On the eve of 2010 elections Zombie urged fellow hippies to reclaim their counter-culture freedom-loving anti-establishment roots and embrace the Tea Party movement. As I was reading the essay I practically wanted to scream: “Hippies?! But some of the most visible figures within the conservative movement today are so punk rock! What I mean by punk is not pierced nostrils and ripped leather ( hence the lower case “p”). What I mean is a rebellious spirit, forcefulness, an unapologetic attitude, a live- in-the-moment mind-set and a creativity associated with the best that Punk ever produced. It’s Situationism which by the end of Obama’s first (and likely only) term went conservative.
Greil Marcus, who is supposed to be one of the more important critics of pop culture, wrote a rather long-winded book about punk. Academics love to site it, hipsters strategically place it on coffee tables and even read it from time to time. Thankfully, the book is sufficiently non-linear, so one can open it at any place, read a few pages, and be done with the chapter. Despite the annoying habit of bringing up Herbert Marcuse on a whim, and despite the fact that everybody in the book is always “negating” something, Marcus managed to make some insightful points. He claims, for instance, that since Sex Pistols, Punks were Situationists.
So what’s Situationism? From what I gather, defining Situationism is against the rules because post-Modernism strives to describe instead of defining. Since I don’t have a definition to rip off, I’ll have to try my hand at it. Situationism is pretty much what it sounds like: An art movement blended into a political movement in which people perform theatrical stunts with an aim to further revolutionary consciousnesses. “Situations” have to be entertaining because boredom is counterrevolutionary; they may be rude, crude, surreal and spontaneous. BBC’s The Mighty Boosh got it well in this parody (only about a half of it is relevant to my post, but all of it is funny):
Original Situationists were Marxist and anarchists. Punk is a bit more complicated. Before there was Punk Rock, there was Garage Rock, American as apple pie with its can-do/DIY/small business credo. The 70s New York scene with bands like The Ramones and New York Dolls and Velvet Underground was another precursor of Punk. The bands weren’t explicitly political, and some musicians were/became fairly conservative. Malcolm McLaren took the ideas across the Pond and turned them into a socialist mega-act with a safety pin on top. Mark Steyn once pointed out that “no future” UK punk flourished in pre-Thatcherite economy, and I have to add that when Margaret Thatcher straightened things out a bit, Brits started churning out cute little dance tunes. Greil Marcus made an interesting remark on the British society of the late 70s in re Punks wearing swastikas:
It meant, history books to the contrary, that fascism won the Second World War: that contemporary Britain was a welfare-state parody of fascism, where people had no freedom to make their own lives — where, worse, no one had any desire. (it’s on p. 118, go check it out yourself!)
Wow! Did I mistakenly grab my Goldberg tome from the bookshelf? After all, Jello Biafra did say “Zen fascists will control you”, though he took his words back later. No way! Marcus must be telling us that the nominally capitalist United Kingdom is no anarcho-communist paradise where everybody gets to, like, play all day.
But I digress. Who are Situationist Conservatives? Andrew Breitbart does it best. Heck, he’s probably not only the best Situationist Conservative, but best Situationist ever. Watch him force union protesters to fold up their signs:
That’s a pretty good “negation” if you ask me. Spontaneous, aggressive and exciting. Jello Biafra, take notes. Breitbart never fails to entertain, like in his stunt in which he gets Wisconsin doctors issuing fraudulent wavers to protesters to sign off on his “walker pneumonia”.
When Breitbart took over (h/t King Shamus) Anthony Weiner’s press conference and demanded an apology, the audience was taken aback. I remember driving to pick up my daughter from pre-school and listening to Hannity who promised to carry the press conference live at the top of the hour. When I picked her up and turned on the radio, Breitbart had the mike. Surreal. Mr. Breitbart outdid himself.
Breitbart’s targets are as stated — big government, big labor, big Hollywood and with them miscellaneous “liberal” special interests. Some of those special interests happened to be black groups or organizations fronted by black individuals, which makes us, upper middle class white people, a bit uncomfortable. But rocking the bourgeoisie is very punk. Besides, everyone’s a bigot:
Back in the day, Punks perfected the art of outrage by lacing their sentences with profanities and naming bands after unmentionable parts of human anatomy. The shock value of obscenity had since been reduced; the new taboo is race. Combating racism is a noble enterprise, no questions about it. But in the polite circles things get a bit silly. We sensor our speech, for instance, to remove potential references to race or ethnicity, but references to ethnicity are different from racism. We are not comfortable mentioning anything that might be deemed stereotypical about blacks, Hispanics or Muslims, although the later is not technically a race. The Situational Conservative challenges our false pities that make any honest discussion of race relations a taboo.
