PRINT Summer 1989


I GUESS I WAS A COMMIE in high school, not because I knew much about the Soviet Union, but because I knew a lot about America in the ’50s, where wonder was confined to the material and politics was an arena of fear and loathing guarding the status quo. Some of my best friends were children of commies operating under pseudonyms so they could find work. We didn’t do much to manifest our politics, except for refusing to participate in air-raid drills and sitting around each other’s basements singing anthems of the Spanish Civil War. We were quite a puzzlement to our teachers: bright, convivial kids with no discernible program or ambition, who simply didn’t want in.

Then, in 1960, came JFK. This time it was my friends’ radical parents who were appalled as their children fell under the spell of a politician who looked, to seasoned eyes, like the incarnation of cold war liberalism. But we were undaunted by such trivial objections: Kennedy was, as Norman Mailer would dub him, Superman at the supermarket. He summoned up something far more resonant and unpredictable than his record or rhetoric implied. “This candidate,” Mailer would write, “ . . . has a patina of that other life, the second American life, the long electric night with the fires of neon leading down the highway to the murmur of jazz.” All of that can be encompassed in politics, JFK suggested; in the margins of his gilded text, he promised bread and wonder too.

That year we invaded the Columbus Day parade, where the candidate was to appear. My Trotskyite grandfather, who had arrived penniless from shtetl-Russia and died penniless on the Lower East Side, left my parents a hamper full of bed sheets they were afraid to use or to throw away. He became the patron of our little demonstration. We painted slogans across his sheets, mounted them on broomsticks, and unfurled them on Fifth Avenue, to the clear consternation of the police. This was no place for a ragtag cadre of kids with banners that read THE REMEDY IS KEMEDY. We were chased down a side street and advised to return to the Bronx on the nearest public transportation. But as we walked desultorily toward Madison Avenue, a roar came from around the corner, the bumper of a limo appeared, and suddenly, unaccountably, Kennedy glided by. He was big as a billboard, and utterly bronze. As he caught sight of us, a trace of bafflement crossed his brow. For a second, time stood still: the candidate and me, locked in the bemused embrace of ambition and aspiration—his global, mine cosmic—and then he was gone. We went home, sensing that something was about to begin: the ’60s.

In the end, of course, the most astonishing thing about JFK was his murder. His iconic presence turned out to be a cover for some very conservative policies (our parents were right about that). And the sexuality that Kennedy introduced to politics was more traditional than we thought: it could easily be appropriated by the enemies of ecstasy. Reagan summoned up the butch side of JFK, the side that faced down Khrushchev in the Cuban Missile Crisis—though Grenada took considerably less cojónes. This was macho in the service of dominance, not mobility; safety, not risk. Each president chose an official hobby to cultivate a self-image: from JFK the sailor to Ron the horseman—manipulator to master. Using Kennedy as a club against the left, Reagan triumphed—and the essence of his success was the banishment of wonder from politics. Under Ron, the American dream became rematerialized with a vengeance; and as for that other dream—Mailer’s "long electric night”—Reagan’s version was the nightlife of a 7/Eleven at 3 A.M. I suppose the lesson of this sequence is that the more intense our expectations, the more they may empower their opposite. In Ron, we had a president whose Teflonic wink assured us that, to be successful, we need only float above our contradictions. Obliviousness—a kind of antiwonder—was the tenor of his politics, though his image gave him a charismatic sheen. Ron’s successor, on the other hand, doesn’t even rate an iconic sobriquet or acronym like JFK: he’s just plain Bush.

When we watch Bush, patrician lapping up Diet Coke and pretending it’s Moët, we understand how far we are from a politics that conjures up wonder. Instead, we’ve opted to maintain quiddity: the rounds and rites of things as they stand. But hovering above and lurking beneath the stasis are tempting visions and terrifying memories. These laconic flashes are thought to represent the ’60s—a decade the poet Geoffrey O’Brien calls "dream time”—but the reverie is much older and more fundamental. The ’60s cry of liberation still haunts us because, for all its Modernist twang, it expresses the struggle for freedom and against control that has always marked the American experiment. Our grandparents may have been the flotsam of Europe, and their communist children the scapegoats of America, but despite the alienation we’d inherited from their travails, we felt embedded in the experiment. That was the reason we rebelled against their fears and bought the false messiah. It wasn’t Kennedy we were chasing down Madison Avenue, but Walt Whitman. It wasn’t the New Frontier, but the body electric, which, we felt certain, was destined to impose itself upon the body politic.

