View Electronic Edition

Politics as Fashion as Politics

LET ME TRY to be as ambiguous as possible. I am an Anarchist and I am not. I am a Socialist and I am not. I am a Communist and I am not. I am a Libertarian and I am not. I am not what I say I am, I am what I say. I vacillate and I do not. I am all these things and I am not. I can be pinned down and I can't. I like to label others. I do not like to be labelled by others. I believe in the masses and trust no one. I believe that I am God and I am an atheist. I believe that you are God and let you get away with murder. Clarity only arrives when one realizes that it is impossible. All emphatic statements I make are false. All qualifiers are cowardly. All negations are bad vibes, man. Got that? Good. Let's start over.

It is hard to see ourselves in the present. The distance of years sometimes makes the task a little easier. I recently came upon the September 17, 1971 issue of the San Francisco Good Times, the long-dead local underground paper. Here are a few snippets from that issue.

The Revolutionary Army blew up the office of Foster and Kleiser at 1601 Maritime Street, inside the Oakland Army Terminal, saying in a note to KSAN (our local "underground radio station" which, like Foster and Kleiser, is owned by Metromedia) that "Billboards in Babylon are an offensive manifestation of pigthink. Their fascist distortion of our people's reality can no longer be tolerated. " They demanded KSAN abandon their billboard contest and donate the prize money to a revolutionary cause...

The problems of fame continue to beset Abbie Hoffman, America's best-loved revolutionary. Besieged by the charges of Izak Haber that he stole the book Steal This Book, from him, Abbie has also made a formal announcement of his retirement from the movement.

What are these quotes supposed to prove? Hard to say. Perhaps that it is somewhat refreshing not to have to still Usten to rhetoric like "pigthink" or "fascist distortion of our people's reality." Abbie, as we know, didn't stay in retirement. Only the next year he was co-authoring a slim paperback with Jerry Rubin and Ed Sanders urging the youth of the U.S. to Vote! Rumor has it that he will come up from the underground life at any moment to try out the new role of movie star.

Long before Tom Wolfe coined the term "Radical Chic" it was apparent that fashion interacts with politics in ways not entirely foreseen by Marx a century ago. Those awaiting another mass upsurge of political foment a la the '60s will soon be granted their wish, I reckon, though they'll also quickly despair at all the trendy garbage accompanying such an upswing. With fashion ability comes the sly grin of the annointed, those who are "into" a happening thing. Except that in politics the emotion-of-exchange is not a grin but a grimace - the shout of anger over outrageous misfortune. The anger is justified, undeniably, but when fashionable it becomes fetishized for its own sake. The demonstration becomes the cathartic acting out of the prized emotion. Usually, no goal is reached, the rage recycles and is unleashed again. The crowd swells, peaks and dissipates. Fashion departs and those for whom it has become a way of life stay on, their rage at their own impotence increased by their new unfashionability. The backlash sets in - which is nothing so much as the finally expressed frustration of the poor fools who previously had to put up with the righteous outrage of the fashionable. The backlash against the women's movement is, in part, the cry of the women for whom the movement did not speak or reach. The backlash, then, is the nadir of the fashion cycle.

It would be a mistake, of course, to reduce politics and liberation movements solely to fashion and style, and that is not my intention. But as struggles for social change penetrate into the popular media and our social lives, they are susceptible to treatment as fads, as sport.

Fran Lebowitz is not alone when she notes (in a recent interview in Plexus, the Bay Area Women's Newspaper): [I was] peripherally [involved in the political movements of the late '60s] — as a recreational activity. I went to Washington and all those marches and it was like a social outing. It was like going to the movies to me ...

No consumers' group is going to stop us from consuming our own lives as a series of events and products, and I'm as caught in it as anyone. But up until the point where our own lives (and not just our lifestyles) are at stake, it should come as no great surprise when issues come and go without ever really getting resolved.