[NOTE: There was a technical difficulty issue in the transition to the new NRO that caused three of my earliest posts to be lost. Two were the Rock Songbook posts No. 96 and No. 97, which I recently reposted, and the third was this post, originally from May 29, 2014. Here it’s restored, in a more polished version.]
Are we moving to the left? A recent song from the rock band Woods asks this question and seems to answer it in the affirmative. It could be that the moment of feeling that we are heading leftward, present since 2006 but particularly acute over the winter of 2013/2014, has already passed. There were indications last week that the main argument of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century rests upon fibbed and shaky data. In India, Britain, and Europe generally, culturally nationalist parties made big electoral gains in defiance of correct liberal opinion. And in America, the likelihood of the Democrats losing the Senate becomes harder to dismiss the closer November gets. [I called it!]
Still, for conservatives, it was a winter of worrisome portents. Some of these were minor stories, but there were enough of them to provoke uneasiness: here, the blank communism-recommending stance of a young Rolling Stone writer, there, the stark call from an undergrad in The Harvard Crimson to end academic freedom for non-progressives, and of course everywhere, various calls (and actions) to punish those who deviated from the gay-marriage-is-good or anthropogenic-global-warming-is-real lines. But one portent was undeniably significant: the Pew Research Center report Millennials in Adulthood, summarized by Brad Wilcox here on NRO as showing that “Millennials are underemployed, unhitched, and unchurched at record rates.”
The music here, which as a sucker for folk-rockish and psychedelic sounds I like quite a bit, has a child-like bounce about it and a hint of the rote amid its overall grooviness; that fits with a lyrical emphasis upon inevitability.
All of my life, is this happening again?
Are we floating by and by?
Are we moving to the left?
That’s the first verse. Notice that the word “left” seems sung with a wry voice, and that “we” seem to have no responsibility for the move, having “floated” into it. Also note that the narrator has apparently experienced many times in his life when such a ballyhooed move was said to be occurring. And the second verse?
All of my days…always spinning with the sun.
Are we moving on and on?
Are we moving with the rest?
The implicit question is whether the movement is progressive, “on and on,” or actually cyclical, like the sun’s spin and our orbit. A large cyclical movement can after all seem progressive to the mover within it. Given the way the narrator feels this has “happened” previously in his life, and given the opening line in the choral stanza—it feels strange…it feels the same—the answer has to be that the movement is cyclical.
But what would that mean in terms of our times? Our society is involved in a change whereby its politics becomes more leftist, as demonstrable by opinion poll results and new laws on various issues, by Obama’s reelection, by gay marriage being legalized in most blue states, by pot legalization not far behind, and even by an unabashed re-embrace of Marx, and in the judgment of the Woods’ songwriter Jeremy Earl all of this feels the same? How could it?
There seem to me two interpretive possibilities. First, Earl could be suggesting that the present period is simply another season of leftist dreaming that modern democracy goes through, but which winds up making few lasting changes. So it’s two steps forward, i.e., leftward, but soon enough, we’ll take two step steps back. The concluding line of the song is …you fear again, what passes by won’t stay with them. The leftist prospects for change again “passing by” at this moment won’t be realized, as the many who are not-leftist-at-heart, the “them” of the line, won’t remain dedicated to these prospects.
The other possibility, which I think more likely, is that Earl is feeling a good deal of ambivalence about the “move,” even if it stands to last. The change this time around may be real enough, so that we’re not going to go back, for example, on gay marriage and pot legalization; but the change itself isn’t all that amazing or redeeming. That is, the Revolution Arrived, or just about to, turns out to be underwhelming. One’s own life remains to be lived, with most of its petty frustrations and nagging dissatisfactions still in place. So strangely enough, things feel the same.
Nor is the Movement one that largely has come from the young people themselves. All too often, from their perspective, it has rather been something that one has been led into, required to affirm, and “volun-told” to do. It’s what’s expected of one. Are we moving with the rest? Gotta keep the USA up with the EU, and the social-consciousness creds of your generation up with those of the previous ones. Perhaps as when Joe Pug sang “I Do My Father’s Drugs,” Jeremy Earl is uncomfortable with the fact that many of his generation’s idealistic dreams seem to be hand-me-downs from liberal-boomer grandparents.
In any case, the song’s choral stanza speaks of shame and a desire to hide one’s feeling on all this from others:
It feels strange…it feels the same.
We speak in tongues, to hold the shame.
You can cover up, you can’t hide.
You fear again…
what passes by, won’t stay with them.
I think Earl is saying that many in his generation are feeling sheepish about their flat emotional response to this purported moment of Leftist Triumph A-Comin’. Yes, that has to be posed against the idealism he has put into his band’s DIY small-scale expressions and cultivations of vaguely left-leaning hopes, as evidenced by the Big Sur Woodsist festival he helps to organize, but there it nonetheless is.
Interpreted thus, the song says that even if our society is not stuck in a circle that prevents leftward political progress, there remains something disgusting about the way we’ve been putting our faith in such. That faith has the taint of the mandatory, and what is worse, it does set our souls into a cyclical pattern, one of exaltation and disappointment. Is this happening again? The “again” says it all—it means that the “this” is not going to happen in the glorious way its believers long for.
Conservatives (and prospective Reform Democrats) can hope that some of the emotional distance vis-á-vis the left that Earl is detecting amid his generation may be due to shame about the bullying and anti-intellectual behavior increasingly indulged in by many progressives the closer the have thought they are to victory. Identifying with the 60s-oriented left by listening to bands like Woods and sporting a peace sign is one thing, but enlisting in the actual ranks of the sketchy crime-enabling Occupiers, the Ferguson rent-a-mobs, the “you will affirm the goodness of SSM or else” activists, the shameless Obama-apologists, and the zombie-like armies of the House of Clinton, is another.
Whatever is happening, youthful leftist excitement is not exactly in the air. Especially when compared to the confident expectancy found in boomer-liberal anthems such as Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’” or Lennon’s “Imagine,” the ambivalence found in “Moving to the Left” is a clue about the true character of our times.