Countering the Authoritarian Culture

Peace signDouglas Rushkoff, whose work I usually like, recently published an essay in which he argues that the counter culture — by which he means the hippies, the feminists, the Civil Rights activists, the gay rights movement, and the left generally, going back to the 1960s when we started using that term — won. We are now the establishment, he says, and should stop being sore winners and reach out to our frightened enemies, who are now the counter culture.

I think he’s right that the values of the counter culture and political movements going back to the Sixties (and with roots farther back than that) have had a powerful effect on the United States. The fact that we still have a long way to go in addressing racism, misogyny, homophobia, and bad foreign policy does not mean that we haven’t made progress or that a lot of that progress wasn’t made by people changing the way they lived and did things. That is, we created a new culture and it took hold.

But I think it’s a little early to declare victory, given the fact that the political system in this country is now very much in the hands of those who hate every change that’s come along. A lot of the victories he’s discussing were cemented because we were able to get better laws passed and because the courts made some important decisions that expanded rights. Right now those things aren’t possible and some of those laws and decisions are under major attack.

While many of us counter culture types, along with more mainstream folks and even a few decent conservatives who share our disgust with what’s happening right now, are hoping the part of the system that supposedly plays by the rules will help us fight those who are corrupting it and trying to destroy our advances, the truth is we have good reason to suspect they don’t see us as the good people, much less as the establishment. I mean, the Justice Department is in the hands of a white supremacist and the FBI is still more likely to go after Black activists than after all-white militias.

Watching the senators who put Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court, I realized something important: those people — the Mitch McConnells, the Lindsey Grahams, and even the ones who talk but still fall in line like Jeff Flake — are willing to destroy our democracy rather than allow anyone but rich white men to run things.

I hope we can save the country and make it into the place it could be, the place it has been becoming, the place the counter culture worked to make happen. But that’s far from a sure thing right now.

Further, I completely reject Rushkoff’s argument that we should be reaching out to the losers, who, as near as I can tell, are those powerful, wealthy white men who just rammed Kavanaugh through the Senate. They’re scared, he said.

Reach out a hand to someone like that and get it chopped off. They may be scared — they probably are and well they should be — but they’re still very dangerous. It’s like reaching out to crocodiles. In fact, I suspect crocodiles have better ethics.

We don’t need to reach out to the rich and powerful white men or to the women who back them up. We need to defeat those people. We need to root them out of power and keep them out of it.

Those of us who feel some connection to the counter culture ideal need to be reaching out to the people who’ve been passed over by the changes, the poor, the immigrants, the workers who are being screwed economically by the technological future and the destruction of unions, labor protections, and the like. And we need to be listening to, and following, the activists who are doing the good work. Black women are leading the charge. The immigration activists are showing us the way. Transgender and nonbinary folks are upending our conceptions of gender.

We won’t be the establishment until we get the old establishment out of the way. And they have a scorched earth policy for fighting us, maybe because they figure the rich can always buy themselves safety even if there’s nothing left for the rest of us. Or maybe they don’t really care about anyone but themselves in the here and now.

The counter culture may have won a lot of hearts and minds, but we’ve got more fights on our hands if we want to salvage the mess that’s being made of both the U.S. and the world right now. Charles M. Blow has a very scary recent column on the subject. He says:

Kavanaugh is just one part of a much larger plan by conservatives to fundamentally change the American political structure so that it enshrines and protects white male power even after America’s changing demographics and mores move away from that power.

This, for them, is not simply a game about political passion and political principles. This is a game of power, pure and simple, and it’s about whether the people who have long held that power will be able to retain it.

Me, I’m tired of having wealthy white men make the rules. We don’t get to stop fighting after the November elections, even if we vote a lot of good people in. The people who oppose us aren’t going away.

To that end, I recommend this piece by George Lakey on finding the opportunity to create real change in the legitimacy crisis created by putting Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court. He says:

What they don’t see is that the legitimacy crisis is an opportunity. It’s a truism in political science that when regimes lose their legitimacy, major change — even revolution — becomes a possibility. After all, that’s when the Swedish and Norwegian movements made their move, and pushed their economic elites out of dominance.

