San Fran ’60s

Review of San Fran ‘60s, M. W. Jacobs. Escallonia Press, 2017.

If you want an insider, Gonzo-style, journalistic account of daily life in late ‘60s Haight-Ashbury, this is your book. Jacobs gives a series of varied-length vignettes moving back and forth across time, as our personal memory moves back and forth across time, from the early 60s to the 80s, from San Francisco to a cabin and milk truck proto-commune in the Mendocino forests, with forays to Mexico and New York. But the keynote keeps coming back to 1967, the Summer of Love in the Upper Haight.

Some might wish for more pop and drama, or maybe a more well-wrought plot to sustain a rollicking ride. I myself was looking for a bit more development of the ideals that we all associate with the hippies. These stories can get a little dark after 150 pages. But perhaps this is all personal preference. What Jacobs does he does well, and that is to give an unromanticized, street-level account of the male hippie’s daily hunt (in both its comical and disturbing aspects) for chicks and drugs and ways to beat the draft. We do get some dramatic tension with recurring mini-plots that thread through multiple stories – the “speed disaster,” Bernie’s big secret – but many of the tales are uneventful, in the way that the stories in James Joyce’s Dubliners are uneventful, giving no payoff but leaving you at a point that’s poised between potential and kinetic energy. If Jacobs’s plot lines don’t keep you on the edge of your sit, though, his prose style always engages. His wit can be purely humorous, as with the “plump, middle-aged straight lady” who works the sidewalk grill and is presently “expounding, spatula in hand, on what was thrown off Tallahatchie bridge in the lyrics of an AM radio hit” (“The Street”). Or it can be disquieting, as when he describes driving high in the fog: “It was Russian roulette and every car that didn’t hit us was an empty chamber” (“Gilroy”). This latter expression too is humorous, no doubt, but it is the humor of Hunter Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, a belly laugh laced with the idea that this could turn very serious any moment.

The parade of momentary but sharply sketched characters is also memorable – the speed freak who’s “a walking filibuster” (“Amateur Insanity”), or Cappy, “a gifted storyteller” who was “short, skinny, and hunched, with a spoon-shaped torso” (“Junkie Love”), or Dan, “who no more believed in God than a man believes in the train that has run over him” (“There Is Only One Misfortune”), or the various “couch nomads” and communist “connoisseurs of outrage” to be found in this “colony of rejects” (“Summer of ‘66”). The characters sometimes come and go too quickly, but the narrator’s observation of them is packed with emotional and psychological nuance. Even his own “frenzied self-analysis” (“Gilroy”) may not be healthy, but it brings us closer to him.

The book’s strengths are in the vivid, grounded sense of time and place, in the parade of quirky but real characters, and in the play of the language when Jacobs works it. Plot and theme seem a little uneven, and as I think back on what I enjoyed most about the book, they do not rise to the top. In my opinion, though, the tradeoff is worth it, as we get a sense of journalistic, unembellished life in the Haight – and beyond the Haight as we come to identify with our narrator in general, to feel his emotional life as his memory moves poignantly back and forth, from the primeval forest moments with Yvette in the ‘70s, then back to ’67, then up to the 1980s, recounting personal loves and losses as he ponders his luck at catching cultural history at just the right time and place.

  

Reviewed by the author of

 

Advertisements

Zizek Revolution

Why hasn’t the Left been able to counter the rise of right-wing populism these last few years? Slavoj Zizek makes an excellent start at answering that question (video clip below, h/t to my friend, Balazs Zsido). I would only quibble a bit, as I believe he may tend to overstate his case at times and leave a little something out at times.  When he says that every populist movement is caused by a failure of the Left, I think it would be more accurate to say that a failure of the Left is one of the things implicated in the rise of right-wing populism. There are probably multiple causes in each case, but in each case, one could also ask how the Left failed to put forth a viable alternative. I’m with him about 90% on that one, as historical analysis.

Turning from historical analysis to the current crossroads, I agree with him 100% that the Left is failing to produce a viable alternative today. The “old” Left of protecting universal health care and worker rights established post-WWII is a good thing but not enough to get us across the new horizons today. I agree with him there, although I might emphasize more than he does that the freedoms and socialized elements of Western democracies are the best thing going right now. Some of the rage against capitalism and the West needs to be thoughtfully reconsidered, as simply taking down the Western democracies revolution-style right now may well result in more oppressive structures — a turn for the worse. When I look at existing models of governance outside of the West – Russia or China, Iran and the Middle East, North and Central Africa – the freedoms of the West’s liberal democracies look relatively good. Simply knocking down the West would leave a vacuum for the other power brokers of the world, who do not seem to promise more enlightened governance. Even within the West, the “identity politics” branch of the Left (at least in the U.S.) seems all too eager to replace the West with their own oppressive and demographically determined structures. Be careful what you wish for. Things could actually be a lot worse than they are.

Am I then an “apologist for capitalism,” as some of my leftist friends might say? Not at all. Capitalism is approaching its limit. The age wherein human fulfillment is defined by how many resources you can hoard, wherein the primary relationship between people and resources is one of private ownership – this age will end, whether dystopically or utopically. The writing is on the wall in the form of ecological collapse and worldwide economic disparities that are increasingly visible with globalization. But beware the negative possibility. Just knocking down the West and leaving the field to, shall we say, less liberal and less democratic forms, may not yield the answer young Western radicals seek.

