The remarkable thing about the censored scene is how ordinary it feels if you’ve watched a police procedural made before, say, 2010. It’s in William Friedkin’s “The French Connection,” from 1971. Two narcotics cops — Jimmy (Popeye) Doyle, played by Gene Hackman, and Buddy (Cloudy) Russo, played by Roy Scheider — are at the precinct, following an undercover operation during which a drug dealer ended up slashing Russo with a knife. The injury has left Russo struggling to put on his coat. “Need a little help there?” Doyle chuckles, then adds an ethnic jab: “You dumb guinea.” Russo: “How the hell did I know he had a knife?” Here Doyle points a slur at the Black dealer: “Never trust a nigger.” Russo: “He could have been white.” Doyle: “Never trust anyone.” Then he invites Russo out for a drink, and they trade masturbation jokes as they head through the door.
Interestingly enough, Gene Hackman didn’t want to use the racial slur and almost quit the film. But William Friedkin bullied him into it, for which in retrospect Hackman is grateful since it was the movie that made him a star. Hackman also did his own stunt driving, something that surprised me when I heard about it. And one of the car crashes was real.
I can’t speak to whether or not black people should be offended by the racial slur in The French Connection since I’m not black. But I will speak from personal experience about racial slurs against Polish Americans. To this day I hear them all the time, especially from woke liberals, who seem to assume that since Polish Americans look like Anglo Saxon Americans they’re fully white and shouldn’t be offended. And to be fair, I sometimes tell Polish jokes myself, especially in regards to the insane amount of Russophobia in Poland and the destructive behavior of elite Polish Americans like Zbigniew Brzezinski, who admits to “creating the Taliban” to get back at the Russians and ooops killing 3000 Americans on 9/11.
When it comes to their foreign policy and subservience to American neoconservatism, the current Polish government are a bunch of dumb Polacks.
As a child I was never offended by Archie Bunker’s use of ethnic slurs for Polish Americans. That’s who he was. You can’t portray a racist without racial slurs. Ironically Rob Reiner’s pompous leftist turned out to be so unlikeable that he wound up making Archie almost sympathetic.
What I was offended by in the 1970s was the portrayal of Stanley Wojciehowicz the Polish American detective in Barney Miller as dim but likeable. It seemed to imply that Polish Americans were objectively as stupid as they were portrayed in the jokes. There was one particular scene, which is retrospect is really funny. Wojo couldn’t understand fellow detective Ron Harris’s distress after he was harassed by some racist fellow police officers. So Barney Miller tells him a Polish joke hoping to provoke some empathy. But it doesn’t work. Wojo was too dumb to understand. As an adult, of course, I recognize that a Polish American too dumb to understand a Polish joke was a hilarious jab at Polish jokes. But as a child, it upset me.
Note: This article refers to “millennials” repeatedly. While the name for any generation is always going to be broad terminology, there are many differing opinions on who exactly is a “millennial.” The following article presumes them to be Americans born between 1982 and 2004, as per the more common definition of “millennial,” but again, this terminology is loose and should not be considered definitive, even within the context of this article.
Second Note: I’m not going to even bother addressing the hypocrisy of many of the criticisms against millennials in this article. There are matters re: millennials that I desired to address, and I think the aforementioned hypocrisy is self-evident (and if it isn’t, give some consideration to the fragile emotional constitution of the Tyler Durden-idolizing man-children who first spread “snowflake” as an insult).
“Forced worship stinks in the nostrils of God.”
– Roger Williams (1603-83 C.E.), Founder of the Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations (1636-776 C.E.)
A state religion is nothing out of the ordinary in human history, and even if a nation does not have a state religion de jure, they will almost certainly have one in practice. This applies even to supposedly secular societies, even the society administered to by the “world’s first secular government.” In America, however, a different worship took root: in a land made secular in order to accommodate all the religious beliefs of its populace, many of them religious pilgrims, a unified religion came to be understood by Americans, one defined by indulgences specifically proscribed against by their “true” faiths. Golden calves were erected; divinity was invoked to justify imperialist expansion into the western parts of Northern America; Americans worked on Sundays, seeking to satiate the capitalist god they held before their true gods; we coveted our neighbors’ goods. The ’80s came and the Reagan gang took power, and a predisposition in American culture toward crude materialism became a crass classism, and pretensions that the ideology that “anyone can make in America!” was meant to be uplifting were increasingly dropped in favor of a reading of social Darwinism into that same ideology, and beyond that, even mainstream apologism for eugenics.
