Unfinished America, A History of Culture Wars
In Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, Charles Murray (famous for The Bell Curve, which made use of racist ideas and quasi-scientific research) worries that America’s ruling class is succumbing to the influence of the lower classes. He references Cold War era historian Arnold J. Toynbee’s concern over the spreading “sickness of ‘proletarianization’” as a sign of the decline of our civilization.
Murray places his book firmly in the context of a three decade old culture war as he sides with Tipper Gore’s attempt to clean up “rock and rap lyrics” and compares that issue to “four-letter words…in glossy upscale magazines,” “‘the hooker look’” as “a fashion trend among nice girls from the suburbs,” and the increasing popularity of tattoos as evidence of the disintegration of “White America.” His larger argument is that America’s “founding virtues” — “industriousness, honesty, marriage and religiosity” — are disintegrating from the bottom up, and he uses “White America” as a baseline to examine all of American society.
Murray says much with his portrayal of Tipper Gore as an innocent Washington wife doing the right thing. She, in fact, used her husband’s Senate Transportation Committee to hold a hearing on rock lyrics, making him more famous than ever half a decade before his presidential run and vice presidency. Her bipartisan campaign of Washington wives, called the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC), drew on the work of racist and religious extremists to unite Congress in an attack on popular music. At the exact moment, benefit records, social justice campaigns and a reintegration of American popular radio suggested that popular culture had more potential for political influence than at any point in the past.
For all intents and purposes, the PMRC won its objectives. Today’s music bears explicit lyric stickers, which label whole albums “adults only.” As a result, individual stores and civil ordinances refuse such music to minors (Wal-Mart, the largest brick and mortar retailer of music today only sells edited music). These seemingly moral victories led to more censorship organizing as a bi-partisan strategy. Many of the past two decade’s most influential political figures — Hillary Clinton, Joseph Lieberman, Sam Brownback and Rick Santorum — all gained political traction attacking sex and violence in popular culture.
Murray’s book suggests a more ideological strategy suited to a new moment. America is coming apart economically and cultural unrest is certain to rise. Murray blames the culture of the working class for the disintegrating economy. Labeling working class culture “a sickness,” his conclusions argue against a revolutionary vision.
American Identity as a Struggle Between Ideals and Realities
American history is filled with culture wars. The Puritan leadership which founded this country sought religious and political freedom for itself. But that class was always outnumbered by the Native American peoples, the Spanish, the French and what the author of Letters of an American Farmer, Jean Crevecoeur, called the “New American” — the great two-thirds from all parts of Europe and Africa who came here as indentured servants. Like Murray, Crevecoeur insisted on the importance of industry and opportunity, the difference being that revolutionary era America had an expanding economy with seemingly endless potential.
American culture has always revealed the contradictions between our ideals and our realities. The poet Walt Whitman and former slave turned statesman Frederick Douglas touted working class abolitionist singers like the Cheney Family and the Hutchinsons as real American artists because they did not represent any vestige of European aristocracy. Years later, W.E.B. Dubois stated that the first authentic American music had to be the slave “sorrow songs.” But Douglas also used that phrase as he described slave music — “I have sometimes thought that the mere hearing of those songs would do more to impress some minds with the horrible character of slavery, than the reading of whole volumes of philosophy on the subject would do….Every tone was a testimony against slavery, and a prayer to God for deliverance from chains.”
Douglas also noted the contradictions of slave music, contradictions that define American popular music. He notes the juxtaposition of medium and message — “They would sometimes sing the most pathetic sentiment in the most rapturous tone, and the most rapturous sentiment in the most pathetic tone.” And he defines the dangers of oversimplifying such cultural expressions — “I have often been utterly astonished, since I came to the north, to find persons who could speak of the singing, among slaves, as evidence of their contentment and happiness. It is impossible to conceive of a greater mistake.”
A Rebellious Culture
At least since British troops sang “Yankee Doodle Dandy” to mock the rebels, American culture has been attacked as “vulgar.” It’s worth noting here that the term vulgar comes from a Middle English term for the public and has long meant the behavior of those without aristocratic breeding. Why wouldn’t the Americans be proud of that? To be American was to reject just such European concepts. This is tied closely to another censorship term — “indecency.” For most of the history of this six hundred year old word, “decent” meant knowing one’s place in society. But America was built to challenge “one’s place.”
