The Beat Generation and the Tea Party
By LEE SIEGEL
The counterculture of the late 1950s and early 1960s appears to be everywhere these days. A major exhibition of Allen Ginsbergâ€™s photography just closed at the National Gallery in Washington. A superb book, by the historian Sean Wilentz, about Ginsbergâ€™s dear friend and sometime influence Bob Dylan recently made the best-seller list. â€œHowl,â€ a film about Ginsberg and the Beats, opened last month. And everywhere around us, the streets and airwaves hum with attacks on government authority, celebrations of radical individualism, inflammatory rhetoric, political theatrics.
In other words, the spirit of Beat dissent is alive (though some might say not well) in the character of Tea Party protest. Like the Beats, the Tea Partiers are driven by that maddeningly contradictory principle, subject to countless interpretations, at the heart of all American protest movements: individual freedom. The shared DNA of American dissent might be one answer to the question of why the Tea Partiers, so extreme and even anachronistic in their opposition to any type of government, exert such an astounding appeal.
Of course, on the surface the differences between â€œBeatâ€ and â€œTea Partyâ€ are so immense as to make comparisons seem frivolous. The Beats, though pacifist, were essentially apolitical. (Kerouacâ€™s hatred of the left at the end of his life seemed most of all to be a revulsion against the New Leftâ€™s enthusiastic hating.) Their aims were spiritual and sexual liberation, and a unifying wholeness with nature. Insofar as they had sociopolitical ambitions, their goals â€” abolishing censorship, protecting the environment, opposing what Ginsberg called â€œthe military-Âindustrial machine civilizationâ€ â€” were the stuff of poetry, not organized politics. In contrast, the Tea Partiers seek the political objectives of â€œindividual liberty, limited government and economic freedom.â€ Balancing the budget and rejecting cap and trade are their heartsâ€™ desires, not sexual revolution or the quest for spiritual harmony through the use of Zen meditation and hallucinogenics.
Still, American dissent turns on a tradition of troublemaking, suspicion of elites and feelings of powerlessness, no matter where on the political spectrum dissent takes place. Surely just about every Tea Partier agrees with Ginsberg on the enervating effect of the liberal media: â€œAre you going to let our emotional life,â€ he once wrote, â€œbe run by Time magazine?â€
More seriously, the origin of the word â€œbeatâ€ has a connection to the Tea Partiersâ€™ sense that they are being marginalized as the country is taken away from them. According to Ginsberg, to be â€œbeatâ€ most basically signified â€œexhausted, at the bottom of the world, looking up or out . . . rejected by society.â€ Barack Obama meant much the same thing when, during the presidential primaries, he notoriously said that â€œin a lot of these communities in big industrial states like Ohio and Pennsylvania, people have been beaten down so long, and they feel so betrayed by government.â€ That he went on to characterize such people as â€œbitterâ€ souls who â€œcling to their guns or religion or antipathy toward people who arenâ€™t like themâ€ only strengthened the anxiety among proto-Tea Partiers that they were about to be â€œrejected by society.â€
Itâ€™s too bad that the movie â€œHowlâ€ reduces the socioÂpolitical meaning of the Beats to the obscenity trial that took place in San Francisco in 1957, when Lawrence Ferlinghetti stood accused of printing and selling â€œHowl,â€ Ginsbergâ€™s explosively profane long poem. Hollywood loves self-righteously to portray now-unchallenged liberal causes under siege, even though in this case the cause of free speech was vindicated when the presiding judge ruled that â€œHowlâ€ was a work of â€œredeeming social importanceâ€ and that FerlinÂghetti was innocent. What the movie should have spun out into its own subplot was the fact â€” never mentioned in the film â€” that the judge, W. J. Clayton Horn, was a conservative jurist locally renowned for his Sunday-school Bible classes. Horn might well have been as much an outsider in San Franciscoâ€™s sophisticated social circles as Ferlinghetti and Ginsberg were in the eyes of the law. It takes an outsider to know an outsider.
Or perhaps Horn had a glimpse of the future. The eventual assimilation of Beat hedonism ensured that by the end of the millennium, white middle-class Christians like him would themselves be marginalized â€” at least by the dominant culture â€” as the â€œsilent majority.â€ (Is the commercialization of Beat values why the film â€œHowlâ€ mischievously casts Jon Hamm, who plays the boozing, womanizing, yet respectable advertising executive Don Draper in â€œMad Men,â€ as Ferlinghettiâ€™s defense lawyer?)
When the Tea Party came along, however, the silent majority started to get its voice back. Liberals could well be drawn nostalgically to the Beats nowadays because all the countercultural energy belongs to the other side. â€œWhen will you be worthy of your million Trotskyites?â€ Ginsberg asked his fellow Americans in his poem â€œAmerica.â€ The Tea Party has an answer to that rhetorical question. A former community organizer might be in the White House, but the Tea Partiers taking to the streets are now the ones supposedly influenced by Saul Alinskyâ€™s Trotskyish â€œRules for Radicals,â€ not the liberals who watch horrified and silent from the sidelines.
Then again, the Beats were as much at odds with the liberals of their time as the Tea Partiers are with the liberals of today. The same liberal air of elite-seeming abstraction that provokes the Tea Partiers drove the Beats around the bend. For the Beats, liberals were part of the power structure: they spoke loftily about conscience and social obligation yet lived comfortably within the plush boundaries of universities, law firms and financial institutions. Worst of all, they accepted the governmentâ€™s role in organizing their lives. Indeed, in the secret file the F.B.I. kept on him, Ginsberg was described by J. Edgar Hoover himself as having a dangerous â€œantipathyâ€ toward government. Against the liberalsâ€™ seeming complicity with the status quo, the Beats took to the road in quest of what Jack Kerouac (quoting Oswald Spengler) called a â€œsecond religiousnessâ€ within Western civilization. With their noisy commitment to their churches, the Tea Partiers also seem to want their religious communities to take the place of government in their lives. They would certainly sympathize with Ginsbergâ€™s antipathy.
Perhaps this mutual feeling of cultural exile is why some Tea Partiers share with the Beats a reverence for the power of imprecation â€” in the matter of unbridled speech, they would have been, with Judge Horn, on the side of Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti. True, the Tea Partiersâ€™ unnerving habit of bringing guns to town-hall meetings would have repelled the Beats. But William S. Burroughs fetishized guns, accidentally killing his wife while trying to shoot a glass off her head. Violence, implicit or explicit, comes with the â€œbeatenâ€ state of mind. So does theatricality, since playing roles â€” and manipulating symbols â€” is often the first resort of people who do not feel acknowledged for being who they really are. As the movie â€œHowlâ€ vividly shows, Ginsberg didnâ€™t merely write poetry, and he didnâ€™t simply recite it. He turned his poetry readings into theatrical performances of Dionysian proportions. Some people might say the difference between Allen Ginsberg and Glenn Beck is the difference between psychedelic and psychopathic, but Beck might well envy Ginsbergâ€™s attempt, in 1967, to help Abbie Hoffman and a band of antiwar protesters levitate the Pentagon by means of tantric chanting, though Beck would no doubt concentrate his telepathic efforts on the I.R.S.
American freedom is a many-splendored thing, and multifaceted too. â€œWe drove in his old Chevy,â€ Kerouac says, with portentous joy, in â€œOn the Road.â€ In the course of the exuberant tirade that gave birth to the Tea Party, Rick Santelli of CNBC referred to the â€™54 Chevy, â€œmaybe the last great car to come out of Detroit.â€ That might be as close to a convergence of different ideas of American freedom as our tortured polity will ever come.
The Beat Generation and the Tea Party