Archive for March, 2011

 ”If I can’t dance I don’t want to be part of your revolution.”
   – attributed to Emma Goldman

Since finishing the previous post, I’ve kept puzzling over Tom Joad and why I don’t really warm to him. The last time I wrote about Joad, for example, was in an entry titled “The Democratization of Higher Knowledge,” where I described him as “hapless” and compared him unfavorably to that other mythic figure born of late 30’s populism, Bugs Bunny.

The difference between Tom and Bugs, of course, is that Bugs is an authentic trickster figure — the descendant of Rabbit and Coyote and Raven and all the others of that venerable lineage — and is totally in it for the Lulz. Tom Joad, on the other hand, is more like a Neolithic corn-god who achieves divinity through self-sacrifice without actually having to do anything.

It’s partly a matter of taste, I suppose — or perhaps not, because standing behind the persona of Tom Joad is the similar but far more dynamic figure of Joe Hill.

Joe Hill was a real person, a labor organizer and songwriter who was a member of the International Workers of the World (familiarly known as the Wobblies) — the group whose call for “one big union” is echoed in Joad’s “one big soul.” Hill was executed by the state of Utah in 1915 on what were apparently trumped-up murder charges and was mythologized after his death in the poem “I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night,” written in 1930 and set to music in 1936.

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I’ve noticed that a persistent theme runs through many of my blog entries, even those that seem on the surface to have little in common: the question of where history leaves off and myth begins.

I come face to face with that question whenever I speculate about prehistory. I do my best to respect the facts, so far as they are presently known, but I’m also aware than I’m telling stories based on my own ideas about human nature and the relationship between the past and the present. So I have to wonder: Am I writing about the real past or the past of my imagination?

Mythic themes also crop up in my present-day entries — but there I’m a lot more confident that I’m not just spinning tall tales. Julian Assange, Lady Gaga, and Anonymous are inveterate self-mythologizers. The people of Egypt and the people of Wisconsin have the courage to stand up against tyranny because they are touched by myth. Myth is the power source for all great historical events — but not for the great events alone.

The simple truth is that humans everywhere constantly engage in mythologization. We mythologize our own lives, the histories of our tribes or nations, and our accounts of the origin and fate of the universe. Every one of the cultural visions that I’ve been discussing in these entries consists of a mythic story woven around a framework of practical experience.

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Having written last week about the Family Farm Defenders’ call for a convoy of tractors to join the Wisconsin protests, I was particularly interested in the speech delivered on Saturday by that group’s representative, Tony Schultz.

The first thing I noticed was that Schultz was wearing a trucker’s cap almost identical to one in the image of a stereotypical hipster that I’d linked to in that same entry — but was doing so without any trace of hipster irony.

I’d suggested there that “guerrilla gardeners give the impression of acting more symbolically than out of a sense of necessity. Hipsters similarly long to put their holistic ideals into practice but wind up embracing such eccentricities as fixed-gear bicycles. But radical farmers, driven by the urgent politics of food, show no such self-consciousness.”

Damn, I love it when the universe makes my points for me.

What struck me even more strongly, though, was that Schultz began his remarks by asking jocularly, “Has anybody seen Tom Joad?”

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It’s always pleasant when people show a proper sense of historical precedent. So I was gratified to find that the latest video from Anonymous, which announces an all-out attack on the current corrupt financial system, concludes with the classic call for civil disobedience issued by Mario Savio during the Sproul Hall sit-in at Berkeley on December 2, 1964:

“There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart that you can’t take part! You can’t even passively take part! And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus — and you’ve got to make it stop! And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it — that unless you’re free the machine will be prevented from working at all!!”

I quoted that speech a year ago in the course of an entry on the rejection of machine society by the 1960’s counterculture. And in another entry a few weeks later, I identified its inspiration as a passage from Henry David Thoreau’s “Resistance to Civil Government” (1849), which first set forth the principles of civil disobedience:

“If the injustice is part of the necessary friction of the machine of government, let it go, let it go: perchance it will wear smooth — certainly the machine will wear out. If the injustice has a spring, or a pulley, or a rope, or a crank, exclusively for itself, then perhaps you may consider whether the remedy will not be worse than the evil; but if it is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then, I say, break the law. Let your life be a counter friction to stop the machine.”

