square Garden when the GOP sets up its show there in a few weeks. Nor is it likely that Bob Dylan, the Dixie Chicks, or Jerry Garcia will have their pictures on the walls inside the Garden that week. After all, even if George Bush might happen to like some of these artists’ work, there are his fundamentalist Christian supporters who would buy gasoline for any fires set to burn these musicians’ records (except for maybe some of Dylan’s Christian work). Nor is it likely that Prince or even Little Richard will be in attendance. I don’t know what George’s CD collection looks like, but I’m pretty sure John Ashcroft doesn’t have any Prince CDs.
This is where the split in the ruling class occurs. Along cultural lines. I am reminded of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s story "The Maypole of Merry Mount" wherein non-Puritan English settlers in the Massachusetts colony join the Lord of May in a pagan revelry around the maypole only to be attacked by Puritan John Endicott’s minions. After ruining the celebration by the maypole revelers, Endicott finalizes his attack by destroying the maypole and arresting the revelers. Just as the pagan celebrations of the Lord of May and his group represented sexuality and the devil to Endicott, the counterculture and its values (despite the commodification and consequent mutation of those values) represent evil and the destruction of the American way as proscribed by the Puritanism of John Ashcroft and his element.
In the Puritan version of our history, the others in U.S. society–blacks, women and children–either kept their mouths shut or opened them only to say, "yes sir." That is what changed in the 1960s. That, too, is what the theocratic right wants a return to. They would like to replicate the intrusion they conducted into Bill Clinton’s private life under the direction of Ken Starr into everybody’s home.
The drug war, anti-gay legislation, welfare "reform", and the continued erosion of civil rights, especially those of people of color and the young, are all facets of this backwards motion. This retreat has been a bipartisan effort. Unfortunately for the more liberal Kerry supporters, Kerry’s support of this agenda (with the possible exception of its most obvious racist, sexist and heterosexist aspects) may very well backfire. By supporting Kerry and his centrist agenda, they could be setting themselves up for the further abrogation of their rights in the arenas of civil liberties and women’s right to choose. As for the antiwar position, the damage there has already been done. Last week’s surrender by Kucinich on the inclusion of language critical of the war on Iraq in the party platform was the final nail in that plank.
George Bush has minimal counterculture credentials and that’s why the Christian theocrats like him. Indeed, in the popular lexicon, he was a straight, juicer redneck frat boy. To make his persona even more appealing to the theocratic demographic, George actually has some sins for which he has repented: his rumored cocaine use, womanizing and his verifiable bouts with alcohol. To a god-fearing Christian of the fundamentalist ilk, there is nothing greater than repentance and spiritual rebirth as a fundamentalist Christian. His "rebirth" is part of George’s appeal. It’s not that he didn’t inhale; it’s that he did and saw the folly of his ways. Now, he walks the straight and narrow, risking the lives of others in his crusades while ingesting nothing more dangerous than a pretzel.
As I write this, I am realizing how much of it relies on perception. I don’t really know what George Bush drinks, nor do I know what his sexual habits are. However, the perception created and maintained by his handlers is that he is like I described him. In the same way, Bill Clinton was presented as a leftist hippie, when in actuality; this was far from the truth. Of course, that was not the image Bill wanted, but it was the one put forth by the Puritans (who also serve as George Bush’s handlers).
John Kerry was even more involved in the counterculture than Clinton and will have that hung around his neck. If he’s smart, he will play that card as a positive thing (which may be why he includes pictures of him and John Lennon together in his press packages) and not let the rightwing press turn it in to a negative thing. It makes no difference in terms of his essential politics, but it could play well on the campaign trail. God knows it’s less boring than Dubya’s do-gooder deceptions.
RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground, which is just republished by Verso. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s new collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org