Hey, you assholes: The Sixties are over!
I'm not talking about your white-guy 'fros, muttonchops, and beads. I'm not talking about your Che T-shirts or that wan, concerned, young Joanie Baez look on the faces of half of your women. I'm not even talking about skinny young potheads carrying wood puppets and joyously dancing in druid circles during a march to protest a bloody war.
I'm not harping on any of that. I could, but I won't. Because the protests in New York were more than a silly, off-key exercise in irrelevant chest-puffing. They were a colossal waste of political energy by a group of people with no sense of history, mission, or tactics, a group of people so atomized and inured to its own powerlessness that it no longer even considers seeking anything beyond a fleeting helping of that worthless and disgusting media currency known as play.
I don't want anyone to get the wrong idea. I admire young people with political passion and am enormously heartened by the sheer numbers of people who time after time turn out to protest this idiot president of ours. But at the same time, I think it is time that some responsible person in the progressive movement recognize that we have a serious problem on our hands.
We are raising a group of people whose only ideas about protest and opposition come from televised images of 40 years ago, when large public demonstrations could shake the foundations of society. There has been no organized effort of any kind to recognize that we now live in a completely different era with a completely different political dynamic. What worked then not only doesn't work now, it doesn't even make superficial sense now.
Let's just start with a simple, seemingly inconsequential facet of the protests: appearance. If you read the bulletins by United for Peace and Justice ahead of the protests, you knew that the marchers were encouraged to "show their creativity" and dress outlandishly. The marchers complied, turning Seventh Avenue into a lake of midriffs, Billabong, bandanas, and "Buck Fush" T-shirts. There were facial studs and funny hair and man-sandals and papier-mache masks and plenty of chicks in their skivvies all jousting to be the next young Heather Taylor inspiring the next Jimi Hendrix to write the next "Foxy Lady."
And the New York Post and Fox were standing on the sidelines greedily recording all of this unbowed individuality for posterity, understanding instinctively that each successive T-shirt and goatee was just more fresh red meat for mean Middle America looking for good news from the front.
Back in the 1960s, dressing crazy and letting your hair down really was a form of defiance. It was a giant, raised middle finger to a ruling class that until that point had insisted on a kind of suffocating, static conformity in all things -- in sexual mores, in professional ambitions, in life goals and expectations, and even in dress and speech.
Publicly refusing to wear your hair like an Omega house frat boy wasn't just a meaningless gesture then. It was an important step in refusing later to go to war, join the corporate work force, and commit yourself to the long, soulless life of political amnesia and periodic consumer drama that was the inflexible expectation of the time.
That conformist expectation still exists, and the same corporate class still imposes it. But conformity looks a lot different now than it did then. Outlandish dress is now for sale in a thousand flavors, and absolutely no one is threatened by it: not your parents, not the government, not even the most prehistoric brand of fundamentalist Christianity. The vision of hundreds of thousands of people dressed in every color of the rainbow and marching their diverse selves past Madison Square Garden is, on the contrary, a great relief to the other side. It means that the opposition is composed of individuals, not a Force in Concert.
In the conformist atmosphere of the late 1950s and early 1960s, the individual was a threat. Like communist Russia, the system then was so weak that it was actually threatened by a single person standing up and saying, "This is bullshit!"
That is not the case anymore. This current American juggernaut is the mightiest empire the world has ever seen, and it is absolutely immune to the individual. Short of violent crime, it has assimilated the individual's every conceivable political action into mainstream commercial activity. It fears only one thing: organization.
That's why the one thing that would have really shaken Middle America last week wasn't "creativity." It was something else: uniforms. Three hundred thousand people banging bongos and dressed like extras in an Oliver Stone movie scares no one in America. But 300,000 people in slacks and white button-down shirts, marching mute and angry in the direction of Your Town, would have instantly necessitated a new cabinet-level domestic-security agency.
Why? Because 300,000 people who are capable of showing the unity and discipline to dress alike are also capable of doing more than just march. Which is important, because marching, as we have seen in the last few years, has been rendered basically useless. Before the war, Washington and New York saw the largest protests this country has seen since the 1960s -- and this didn't stop the war or even motivate the Democrats to nominate an antiwar candidate.
There was a time when mass protests were enough to cause President Lyndon B. Johnson to give up the Oval Office and cause Richard Nixon to spend his nights staring out his window in panic. No more. We have a different media now, different and more sophisticated law-enforcement techniques, and, most importantly, a different brand of protester.
Protests can now be ignored because our media has learned how to dismiss them, because our police know how to contain them, and because our leaders now know that once a protest is peacefully held and concluded, the protesters simply go home and sit on their asses until the next protest or the next election. They are not going to go home and bomb draft offices, take over campuses, riot in the streets. Instead, although there are many earnest, involved political activists among them, the majority will simply go back to their lives, surf the 'Net, and wait for the ballot. Which to our leaders means that, in most cases, if you allow a protest to happen ... nothing happens.
The people who run this country are not afraid of much, but there are a few things that do worry them. They are afraid we will stop working, afraid we will stop buying, and afraid we will break things. Interruption of commerce and any rattling of the cage of profit -- that is where this system is vulnerable. That means boycotts and strikes at the very least, and these things require vision, discipline, and organization.
The 1960s were a historical anomaly. It was an era when political power could also be an acid party, a felicitous situation in which fun also happened to be a threat. We still listen to that old fun on the radio, we buy it reconstituted in clothing stores, we watch it in countless movies and documentaries. Society has kept the "fun" alive, or at least a dubious facsimile of it.
But no one anywhere is teaching us about how to be a threat. That is something we have to learn all over again for ourselves, from scratch, with new rules. The 1960s are gone. The Republican convention isn't the only party that's over. •
Matt Taibbi writes for New York Press.