In Part I we described salient cultural developments of the 1960s, particularly the civil rights and anti-war movements. Some of us still alive can take pride in our roles, but by now they seem quaint. What follows outlines the devolution of our societal discourse since then.
As in other entertainments, so it is in politics: something has to replace the last thing before it gets stale. Soon Negroes (using the word then current) were pushed off the screen to make room for Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, then anti-war protests drove him off the screen and out of office. There followed a succession of new competitors, making their claims against society. They said in effect, “What about me? I too deserve redress.” And, “I deserve it more than those others do.” Professional activists promoted themselves, claiming to have uncovered suffering the rest of us were too thickheaded to notice, too insensitive to care about, or too slow to fix. “Great” in Great Society became a sneer. It became commonplace to say injustice was endemic to our polity, our economy, our culture, and our very psychology. Eventually the power game swamped whatever good will was left among us.
It is a virtue rarely found in history for a nation to question itself so deeply. We thought we could afford such criticism, and even benefit from it, but we failed to honor each other in the process. We felt it a duty to our moment, to identify and add all the iniquities we could find to the bill of complaints. Like most things we undertook to do, we were good at it.
A pair of cynical presidents played into the game. Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon responded to the anti-war enthusiasm with arrogance and lies. Taking warrant from those men’s very real vices, the movement responded still more stridently. Hyperbolic shouts of “genocide” and “imperialism” filled the air. We might have seen some precautionary meaning in the fact that we could impede our country’s ability to pursue its own interests in the world, but the calamity in Vietnam seemed to have no merit worth supporting.
Once the dynamic was well in motion, more causes arose: feminism, environmentalism, and the list goes on. Today we have identity politics built around perceived gender identity, and perceived misappropriations of cultural identity. Each in turn clamors for priority over the previous, all lumped into one “resistance.” In our own eyes, we consider ourselves such transcendent sympathizers-with-everyone that we aggrandize even our country’s enemies, though we actually know almost nothing about them.
All this went on in the television, where the business model remains that of market competition. Our politics is only a subsidiary of the advertising business, mining injustices for power and profit. To advance a cause, gain support, activists go public, establish foundations, collect money, all on the basis of demographic research and polling, the same manipulative tools that sell dog food and baby wipes. Many of the touts are certified ministers of the Gospel; but even the ones who aren’t clergy offer the secular equivalent of absolution from guilt. Luther’s old nemesis Johann Tetzel is alive and well. Against our better interests, misery and injustice are turned into market goods. It would be hard to imagine a more straightforward definition of perversion.
The consumer of all this excitement preens himself on his social conscience. He is eager to buy, willing to spend cash in return for affirmation as a good citizen, open handed and open hearted. He only wants the images on the tube be poignant, the stories sentimentally appealing. Meanwhile the victim, the raw material for this industry, predictably remains a victim. He does not break out of the anger which goes with his assigned role. Anger has to be kept hot for the machine to keep running, though it remains as corrosive to as ever. It is self-validating and seductive, even after it has become destructive.
In sum, all three, the activist, the consumer, and the victim, are trapped in an unholy transaction, a trap for both people of good will and cynical exploiters.