For a country that prides itself on being so exhaustingly Christian, America’s culture is markedly shaped by a sternly resolute contempt for the poor. And so we face the timeless panic about The Kids These Days, who, to establishment culture’s dismay, are not ones to regularly associate themselves with organized religion, systemically racist institutions, or patriarchal politics, and who by overwhelming margins are rejecting capitalism and professing an admiration for anything ranging from a European-style mix of capitalism and socialism (more common) to full-blown communism (less common, though substantially more common than in prior generations). America watches in horror as the young turn to the writings of Karl Marx, even though America never even understood what Marxism is. The nation shields its eyes, shuddering to watch the carnage of a generation of Americans who believe god is dead or never existed, and simultaneously wagging a finger at them for wanting to help those who cannot help themselves, the central tenant of the belief system laid down by their own god; the very same whose rejection they bemoan. Millennials have rejected not just the mainstream religions from which the god-fearing populace picks and chooses their beliefs, they have, more problematically to the American establishment, also rejected the false gods of consumerism and the accompanying notion of “ethical consumption.”
There are regular articles which trot out polls detailing how millennials are incredibly socialist and really hate capitalism, but also millennials don’t understand what socialism is and also like aspects of capitalism. We get it, man. You want us to think millennials are dopey. They don’t even know what Betamax was; how ignorant! Except your polls don’t offer the option of a mixed system, and typically, when you look at the other generations polled, they know even less about what any of the political systems actually are. So the narrative is that millennials are vapid, ignorant, self-obsessed children in adult bodies, except apparently everybody else is even more vapid and ignorant. If millennials are self-obsessed, our adoption of the baffling insult “social justice warrior” as a golem for our political beliefs is, at the least, a strange way of expressing self-obsession. Millennial-bashers, blind to the juvenoia that they suffer like every generation before them, will look for the opening here and say that the millennial desire to support those who are disregarded is out of a selfish need for self-affirmation, the product of a culture where losers get trophies. Of course, it was these same critics giving those trophies who created that culture (if participation ribbons even had a significant impact on culture at all, which seems dubious), but this paradoxical critique of millennials’ competitiveness has already been hashed out millions if not billions of times on the internet, and at any rate, even if self-affirmation is the objective, if the means to that end are the establishment of a compassionate society, who even gives a fuck?
The last of the so-called “millennials” will cast their first ballots in elections in 2022, and you older generations (and self-hating millennials; don’t worry, we won’t forget you when the guillotine blades are being waxed) are probably praying for a reprieve, but you’re not going to get it. Generation Z, our little brothers and sisters and our sons and daughters and nieces and nephews, are even further left, and they will cut you if you don’t respect which gendered pronouns someone wants to be referred to with. As someone who idled away many a teenage afternoon listening to the likes of George Carlin, Bill Hicks, Chris Rock, etc., I know I’m supposed be all bent out of shape about this for some reason or another, but none of those reasons really resonate with me. I get that people like to be edgy, but there’s two types of edge: the edge that makes you uneasy because the government might try to censor you, or corporations might try to use their leverage against you, and the edge that makes you uneasy because you know what’s being said is harmful to someone. One is punching up, one is punching down. When Lenny Bruce used racial slurs, he was demonstrating the ghastly language that could be used in the presence of police offers in attendance at his comedy shows, ostensibly to put a stop to “profane speech” that might come out of Bruce’s mouth. Bruce could say “nigger” and “kike” all he liked, but the second he used a Yiddish word for cock, the handcuffs came out and flexed the power of what truly was then a “nanny state.” That, state-enforced regulation of speech, is “political correctness run amok.” Society responding as it will to ignorance is not. Millennial culture’s greatest crime is desiring that those with their hands upon the levers of power be punched at as opposed to those crushed by the gears those levers operate. That doesn’t make it wrong to laugh at a joke that punches down; laughter is mainly involuntary, and can be triggered by surprise or the release of tension just as easily as by genuine humor. But is there impetus upon the speaker not to offend?
