Monday, August 03, 2009

Pre-emptive Strike Against Woodstock Nostalgia

I discovered yesterday that writing a fairly short piece about Caritas in Veritate was more difficult than I thought, and though I spent a while on it I haven’t finished it. In the meantime, I want to get this off my chest.

The 40th anniversary of Woodstock arrives in a couple of weeks, and I’m already seeing signs that, as on every ten-year anniversary since the original event, a vast number of false and silly things are about to be said. Aging left-wing baby-boomers will once again tell us how wonderful they were when they were young, and how the world really hasn’t lived up to their expectations, pundits will talk about how it transformed society, and younger people will believe the myth of a shining moment when the chains of the dead past were cast off for a while, giving us a glimpse of the happy world we could have if we all weren’t so repressed.

That’s mostly hype. Let me tell you what Woodstock really meant. If you want to make it the marker for a significant social transition—a questionable practice, but if you want to—call it the flowering of pure consumerist culture, the symbolic victory of self-indulgent materialism over all traditional commitments.

The crucial thing to remember as you read the sentimental rhapsodies is that it was a business venture. Here’s what I said to Rod Dreher about it several years ago, when he did an email interview with me for his book Crunchy Cons. Dreher asked me to “Explain why industrial capitalism and conventional left-wing bohemianism are two sides of the same coin, both worth rejecting.” To which I replied:

Here’s one good illustration: Woodstock (the original 1969 event). Left-wing bohemianism still looks back on that with a sort of Bastille Day reverence. But there was nothing, absolutely nothing, about it that was objectionable to industrial capitalism. A really hard-headed businessman would recognize that, even if he had personal reservations about some of the behavior of the customers. It was the very acme of consumerism. You had several hundred thousand people willingly reducing themselves to a condition of infantile dependence and passivity in the expectation that competent adults would take care of their physical needs. It was that, not so much the drugs and sex, that was disgusting and even frightening about it. I think of the Eloi and Morlocks in H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine—the Eloi are these pretty, sweet, stupid creatures who frolic on the surface, while the Morlocks live underground and do all the work necessary to feed and clothe the Eloi. The catch is, the Eloi are also the Morlocks’ food supply.

In short, capitalism (in practice) and conventional left-wing bohemianism agree that the purpose of life is to maximize pleasure and minimize pain. The bohemian wants his desires satisfied; the capitalist wants to make money by satisfying these desires; it’s a perfect match. And in practice these are not mutually exclusive categories—any individual may switch at a moment’s notice from the one role to the other as needed.

A couple of points I’d like to add to that:

1) To a great but almost entirely unrecognized degree, the present mythic status of Woodstock is a media creation, and has been from the beginning. I was in college at the time, and my roommate actually went to Woodstock. He didn’t consider it that big a deal, apart perhaps from the sheer size of it: just a huge party, with a lot of drugs and a lot of physical discomfort with heat, mud, etc., and some good music, though at a distance where he couldn’t hear it very well. (I remember him saying that Sly and the Family Stone were the biggest hit, which makes sense, as theirs was basically party music.) It wasn’t until some of the sympathetic media, swooning and fawning, told people that it was a culture-defining moment that it became one. And I don’t think that idea was truly cemented in the popular mind until the movie came out months later.

2) It exemplified the tendencies that would soon eclipse the things that were actually good about the counter-culture: the serious spiritual searching, the serious effort to reform an over-technologized, over-systematized, unnatural way of life. Not that many individuals didn’t continue to pursue those things, but what might be called the mainstream of the counter-culture was not seriously interested in them, because it was far (far, far) more interested in getting stoned.  And very soon the rebellion was not much more than a fashion, an item to be packaged and resold like any other consumer good.

Yes, it was peaceful, and that was a good thing. But harbinger of a cultural renewal? Not at all. It mostly just accelerated the decline that was already in progress. One reason it continues to be reverenced, I think, is that it helps to bolster the attitude of permanent resistance to adulthood which pop culture now treats as some sort of fundamental virtue.