Back in 2011, the establishment media made a stab at coping with protests outside of the political process they control. The venerable New York Times ran an opinion piece by Charles Blow that reminded me of the way one of Kubrick's monkeys worked his courage up to touch the monolith in 2001 A Space Odyssey.
Blow's Hippies and Hipsters Exhale ranged from making fun of the Occupy Wall Street protest -- pointing out that the protesters amused themselves with face-painting and pillow fights -- to fretting about the idea that the protesters on Wall Street might represent the avante garde of a completely disillusioned American majority. Blow's "sage" advice to the protesters? Join the political process. Come be co-opted. Step right up.
Of course, Blow completely missed or chose to ignore the point to protests like Occupy Wall Street. The protesters had rejected politics. They were wide awake. They no longer believed a political solution to America's problems was possible. They were determined to win or lose in the streets, and they were committed to the notion that culture trumps politics. (Think about the beginnings of the Civil Rights Movement and the anti-war, anti-draft movement that ended the Vietnam War and the Johnson Presidency at the price of undermining The Great Society and opening the door of the Oval Office to Richard Nixon. The way, we used to say, the cookie crumbles.)
When I came home from the Army in the late Sixties, I spent a lot of time lounging around and arguing with a good friend -- a Marcusian who had ditched his Swiss name for "Baptiste" -- about whether everything was politics -- his idea -- or everything was culture. I've never been more convinced I was right. Politicians, like everyone else, swim in the sea of mass culture. Political movements emerge and ride the wave of mass culture for a while, then sink back into the sea. It is impossible to imagine the New Deal outside a culture that valued people and the idea of society, just as it is impossible to imagine the Civil Rights Movement and the anti-war protests that followed outside the Counter Culture of the Sixties and Seventies -- precisely the culture Blow derided in the title of his essay.
The real question is: Can the emerging protest movements stay alive in the absence of something like the Counter Culture of the Sixties? Has enough work been done to build a culture of dissent to sustain them?
When I was a graduate student at the University of Texas, the UT School of Communication, together with Stanford University, hosted a week-long seminar every year at Pebble Beach. The schools brought a handful of graduate students and professors to Pebble Beach to spend a week with the leaders of the mainstream media. The kicker -- the brainchild of Stanley Donner -- was that the "leaders" who were invited to the seminars were the number two men and women of the broadcast industry, the men and women UT and Stanford figured had the best shot at grabbing power and doing something different when they did. The theory was that the last people in the world who would shake things up were the people in charge. If you wanted to talk to somebody in the industry about doing something better, the person you needed to get to was the heir apparent.
The problem with the American political system now is that not only the leaders, but all of the possible pretenders to positions of leadership -- to political office, you see -- have been vetted by an establishment process that has eliminated the possibility that any anti-establishment -- read anti-Wall Street and anti-Corporate -- idea will work its way into the political process. The culture just isn't there to sustain it.