Hurricane Katrina and the Radicalization of Popular Culture
By Louis Proyect
For all of the reports about Marxism being so irrelevant, I was struck by all the references to class and race, and how they relate to each other, in popular culture recently.
On Tuesday morning (September 6), I heard talk radio icon Don Imus interviewing Douglas Brinkley, a professor at Tulane University in New Orleans. Brinkley was the author of “Tour of Duty,” an official biography of John Kerry, who Imus supported in the last election. Although Imus has a well-deserved reputation of promoting racism on his radio show, he was clearly angry at the Bush administration for failing to respond to poor Blacks in a time of need. I am not sure of what Brinkley’s politics are, but he is the author of a highly regarded biography of Rosa Parks. In any case, he was so brutal toward Bush and his lackeys that you almost felt like you were listening to Amy Goodman’s “Democracy Now.” And it was all phrased in terms of the Marxist lexicon broadly speaking. All the while, Imus was as deferential to him as he usually is toward mainstream politicians.
Last night I watched Bill Maher on HBO. As many of you might know, Maher was fired from ABC after making the observation on his September 17, 2001 show that “We have been the cowards, lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away. That’s cowardly. Staying in the airplane when it hits the building, say what you want about it, it’s not cowardly.”
Maher is not that radical. His politics can best be described as a mixture of liberalism and libertarianism, with an emphasis on the rights of the individual and a pronounced hatred for the yahoo streak in American society.
His guests were George Carlin, Kurt Vonnegut, James K. Glassman, and Cynthia Tucker. Glassman is a Bush diehard connected to the American Enterprise Institute. Tucker is an African-American reporter for an Atlanta newspaper, who focused on the racism involved with charges of “looting.” But the most interesting exchanges were between Carlin and Glassman.
Another Imus favorite (as is Maher), Carlin is a fascinating character. His career began in the late 1950s doing standup on the Ed Sullivan show and in Las Vegas. His act consisted of making wry observations about airline food, etc. that was highly influential on Jerry Seinfeld, et al. But sometime during the 1960s, he started to lurch toward the left and toward a rawer vision of American society in his performances that evoked Lenny Bruce. In a landmark decision, the Supreme Court ruled that there were certain words that couldn’t be heard on network TV and radio after WBAI in NYC played a Carlin monologue titled “Filthy Words.”
The monologue begins, “Aruba-du, ruba-tu, ruba-tu. I was thinking about the curse words and the swear words, the cuss words and the words that you can’t say, that you’re not supposed to say all the time, ‘cause words or people into words want to hear your words. Some guys like to record your words and sell them back to you if they can, (laughter) listen in on the telephone; write down what words you say. A guy who used to be in Washington knew that his phone was tapped, used to answer, Fuck Hoover, yes, go ahead.”
Carlin was in no mood for joking and scowled throughout the show. His dislike for Glassman was palpable. He made a couple of points that received support from Maher and wild applause from the audience.
He said that the terms “left” and “right” derive from the French revolution. Parties toward the right side of the Legislative Assembly favored property rights, while the left side favored human beings. He described the Bush administration as forcing American politics to the right like no other presidency in the 20th century. When Glassman challenged him on the basis that this represented the will of the people, Carlin responded by saying that the elections were not democratic and only served to create the illusion that people can vote to change things. He also described the current government as fascist, which Glassman objected to violently. Interestingly, Maher agreed with Carlin, stating that when the corporations overlap completely with the state, you have fascism. While I don’t quite agree with this definition, I was happy to hear it on television.
The exchanges were peppered with the terms “class” and “race” and they were used identically to the way that they are used on leftwing blogs or mailing lists. Glassman referred to Carlin as a Marxist at least three times during the heated debate. My guess is that Carlin certainly has absorbed radical ideas over the past forty years, including some Marxism in all likelihood.
In an interview with the Idaho Statesman on January 24, 2004 Carlin was asked whether he was a liberal.He answered:
“No. First of all, I’m not liberal. I’m just about [being] anti-United States. I don’t like the way this country operates. I think we’ve ruined this place. And I think it’s largely because of businessmen. And businessmen are not liberals. So if that makes me a liberal, then that’s just an association. It’s not a choice.... I do not care about changing anybody. Nobody. I go out there to show the rest of the Americans how badly they’re doing. This country has been, for about 180 years now, badly mishandled. And it’s been in the wrong hands. It’s been in the hands of the business interests.
“And a lot of the beauty of this country has been shattered by them. The physical beauty and the kind of institutional beauty that was originally built into this place—this experiment, this magnificent experiment in democracy is just being shredded to pieces by these right-wing Christians, the Ashcroft branch of Republicanism. [They’re] just shredding the rest of the Bill of Rights which hadn’t been shredded already. [But] they’d been doing a pretty good job on it up until then, anyway.
“Everybody’s got more jet skis and Dustbusters now and sneakers with lights in them. They’ve got more cheese on their thing that they buy. They get double helpings. See, Americans measure all their progress in the wrong way. They measure by quantity and by gizmos and toys. And not by quality and by things that are important.”
Carlin and Maher are not really political theorists or activists, but they do have their fingers on the pulse of American society. The fact that they are articulating a nascent rebellious mood in American society should tip us off that a radical alternative to politics as usual might be in the offing. If we can find a way to deliver our message in terms that such popular-culture figures have crafted to perfection, then we have a much better chance of succeeding. At least we can be sure at this point that we are no longer swimming upstream.