Get angry. And organize.



Countering the Authoritarian Culture — 9 Comments

  1. [ ” … are willing to destroy our democracy rather than allow anyone but rich white men to run things. ” ]

    Why yes, yes they are. They always are. See, o, for a couple of examples: the electoral college; the War of the Rebellion; the destruction of the prosperous and even wealthy African American community of Greenwood in Tulsa, a/k/a the Black Wall Street. And just lately, making it impossible — legally! — for the First Peoples in North Dakota to vote at all.

    Anger is well merited here!

    • Well, that’s because “revolution” is a circular process, really. A turning wheel may move the wheelbarrow forward, but the wheel itself always returns to the position it started—if it stops turning when it gets there, the wheelbarrow stops too. We need successive revolutions to get that wheelbarrow to its destination. When you add another, or several, wheels to the mix to propel a bigger vehicle, the process gets that much more complicated—especially if one of the wheels gets a flat…

      To use another, completely unrelated but somehow poignant, analogy, it’s kind of like housework; never done.

  2. Most “conservatives” don’t appear to want things to stay the way they are. They want to change things to the way they kind of wish they used to be, seen through filtered glasses.

    It’s obvious that from the beginning of time, God intended for us to have the values that we wish we had when we were young. Obviously not the values of our grandparents’ generation, and tragically not the values of our grandchildren’s generation. Not to mention other societies.

    • I just read the article and I can understand why it set you off. Rushkoff tries to pass these social movements off as simply a game of back-and-forth—one that was invented, and won, by 1960s American hippies. He doesn’t seem to even recognise, let alone acknowledge, that these are global issues, and they have by no means been settled by any stretch of the imagination. Not only that, but there is no monolithic “counterculture movement” that embodies all aspects of socio-political thought cohesively. There are a bunch of loosely-connected counterculture movements, just as there are a bunch of loosely-connected establishments that often—but certainly not universally—overlap. It’s more of a Venn diagram kind of thing.

      The notion that we should all be going out and offering lollipops and pats on the head to misogynists and racists and homophobes and war mongers and corporate thugs because they’re “scared” is, quite frankly, ludicrous. As is the suggestion that just because everyone (or a reasonably-sized majority thereof) agrees that something is good (i.e. equality and acceptance of others) that the issue can be considered “settled” and we can all move on happily with our lives. If simply knowing and agreeing that something is either good or bad for us solved all of the world’s problems, well, we wouldn’t be in such a mess now, would we?

      Entrenched attitudes and their concomitant behaviours take generations of concerted effort to overcome. The process becomes that much more difficult when large swaths of the populace lack the necessary level of self-awareness to even begin to comprehend how, and how deeply, these attitudes and behaviours operate within the structures of society. It certainly doesn’t help when they aren’t even willing to try. Rushkoff certainly doesn’t seem to see himself as being part of the “establishment” that he claims has been overturned, but that is very much still firmly established.

      Oh, wow. He really set me off too. I need to take a deep breath and go back to reading my Chaucer. I have assignments due next week!

      • Thanks for taking the time away from Chaucer, which would be much more fascinating reading. I’m glad I wasn’t alone in my response. I do think those various counter cultures have had a major effect on our society and others, but it’s also very easy to see that many of the changes are still hanging by a thread.

  3. I don’t think rich white men are scared — or maybe they are and that’s the reason they are pushing the envelope dangerously to the right — isn’t that fascism? But struggling middle class Americans who see their “American Dream” turning into a nightmare are scared and rich white men see a money-making opportunity there. Maybe those are the scared folks we progressives should reach out to.

    • I think the super wealthy are scared to a degree and the moderately wealthy are very scared, because they don’t want a democracy that holds them to account. I’m all for reaching out to struggling people in general, since they ought to be on our side, but they better be willing to work with women and people of color and LGBT folks and so forth. Especially given that a lot of the struggling people fall into those categories.