As the 2002 election results came in, I surfed through 100 cable channels with nothing on and hit an infomercial hosted by John Sebastian for a Time-Life eight-CD set of 1950s and ’60s folk and folk rock. For the nth time I thought, What hath O Brother, Where Art Thou wrought? Who would’ve guessed a hillbilly cross between Homer and Preston Sturges would make America friendly again to the idea of folk music, catalyze the latest generational revival that follows two earlier upsurges: the New Deal, which sent researchers and artists to delve into and chronicle and represent America’s myriad pasts, and the postwar McCarthy era, when the crust of American political and cultural monism hardened while, seething below, countercultural currents were flowing toward the mass reaction of the 1960s and ’70s?
Santayana’s adage about how those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it crossed my mind. Here in the lengthening shadow of the Reagan era, we seem to move outside history in a kind of projected nostalgia, like Plato’s fools in a cave of their own device. History textbooks have been dumbed down and decontextualized along the lines Frances FitzGerald drew at the dawn of Reaganism in America Revised; our mass media have no memory. The timeless imaginary space they help create allows opportunistic replays of the 1950s, Reaganism’s favorite era, when the need for a united front against our Great Satans (communism, sex, drugs, Big Government, taxes, Al Qaeda, Iraq) stifles dissent, opposition and even discussion by branding them anti-American–ploys recurrent in American history, right out of Richard Hofstadter’s The Paranoid Style in American Politics. Remember how, in 1984, a torrent of pundits mused that Orwell had imagined the future wrong? Guess they never imagined a contemporary day spent being ahistorically glared at by CNN and Fox and talk-radio: Haven’t we always been at war with Iraq?
The bedrock of Reagan’s legacy was the invention and spread of a language, from “tax and spend” to “partial-birth abortion,” that successfully banished opposition to the margins in near-total silence. Which is why one lesson from 1950s America seems pertinent: When opposition can find no voice within the government and public arenas, it runs underground to surface elsewhere, as it did in McCarthy’s heyday. So the question is: Since the governing classes can no longer manage their own opposition and the governed are fractured by slogans of ever-narrowing self-interest or bloody banners, or bored into passivity, or simply hiding out, who will open the possibility of debate?
Looking at history, you don’t have to be Shelley to think the answer will include artists. But cultural politics is a murky game. Artists, after all, aren’t politicians. They already have jobs: to represent their versions of reality, which either engage audiences or don’t, either work artistically or don’t. Political commitment doesn’t guarantee success at either effort, nor does it mean that politically engaged artists’ relationships with their audiences will yield more than mutually satisfying venting sessions. Their implicit hope, though, is that these circles open wider, as hootenannies, say, eventually did in McCarthyite America, where most of the opposition to cultural and political repression simmered below the country’s careful radar for years as it willy-nilly attracted the uneasy, the dissident, the angry, the lost, all seeking solace and reinforcement. Musicians from Harry Belafonte to Max Roach marched with Martin Luther King Jr. Jazz musicians issued works with titles like We Insist: The Freedom Now Suite. Folk musicians sang at rallies protesting nukes, racism, imperialism. Black humorists like Kurt Vonnegut and Joseph Heller dared to parody the Greatest Generation’s war and sheltered with the Beats in cold-water lofts and bars in seedy parts of America’s thriving cities. They haphazardly mingled their versions of the personal and political rebellions that finally ignited in public.