Like Zizek, I don’t have a specific answer for today’s Western leftists, but I do have a framework for answers. My framework is simply this: We need to think of the next stage not as a revolution against the West but as a revolution within the West.  We do need to move into the (post-materialist, post-capitalist) 21st century, but capitalism and liberal democracy are the matrix from which new forms will spring. Every age begins as a new birth but carries the seeds of its own destruction in the form of its own contradictions. When those contradictions reach a critical mass, the shell starts to crack. As the shell of capitalism starts to crack in the face of ecological and economic imperatives, the idea is not to crush everything but to bring forth the hidden seed that has been nurtured and throw away the husk. In particular, we need to keep the freedoms of liberal democracy intact while pushing hard and mindfully on the transformation into a post-capitalist economy that leaves no group stranded.

So yes, we need to move into a post-capitalist, post-materialist 21st century, where for example green technologies can be deployed based on what is possible, not on what is profitable. Following Zizek, I might say that we need a new Left to articulate a transformational vision for our age. Something may come of the Alt-Left, if its presently amorphous and contradictory energies coagulate around the best it has to offer. Then again, I’m not sure this radical vision will come from the Left at all. It may be that the last true radicals were in the 1960s.  Since then, Left and Right may both have become too damaged, too entrenched, to make the next turn. So be it. If the new radical vision comes from outside of today’s Left-Right spectrum, that is fine with me.

Zizek video clip

Won’t Get Fooled Again

Psychomachia and Autobiography (with frolicking hippies)

The first question people always ask me about Hippies is whether this romp through the psychedelics and sexual liberation and ideals, the music scene and the war scene, all the darkness and all the light of the late 1960s, is autobiographical. And am I like Ragman or Ziggy or Tex, etc.?

It’s not exactly autobiographical in that sense. But I draw from autobiography on every page. I am a bit part in every character. But perhaps this is tautological. Perhaps every artwork with more than one character is a kind of psychomachia, all characters projecting different aspects of the writer’s soul or psyche. Perhaps this is not just a psychological necessity (creative arts are after all self-expression) but a metaphysical one as well. How metaphysical? If all the people of the world – past, present, and future – are so many surface expressions of the single personality of godhead, then the whole great drama, the extended “vanity fair” of human history, is one great psychomachia. And divine history, too, as the figures that populate the collective imagination are just as much expressions of godhead as the figures that populate physical reality. Indeed, the figures of imagination may be more intimate expressions of godhead, as Jung’s collective unconscious transcends the individual psyche and gets one step closer the universal Psyche.

At least this literary theory, this metaphysics, seems consistent with the cosmic laws governing the created world of Hippies. And perhaps that is enough.

 

1960s vs today’s liberals, part two

The difference (when it comes to issues of cultural identity) may be differing views of human nature. In the Civil Rights and hippies decade, there was much struggle but there was much optimism. The liberal assumption was that people of no race were intrinsically racist, that people brought different views and backstories to the table, some wrongheaded and destructive, and some just different. Our role was not to pass judgment but to help each other to find the lighted path with no preconceptions based on race and gender or where you came from. The progressive goal was to find the human goodness in all and celebrate each other across demographic lines, to work joyfully together, without judgment and without shame. Sure, there were problems, but there was an underlying sense that the goodness of the human heart would win out in the end.

Liberalism today (or a large branch of it) seems to take a much darker view of human nature. The assumption seems to be that all white people are racists, all men are sexists, and those who don’t acknowledge their racism and sexism are the worst and most dangerous sort. Instead of looking for ways to celebrate each other across demographic lines, the modus operandus seems to be to search every alleyway to validate one’s own grim premise in this regard. The old liberalism that eschewed shame and judgment and trusted in the goodness of the heart to come through in the end has yielded to a liberalism dedicated almost entirely to identifying targets for shame and judgment. S/he who finds the most racism wins.

The hippie view of human nature had its risks. It was rooted in a naïve idealism that was not always well equipped for the contingencies of the real world. But the risk of the current variant of liberalism is that you end up fostering self-segregation along demographic lines; you end up with people sharing less openly, thinking less outside the box, for fear of offending, and when they do offend, you end up eating your own; you end up with people living under an imminent threat of shame and judgment instead of celebrating each other openly in a spirit of positive affirmation of self and other.

I prefer to go with the hippie risk of “naïve idealism.” Maybe it’s just selfishness. After all, this preference allows me to greet people on the street, regardless of demographics, backstory, or political affiliation, with a good-faith optimism, and a little bit of joy at our shared humanness, rather than greeting them with suspicion and a sharp eye scanning for their sins. Then again, perhaps my preference is simply a function of my age. But I would like to think that it won’t get me scarlet-lettered out of hand by my younger colleagues. There’s still a lot of work we can do together.

For Part One of 1960s vs today’s liberals, click here.

 

 

 

A Revolution in Subjectivity: Utopic or Dystopic?

  1. The revolution in subjectivity: Our definitions of human identity and human fulfillment need to change. Definitions based on how many resources you can stockpile and call your own are not sustainable as our consumption level hits ecological limits. Either we evolve in this direction or we self-destruct. See my notes on a post-technological ethics for the coming age.
  2. The good news: We WILL evolve in this direction, just as any species drifts over time toward conditions of self-preservation.
  3. The bad news: Will the drift reach a critical mass in time to turn things around before the tipping point? Possible, but not probable.