The Clare Spark Blog

January 12, 2012

The Counter-culture vs. “the Establishment”

“America The Nation of Trampled Rights”

[Illustrated: Soviet poster. Tom Nichols translated it for me: “…an anti-imperialist passage written by Mark Twain in 1901 criticizing the Spanish-American war, but the Soviets mangled it slightly. The original goes like this: ‘And as for a flag for the Philippine Province, it is easily managed. We can have a special one–our States do it: we can have just our usual flag, with the white stripes painted black and the stars replaced by the skull and cross-bones.’ The Soviet poster says: “We can set up a special flag, just the same flag with the white stripes black and the stars replaced by the skull and crossbones. — Mark Twain’  Then at the bottom: AMERICA – THE NATION OF TRAMPLED RIGHTS….”

We are now in full campaign mode, and the media are belching out polls and opinions 24/7. Our political culture is so messed up with respect to labels that it is necessary from time to time to look at the key words that many Americans take for gospel truth, for a meaningful statement of fact. In this blog, I criticize the notion of a [Northeastern] Republican establishment that is held to be the big money behind the Romney candidacy (but see my critique of the New Dealers who indeed were instrumental in politics and social psychology:  For “establishment” read “[one faction] of an elite.” For “counter-culture” read the Ron Paul enthusiasts and overlapping leftovers from the 1960s, or even from the coalition between the CPUSA and America First, 1939-41.

The Antifederalists were populists furiously opposed to the output of the Constitutional Convention (1787), but who plays the populist card these days? I have argued here before that populism may have had a startling recrudescence as a grass roots movement of farmers reacting to the Depression of 1893, angry at banks and railroads and railing against the gold standard; however its demands for more direct democracy were co-opted and advanced by a bipartisan progressive movement (as emphasized by Martin Sklar’s big book on the “socially constructed” transition to progressivism). Thus, it can be said, with accuracy, that there is a progressive movement that spans both major political parties, but is mostly unopposed within the Democratic Party (and that in turn often makes common cause with the Leninist Left), and that finds powerful adherents in the Republican Party, especially those espousing “compassionate conservatism.” It is also true that both political parties are internally incoherent, for they are playing to a highly diverse electorate with the same, often irrational or outdated appeals. I hope that the following key words can clear up a bit of the media-bred confusion.

1. Establishment. If classes were akin to geologic strata or rungs in a ladder, and if we had a stable ruling class with the powers of the medieval Catholic Church or the absolutist monarchies that joined King and Church, there might be some basis for the counter-culture dropping out from, or rejecting “the establishment.” But class is not a ladder or a layer of sedimentary rock; equal opportunity does exist under capitalism, and groups that were once exploited in an earlier America (slaves and many workers, including women) now have organized themselves so that they wield enough political power to make or break a federal or state election, not to speak of the power awarded to them by an ever-alert and porous progressive ruling class, alarmed by rowdy movements from below. Clearly, there are de-centered loci of power (as the postmodernists claim), and there is more fluidity and opportunity to rise than the class-warfare ideologues claim. In the case of the Ron Paul adherents, there exist such hated entities as “the military-industrial complex” or “the Fed” (aka the money power). Just to emit these key words, so resonant with authoritarian parenting styles, is enough to stir up a mob.

2. Experts. The stubborn  hatred directed against Walter Lippmann by followers of Noam Chomsky is impressive in its magnitude. Apply to antagonism to Mitt  Romney as “technocrat”. See

3. American exceptionalism. Anti-Americans, whether Soviet or Nazi/Fascist, have wreaked havoc on the writing of history. Partly because of the way that the corporatist liberals (i.e. the pseudo-moderate men of either Party, see, etc.) absorbed movements from below during the 1960s and 70s, catering to cultural nationalists (subtly racist)  of all kinds, and because there was much ammunition available in the American past, owing to our particular history, the most self-critical,  open and pluralistic society on earth has a terrible international reputation, just as does democratic Israel with its authoritarian neighbors. With a very few exceptions, our most prominent intellectuals and opinion-makers see us as no more than rapacious white people/Jews plundering the other “races” and Mother Nature herself. Who wouldn’t want to drop out and turn on Nirvana in such a hellhole? Hence, the demand for cheap narcotics and other forms of escape, strongly reinforced in the popular culture. (I developed this paragraph further here:

4. The moderate men. There is pseudo-moderation and true moderation. But the word itself is a staple of psychological warfare. No better way to affect public opinion than to name your opponent as “extremist” while claiming the rational position for oneself. And rationality has come to mean the willingness to find the middle ground so that compromises can be effected and wars averted. Pseudo-moderates are often found in those statists who see regulatory agencies and the bureaucracy in general as floating above the fray, able through artfulness to bring extremist antagonists to the bargaining table, where the mediator will accomplish his [magic tricks]. Since everyone wants to be reasonable (i.e., not crazy), we often let this buzz-word go by without critical reflection, without asking for a detailed analysis of the policy that is under review by its citizens or their representatives. A mob is never moderate; a citizen is always thoughtful, self-examining, and prefers the marketplace of ideas as the best place to separate reconcilable from irreconcilable conflicts, taking action accordingly without fear of “flip-flopping.”

5. Flip-flopping.  Any person who has never changed her or his mind is a slave to institutional authority. I have flipped-flopped numerous time, from housewife to radio personality (and with much internal role conflict); from liberal to leftist; from leftist to independent or classical liberal or just plain seeker after truth as a scholar. If a politician is merely an opportunist who changes his/her line depending on the audience, rather than speaking from soundly analyzed and specified policy preferences, then I understand the animus against flip-flopping. But someone who cries “liberty” without spelling out what that means in the most detailed and concrete manner, to be judged by American citizens accordingly, is a charlatan. But then, is our most visible culture not given to the most abstract buzz words and expressions?

From “establishment” to “counter-culture” we are not only speaking past each other, we are not speaking at all.


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