Reflections on the American Theater: the 1968 Elections

        Both SDS and Wall Street completely ignored the elections this year, which makes sense to me. For within my lifetime, the elections have never involved any significant redistribution or reshaping of Power, despite their proud rhetoric. The history books say they used to, sometime before I was born (1939). But then, the books say this also about the elections I've lived through, so what should I believe? So, as a social organizer, I've chosen to work in a deeper medium than electoral politics: trying to change the educational system.

        The elections aren't what they're advertised to be, but they still seem too important to be dismissed as an energetic, functionless game. Rather, though I never read much anthropology, it seems clear that this periodic ritual is a form of public symbolic theater, in which my culture Amerika acts out to herself what she is feeling at the quadrennial moment, her desires and fears and expectations. (This is why, in our day of documentary drama and cinema verite, the National Drama looks so familiar there on the cathode tube. Already Mailer and others have written scripts, and soon someone will make a film.)  So I have been attending the Election Theater, watching this heavy formal drama and trying to get the message my culture is acting out. And what I have seen this time terrifies me, if I take it seriously. For what was most evident on the stage was who was missing: us, the young.

        We have been around, increasingly. Tagged with various labels -- the New Activism, hippies, Youth Culture -- something massive and new has been growing in us and with us. It first became visible around 1958, with the Freedom Rides. Almost immediately, it was reflected in the Election Theater, by the tousle-haired figure of Kennedy the First, central and consummate actor on the stage. He played touch football and started the Peace Corps, and his rhetoric reflected our Noblest Aspirations.

        But that was in 1960, when we still seemed tractable, when we were mostly out doing missionary good: tutoring ghetto children and getting our heads split in the South. By 1964 we had grown stranger and bolder, and had started bringing our change back home. In Berkeley the Free Speech Movement signaled the first great public outburst of the white young against their most Liberal parent institutions. And already, in the Election Theater of that year, we were clearly being pushed toward the wings and offstage.

        For we were represented on the stage by Goldwater, not Johnson. This makes no sense in traditional political terms, but it does if you take the elections as symbolic theater. The voice calling for real change was Goldwater's. His campaign engendered the only youth enthusiasm. (Later, some young Americans for Freedom chapters that had campaigned for him merged with SDS chapters.) And, like youth, he was deviant, zealous, honest, concerned with moral imperatives, and greatly and blindly feared.

        In the four years since then, Amerika's consciousness has centered increasingly on the strange motions of her young: the antiwar actions, the McCarthy enthusiasm, the campus convulsions, the many voluntary youth ghettos whose prototype was the Haight. Whatever is new in us announces with growing diversity and power that we are starring to move en masse out of the political and cultural mainstream -- and that our motion cannot be ignored.

        Yet in the Election Theater of 1968, there was simply no place for us on the stage. If you don't care for symbolic interpretation, perhaps our absence can be dismissed by the "accidents" of Robert Kennedy's assassination and McCarthy's inability to buck an entrenched political machine. But the tableau of the election reiterated our absence strangely. The most striking thing about Nixon and Humphrey was not that they wore cardboard masks and played insipid roles, but that we remembered them literally from our early childhoods, like the dear faded Tenniel illustration of Tweedledum/dee. And WalIace crouched in the lower right corner, snarling like some impossible cat winking into existence from the late rabid 1930s. It was as if the clock had been turned back, to a time before our presence was even possible.

        Wallace was the key figure on the stage, despite the traditional political analysis that rejoices at his "poor" showing in the vote. He was the only focus of live energy from the audience. The strategies of the other actors were shaped more by the Wallace Problem than by the War or the blacks. His language decided theirs, and all spoke in chorus of Law'n'Order. The audience mostly assumed that they were threatening only the blacks. But the unrecognized deep dynamic behind the Wallace Phenomenon suggests that their message was directed also, and perhaps mainly, to the absent young.

        Wallace calls his followers the "left-out people." Clearly, they have had no national electoral outlet for their feelings about niggers, street violence, big government, and so on. Both his friends and foes have been quite content to take this description at its political face value. But Wallace's people are the subject and vanguard of a deeper disenfranchisement whose only familiar aspect -- the political one -- is also the least novel and least important.

        For the texture of our age is of accelerating change, and his people represent those who are falling behind. Automation and new technologies are erasing their jobs, and the vocational retraining programs don't work. Three years ago the first San Francisco dance posters appeared. Now Wallace's housewife opens her paper to supermarket ads done in some weird psychedelic lettering she has to squinch up her eyes to read. She turns on the TV. Everybody in advertising smokes grass now, and the commercials which form the medium's core are getting freakier and freakier. So are her children, whose perceptions they're shaping: if not today, then tomorrow. For the new youth culture is growing rapidly in membership as well as in strangeness. Already the first wave of lower-class teen-age hippies have appeared in the Haight, mingling indistinguishably with the middle-class runaways.

        So Wallace's people are indeed being "left-out": their familiar culture is dissolving beneath them, and their future is foreclosed, for their children will not be their own. And to the extent that this deeper dynamic underlies the Wallace Phenomenon, he represents not a cranky minority but Amerika herself, her changes and fears.

        Given only the timid projections Theobald, de Chardin, Lifton and others have deduced from what has already happened, we are headlong into a shift of cultures unique in human history. Its closest parallel in depth may be the paleolithic/mesolithic transition, but its rapidity has no precedent. We have seen, in the Aleutian and Polynesian islands, examples of sudden but far less radical culture change, in which old folkways are supplanted within the lives of their bearers. Conflict between old and young is characteristic of such transitions, due to their speed -- and our change grows steadily heavier and faster.

        Is it premature to recognize the stresses of our culture's change already being portrayed in its symbolic public theater? The TV screen flicks from a McLuhan interview through a Dodge Rebellion commercial to Chicago, dress rehearsal for the Election Theater. Under her satellites America pulled its pants down, took out his cock, and proceeded to club their fears and our children over the head in my street. Inside the Amphitheater, the Director said, "Sorry, kids, we were just kidding. But thanks for coming to rehearsal. And can't you take a joke? " From their lost tower, from the fifteenth floor, McCarthy's children dropped salmon of smoke to the soldiers waiting in the street, in grave benediction. And then went downstairs to join the Yippies in the wilderness of Grant Park, and wait for destruction.

        What was acted out in Chicago had IittIe to do with the Democratic party or electoral politics. The conflict expressed was between the old order and its young. And the terms of the conflict were stated clearly, from the old order's side at least: absolute closure and violence. The symbolic structure was so overt that even some adult newscasters caught it. And some notable, on live camera, flashed on this first pre-echo of a true youth pogrom and said brokenly, "The children . . . my God, see what they're doing to the children ... "

        In November the words of Law'n'Order and their meaning were the same, though no machine guns were visible in the streets. The growing strangeness of the future will be faced with refusal and violence. It is as if Amerika had been startled to find her children on the public stage, at about the Kennedy time, and had grown alarmed at their sudden growth and their strange freaky motions that could not fit her script. And then thrust them offstage, locked the door, and turned to speak the opening lines of this next act, in a tone of stern parental wrath and foreboding.

        Amerika bends over the mirror. The children are behind her, shouting. She admits to herself that she does not like them. Their father? Once she was visited by a spirit of hope, warrior returned all weary and grateful. They embraced, heaven promised on the installment plan if only she'd work while he went off to war again. But that was before the piling withering years that brought only an empty plenitude but no peace, nor his return, nor an end to the pain. She stares at them in the mirror. No use telling her there's something wrong with her eyes. She wants only to be alone, now that everything's turned strange.


December 1968

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