Jun 7, 2010

What kind of culture is it?

The New York Times ran two different editorials on Woodstock, taking two different positions.

The first was what you'd expect from a serious, establishment paper-of-record commenting on the counterculture "happening." The editorial board saw mud and drugs and maybe a little music -- though surely the higher-ups at the Times weren't into Hendrix, Country Joe McDonald, Neil Young or The Paul Butterfield Blues Band -- and just condemned it. In the rhetorical-question style that makes editorials sometimes sound so strange, the 1969 Times noted how many of the kids at the concert seemed high and asked: "What kind of culture is it that can produce so colossal a mess?"

The second one was different. Rick Perlstein, in his book Nixonland, suggests the shift was part of a quasi-concerted effort to domesticate the counterculture, make it safe, and maybe that's right, at least partially, though it doesn't explain what happened around the big editorial table in the Times building and it doesn't take into account the sometimes schizophrenic inconsistencies of newspapers. The second editorial was different, though, and, according to Perlstein, "redubbed Woodstock 'essentially a phenomenon of innocence.'"

What strikes me as wrong about Perlstein's presentation of the two editorials, and probably also about the editorials themselves, is the idea -- the assumption -- they're irreconcilably conflicted. That it has to be one way or the other. There's no necessary dichotomy.

Both statements seem true. Together, they could sum up the Nixon-hippie era: innocence and mess, phenomena and colossal and what kind of culture? Seems like that could have been asked about a lot of things; things, too, which were also somehow horrible because they we're expressions of our innocened, and expressions of our depravity. Maybe that question could sum up the whole American experience of the last 100 years.

But there's a tendency in political conversations, especially national political conversations, which is why it bothers me so much when everything is politicized, to think you can't have it both ways. There's a tendency to think everything's one way or the other, ideology all the way through, and simple. But that's just wrong. Sometimes our messes are our innocence, sometimes our innocence is like our amnesia, the psychosis of our guilt, and most of the time the phenomena of our culture are conflicted, complicated, contradictory, so we're not just one way or the other. We're all twisted up inside and beautiful.

Relevant links:
The New York Times still has trouble seeing that something could maybe be more than one way at a time, as my uncle points out in his review of the Banksy movie, Exit Through the Gift Shop; Arthur Brooks on The Daily Show is a good example of the befuddled nature of the politicized conversation; despite this post, Perlstein's book is actually really good; and there's awesome, not-quite-endless archive of Woodstock music online, and even though Woodstock-associated ephemera invokes the kind of simplistic response this post opposes, the music really is great.