Pop Between Realities, Home in Time for Tea 8 (’68)
And that, I think, was the handle — that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply PREVAIL. There was no point in fighting — on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave… So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark — that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back. – Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
The 60s ended.
This may seem like a very obvious thing to point out to anybody with a remote skill in calendar-reading. But when you’re immersing yourself in the raging heat of psychedelia and social justice, it’s as easy in 2011 to forget that its sense of inevitability was a fragile illusion as it was in ’68. As ever, reality stands ready to intrude.
However badly the Summer of Love ended, it was still a utopian moment, beautiful in its naiveté. Even in its most crassly commercial version, its iconography holds a strange power. I mentioned a few entries ago the cover of the 1910 Fruitgum Company’s single “Simon Says,” which you can gaze upon here (which also gives me the opportunity to hat-tip the fabulously good Chart Stats website, from which the first paragraph of almost every entry on this blog derives). What is most interesting about this cover is that despite the fact that it is the cover of an appallingly banal piece of bubblegum pop, the cover is still arrestingly psychedelic. Its b-side – “Reflections From the Looking Glass” – is unapologetically and unambiguously a piece of psychedelic utopianism. Even corporate commercialism proved unable to completely repress psychedelia.
Stunning, then, that less than a year later, on the other side of California, youth culture’s best hope for the future, Robert Francis Kennedy, was gunned down following his victory in the California Democratic Primary. Two months later the Democratic National Convention in Chicago turned into a festival of ugly riots as various left-wing groups such as the Yippies prepared to make a bold stand and deliver the psychedelic street theater of the Diggers (see the Summer of Love entry, linked above) to the masses, albeit without the utopian community building of the Diggers (which turns out, perhaps, to have been the more important part). From the perspective of anyone with an aesthetic appreciation of guerilla theater politics, this should have been a high water mark, with the threatened plan to dump LSD in the city’s water supply being a particular highlight.
Meanwhile, the increasingly fierce Vietnam protests, spurred on by moral obscenities like the Mai Lai massacre, descended on the convention as well in an effort to derail the candidacy of Hubert Humphrey, seen as too close to Lyndon Johnson’s war position. (Johnson, despite being one of the most effective anti-poverty and civil rights Presidents of the 20th century, was at this point a pariah to the American left over the war, hence his withdrawing from the Presidential race.)
Both forces ran smack into Chicago mayor Richard Daley, who had previously issued a “shoot to kill” order to quell the race riots following Martin Luther King’s assassination. Daley, vowing to maintain law and order, essentially commanded his police force to shut down the demonstrations. The result was catastrophic. Despite later investigations concluding that the resulting violence was wholly down to the overreaction of the police, the end result was essentially right wing street theater – the successful presentation of revolutionary youth culture as a bunch of violent thugs. From there it was all over save the corruption – a sham trial of the Chicago Seven in which Black Panther activist Bobby Seale was literally bound and gagged in the courtroom following an enraged outburst over his being denied permission to represent himself. The show trials lasted two years, with Abbie Hoffman performing career highlights of street theater in the courtroom. Ultimately, save for contempt of court charges, all of the protesters were acquitted.
The real cost, however, came elsewhere. Humphrey easily won the Democratic nomination and was duly slaughtered in the general election by Richard Nixon. It is impossible to overstate how brutal a slap in the face this was to any revolutionary culture. It would be one thing for a law and order candidate to defeat the more liberal candidate in 1968. But to see the left suffer a crushing defeat even with what was, by their standards, an extremely moderate candidate, and to see them suffer that defeat to Richard Nixon of all people – the very man Kennedy had defeated in 1960, the living, breathing, seething embodiment of the old establishment, must go down as one of the cruelest shutting downs of a political movement ever.
The revolutionary currents of the 1960s have never fully died in America, but this was, in effect, a mortal wound to any hopes of mainstream acceptance. In 1968, seemingly at the cusp of success, the revolution in America died at the hands of Richard Daley’s police thugs in Lincoln Park.
While in continental Europe, you got almost the exact same scene. The most prominent example is France in May of 1968, although lesser forms of them broke out across the European continent. But for our purposes, let’s just focus on France.
First, we’re going to have to understand something of the political situation in France. The first thing one has to realize about France in 1968 was that it was, in one sense, only a decade old as a country. Yes, France, like any stodgy European country, has centuries of history. But following its somewhat stunning decision to slaughter its entire aristocracy in a massive bloodbath, France went on to several centuries of political instability not helped by being taken over by Nazis during World War II. The reformed post-War government was rife with problems, and when French colonialism curled up and died in the Algerian War of Independence, the entire government followed suit. Enraged at the idea of formal negotiations with Algerian nationalists, the French military staged a coup d’etat and installed Charles DeGaulle as President. DeGaulle, in turn, demanded a new Constitution that would make him a stronger executive and give him a guaranteed seven year term.
Fast forward ten years, and the standard revolutionary tendencies of the 1960s are on display. As in any country, many of the flashpoints of this conflict came in universities – unsurprising given that the 1960s were largely a youth movement and universities by definition have high concentrations of youth. A particularly big flashpoint opened surrounding police occupation of the Sorbonne University in Paris, leading to massive demonstrations and massive police retaliation a la Chicago three months later. Allegations flew that the police were deliberately sabotaging the demonstrations via plants who would take actions like throwing molotovs that would in turn allow for brutal police crackdowns.