Thoreau, like Savio and now Anonymous, was issuing his call for civil disobedience at the very onset of a countercultural period. All three are kindred spirits, speaking to one another across the years from identical moments in the cultural cycle.

And though it’s the 21st century now, and the old imagery of inexorably grinding machines may no longer be as relevant as it once was, that call still resonates as strongly as ever. “Until our demands are met,” Anonymous warns, “and a rule of law is restored, we will engage in a relentless campaign of non-violent, peaceful, civil disobedience.”

Just what Anonymous may be planning, and how effective it will be, are yet to be seen. But as a sign of the times, the attempt itself appears both appropriate and inevitable.


A listing of all my posts on the emerging counterculture can be found here.

A general overview of the areas of interest covered at this blog can be found here.

A chronological listing of all entries at this blog, with brief descriptions, can be found here.

As the emerging counterculture takes shape, the pieces of the kaleidoscope are starting to shift and fall into new patterns at a rapid pace. One of those patterns has been revealing itself in Wisconsin, where we are seeing an unexpected rebirth of union activism for the first time in more than 50 years.

By the 1960’s, unions in the US had effectively ceased to be a force for change. They had bought heavily into the American dream after World War II, and as long as wages were high and industry was booming, their inclination was to resist anything that threatened that way of life. Their membership was for the most part socially conservative, wary of desegregation, and fiercely anti-communist.

The inevitable outcome was a parting of the ways between the social and political radicals of the 60’s and the unions. There was always a certain regret about this in the counterculture, and the occasional working-class hippie was treasured as a badge of authenticity. But as Nixon’s silent majority turned into Reagan Democrats, the divide only grew wider.

Over the past decade, though, something has started to change — as can be seen in the fetishizing of working-class style by middle-class hipsters that began about 2002. But the hipster embrace of blue collar chic has been unilateral and imbued with self-conscious irony. This makes the sincere and entirely non-ironic nature of what is happening in Wisconsin all the more striking.

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A few weeks back, I commented in passing on the devastating attack recently directed by hivemind group Anonymous against internet security firm HBGary.

Despite that stinging humiliation, HBGary planned to go ahead with a presentation it was scheduled to deliver at a major security conference — until the presentation team arrived to find a sign in their booth reading, “Anon . . . In it 4 The Lulz.”

At that point, the team packed up and left, complaining, “They decided to follow us to a public place where we were to do business and make a public mockery of our company.”

Mission accomplished, at least as far as Anonymous was concerned. But I’ve been wondering ever since about that mocking sign and the strangely cryptic word “Lulz.”

For those who are just coming in on the story, Lulz is a noun derived from the exclamation LOL — as in lolcat — which is, in turn, an internet acronym for Laughing Out Loud. If you look it up in online dictionaries, you’ll find doing something “for the lulz” defined at doing it for laughs, often at someone else’s expense.

But although saying “I did it for the lulz” can certainly be used to justify bad behavior, its application to the HBGary situation suggests something deeper.

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After I’d finished my previous entry arguing for the existence of a global civilization 50,000 years ago, I recalled that I’d attempted to write something similar a few years back. So I pulled out my old notes and partial draft and found them offering many of the same conclusions, though in rougher form and without the benefit of the latest discoveries.

My primary focus in that earlier version, however, was on a point that I haven’t previously touched on here.

I believe there is a crucial message about the past that we’ve been trying to get across to ourselves for over a century. Ever since we started digging up ruins and translating old inscriptions in the 1830’s and 40’s, we’ve been haunted by a sense of something enormous and ancient and unexplained lying just underneath our feet.

Conventional accounts of prehistory seem designed to ward off that disquieting perception, but it stubbornly hangs on. The irreducible fact is that the last 5000 years of recorded history are like a small house built over an ancient and cavernous basement, whose true extent and contents we do not yet fully comprehend.

The realization that our own past is largely unknown crept up on the Victorians gradually, but by the end of the 19th century it had become undeniable. In 1890, for example, the young H.G. Wells wrote an essay titled “The Rediscovery of the Unique,” which emphasized the limits of scientific knowledge using a metaphor that appears to be drawn specifically from the study of prehistory:

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