Generational Touchstones: "Which Side Are You On"?


Elegant Wits and Grand Horizontals, an entertaining book by Cornelia Otis Skinner about "La Belle Epoque" of Paris in the 1890s, notes that duels in that era had been comic opera affairs, with duels fought over journalists' reputations, whether Sarah Bernhardt was slender or skeletal or whether Hamlet should be blonde or brunette. It was the Dreyfuss Affair, when Captain Alfred Dreyfuss was falsely accused of treason and sentenced to life on Devil's Island that "split the nation into two warring camps breaking up lifelong friendships and causing bitter family rifts that were hardly healed before the outbreak of the First World War." The split went far beyond whether Dreyfuss was innocent or guilty, beyond anti-Semitism and chauvinism and the divisions of "left" and "right" in France and extended into personal awareness of where one stood in the world.

In this country, there were defining splits between those who volunteered to fight the fascists in Spain and those who called them "prematurely anti-fascist" in the 1950s, right-wing code for a Communist sympathizer. The left itself split over Stalin's perversion of Marxism and the non-aggression pact between the Soviets and the Nazis, proving that conservatives don't have a monopoly on turning a blind eye to atrocity.

My own generation, lucky, feckless bastards, too young for Vietnam and too old for Iraq, had no greater moral choice than whether they dropped acid during their cousin's wedding in the seventies or embraced cocaine and designer jeans in the eighties, whether they voted for Reagan or thought Oliver North should be in jail. Of the great temptations of easy sex or recreational drugs and our last two presidents, one was a poor boy who chased tail and didn't inhale, and the other a rich boy who spent his salad years getting high. I leave it to the reader which pursuit was more destructive of the body politic.

I suspect that the current culture war might one day be divided between those who embrace advertising and consumerism, and the wars for oil, exploitation of labor and media manipulation that make that world view possible, and those who still dream of making a better world in empirical fact and not just rhetoric. In the swirl and confusion it is difficult to articulate these divisions, but we know by instinct the real turtle and the mock.

Huxley's Brave New World, with its masses directed by "feelies" and "soma", may have been even nearer the mark than Orwell. Call it the difference between those who drink the Kool-aid willingly and those who can take it or leave it alone. Which side are you on?

2 comments:

Wayne Allen Sallee said...

i'm on the side that has the kool-aid dude, mike. can i bring glorianne gilbert and her tan lines to the dinner?

Ormondroyd's Encyclopedia Esoterica said...

Of course you can bring Glori-Anne; after she got a look at those new business cards, it's no wonder she wants you for arm-candy...

You can drink all the Kool-Aid you want, so long as you remember it's nothing but glorified sugar water. It's when people start believing it's the finest vintage wine that society runs into trouble.

Speaking of which metaphor, American Experience on PBS is running an episode on the Jonestown mass suicide tonight (Monday), though as I recall it wasn't actually Kool-Aid but Flavor-Aid Grape that they used. And as he was killing them, Jones kept chanting, "Father cares... Father cares... Father cares... Father cares..."