Once upon a time — back when the Beatles were growing mustaches and picking up sitars, and Sergio Leone was wondering whether he could get away with filming a western in Europe — Americans of the New Left could claim with some credibility to be compelling and iconoclastic. Then, the Flower Children longed earnestly for a Brave New World — a blank slate onto which their “enlightened” generation might expand the heroic social victories of the civil-rights era, destroy the “judgmental” powers-that-be in favor of a more permissive order, and build a Great Society atop the New Deal. That is to say, in which they might recreate society in their own image.
Leftists wore the most interesting clothes and hairstyles, pushed to expand the boundaries of free expression, and made the best new music. They were genuinely open-minded — albeit often to that point at which, as G. K. Chesterton joked, their brains were likely to fall out — but they also knew their enemy, which consisted of almost everyone who had any influence. They had names for it — “the Establishment,” or “The Man” — and they were unabashed in their language. “All the squares go home!” insisted Cynthia Robinson on Sly and the Family Stone’s hit “Dance to the Music.”
From 1962 onward, the Left established and faithfully executed a plan to get its own back. Recognizing that the university system was, in the words of the seminal Port Huron Statement, “the central institution for organizing, evaluating, and transmitting knowledge,” they planned to take it over and thereby reshape the American mind. If the Left could “wrest control of the educational process from the administrative bureaucracy” and ensure that classes consisted of “debate and controversy, not dull pedantic cant,” the Port Huron theory went, then it could transmit its radicalism to the citizenry at large and, eventually, seize power. This it did with remarkable success, something that conservatives have only recently recognized to be a significant problem for them.
But, as a result of their victory, leftists now find themselves in a peculiar position. When Norbert Elias published The Established and the Outsiders in 1965, “outsider” was almost a synonym for “leftist.” Nowadays, the idea is risible. It is the Left that establishes what is acceptable and what is unwelcome in society; it is the Left that decides what is humorous and what is offensive, what is kind and what is mean, what is fair and what is unjust. It is the Left, in other words, that judges what is normal.
Far from being the creed of the rebellious outsider, leftism has now become the standard option — the default worldview into which the apathetic fall as indifferent iron filings might arrange themselves on a piece of paper above a magnet. Leftism is the outlook that you pick up if you aren’t really sure what to think — or if you don’t care. It is Opinion 101: The starting point for political and cultural impressions. And thus, in a cruel twist of fate, have the extremists become the Establishment, the mutineers become The Man, and the subversives become . . . well, they’ve become downright boring.
And, funnily enough, they haven’t noticed. Almost certainly as the result of a deep need to retain the sense of heroism and victimhood that marks its philosophy, the American Left has never even started to acknowledge that, in political maturity, it has become everything that it once despised.
“Maneuver and bait the establishment,” the radical Saul Alinsky once demanded. “Turn on, tune in, drop out!” insisted Timothy Leary. Weather Underground bomber Bernardine Dohrn perhaps put it best: “Freaks are revolutionaries,” she wrote, “and revolutionaries are freaks.”
How far those “freaks” have fallen in our age. In a development that must have been almost impossible for anyone alive during the 1960s to grasp, the recent shuttering of the government prompted our McGovernite president to order men with guns to erect barricades around the national parks while protesting Vietnam veterans knocked them down to the cheers of Republicans. The world is upside down. Is the president a . . . square?
When I was covering Occupy Wall Street, I liked to question the consistency of attendees who simultaneously spoke warmly of “letting your freak flag fly” and ranted against the evils of leaving people alone to do their own thing. To their credit, most respondents would notice the problem, leading them to balk at the suggestion of coercion and start mumbling incomprehensibly about “love,” or “togetherness,” or a variety of other terms drawn from the stale lexicon of the Woodstock years.
Certainly, this unwillingness to “sell out” was virtuous. But it was also deeply silly. To remake the world, you need power. And having power makes you The Man. This is to say that the leftist id still sees itself as Timothy Leary, opening Aldous Huxley’s “doors of perception,” when in reality it has unconsciously become Don Corleone — not so much extending an offer of a new experience as adumbrating an offer you can’t refuse. Occupy, perhaps, was a support group for a movement that has not yet come to terms with its new station.
This is the trouble with revolutions. The day after victory, the most committed radicals become the most committed conservatives, and ideas that were irreverent a few days before become immediately catechistic. The Left can no longer be concerned with bringing down the Establishment because it is the Establishment. Instead, it must attempt to ensure that society conforms to its conception of virtue. Our modern life is monitored incessantly by a veritable army of busybodies who consider everything political and from whom there is no safe refuge.
In October, a man named Jon Hochschartner penned an almost unbelievably silly Salon essay about the videogame The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. Zelda, he wrote, is “deeply problematic,” “extremely toxic, patronizing, and paternalistic.” It fails to handle “class, race, gender and animal rights” in a manner of which he could approve.
Pieces like this would be amusing if they were on the fringe. But they’re not. This is what the heirs of the Port Huron Statement have done with academia. Walk at random into any graduate school in the country and you will be subjected to this sort of nonsense all day long. Despite having largely got what it wanted, the Left cannot quit seeing victims and injustice everywhere — and we all have to pay the price.
And here’s the thing: If the Left is going to insist on having its opinions on all facets of life, and on backing its opinions up with force, couldn’t we at least insist that they be interesting, and that the influence that the movement has won not be used to alleviate what H. L. Mencken described as “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy”? Take almost anything regarded as both “fun” and “American” and you can all but guarantee that the modern Left has a problem with it.
Local control? Dangerous — people will make the “wrong” decisions. Individualism? That’ll lead to greed. Religion? What if you believe things that aren’t true, or disapprove of behavior we like? Rap music? Careful of those misogynistic lyrics! Alcohol? Too much is bad for you and, besides, the socialized costs of treatment require us to remind you of this at every opportunity. Flying? Hurts the environment. Cars? Same thing, I’m afraid. Jokes? Every one of them has a butt, so careful whom you offend! Guns? Dangerous! Race? Well, everything is racist. Averages? Lead inexorably to stereotypes. Football? Violent, patriarchal, and perilous.
And don’t even get them started on smoking.
Even hugs have come in for condemnation in recent months. In October, Slate’s Amanda Hess bothered to write a column advising against the “awkward, falsely intimate power plays” that she believes plague Americans greeting one another across these 3,000-something miles.
None of this, of course, is to say that conservatives are all radicals, nor that all conservatives want to be such. None of this is to suggest that all conservatives are in favor of the permissive society. None of this is to pretend that conservatives are incapable of being censorious — although they are almost certainly less likely to try to tell others what to do. But then, conservatives generally do not pretend to be exciting. As my colleague Jonah Goldberg has observed, your average leftist believes himself to be a “live-and-let-live sort of person who says ‘Whatever floats your boat’ a lot.”
To put it more bluntly, modern leftists seem still to believe that they are all Hunter S. Thompson — open-minded and rebellious outsiders who look on with disdain from the fringes of society. In fact, in their old age, they’re the old guy down the street, the guy who won’t stop telling you about the glory days 40 years ago — and who won’t give you your ball back either, lest you hurt yourself with it.