Greg Gutfeld is technically a Libertarian, but he’s on Fox, and I’m not going to let a silly detail ruin my argument (or at least the title of this post). Gutfeld, who was Punk Rock in high school, turned the tables on self-proclaimed champions of tolerance with his announcement that he plans to open a gay bar next to the Ground Zero mosque. It’s an act of the same nature as Sex Pistols attempting to play “God Save the Queen” on Queen’s jubilee or Jello Biafra running for San Francisco Mayor on a clown platform.
Gutfeld’s gesture is refreshing and creative. In 2000 Punk Rock zine Maximum Rock’n’Roll urged its readers to vote for Nader because, apparently, there was no real difference between Bush and Gore, and if anything, a Republican President will be good for Punk because lefties are sure to be outraged and will express it creatively. I’m not going to talk about how much sense it all makes. Yet Punk didn’t do particularly well in the Bush years. Punks updated the 70s graphics, but had nothing to say about the changing world they inhibited, namely, they were mute about the threat of radical Islam. In 1977 it was “God save the queen for Fascist regime” in 2002 “BushHitler”. Same idea, a bit less nuance. Enter Greg Gutfeld. Gutfeld has the combination of intellectual curiosity, creativity and guts that make him a dream-come-true Situationist. He challenged the Left to own up to the ideals of gay liberation while forcing a discussion of Islam.
Last but not least there are the Acorn tapes by James O’Keefe and Hannah Giles. In their most infamous videos the two dressed up as some sort of surreal pimp and a prostitute and brought a powerful union to its knees. James O’Keefe managed to get himself arrested on at least one occasion, so he lives dangerously. What more is to be said? Maybe that James O’Keefe has a history with Situationism, e.g. Lucky Charms video:
In this semi-improvised film O’Keefe and his partners in crime highlight the ridiculous blend of bureaucracy and political correctness that flourishes on American campuses. Hypersensitivities about race are on show again. The video is hilarious and surreal. It was obviously a gutsy endeavor for a university student. Is a Crass fan capable of producing an equally exiting video? Maybe — if he is willing to seriously engage a taboo issue.
Because Situationism has to involve some sort of a gesture, conservatives who are merely funny do not qualify. Somebody like Ann Coulter or Rush Limbaugh trade in words, and talk is the medium in which conservatives traditionally excelled. Both of them are hilarious, both clearly enjoy toying with our level of comfort, including challenging what can and can not be said about race, but what they are not Situationists because they are not theatrical. Glenn Beck, on the other hand, appeared on a book cover wearing East German uniform.
That’s more like it.
Where do Breitbart, Gutfeld and O’Keefe get Situationism? Well, I don’t read minds. Gutfeld is a self-conscious surrealist. O’Keefe is obviously influenced by Michael Moore, and Moore, of course, is a Punk rock darling. Conservatives today read and learn from Saul Alinsky, and Alinsky was quite a situationist himself. What’s more important, I think, is that all three figures I mentioned came of age when Punk Rock was ubiquitous.
There is one more thing. Marcus connects UK Punks to Situationists because, he says, McLaren and company were consciously into Dada. That’s not very convincing. Since, however, Lipstick Traces is practically a required reading for American hipsters who can calibrate their level of sobriety to read a few pages here and there, arty kids today are into Situationism. But American hipsters also say that they grew up in sleepy suburbs where young people had to make their own fun. Perhaps boredom is not counterrevolutionary, it’s un-American. And maybe McLaren’s true achievement is subverting an authentic American sensibility. Why is it that we think of bottom up DIY movement as Liberal?
Another question: Is punk our zeitgeist? Maybe Conservatives are Situationists because Situationism is everywhere. If so, left wing Punk more or less played itself out. Gilman Street is safe for teens, and we’ve graduated to corporate sponsored Punk rock marching bands. By now hipsters are reduced to, as The Mighty Boosh put it, compiling “scrapbook of favorite punks”. And in any event, when did a Punk turn away a line of Conservative protesters? Or brought down a powerful special interest group? Liberal protesters are typically seen doing something embarrassing in front of adoring cameras. We are invited to believe that they are charming in their geekyness.
Conservatives, on the other hand, are doing something dangerous, exciting and revolutionary. It helps, of course, to have something substantive to say because in and of itself Situationism is only a form.