August 1st would have been Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia’s 68th birthday. While not of the same importance as Christmas is to Christians, the date is a way for those who enjoyed the Grateful Dead’s music and countercultural traveling medicine show to mark their time on earth since discovering the phenomenon the Dead represented. It is also a harsh reminder of how little some things change and how many hopes have been dashed since that moment of discovery. The counterculture of the 1960s and early 1970s is more historical artifact for most westerners nowadays. Indeed, those that imitate it today are few and, like other subcultures that return amongst certain members of western society, the current version is more about appearance than substance. Like virtually everything else under capitalism, the counterculture, which was packaged and sold almost as quickly as it made its appearance, is now available at almost any shopping mall. Naturally, it has been stripped of political meaning, yet it still continues to represent a certain type of freedom and is usually associated with a desire for peace and a hatred of war.
Nine or ten years ago a friend of mine whom I had not spoken to since 1982 called me. After a minute or two of establishing our current situations vis-a-vis our place of domicile, employment and family situation, my buddy (whom I’ll call C) asked if I still imbibed in the cannabis. Despite my aversion to speaking of such things on the telephone, I answered yes. “Hard to believe,” he responded. “We thought the stuff would be legal by now and look at it. People getting busted for it and seeing time like they did in the 1950s. That utopia we dreamed about and threw rocks at the cops for sure took a nosedive. Instead, we have a Brave New World drug scene where doctors pass out pills whose sole role is to homogenize our emotions and our essential beings.” I listened and agreed. “Besides the weed thing,” I said. “Look at the political spectrum. From authoritarian neoliberalism to authoritarian neoconservatism.” The far left is microscopic and the so-called progressives are unable to move beyond their monied sponsors.”
We continued on this track for about half an hour before bidding each other goodbye. Since then, C and I stay in touch via email and occasionally visit each other in person when I am in the DC area for a protest or family visit. His cynicism does not seem greater or lesser than mine and neither of us engage in political organizing as much as we did back in the early 1970s. Like many of our contemporaries who were engaged in left organizing back then, we are following the current US presidential campaign with interested with a special interest in the Obama phenomenon. Being grounded in both leftist analysis and the aforementioned cynicism, Obama’s rapid swerve to the right once it became apparent that he had clinched the votes necessary for the Democratic nomination did not surprise us. It did, however, make voting for him less likely.
The remaining members of the Grateful Dead regrouped before the California primary this year and endorsed Barack Obama’s run for the presidency. In addition, they performed a benefit concert for his organization. The setlist was fantastic and recordings I have heard of the concert prove that the band still has the ability to turn in some good sets even with other guitarists playing in Garcia’s place. However, the endorsement of a candidate by the group was uncharacteristic. Garcia once commented when asked about voting in the US elections: “Constantly choosing the lesser of two evils is still choosing evil.” He wanted no part of such a choice, preferring instead to put his money and energies towards grassroots causes. It seems he understood that once one makes an allegiance with evil–even the lesser one–they risk becoming part of that evil themselves. The more active the allegiance, the greater the risk. Just look at the major national antiwar organization United For Peace and Justice (UFPJ) and their public stance regarding the desire of organizers of the protests at the upcoming Democratic convention to stage a large antiwar march at the convention. According to a recent press release from some organizers of the march, Leslie Cagan of UFPJ told some Denver organizers, “We don’t think it makes sense to plan for a mass march that might not end up being all that mass!” In other words, UFPJ is refusing to help build support for the march.
There can only be one reason for UFPJ’s stance. That reason is UFPJ’s allegiance to the Democratic Party. This allegiance is not an allegiance found among the grassroots of YFPJ but at the top. It involves a political misunderstanding of the Democrats’ role in maintaining the US empire and a fear of losing funding from elements of UFPJ that are tied to the Democratic Party. Ignoring the fact that it is the Democratic Congress that has kept the Empire’s wars going, UFPJ continues to call the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan “Bush’s Wars.” Besides the attempts to silence the antiwar voice in the streets, there are also ongoing attempts by Democratic Party manipulators to keep antiwar language out of the Party’s platform. This is in spite of a statement signed by the progressive wing of the party demanding that the language be included. If 2004 is any indication, there will be no antiwar language in the 2008 Democratic Party platform. At least in 2004, there was a candidate (Kucinich) whose supporters struggled to get such language included until Kucinich rolled over and called off his troops. It is unlikely that the battle to include such language will even make it to the convention this year. On top of that, one can expect some rather bellicose statements in support of Israel and against Iran. Not exactly the antiwar party you might have thought it was, huh?
I know Jerry Garcia was not a politician or even a politically inclined guy. Perhaps that was why he could see the bullshit that passes for representation in this country for what it is.