Saturday, November 14, 2009

The Sound of Revolution

Covering the development of American punk rock from California outward, American Hardcore examines punk rock as a reaction to the social vagaries of the Ronald Reagan era, not only in the United States, but in other places as well.

(The film frequently mentions Vancouver, BCs DOA.)

Many commentators in the film -- and it's always entertaining to witness how much individuals like Henry Rollins have mellowed in their old(er) age -- suggest that for many people punk rock served as the alternative to the organized left. Many of them go further still to suggest that there was no organized left during the 1980s.

But this is almost certainly an exaggeration.

As President, Reagan succeeded Jimmy Carter, whose policies had made him not onloy a darling of the American left, but also one of the more spectacular failures as the President of the United States.

When Carer was unable to secure the release of American hostages during the famed Iran Hostage Crisis, it was Ross Perot who eventually intervened to stage a dramatic rescue. While Carter remains well-regarded by he political left by virtue of the breakthrough that was the Camp David Accord.

But the political forces that helped Carter win the election were evntually marginalized -- partially by the failure of so many of Carter's policies, and partially by the social climate of the 1980s, which is remembered -- particularly in films like American Psycho -- as the yuppy age, when the famed "me generation" ranged supreme.

But moreover than this, the political left of the day represented everything that punk rockers were rejecting. It was institutionalized, organized, and outwardly taking on many of the same characteristics that punk rockers found so revolting about the culture of 1980s America.

But with that institutionalization and organization came a seeming lack of energy in the United States' mainstream political left. It wasn't until the mainstream political left began to take on some of the energy that characterized punk rock in the 1990s -- and again later in this decade -- that it became successful once again.

But deeper changes may be afoot today.

As Byron York notes in Vast Left Wing Conspiracy, the United States' modern-day political left has begun to institutionalize organizations that otherwise could (and should) be considered part of the far left. By doing this, American progressivism was able to build an elaborate political infrastructure they could use to campaign for any candidate or cause of their choice.

Conventional political wisdom would suggest that political parties should make use of this infrastructure, but keep it at arm's length.

The true genius of the Barack Obama campaign was in using those politically and socially diffuse elements -- such as the hip hop community -- within his campaign, thus harnessing the youth vote like never before.

But the American left needs to beware. In movements like the Tea Party movement and (shudder to say) the 9/12 movement, American conservatism seems to have found its own way of harnessing energies that may otherwise be considered marginal.

When next the sound of revolution is heard, it may sound more like John Rich or Tobey Keith than Black Flag.

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