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Popular sanity

Authentic popular culture

No reasonable person would deny that pop culture is a vulgar, artificial, debased and debasing thing. Does this mean that “the people”—who tend to enjoy pop culture—are vulgar and debased? Not necessarily. For one thing, we should distinguish between popular culture and pop culture, “the corporate-sponsored mass culture that is so often mistaken for [the former],” to quote T. J. Jackson Lears. Genuine popular culture is the kind of thing there was among the farmers in the 1890s’ Populist movement, among New England’s Italian anarchists in the early twentieth century, and among the working-class communities of the nineteenth century.[1] Neighborhood theaters, festivals, picnics, ethnic churches, benefit societies, cooperatives, democratic labor unions, Communist-associated ethnic workers’ clubs in the 1930s—every conceivable form of mutuality. Popular culture is bottom-up, not top-down, and so brings together. Mass culture, by contrast, is founded on the co-optation and mutilation of a few popular impulses into means of making profit, tools of business. Whatever is good and authentic in the original becomes bad and commercial in the copy. In music: classical, jazz, blues, bluegrass, folk, rap—all can be puerilized, vulgarized, atomized, lucrified. Same with literature, theater, the plastic arts, religion, dance, and sex. It can all cease to be a means of authentic expression, a sublime sublimation of individuality, as it becomes impersonal—impersonally replicated on the assembly-line of capitalist culture. “Repressive desublimation,” Herbert Marcuse called it.

It’s the same, incidentally, with social movements. Truly popular movements are anti-authoritarian, even anarchistic, emancipatory; the Ku Klux Klans, the fascism, the McCarthyism, the social conservatism are not populist but pseudo-populist, business-engendered and -supported.[2] Strains of authentic popular discontent are manipulated, attenuated, and directed to new repressive ends as the elite sees in them an opportunity.

People value art, self-expression, and emancipation. In a society that doesn’t reward those things—or actively suppresses them—many people will embrace their ubiquitous substitutes and even cling to them desperately to escape, if momentarily, a life of hassled boredom. When one is surrounded by fun and “sexy” distractions, sees everyone else indulging in them, and is relentlessly pressured to do the same oneself, it requires a willful and rebellious nature to turn away from them and into the past or an alternative present. One may, therefore, end up with low cultural tastes—or, politically, sympathize with a pseudo-populist “movement” like the Tea Party—but the deep-seated human affinity for high art and high values can never be wholly eradicated. Even a world formed and defined by anti-human social structures cannot destroy the instinct for beauty and high creativity, which is wont to show itself in small and unexpected ways.

We’re reminded of all this by the socialist Oscar Ameringer’s autobiography, If You Don’t Weaken (1940). In it he describes proselytizing for socialism in the 1890s, in isolated communities in Oklahoma, where he got a good reception. The “white trash” took a liking to him and his message.

“White trash!” [he writes]. There is good stuff in those people. If many of them now are below par it is not their nature that made them so, but the greed and stupidity of their so-called betters…
Dinner over, and dishes washed, the two o’clock meeting started under the big tent with singing and instrumental music. Singing was led by our choir, recruited on the ground. The instrumental music was supplied by myself and three sons, and we played only the best, so far as the best can be played by a brass quartet augmented by piano. Before our instrumental concert, I usually gave a short lecture on classical music, which I defined as Bill Nye had defined Wagner’s music: “it is a helluva lot better than it sounds.” I also explained how to acquire the appreciation of good music by simply listening to it with all your mind and heart. Believe it or not, we played arrangements of Beethoven, Mozart, and Schubert quartets, chorals of Bach, songs of Mendelssohn…and of course gems from Stephen Foster, America’s own sweet singer. They loved it. Those simple people took to good music like ducks to water. Their minds were not yet corrupted by the Tin Pan Alley trash that later was a music for profit. Besides, “classical music” is folk music clarified, interpreted and ennobled by the great masters, and these were folk people.[3]

What we need are social structures that bring out the best in us, not the basest.

[1] See, e.g., Paul Avrich, Sacco and Vanzetti: The Anarchist Background (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991), and Lawrence Goodwyn, The Populist Moment: A Short History of the Agrarian Revolt in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978).

[2] See Jesse Lemisch, On Active Service in War and Peace (New Hogtown Press, 1975). Summarized here.

[3] Oscar Ameringer, If You Don’t Weaken (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1940), 265, 266.


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