Since the rise of American mass culture in the early 20th Century, movies, pulp fiction, comic books, television and popular music have all been targeted for censorship — leading to the Hays Code, books banned from libraries, the comics code, the MPAA ratings system, the RIAA explicit lyrics stickers and the TV ratings system. Every attack on popular culture assumes that vulgarity or indecency destroys society. The reality is that popular culture has been used by both artists and audiences to overcome racial and sexual stereotypes, protest political and religious authority and express the hopes and dreams of those held back by the system.
At the height of the Great Depression, gangster movies often featured sympathetic outlaws, appealing to the audience’s sense of powerlessness. Some of the movies portrayed the outlaws as innocent victims of an unjust system. Gangster molls became popular female characters, and tough-talking, sexually frank women like Mae West became a threat to middle class standards for women. Horror movies, many made by refugees from Europe’s growing fascism, expressed sympathy for those outside of society and showed the dangers of societies ruled by fear.
Race and Culture
The popularity of all of these films corresponded with the rise of the Hollywood Left and the Popular Front. In reaction, the motion picture industry’s Hays Code insisted movie crimes always be punished, laws never be criticized and “indecent” suggestiveness cease. Among those indecencies, the Hays Code forbade depicting sexual relations between whites and blacks. After World War II, the House Un-American Activities Committee would be established to eliminate any Hollywood filmmakers who didn’t know their place.
Over the course of the 20th Century, music often pushed the dialogue between races and over social issues. The popularity of jazz, hillbilly and race records in the 1930s would give birth to the integrationist character of rock and roll twenty years later. Blues, jazz and gospel — those forms most clearly related to “sorrow songs” — would influence all of American music. Blues in particular deals with survival themes in terms that would upset every principle of the Hays Code. At the same time, folk songs like “Stagger Lee,” based on a supposedly real shooting in the late 19th Century, has often been sung as a tribute to a Black man who may be a murderer but lived the way he wanted to live. There’s a little Stagger Lee throughout American culture — from Blaxploitation heroes to Clint Eastwood characters to that persona Johnny Cash takes on in “Folsom Prison Blues” when he sings “I shot a man in Reno/Just to watch him die.”
Culture is complex, art always meaning more than any single literal interpretation. With fantasies of power for the powerless, men and women who feel little real control over their lives express self-worth. Blues singers have celebrated sexuality as a positive, creative impulse in humanity despite the fact that we live in a dominant Puritan culture that views it as shameful.
This is particularly important because it is that dominant white culture that sexually abused Black slaves for three hundred years (and then did everything it could to emasculate and sexually denigrate free blacks) that still wants to bind sexuality to shame. Black artists break those binds more often than any other artists in America. Similarly, those rural white American sounds that get labeled terms like “heavy metal” express anger over the political and religious ideologies that constrict the lives of poor white America.
A Cultural Strategy
What Charles Murray champions as ‘the dominant minority’ (the ruling class or what today we call the 1%) has justified slavery, segregation and gender discrimination for centuries. This same small group has rationalized the use of robotics and globalized production, giving rise to a new global class of proletarians who live in unprecedented poverty and misery. The ruling class has led efforts to dismantle the public education system, the postal system, and the public library system while privatizing public utilities so that many Americans face escalating bills for health care and other necessities. A handful of multinational corporations control all media markets, but narrowed, targeted marketing practices have media consumers more divided than ever before.
After over three decades of economic decline and social isolation caused by such policies, Murray and those he represents have chosen to blame the victims. His books serve to label those who have suffered the worst as infectious of the moral fiber of the country. His capitalist ruling class solutions call for those in power to further dismantle social services and boldly preach morality to the new class of underemployed and permanently unemployed (in a nation that no longer offers them any opportunity).
Today’s folk art, popular culture serves as a barometer of the American spirit. Within this culture, abundant real dialogue takes place that helps expose injustice, celebrates freedom outside of the terms of capitalism and envisions a better world impossible under the current system. The League of Revolutionaries for a New America has always held an ongoing respect for our popular culture as such a complex set of indicators revealing the spirit of the American people. As revolutionaries, we must never forget — for all its flaws — that popular culture’s offenses come nowhere near the obscenities perpetuated by the ruling class.
This article originated in Rally, Comrades!
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Rally, Comrades ! May/June 2011