Jerry Seinfeld moaned that he won’t play colleges anymore because they’re too politically correct. Really? What jokes is Jerry Fucking Seinfeld doing that are going to cause him to be driven off of a college campus like a philistine, and if his act does actually reveal him to be a philistine, why should I object when a bunch of arts and humanities majors, whose money paid for the privilege of him speaking before them, tell him to shut the fuck up? In short, no, there is no impetus upon the speaker not to offend. But there’s also no impetus upon the audience to listen, or not to yell at him or not walk out, or even give him a platform to speak from in the future. Just as there’s no impetus for comedy club owners in multicultural population centers to book a comedian who screams racial slurs and death threats at black patrons. Free market, amirite motherfuckers?
The final primary line of attack against the culture of millennials seems to be that their concerns are petty, and that while this makes them obnoxious, and possibly dangerously inert to the whims of society as a whole, their political capital is wasted on things like the aforementioned gendered pronouns, and they are essentially helpless to impart real change upon the world. This is a highly flawed reading of the situation. To my specific example, having society respect your desire to be referred to as a man or a woman specifically might not seem like a big deal, but if you were transgender, you would probably think that it’s a pretty big fucking deal. The fact that you perceive the group concerned as ancillary suggests that majority rule justifies bigotry against minorities, and forgets that all of the groups that you consider “ancillary” combine to form an incredibly large segment of society. Unconsciously, you reveal an “us or them” division in your social ethos that ultimately only distinguishes in a coherent way the difference between the majority and everyone else. As to the view of millennials being doomed to ineffectuality, the irony is that those holding this opinion are doomed to political and social obsolescence by it. No one can deny that American culture is undergoing an upheaval, and anyone who denies that the so-called “P. C. Culture” of the millennials is one of the two major adversaries is fooling themselves. None of this is to say that millennials are without opposition; there is, of course, the other side, the people who went to Trump rallies (but perhaps not the economically-disenfranchised who didn’t but voted for him). But the fact of the matter is, American culture is seeing a wholesale rejection of its ingrained norms, customs, and mythology, and the “social justice warriors” are one of the two main groups fighting that battle. To consider millennials ineffectual is laughably obtuse, and, perhaps worse, deliberately ignorant. If anything, millennials are the ones who should be cocky, as thirty years from now you will be dead, and they will hold most of the seats in Congress. Burying your head in the sand has never been considered a wise tactic, and certainly, to discount the scope of a major social force dooms those who do so to irrelevancy.
The foundations of liberal (small R) republican (small d) democracy depend on a variety of presumptions. Some of these were never actually in place, but we were hopeful they’d eventually come together. Some of these were in place but have unraveled.
And some of these are suspiciously similar to the presumptions undergirding the largely theological beliefs of how markets work.
It’s presumed in both that you have a completely rational public that makes perfectly logical decisions, or at the very least that the outliers are ironed out by a rational majority. Both take for granted a very flattering enlightenment derived notion of the individual and the mind then set it loose presuming it will do the right thing. Faith in man’s goodness replaces faith in God’s but along suspiciously similar lines.
It’s a fear that man is impeccably rational and self-interested that creates the “need” for an enormous and still metastasizing advertising and propaganda industry. Maybe without advertising the free market and republican democracy would work perfectly. However, we live in a world with advertising so that’s a pointless hypothetical.
Contemporary man is more the aesthetic child of Ernest Becker and Deleuze than the enlightenment or Jung. How can we look at the election results and think otherwise? Hillary Clinton wanted to be our super ego; to represent our high minded ideals and to crowd out the possibility America could be defined by its cruel racist id. She was professionalism, being an adult, the part of the collective consciousness that says we’re cultivated and civilized creatures despite slips. She ran on the promise she could repress the collective id; the part of the popular consciousness that wanted to childishly lash out because it was angry; that wanted gratification regardless of logic, consent or ideals; that wanted to brag about its transgressions because it only understood morality in terms of the rush of feeling like it got away with something. And if anything her losing the election was paradoxically a result of her being too convincing in this role.
