Friday, December 14, 2012

Fashionable Politics - The Long Wave

This is where I wanted to go with this topic from the start.

Through the mid-60's, becoming a mainstream American was the fashion.  In none of the civil rights rhetoric from Reconstruction to Selma was there the least blather about diversity being our strength.  MLK's speeches hew close to the theme of the black man being counted in the mainstream, of coming into the mainstream, of being deserving and eligible of being in the mainstream.

Neither was there much celebration of differences among other ethnic groups.  Every group had its customs, and it was considered acceptable to cherish those.  But it was also considered acceptable to abandon them completely, and rejoice solely in having "made it," being accepted as real Americans. Greeks, Irish, Hispanics - we tended to call those "Latins" in those days - measured their progress by mainstream acceptance.

While there were some voices early on in feminist writing suggesting a restructuring of roles and society entirely, most of the early emphasis was on "women are as good as men, the same as men, should be treated the same as men, etc." WASP culture was not despised, it was envied, admired, and imitated.  It was the fashion.

That is no longer the case.  To be different from the mainstream - not hugely, but distinguishably - is now the fashion.  I don't say that one fashion is better than the other.  the change worked against Mr. Romney and for Mr. Obama in the last election, which I regret, but I don't see that either fashion is better. (There is some exception to this, which I may get to.  But indifference is my starting point.)  I don't say it's worse that difference is now the fashion, but I note that this is so. We used to brag about being a melting pot.  Now we prefer to say we are a mosaic. The religious drive in the 1960's was to be "ecumenical."

Offer whatever theories you like about how this occurred: the changes in immigration policy in the 1920's and the 1960's; the purely visually imaginative difficulty of incorporating black faces as representative, which had not been so hard with Slavs, Jews, Swedes; the shattering of the idea of unity during the Protestant Reformation, or the discrediting of ideas of unity by the National Socialists; increased worldwide communication or travel; communist propaganda to divide Americans; watching TV; drugs and novelty-seeking; Tolkien and Lewis lauding the diversity of fictional other sentient creatures.  Whatever.  It is enough to notice that the previous ideal is now an object of scorn.  Everything from "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" to performance art does not merely exalt the hipness of rebellion, but the contemptibleness of being "whitebread," boring, married, straight, 9-to-5, parents.  Much better to be "quirky," eh? And it has long been a cliche to note that the art community values what is "transgressive."

Is this some revenge factor, or a sour-grapes response from individuals who couldn't cut it, and projected their own rebellion onto their group? Is it just the natural flow of trendiness?  Dunno.

In evolution, both values much be present for survival, of course, and they have always been held in tension.  One must be conformist enough to remain in the tribe, but different enough to attract a mate.  These themes have likely played out in every century, and we are merely seeing one aspect at present.  We did celebrate differences even in the bad old days, and plenty of people still aspire to the mainstream now, caring not a fig for diversity.  Or they aspire to a new, different mainstream, just as conformist as the old one but with a beat the kids can dance to.  Though there is reason to think this may be a bit new.  America is far more a mixed society than any previous one.  That's not easy, and perhaps embracing a new extreme of celebrating diversity is the only way of getting along, even if a lot of it is strained and mere formality.

I make no prediction where this is going, nor what outcomes are to be preferred.  I have ideas, but I haven't really played them out in the imagination fifty years or so.


Donna B. said...

As has always been my wont, I define things the way I want, including diversity.

I have 4 sets of in-laws to deal with. The three that are most like me racially are the ones I have the most trouble getting along with.

Not that the 4th is easy -- but I understand them and I am fairly sure they understand me. They speak a different language, but our enjoyment of our grandchildren is more consensual... more enjoyed together than with my other in-laws.

It's more a class and cultural thing than it is a racial thing, though that doesn't mean race isn't also a factor.

The we are racially different, we are, oddly enough, the most culturally the same. Now ain't that strange?

Fortunately for all, there are cultural similarities -- military and having southern roots being the dominant ones.

Mark Stoler said...

Interesting set of posts which triggered some random thoughts.

1. At a personal level my experience is that most interactions regardless of race, ethnicity and gender are not impacted by this but if you ask these same people to think about it in the abstract you will see fashionable thinking seep in with a certain %.

2. To the extent they define themselves against the mainstream it is against a mainstream that has not been the predominant culture in 50 years. Recently one of the cable networks did a series based on a 40 year old book, Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee, and I saw a quote from one of the actors about the importance of doing it now to (I'm paraphrasing) "make sure people know the truth instead of what they are taught at school". Now I don't know what your kids are taught but the narrative my kids learned at school in the 80s and 90s is pretty much the Wounded Knee version.

4. There is also a large element of conformity in fashionable politics. I noticed that starting in the 1970s the Democrats became the party of "feelings" (I was a D at the time and saw it first hand). It was more important what you felt about an issue than the details of policy. What counted was that you were for peace, education, diversity and once you said that you did not need to worry about the details. You would feel shamed by the group if you would not agree with these high level concepts or persisted in focusing on details that might lead one in different political directions.

Mark from Things Have Changed

Dubbahdee said...

For an interesting analysis of the sociology and psychology of assimilation, see this article from the Atlantic -- "How the Africans became Black." It unveils some dynamics of which I was previously unaware. I'm still not sure I quite grasp it -- the article is long and I haven't finished it. Nevertheless, the comparison between the Irish, american born blacks, and African Born blacks is very interesting.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

I have grown suspicious of the recent claims that the Irish were treated comparably as badly as black people were in the early 19th C. One can find hatred and prejudice galore - but you can always find that, anywhere.

As to the Atlantic article, I am imagining what expectations I would have that a society make psychological space for me if I moved there. Why should they? What obligation do they have to understand that I'm different from Canadians, or Frisians, or whatever?

Dubbahdee said...

Well, I suppose that in order to join the "Oppressed Club" you are going to require that the Irish had been kindapped en masse and dragged in chains to the new world where they were enslaved for 200 years...I guess you can say they weren't treated *THAT* badly.