Unlike in Chicago, at least initially sympathies lay firmly with the demonstrators. Many of the labor unions in France sided with them and held general strikes in sympathy. From here, the situation went out of control. Instead of subsiding when the ostensible main issue – the occupation of the Sorbonne and the release of prisoners from past protesters – was resolved, the strikes suddenly exploded out. Despite efforts by labor leaders to bring them to an end, rank and file union members rebelled against their own unions, breaking out into a nationwide wildcat general strike. What started as student protests turned into a widespread attempt to bring down the government.
Again, this is not as radical as it might sound to a US or UK reader. Remember, a military coup had brought down the government only a decade earlier, and France was on its fifth governmental structure of the 20th century and sixth in the last hundred years. De Gaulle himself apparently thought his government was toast and began working on a flight to Germany, including disappearing for a time to confer with French generals there. Instead, de Gaulle called for new elections in June.
Unfortunately, by then popular opinion had turned on the strikers, who were viewed as naive and stupid utopianists. The popular slogans of the uprisings proved popular only among the group of revolutionaries themselves. The revolution turned out to be an echo chamber. De Gaulle’s government won in a landslide, and in Europe too, the revolution died.
Picking over its corpse, there is much to love. A perusal of the slogans grafittied throughout France feels like a memorial wall to a revolutionary ideology, the POWs and MIAs of a disastrous culture war. “Be realistic. Ask the impossible.” “Under the paving stones, the beach.” “We will beg for nothing. We will ask for nothing. We will take. We will occupy.” But they failed. They were driven out, their gains reversed, and the political left was, in effect, condemned to decades of begging.
Through and through, Doctor Who has been allied with the revolution that runs aground here. Although the show’s commitment to social justice has been sporadic, turning at times into simple lack of interest or overt and catastrophic failures of social justice. But on the other hand, it is very difficult to read Troughton’s Doctor, who proclaims that bad laws are made to be broken, who is a chemist in the age of LSD, and who is an overt and chaotic anarchist whose basic approach to life appears to be a Situationalist form of guerilla theater splayed out over space and time, as anything but a revolutionary liberal. If nothing else, he is a man who is far, far more inclined to bring down a government than build one.
For Doctor Who, then, the summer of 1968 is a vicious blow, even as it tracks the general cultural narrative of 1967-68 well. A rush of promise in the summer of 1967 followed by a long year of disappointment and generic bases under siege. For all its “classic monster era” status, the fact of the matter is that the seven stories of season five feature six that are basically identical and feature no engagement with the real world. This is not merely a complaint that they are not political enough – although I see nothing wrong with demanding that our mass entertainment be political, in no small part because apolitical mass entertainment is, in practice, reactionary mass entertainment. No – it is a complaint that they are not human enough – that they are utterly divorced from the idea of material reality and the world they were transmitted into. Yes, we can maybe come up with some excuse for The Wheel in Space as David Whitaker launching a much-needed critique of the base under siege, but what from that? Trying to come up with a redemptive reading of Hainsman and Lincoln? We’ll see on Monday how poorly that is going to go.
On the other hand, you may have noticed something interesting about the overview of 1968 provided above. The US had its cruel shutting down of revolutions. So did continental Europe. And of course there were things like the Prague Spring to crush the revolutions in communist Europe. But we’ve yet to discuss anything that happened in the UK.
There’s a reason for this. 1968 largely left the UK untouched. The UK peaked in the early days of the revolutionary 60s with mod culture and the Beatles. It is not that it was any less psychedelic or extreme than the US or France, but somehow, these strains of culture interacted differently in the UK than they had elsewhere. There were still major problems and setbacks for the left, but there was nothing like the era-ending crashes of the US and France. Largely, this came down to the fact that none of the revolutionary movements we’ve talked about were particularly British. British iconoclasm tended to view the aesthetics of street theater less as means to an end than as ends in themselves. You dress in funny clothes and do weird things because that in and of itself is threatening.
Or, to relate it back to Doctor Who, for all his anarchism and disregard for authorities, the Doctor is not a revolutionary in the American or French sense of things. Left to his own devices, he seems to want nothing more than to bop about the universe doing cool stuff. Any revolutionary drive he has seems to extend from the degree to which he is a socially unacceptable figure just for wanting to wander time and space. Secondarily, it comes from his traumatic regeneration and subsequent realization that there are genuine monsters who want to endanger the very possibility of “being” someone. But at the end of the day, all the Doctor seems to want is the ability to be the Doctor. Psychedelia and street theater aesthetics are simply who he is. Political revolution is important only inasmuch as it is sometimes necessary to ensure his continued existence.
This is very much in tune with British psychedelia. The British model of psychedelic culture has always valued the individual rabbit hole. Not in the sense of frontier American cowboy individualism, but in a far quieter sense. In some ways, this is even more revolutionary. It is one thing to tear down society and replace it with its opposite. British psychedelia and British revolutionary politics – the last ones standing after ’68 – offered a stranger and perhaps stronger prospect – the possibility of making psychedelia part and parcel of the larger world. And even if it is not, in 1968, the best show on British television (let’s face it, that’s probably The Prisoner), Doctor Who is the show that best captures and embodies that spirit.
The Lord of Ábrocen Landmearca
June 10, 2011 @ 3:56 pm
Yeah, it is pretty much The Prisoner.
July 17, 2011 @ 8:06 am
Treating the RFK assassination and the Nixon election as decisive defeats for the New Left & the counterculture seems to assume that electoral politics was the natural venue for the victory they sought. But it was only the most conservative wing of the New Left & the counterculture that put any hope in electoral politics to begin with. The movement's radical focus was on direct action and changing the culture, not on changing which doofus was in office.