Trump’s victory came as suddenly and unexpectedly as a Freudian slip because it was a Freudian slip. The return of the repressed. The various lies we all told ourselves about how he could never win, lies that seem ridiculous in retrospect, lies like “there isn’t a large enough white electorate, the demographics will do him in”, were all attempts to reassure ourselves of the immortality and resilience of our way of life; that despite history consisting of little else in the long run we alone were immune to radical upheaval. Scandals didn’t stop him because his voters wantedto transgress against society-his “grab them by the pussy” remark probably helped solidify his appeal and his brand more than it lost any votes. His base continues to support his reckless and ridiculous actions since taking office because their assurances he’d somehow magically grow up-that there was in fact some magical transformative power of the office, of our institutions, was a lie told in order to make sure he could be allowed to transgress in full. The nihilism of his “lulz” flank, the Gang of 4chan, gets closer to the truth for its lack of substance and ideology. We seek to find a cogent ideology we can call “Trumpism” as a final pathetic reassurance that the enlightenment rules still work, that history is a battle between stable coherent ideologies and ideas and that we can wage war with the noxious ones and be done with it.
Has anyone who’s had an argument with a radicalized conservative in the last 8 years, possibly even since 9-11, had any luck selling rationality as a replacement good? Facts? Has calling the right hypocrites really changed their minds? The empirical truth is not and was never what these people wanted. They wanted blood. They wanted revenge. They wanted to be able to regress without consequences. To be able to act out in tantrums like a guest on Jerry Springer but also have a billion dollars and fuck supermodels. And if they couldn’t do that directly to at least be able to imagine they could do so by proxy. And they found their man.
Blahblahblah. We’ve all read a million election post-mortems. What am I getting at?
I’m getting at this: while weaknesses in enlightenment ideology have gotten us to this point, and a pedantic, impotent and frankly boring adherence to enlightenment principles in their most abstract form aren’t going to get us out of it. Constantly pointing out that Fox News is lying about shit hasn’t really accomplished much to convince the other side. The arguments in favor of free speech fundamentalism have the same fundamental flaws as the other “in a free market of blank the universal good will always prevail” logics. They only work if everyone else believes in them in good faith. That the overall response to the Charlie Hebdo shootings would be an uptick in international racist far right politics was pretty predictable. That “free speech” posturing would be used as a trojan horse to sell racist jingoism through vehicles like the Seth Rogen film The Interview was similarly predictable because the only people who’ve whined about free speech issues since the Naked Lunch trial have been the extremist right, whose only interest in free speech is was and has always been the freedom to stifle all other speech that isn’t their own.
The concept of free speech is best defended as a legalistic one, not a moral/ethical one, specifically because speech is a Foucaultian interplay of different power centers. Freedom of speech is a good legal standard for a society because it somewhat levels the playing field in this interplay. However, the idea that perfect “freedom” comes through a completely hands off approach ignores both the greater importance of other freedoms (freedom from being harmed, reasonable expectations of privacy, etc) and the larger void of power problem that arises in any right-libertarian free-for-all fantasy-eventually, especially in a capitalist system, a small number of parties consolidate power and leverage this consolidation to curtail the freedom of all other actors in the system.
Speech is particularly important because in a media saturated society, speech is quite literally what constitutes and defines reality for the individual. Because speech in (post?) late capitalism is commodified and needs to reify its own commodification, it has to train individuals from a young age that their self-definition must come from their relationship to the act of consumption and the ways that the proximity of given objects imply a specific relationship to the act of consumption. Reality is a territory and must be treated as such tactically. This is the basic premise of advertising and public relations, and their open embrace of this worldview is a large part of why they’ve managed to make themselves the defining social engines of postmodern society.
The Milo/4chan crowd are free speech extremists. 4chan first became politically active against Scientology not because Scientology is awful but because 4chan users were pissed off that Scientology was trying to block internet access to a viral video of Tom Cruise jumping on a couch. Free speech extremism is an outgrowth of the shift in individual political self-identification from worker/owner/lumpen to consumer. The consumer identity is however schizophrenically split by its very nature . The consumer feels both the entitlement of the boss and the humiliation of the lumpen. The consumer identity is a balm that absorbs this tension. The high youth unemployment has led to numerous “consumer revolts” which are the only sort of uprising that would seem natural to a large crowd that never developed an identity as a proletariat, much less a coherent theory of resistance. They feel frustrated and that frustration has to be expressed in terms of grievances against pointless blockbuster movies and video games that no longer cater directly and specifically to them.
