How History Teaches Us To Imitate Ourselves …

Minneapolis, MN
February 2001

[from a letter written to my friend Jessica]

For some, getting older affords peace of mind; in my case, it just added more fuel to the fire …

When I was in sixth grade, I was completely caught up in what was referred to as “underground” culture. Hippies, radical politics, student revolutions – the whole deal. Even though I was a sheltered little kid who really knew nothing about the great big world out there, I felt as though I intuitively understood that something was really wrong with the education I was getting, and it was up to me to dig deeper beneath the surface, and discover whatever truths were to be found about the world I was a part of.

This was a volatile time for me to be growing up – I lived in a 99% black neighborhood, and a lot of my black friends and classmates were just starting to come to awkward terms with their role in America as second-rate citizens. There were riots, Black Panthers, fights every day after school – all I knew at the time was that I was pissed at whoever was responsible for all this, but it sure as hell wasn’t me. This was at the same time when the student massacre took place at Kent State in Ohio, and it scared the shit out of me. I was at the tender age where I was just starting to ask a lot of big questions about the world in general, and already I was learning just how much that upset people, and then I hear about how a bunch of students were killed by the government for simply wanting to be acknowledged.

No, those were not the best of times, but I had already learned enough that before I was out of the 6th grade, I was determined that I was destined to take an activist stance in the affairs of the world, so I could never be a martyr or a victim. Yeah, I was idealistic as hell, and I don’t regret it, but after years of having doors slammed in my face, not getting jobs I was more than qualified for, etc., I started feeling a little world weary, you know? Kind of like, what exactly am I accomplishing here? That was the question I kept asking myself, and I didn’t have a very good answer.

It’s strange how ideals take on a different meaning – take the ecology movement, which was big during that same period of time. There was even a flag, the green version of the US flag, with the oval-shaped “e” replacing the field of stars in the upper left hand corner. I seem to remember that it actually meant a lot to people back then, if only people who considered themselves radicals, anyway. Remember, this was also during a time when a lot of Conservatives were pro-war, and were disgusted by what they called “peace-niks” and any of the left-wing movements whose intent it was to improve the quality of life on Earth. Interesting, isn’t it – that the conservatives thought they were the true patriots of the time, even though none of their actions or stated beliefs seemed to be helping anyone. Who gives a shit about the ecology today? Even recycling is something most people view as a pain in the ass. In my community, the local government actually has to try and bribe property owners to recycle, by offering them a small tax refund, and in may cases, it still doesn’t get done, because the rewards aren’t great enough. It’s apparently not a big enough monetary incentive to convince a lot of homeowners to do what is basically just a moral good deed. What does that say about the world we live in? Two of the biggest selling books which made a huge social impact back then, were The Greening of America, and Future Shock. The latter of the two was significant, in that it introduced many American consumers to the industrial concept of “planned obsolescence”. Back then, it was a way of making us realize just how gross the whole relationship between industry and the economy had become – now, if you mention the idea that we are a wasteful society to almost anyone, they’re likely to shrug it off with indifference and mute acceptance.

People don’t complain any more, nor do they question things as much as they used to. Who can blame them? The whole hippie revolution was eventually co-opted into nothing more than a handful of love beads and unfulfilled sexual promises, and many of the major players of that generation became the new breed of conservative money-baiters. The next inkling that there was still a problem or two was called out by the Punk revolution, but for the most part, that movement died on the vine, leaving in its’ wake a trail of bad hair and ripped clothing, and a handful of bands with vague intent and remote commercial accessibility. Most people I know and associate with were born too late for the social movements of the 60’s, and therefore regard the era through its’ cultural leftovers – mainly, drug damage and the quaint sincerity of folk ballads. Most people I know who grew up during the Punk era, tend to associate themselves with the superfluous aspects of the culture; whichever band T-shirts will identify you as the coolest in a crowd of wannabes all competing for street credibility, and a feigned apathetic response to anything coming close to social responsibility – it’s not considered cool in these circles to care about anything. To care means to think about things which might not always be fun or cool, and even worse, you might have to form an opinion or two on these things you don’t even want to really think about in the first place. From that point on, it only gets worse – once you’ve thought about something, and actually have an opinion, you might have to develop a voice with which to express – gasp! – actual concern, for what’s going on around you. Am I being mean to Gen-Xers? To use their own lethargic form of subverted logic – who cares? In fact, the whole issue makes me so stressed out, I think I’m just gonna take a bunch of Ecstasy and go to an all-night rave, to take my mind off these unpleasant matters.

Okay, I’ll be serious for a second – I’ve never taken X, and I’ve never actually been to a rave, although I’ve worked at a number of them under the auspices of security staff. Dancing can be a lot of fun, and it does wonders for your figure, but for all he romanticism about the common language of love through music, it hasn’t improved the state of humanity one iota. I saw an up-and-coming Suzanne Vega several years ago in New York, telling an audience at The Bottom Line, that she was definitely NOT to be heralded as the new Dylan, or Baez, or whatever. The bottom line for Suzanne was that if those folks were really the all-important social movers-and-shakers that their following heralded them as, the world as we know it would be a much different (read: BETTER) place, only it just ain’t so. Oh, people will still champion ideals, alright, as long as they don’t have to get behind anything. That’s the way our society is in a lot of respects – just like the way people in our society claim to appreciate art, but alienate artists themselves; or perhaps more to the point, the way our society celebrates diversity (…ever hear that one?), but does everything in its’ power to distance itself from those people (you can fill in the blank here with the “special interest group” or minority of your choice).

So, what’s my point? The world’s turned upside down, people are heartless – is that it? Could be, or it could also be that those of us who have ever cared about anything need to remember to pinch ourselves in the ass from time to time and make sure we’re still conscious, and then take it from there. I’m not into soapbox sermonizing, but a wake up call every now and then can be helpful for staying in touch with what’s real – even if the call comes out from the face you’re looking at in the mirror. It all serves the same purpose. Kathleen Hanna once said, “Be a dork – tell your friends that you love them“. I’ve taken her advice on more than one occasion, and more than once, it left some folks I thought were my friends a bit unnerved, to say the least. I still think it’s good advice, though, and from time to time I even like to practice the idea on myself – after all, if you can’t love yourself, how in the world are you capable of loving others? Usually, I’m content with giving myself a firm pat on the ass and blowing myself a big kiss, but then we’ve each got our own little quirks as far as self-gratification goes, so maybe this is a good time to experiment a bit. Be sure to get back to me on that, okay?

J.Free is a middle-aged white guy who won’t act his age, and desperately clings to the middle-class values that vanished in the early ’70s, although he will never face a mid-life crisis, because, as he puts it, “the only force which could cause a disturbance in the American standard of living would be the introduction of order – we’ve already become quite comfortable with chaos.” He will also never experience the guilt of having white skin, because the white folks want nothing to do with him, since he refuses to behave like a good old boy. For that matter, he will also never experience the guilt of the Original Sin, because it can be proven that he was actually switched at birth with an alien baby.

© J.Free / The New Puritan ReView; 2001; 2022