ean times for homeland eccentrics. Seattle’s own Amanda Knox is back in the fray with sometimes desperate autobiography. Why didn’t people see her for who she was, a girl “who loved her parents, who did well in school, who respected authority, whose only brush with the law had been a ticket for violating a noise ordinance during a college party…”
Authority is trending and has been since 9/11.
Firefighters are applauded, police are given standing ovations, college students are gratefully teary for being made to feel more secure to date and marry in peace.
Some of this is justified, since civil society was scared witless a decade ago and still hasn’t recovered its bearings. Plus, seeing the live capture of criminals and terrorists captured makes for addictive viewing.
So does having a city, Boston, half shutdown for a manhunt that a previous generation might have likened to flirting with martial law. Few know and fewer care. The game is to get the bad guy, odd names standing out, and honor those who do.
Civil libertarians clamor about dubious due process afforded the surviving Boston bombing suspect but the underlying gist is elsewhere. Few teens any longer think hard about the nature and sweep of authority, and what it means to grant it wide berth. Few speculate about deference, or the lack of dissent, or the way post-Patriot Act democracy has morphed into psychological conditioning that’s groomed a generation to think twice, three times, before talking back.
The Vietnam bracket, parents of today’s twenty-something citizenry, was the last to misbehave systematically, though most have since self-censored themselves into various shadings of middle-age patriotism and teary-eyed regret for the transgressions of old. Truth be told, the only reason many of them took to streets in the first place, calling cops “pigs,” was the risk of being sent to fight, and maybe die. That was reason enough to wave a fist, or try.
The volunteer army, a perfect narcotic, excised the fretting, and kids can now head toward adulthood with the price of college tuition as their primary concern; that and depression and bipolar disorder, which, in the absence of a collective counterculture, is the counterculture: depression as self; anxiety as both a defense mechanism and a means to rationalize compliance.
No, this is not a call to throw rocks at police, heckle veterans or trivialize firefighters. It’s just a worry that respect for authority, when framed as staying out of trouble at all costs, produces a reluctance to stir what’s at the bottom of pot, with policy hubbub coming ahead of whether consumer democracy and its digital can-do isn’t capitalizing on a complicit and compliant population unwilling to see foreign policy as cause-and-effect, who feel compelled to applaud order at the expense of impulsiveness because the latter might challenge authority, a challenge reformatted into online heckling that is advertised as the same as taking to the streets. It’s not. Impersonal risk isn’t personal.
Years ago I covered a group called the Anti-Imperialist League for my college newspaper, most of them teenage leftovers from the defunct Students for a Democratic Society. What most impressed me (aside from their stock of hallucinogens) was how much their leaders read: Mao, Che, Jefferson, Churchill, Marcuse, Matternich, Hesse, Anaïs Nin. Few were Soviet apologists. What they liked about dissent was that by poking at a letter-of-the-law view of the world they might make their own waves, however briefly. They wanted around the “resignation before the enormity of events” — Port Huron idealism — and the dejection it induced. Some spent nights in jail. Authority existed to be challenged, a hormonal urge with sex in the bargain, since the counterculture, pre-porn, toyed with breaking adult rules.
That breakage gave the idea of dissent its necessary boldness. It conferred identity and generational character. Today’s brilliant, app-fueled teens — device-laden and tyrannically self-absorbed — get their cravings in a one-size-fits-all box, with diversity the sum of personal hang-ups. Security and order are linchpins, lest anxiety overwhelm and become what The Rolling Stones parodied as a 19th nervous breakdown, which is a parody no more.
In June 1978, Nobel Prize-winning Russian novelist Alexandr Solzhenitsyn — expelled from the Soviet Union as subversive — gave a commencement address at Harvard. All expected a denunciation of communism, and got it. What they didn’t bargain for was an admonishment, and it left most dumbstruck.
“I have spent all my life under a communist regime and I will tell you that a society without any objective legal scale is a terrible one indeed,” Solzhenitsyn told the students, who applauded. “But a society with no other scale but the legal one is not quite worthy of man either. A society that is based on the letter of the law and never reaches any higher is taking very scarce advantage of the high level of human possibilities. The letter of the law is too cold and formal to have a beneficial influence on society. Whenever the tissue of life is woven of legalistic relations, there is an atmosphere of moral mediocrity, paralyzing man’s noblest impulses.”
Ending, Solzhenitsyn asked a question: “Is it right that man’s life and society’s activities have to be determined by material expansion in the first place?” His audience, soon to takes its place in the tissue of the cheat-heavy 1980s, grew silent. Some booed. So far, no “counterculture” has emerged to answer him, let alone embody the spirit of a response.