Both the free speech extremism of the right-wing trolls and the free speech fundamentalism of the liberal “don’t punch the Nazi” crowd evade the larger and more complicated problem of figuring out the new rules of engagement. Despite our laws and folk understandings revolving around such a binary, we all know that speech isn’t a discrete category from action, never was, and is even less so now.
Hip hop is bullshit, talentless crap and if its the face of modern black music that our musicians are aspiring to then we need to just give up. Rap requires no skill and only a slight grasp of language. Studies show most rappers have IQs average or below and people who listen to hip hop do too. What is this telling you?
She (Tipper Gore) also wrote a book in 1987, “Raising PG Kids in an X-Rated Society,” plugged as “a practical guide for parents and consumers concerned with increasingly explicit material in today’s entertainment for children.” She wrote: “Something has happened since the days of ‘Twist and Shout’ and ‘I Love Lucy.’ “
The stylistics of the later James Joyce, Perfect Lives, and the vast majority of hip hop records share one major technique-the use of entendres and puns in a manner resembling a fugue. As the fugue is structured by the layering of a musical phrase over itself in different permutations to create a total effect and display slight variation as a unified totality, so that the cliche, and/or the disposable language, and/or the cultural context and colorings surrounding a word or phrase are compressed towards their opening up. The omnipresent language, the “sound we take so much for granted”, the “sound of God” Ashley discusses in Pt.4, is pivoted against its own history into becoming a fugue unto itself through the overlaying of its various connotations. This overlay is achieved through the inconsistency of punctuation, the breaking apart and recombining of cliches, and the very inconsistencies of language which your English teachers taught you repeatedly to avoid.
In other words, Robert Ashley has received numerous tributes of late in the form of his work being performed by indie rock bands, but the people who most successfully followed in the footsteps of Perfect Lives and its loose anarchistic relation to language are numerous rappers who never heard it. There’s something very beautiful in that.
The ways that race is codified in grammar and how grammars codify what constitutes racial identity in turn, how these relations to language influence a persons’ grasp on their surroundings and their shape are touched upon briefly in both “The Bar” and “The Living Room”. In “The Bar”, Ashley, while giving his sermon as the itinerant preacher in the titular bar, makes a couple mentions that the character within the loose narrative of the opera is black, though Ashley doesn’t do a verbal blackface (blackvoice?) or an Al Jolson routine; he sees the racial identity as one of a relation to language much as John Cassavetes sees race as a performative identity in Shadows.
“The Living Room” is framed as a conversation between Will, the sheriff of the town where Gwyn, Duane etc. stole the money from the bank, and his wife Ida. Ida asks Will questions, and Will gives answers that don’t satisfy the desired effect of what “answers” or, as the episode’s subtitle would put it, “solutions” are. The visual elements work at counterpoint to the images and the words keep trying to rein themselves in but run around wanton, destroying solidified meaning wherever they go. Quite a problem for a sheriff.
Another iteration of the problem of nothing/everything as a binary comes up very early on in the dialogue. Ida asks Will, “at the risk of everything, what’s the answer?”, and Will gives as good an answer as we may ever have for that particular question. It still, of course, doubles as an evasion. Will says “I’ve been practicing how to say it right the first time.” She volleys a restatement of the initial question, “could you give me a f’r instance?”, and Will is back in the land of metaphors and stories that Ashley the narrator begins each episode with over the credits, giving the vaguely Aristotelian circular logic of two men talking about birds.
“one says, when I see those birds in cages,
I know they’re sad. two says, that’s a mistake. birds don’t get sad. that’s just how they look when they can’t…fly. one says…
wisely…well, that’s what sadness is.”
