The Beat Generation & The Tea Party
By Lee Siegel
Published: October 8, 2010, NY Times Book Review
The counterculture of the late 1950s and early 1960s appears to be everywhere these days. A major exhibition of Allen Ginsberg's photography just closed at the National Gallery in Washington. A superb book, by the historian Sean Wilentz, about Ginsberg's dear friend and sometime influence Bob Dylan recently made the best-seller list. "Howl," a film about Ginsberg and the Beats, opened last month. And everywhere around us, the streets and airwaves hum with attacks on government authority, celebrations of radical individualism, inflammatory rhetoric, political theatrics.
In other words, the spirit of Beat dissent is alive (though some might say not well) in the character of Tea Party protest. Like the Beats, the Tea Partiers are driven by that maddeningly contradictory principle, subject to countless interpretations, at the heart of all American protest movements: individual freedom. The shared DNA of American dissent might be one answer to the question of why the Tea Partiers, so extreme and even anachronistic in their opposition to any type of government, exert such an astounding appeal.
Of course, on the surface the differences between "Beat" and "Tea Party" are so immense as to make comparisons seem frivolous. The Beats, though pacifist, were essentially apolitical. (Kerouac's hatred of the left at the end of his life seemed most of all to be a revulsion against the New Left's enthusiastic hating.) Their aims were spiritual and sexual liberation, and a unifying wholeness with nature. Insofar as they had sociopolitical ambitions, their goals -- abolishing censorship, protecting the environment, opposing what Ginsberg called "the military -- industrial machine civilization" -- were the stuff of poetry, not organized politics. In contrast, the Tea Partiers seek the political objectives of "individual liberty, limited government and economic freedom." Balancing the budget and rejecting cap and trade are their hearts' desires, not sexual revolution or the quest for spiritual harmony through the use of Zen meditation and hallucinogenics.
Still, American dissent turns on a tradition of troublemaking, suspicion of elites and feelings of powerlessness, no matter where on the political spectrum dissent takes place. Surely just about every Tea Partier agrees with Ginsberg on the enervating effect of the liberal media: "Are you going to let our emotional life," he once wrote, "be run by Time magazine?"
More seriously, the origin of the word "beat" has a connection to the Tea Partiers' sense that they are being marginalized as the country is taken away from them. According to Ginsberg, to be "beat" most basically signified "exhausted, at the bottom of the world, looking up or out . . . rejected by society." Barack Obama meant much the same thing when, during the presidential primaries, he notoriously said that "in a lot of these communities in big industrial states like Ohio and Pennsylvania, people have been beaten down so long, and they feel so betrayed by government." That he went on to characterize such people as "bitter" souls who "cling to their guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren't like them" only strengthened the anxiety among proto-Tea Partiers that they were about to be "rejected by society."
It’s too bad that the movie "Howl" reduces the sociopolitical meaning of the Beats to the obscenity trial that took place in San Francisco in 1957, when Lawrence Ferlinghetti stood accused of printing and selling "Howl," Ginsberg's explosively profane long poem. Hollywood loves self-righteously to portray now-unchallenged liberal causes under siege, even though in this case the cause of free speech was vindicated when the presiding judge ruled that "Howl" was a work of "redeeming social importance" and that Ferlinghetti was innocent. What the movie should have spun out into its own subplot was the fact -- never mentioned in the film -- that the judge, W. J. Clayton Horn, was a conservative jurist locally renowned for his Sunday-school Bible classes. Horn might well have been as much an outsider in San Francisco's sophisticated social circles as Ferlinghetti and Ginsberg were in the eyes of the law. It takes an outsider to know an outsider.
Or perhaps Horn had a glimpse of the future. The eventual assimilation of Beat hedonism ensured that by the end of the millennium, white middle-class Christians like him would themselves be marginalized -- at least by the dominant culture -- as the "silent majority." (Is the commercialization of Beat values why the film "Howl" mischievously casts Jon Hamm, who plays the boozing, womanizing, yet respectable advertising executive Don Draper in "Mad Men," as Ferlinghetti's defense lawyer?)
When the Tea Party came along, however, the silent majority started to get its voice back. Liberals could well be drawn nostalgically to the Beats nowadays because all the countercultural energy belongs to the other side. "When will you be worthy of your million Trotskyites?" Ginsberg asked his fellow Americans in his poem "America." The Tea Party has an answer to that rhetorical question. A former community organizer might be in the White House, but the Tea Partiers taking to the streets are now the ones supposedly influenced by Saul Alinsky’s Trotskyish "Rules for Radicals," not the liberals who watch horrified and silent from the sidelines.
Then again, the Beats were as much at odds with the liberals of their time as the Tea Partiers are with the liberals of today. The same liberal air of elite-seeming abstraction that provokes the Tea Partiers drove the Beats around the bend. For the Beats, liberals were part of the power structure: they spoke loftily about conscience and social obligation yet lived comfortably within the plush boundaries of universities, law firms and financial institutions. Worst of all, they accepted the government's role in organizing their lives. Indeed, in the secret file the F.B.I. kept on him, Ginsberg was described by J. Edgar Hoover himself as having a dangerous "antipathy" toward government. Against the liberals' seeming complicity with the status quo, the Beats took to the road in quest of what Jack Kerouac (quoting Oswald Spengler) called a "second religiousness" within Western civilization. With their noisy commitment to their churches, the Tea Partiers also seem to want their religious communities to take the place of government in their lives. They would certainly sympathize with Ginsberg’s antipathy.
Perhaps this mutual feeling of cultural exile is why some Tea Partiers share with the Beats a reverence for the power of imprecation -- in the matter of unbridled speech, they would have been, with Judge Horn, on the side of Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti. True, the Tea Partiers' unnerving habit of bringing guns to town-hall meetings would have repelled the Beats. But William S. Burroughs fetishized guns, accidentally killing his wife while trying to shoot a glass off her head. Violence, implicit or explicit, comes with the "beaten" state of mind. So does theatricality, since playing roles -- and manipulating symbols -- is often the first resort of people who do not feel acknowledged for being who they really are. As the movie "Howl" vividly shows, Ginsberg didn't merely write poetry, and he didn't simply recite it. He turned his poetry readings into theatrical performances of Dionysian proportions. Some people might say the difference between Allen Ginsberg and Glenn Beck is the difference between psychedelic and psychopathic, but Beck might well envy Ginsberg's attempt, in 1967, to help Abbie Hoffman and a band of antiwar protesters levitate the Pentagon by means of tantric chanting, though Beck would no doubt concentrate his telepathic efforts on the I.R.S.
American freedom is a many-splendored thing, and multifaceted too. "We drove in his old Chevy," Kerouac says, with portentous joy, in "On the Road." In the course of the exuberant tirade that gave birth to the Tea Party, Rick Santelli of CNBC referred to the '54 Chevy, "maybe the last great car to come out of Detroit." That might be as close to a convergence of different ideas of American freedom as our tortured polity will ever come.
Lee Siegel is a columnist and editor at large for The New York Observer and
the author of "Against
the Machine: How the Web Is Reshaping Culture and Commerce -- and Why It Matters."
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