Things didn’t turn out that way: the experiment was canceled, the incursion kept in check. Our confidence in ecstasy has been shattered, partly by an ideology that seeks to bind desire to work, family, and God, partly by a series of occurrences that complicate our relationship to freedom and pleasure. Even though the clear and present dangers of AIDS and crack can be confronted by altering specific behaviors, they have come to stand for a much broader critique of sex and getting high—two emblems of the dream time. These two epidemics reinforce a pervasive American distrust of any politics that aim away from law ’n’ order and toward an agenda of transformation. Our conception of AIDS and crack has been useful to the right, which turned an obsession with safety and sobriety into a social agenda; it has also been devastating to the left, which is stigmatized by its former embrace of desire. In the ’80s, liberals shrank from the politics of wonder, much as they shunned socialism in the ’50s, and with very much the same result: the Democrats have come to be perceived as a programmatic shadow of their former selves. The sight of Michael Dukakis peering bemusedly from the turret of a tank emblemizes the state of progressive politics: a sheep in wolf’s clothing.

But what choice did Dukakis have? As the left abandoned its traditions, a generation was taught to regard liberation as the anteroom of tyranny. The power of this backlash is such that any political expression of ecstasy now seems dangerous, foolish, or merely quaint. While post-Modernism consoles us with the revelation that commitment is a construction, the mass media represent it as the ticket that exploded. In the prime-time stereopticon, Whitman’s democratic vista begets images of the gas chamber, gulag, rock house, and plague zone—all of it splattered neo-expressionistically across the evening news. From wonder, horror; from freedom, chaos—with the sheen and speed of MTV. By now we’re coded to doubt that any program of radical aspiration can lead anywhere but the heart of darkness. Forced to face the failure of our dreams, we’re blocked from dreaming. How adroitly Ron manipulated this dread—even as he sang us to sleep—and how eagerly we bought the solace of stasis, even as we knew it to be as unjust, as incomplete, as the violent past we’d left behind.

This awareness of unfinished business is a heady thing. It can crop up, even in the midst of calculated persecution, as a yearning for a radical vision that does not shrink from itself. This is the allure of Jesse Jackson, the first American political figure in a generation to broach the subject of transformation. One associates the word with his campaign, for better or worse. Jackson’s program was as traditional as Kennedy’s, and his image every bit as contradictory. No figure in politics today has a richer mythography: it resonates with subterranean archetypes. If JFK won us over by transcending privilege through salt, Jackson represents another American ideal—overcoming illegitimacy through grace. This is a far more compelling image than the self-made man who always crops up in our politics. Jesse’s roots in poverty and stigma reveal him to be an agent of his own invention. Act and the actor, as Harold Rosenberg once put it, are manifest in Jackson’s stance, his arcane yet revelatory rhetoric, and his message of self-actualization—“I am somebody.” That slogan begins in class and caste. But in Jackson’s hands, it takes on the Whitmanesque mission of a liberation that can infuse social justice with a fully faceted individuality.

The ominous contradictions in Jackson—his corruptibility, his social conservatism, his obliviousness to anti-Semitism—are also the reasons to mistrust populism (of the left and right). The great question about Jackson—liberator or demagogue—reflects uncertainty about radical politics in general (an uneasiness Bush exploited with even as centrist a foe as Dukakis). How we resolve these doubts depends, in large measure, on how we each perceive ourselves in relation to the social order. But it also hinges on how we regard ourselves in relation to the range of possibilities. Jackson got as far as he did—and no further—because of where we have been told the boundaries of politics should be drawn. We voted for or against Jesse last fall, not just because of his ideology (or his race), but according to our susceptibility to wonder.

I voted for. Despite my misgivings, I want to imagine a world transformed—and to hold that image without fear. I want to believe in the future I marched for: reconciliation of the collective and the individual; synthesis of sex and technics, pleasure and power—Whitman’s vision of ecstatic democracy. From Marx, I surmise that the individual is both agent and product of history. So I want to believe in the hero, not just as self-creation, but as sign; and in the radical vision as a dialectic generating freedom. For the same reason I voted for Jackson, I dare to believe in glasnost, despite the odds. What Jackson is to Kennedy, Gorbachev may be to Kennedy’s old nemesis, Khrushchev. The throwing open of windows and doors in the Soviet Union today could shatter our complacency, depriving the right of its Great Satan, and renewing the dream of 1968 (in Prague as in Chicago).

The body electric remains to be sung in politics; its expression would probably never occur to Gorbachev as a goal, but matrices of change appear where one would least expect. Watching the Russian leader in New York last fall, threading through the rush-hour traffic (as he must navigate the shoals of entrenched ideology and ethnocentric rage), I felt again like the astonished kid who came upon Kennedy. Now, as then, all I’ve got are my grandfather’s revolutionary bed sheets, my parents’ reactionary fears, and my own wet American dream.

Richard Goldstein is a senior editor for The Village Voice, New York. A collection of his journalism from the ’60s, Reporting the Counterculture, will be published in the fall by Unwin Hyman, Boston.