Emotion is performance or its inability in this example, something similar to Freud’s theories of energies of the self that transfer into different quadrants depending on their being repressed in other quadrants of the self. This may seem like sloppy writing on my part, a mixed metaphor, but as Ashley is an ecumenical ponderer of possibilities of everythings, this seems like the way by which I can engage with the spirit of Perfect Lives. The specific use of birds as an example could also be an allusion to Maya Angelou, though even if it isn’t my intuition says Ashley would find the connection interesting. It also fits in well with the playful discussions of race in the dialogue, like this one:
“she says: would you call this an alienation?
he says: this is…truly a nation of aliens, not the
only one, but probably the biggest. so I guess I would call it
an alienation. a friend of mine says it’s not a nation at all,
that they’re all aliens”
Similarly, when Will is trying to imagine who took the money from the bank, he can only describe the imagined culprits as being of foreign extraction in escalating absurd phrasings like “there’s no doubt the mexican is in it. the doubt is if he’s mexican.” The more frequent focus on race in this episode makes sense as it’s also a meditation on names. That all of language could be considered the naming of things
The credits play on this concept and, being an episode concerning names, run a full 5 minutes and play on two separate occasions while also negating themselves.
Even Will and Ida’s names, their claim or at least shield around which they construct their self, are in fact multi-layered puns (Ida-ea) which the opera evoke with similar inconclusiveness at other points. To go back to the first episode, the overture: “The will is almost nothing, he thinks to himself.” and “There is something like the feeling of the idea of silk scarves in the air.” Their names as puns don’t bring the reader/viewer/listener to any definitive reading any more than the line in the Saussure diagram makes the word tree correspond to the actual tree and vice versa.
Will and Ida’s conversation is a Platonic and Hegelian dialectic. Will discusses Tourette’s syndrome as Ashley himself does in the interview I transcribed an excerpt from in the first installment of these reviews. For Ashley, Tourette’s syndrome, the spontaneous coming to language and sound, is the postmodern anamnesis, the possibility of God after meaning. Derrida’s narrative of being lost in a sea of images that can never reach the comfort of monolithic actuality, to the student of theology that thinks God is reality manifest (a belief that exists in various forms from philosophies of science to deism to the Zohar), is a fall narrative with its possibility of redemption removed.
Put otherwise: if God is everything around, beside, inside and outside of us, all images are graven images. All language is left with after meaning is being.
Back in middle-school, during the Cold War, my fifth grade “social studies” teacher, a liberal but a still patriotic liberal, was always fond of telling us that the United States, whatever its faults, was still better than the Soviet Union. That Spring we went to see the film version of 1776, which a local theater ran every May. On the walk back to school, the teacher explained to us how 1776 demonstrated why democracy would triumph over communism. Communism was top down, stultified. Democracy was messy, improvisational. Communism needed censorship. Democracy needed free speech.
Little did I know that the version of 1776 my patriotic 7th grade teacher had taken us on that pleasant Spring walk to go see had been censored and abridged by none other than Richard Nixon himself. The politics of 1776, which had been written by a staff writer at the Brill Building named Sherman Edwards and a Hollywood screenwriter named Peter Stone, can best be described at Gordon Wood meets Thomas Carlyle. John Adams, the liberal great man, towers over the rest of the Continental Congress. Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin are reduced to sidekicks. But it wasn’t Adams that Nixon objected to. It was his antagonist, John Dickinson, a sneering, reactionary who threatened to strangle the United States in its cradle. An Independent United States, Edwards and Stone are telling us, threatened to overthrow the “men of property” that John Dickinson represented. In one song, “Cool, Cool, Considerate Men,” he makes it explicit.
“Don’t forget that most men without property would rather protect the possibility of becoming rich,” he says, “than face the reality of being poor.”
While Sherman Edwards and Peter Stone were liberals, Jack Warner, the film’s distributor, was not. A conservative Republican who took out a full page ad in the New York Times in 1960 to support Richard Nixon over John F. Kennedy, he showed a preview of 1776 to Nixon, now occupying the White House, before it’s release. Nixon objected to “Cool, Cool, Considerate Men” and Jack Warner not only had it removed, but ordered the entire segment burned. Not surprisingly, the butchered film, not really very good in the first place, tanked at the box office. For years, the segment was considered lost, but, in the late 1990s, someone found a copy filed away in the studio archive under a different name, and it was restored for a new “Directors Cut” DVD in 2002. To be honest, the lack of “Cool, Cool, Considerate Men,” is not the reason 1776 tanked at the box office.
