The Sick-sties

the lingering haze of a decade’s long time passing.

Another Speaker, Tip O’Neill once said: ‘All politics is local.’  And I say to you tonight that when it comes to health care for all Americans, ‘All politics is personal.’ — Nancy Pelosi, Closing Statement for House of Representatives Health Care Reform Bill, 21 March 2010

One of the most surprising aspects of the Barack Obama era thus far has been the strangely mutating specter of the 1960s. The hoopla during Obama’s campaign framed him as a post-60s figure: this was a man who was not formed, stained, distorted, trapped, or motivated by the scars of 1960s political or cultural struggle. Neither non-inhaling Bill Clinton, nor Vietnam-vetted John McCain was he (nor Vietnam-evading George W. Bush either, for that matter).

But then, during the campaign, Bill Ayers the unrepentant ghost kept creeping out on to the scene as Obama’s main man. Rather incongruously, not to mention unconvincingly, but there he was nonetheless. Suddenly, at least as far as right-wingers were concerned, you did need a Weatherman to know which way the wind blows.

But it was not until the health care reform debate that the 1960s—or more importantly the fuzzy public memory of it, which folds together everything from the civil rights movement to women’s and gay liberation to Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society government programs to the anti-Vietnam War struggle to the counterculture into one big (medical) marijuana cigarette—really roared back into public consciousness. And when it did, the 60s returned in odd, new ways.

That bobo in paradise (or at least at the New York Times) David Brooks, as always keen to pin the downfall of modern America on the 60s, wrote a bizarre column in March that located the roots of the Tea Party movement in the New Left. Brooks’s argument contained a seed of truth—as Rebecca Klatch’s marvelous scholarship has shown, the libertarian left and right overlapped in the 1960s counterculture. It is true, after all, that the Tea Party decided to hold a self-proclaimed conservative Woodstock in Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s hometown. Significantly, though, the libertarian right clashed with the conservative right in the late 60s.

One thing that Brooks ignored in his column was the history of the libertarian right in the 1960s. Brooks, who believes conservatives should be understood exclusively as Burkean believers in human fallibility and the resulting need for tradition, structure, and restraint (except, for some reason, when it comes to the “free” market economy), did not mention the other historical side of the modern right: the Birchian right wing of firearms, dog-eat-dog liberty, and a nasty, brutish, and short paranoid style. No believers in Reinhold Niebuhr they. This omission occurred precisely because Brooks seeks to distance modern conservativism from its own checkered past.

Enter 1960s mass-mediator Todd Gitlin. Though only some of the world was probably watching in this case, Gitlin wrote an eloquent riposte to Brooks. The former SDSer, who disapproves of Bill Ayers as much as David Brooks, urged us to distinguish among the many confusing and contradictory elements within the New Left alone (not to mention the counterculture and myriad other progressive movements of the 60s). For Gitlin, Brooks’s argument is not only “glib,” but historically inaccurate. What is this dude smoking? That’s what Gitlin essentially asks without putting it that bluntly.

What not even Gitlin mentioned was a crucial difference between the New Left and the Tea Party movements. The New Left was never well funded, even as it grew into a mass movement before being derailed and dismantled by the likes of Bill Ayers and the Weathermen in 1969. But the Tea Party, if Michael Tomasky is to be believed, is no grassroots movement. It is, as they say online, astroturf all the way. Behind the supposed “people” assembling at town halls and rallies lurk corporate giants.

The only relevance of the 60s here is that one of those corporate giants behind the front groups of right-wing “populism” (if we can call it that) is Koch Industries, whose founder Fred Koch helped to create the John Birch Society way back when in the late 1950s (recall Bob Dylan’s early song, oh ye 60s nostalgists, “Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues”).

What was perhaps more fascinating was that another, more unexpected 1960s ghost swirled forth on the froth of the health care reform battle. This ghost arrived in Nancy Pelosi’s sly reference to the old slogan from the women’s liberation movement: “the personal is political.”

Notice, though, how Pelosi flipped it: this was not the casting of light (light show?) on the previously off-limits terrain of the private sphere, where all sorts of injustices and inequalities were shielded from public view, but instead a strange new kind of privatization of public issues.

Pelosi unintentionally bespoke the loss of that intermediate ground—the local—in the contemporary struggle between behemoths (most especially corporations) and individuals. This evacuation of the local was present in the health care debate throughout 2009 and 2010, in mock town halls that were mediated imitations of the real thing and in the spectacle of public space as symbolic ground rather than actual terrain. Democracy may be in the streets now, but only when the streets are re-represented on the screens of television or computers.

As Gitlin himself has shown us, the 1960s was the moment when the local began to vanish both upward and downward, to the mass systems of corporate capitalism and the isolated individuals increasingly unmoored from traditional communities. Or if it was not when this transformation began, it was certainly when it accelerated rapidly.

Health care bespeaks this strange new situation, for it’s an area of life and death (but not death panels) in which we struggle to take care of our bodies amid the magnetic resonance imaging radiation waves of a massive technological system. We look for our bodies, our selves in those MRI images and all that they represent: certainly we seek to discover the well-being of our individual bodies, but perhaps we also hope to glimpse the essence of the collective social body through what those enormous scanners reveal.

This puzzle of self and system in a world where the stabilities of the local are disappearing, both into our very molecules and into the machine, both into our cells and into our cell phones, is perhaps why the memory of the 60s still lingers, free-form dancing through the purple haze, tripping forward on the networked web of the present.

In this respect, Brooks is partially right even when he is so wrong. Whether we tilt rightward or leftward now, Americans are perhaps still searching—both politically and culturally—for that moment when the self burst forth, paradoxically, from community and yet found community still around, phantom-like, glimmering simultaneously on the scrim of the self and the screen of the mediated world.

Medicated or not, we wait to see if this new community floats, and whether we are on a good trip or a bad one.

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