Viewing all three hours of 1776 again after all these years, I understand now just what an odd film it really was. I saw 1776 it in the late 1970s, after Nixon’s resignation and the massive Bicentennial celebration in 1976 had restored the idea that patriotism was a good thing. But it’s important to remember that the original Broadway musical had come out in 1968. In the late 1960s, the Cold War liberal jingoism my social studies teacher believed in so passionately had fallen out of fashion almost as much as conservatism. Remember, it was the liberal John F. Kennedy who committed troops to Vietnam and the very liberal Lyndon Johnson who kept them there. Black nationalism, Maoism, the Yippies and the new left had allowed the generation before mine to question not only the Vietnam War but the idea of American nationalism itself. The United States flag was no longer a progressive symbol of democracy. It was napalm and Rolling Thunder, Cointelpro and the Ku Klux Klan. So if you were on the right, you hated 1776 for its liberalism. If you were on the left, you hated it for its patriotism. Nixon’s heavy handed censorship turned out to be unnecessary, just another example of his paranoia.
10 years later, however, it was a highly effective piece of propaganda. At least it worked on me. Whatever its faults, 1776 did manage to distil the entire American Revolution into a three hour musical. The sneering reactionary John Dickinson in the film, nothing like the principled conservative he was in real life — Dickinson was the only member of the Continental Congress who freed all of his slaves outright — becomes the stand in for King George and the loyalists. The sniveling James Wilson, firmly under Dickinson’s thumb until the very end — when Ben Franklin sets him free — represents those Americans who sat on the fence, unsure of whether to support the revolution or the King. John Adams, a straight edged middle-aged liberal from Massachusetts becomes not only the father of his country, but also evokes those progressive Democrats who questioned Johnson and Vietnam, Eugene McCarthy, Benjamin Spock, Frank Church, and George McGovern. Jefferson, a lazy slacker who has to grow a five o’clock shadow and get laid before Adams can goad him into writing the Declaration of Independence, is the New Left, the younger generation of intellectuals that finally comes around to realizing their country isn’t so bad after all. There is also a colorful collection of dirty hippies, surly proletarians, and and a feminist Abigail Adams.
1776 is still not a very good film. It hits its nadir during a long, tedious, and appallingly sexist interlude between Jefferson, Adams, Franklin and Martha Jefferson, played by a young Blythe Danner. Adams brings her from Virginia only so that she can fuck her husband and free him from his writer’s block. Even as a 12-year-old it made me groan. But 1776 still addresses an issue the American left hasn’t fully dealt with. What about American nationalism?
Indeed, as reactionary as it turned out to be in the late 1970s, in the corporatist United States of Barack Obama, 1776 once again feels progressive. This is not the American Revolution of the Tea Party. Thomas McKean of Delaware, a gun-toting Scotsman played by Ray Middleton, is played for laughs, as is a segment where Adams takes Samuel Chase of Maryland to observe the sharpshooting skills of the Continental Army in New Jersey. The Reverend John Witherspoon, in reality a giant of the Scots Diaspora, is a minor character. The Continental Congress of 1776 is a decidedly secular place. Religion is absent, except as the opportunity for an occasional witty remark. The south, slavery, and states rights are seen as an obstacle to the birth of the United States of America. Adams, the hero and moral center is not only a passive abolitionist, as he was in real life, but a fire breathing anti-slavery crusader who would make Thaddeus Stevens proud.
What’s more, there is an implicit critique of the reactionary side of the United States Constitution that, whether intended or not, runs through the whole film. John Dickinson, the villain, insists that any vote for the resolution of independence has to be unanimous, recalling not only the constant Tea Party filibusters in Congress under Barack Obama, but also the idea that government should exist to protect a minority of property owners against the people. Edward Rutledge, the grandee from South Carolina who has a memorable exchange with John Adams over state’s rights, threatens to tank the whole country to protect slavery. Anybody who saw this film in 1972 realized that it would take another 600,000 dead Americans, a total that dwarfed the casuality rate of the War of Independence, to finally do away with slavery for good. John Adams the abolitionist, even though he gave in in the face of an inevitable rejection of the proposal for independence, was right after all.
In other words, 1776, for all its man faults, brings back the idea that the Declaration of Independence represented an idea of American nationalism far more progressive than the United States Constitution. Would I recommend seeing it? Probably not. Read the Lincoln-Douglas Debates instead. But it remains a historical curiosity, an odd little example of how during a time of revolutionary upsurge like the late 1960s, even people who wrote creaky Broadway musicals had to adapt.
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