Monday, September 14, 2009

The 'medium' is what you actually do.

In 1970 Charles A Reich wrote his book 'The Greening of America' in praise of the cultural protest movement of the 1960s.. It was one of the most personally influential books I have read.

Over the years since Reich's publication the mainstream media have placed much emphasis on the relative affluence of the young people of '60s generation. Leading journalists and TV hosts often supposed that an unprecedented rise in material wealth was somehow causative of the rebellious spirit that was the hallmark of the youth at that time.

It is clear, however, that great waves of alienation with modern western society had already swelled in the hearts of many individuals that were born in a different time altogether. As much as many former hipsters would hate the thought, the real depths of dissent that shaped the events of the 1960s may have actually come from their parents' and earlier generations. A small, particularly articulate and thoughtful number of people such as the likes of Martin Luther King, Charles Reich (as above), John Kenneth Galbraith, C Wright Mills, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, Lewis Mumford, Laurence J Peter, Barry Commoner, Karl Polanyi and others took the limelight and shaped the thoughts of many a draft-dodger and pot-smoking greenie.

What was new and potentially revolutionary was the new medium of television and the ubiquity of cheap books; these people mostly understood how to use these media to best advantage. They knew well the ways and means by which public consciousness was actively manipulated and sought to explain this predicament to their large audiences.

In 1970, for instance, Charles Reich drew upon the thinking of Marshall McLuhan to explain how the medium of our lives was the real message:

"....let us borrow some thinking frm Marshall McLuhan. A young boy asks his father, "What do you do, Daddy?". Here is how the father might answer:
"I struggle with crowds, traffic jams and parking problems for about an hour. I talk a great deal on the telephone to people I hardly know. I dictate to a secretary and then proof-read what she types. I have all sorts of meetings wtih people I don't know very well or like very much. I eat lunch in a big hurry and can't taste or remember what I've eaten. I hurry, hurry, hurry. I spend my time in very functional offices with very functional furniture, and I never look at the weather or sky or people passing by. I talk but I don't sing or dance or touch people. I spend the last hour, all alone, struggleing with crowds, traffic and parking."

More likely, the father would respond to his son by saying:
"I am a lawyer. I help people and businesses to solve their problems. I help everybody to know the rules that we all have to live by, and to get along according to these rules."

Reich moves his focus onto the trapped realm of the modern 'liberal-intellectual'. No matter how great their sophistication, he says, they still keep to such goals as excellence, approval of colleagues, recognition and achievement. They may have fewer myths or illusions, but their despairing view of life's possibilities bar their way to a new consciousness and their dependence on goals involving outside approval deprives them of courage to be themselves.

To profess freedom without a change in personal consciousness it seems to me is like wanting the thunder and lightening without the rain, to want the sun without the heat and the light.

No creature can learn that which his heart has no shape to hold.”**

** 'All the Pretty Horses', McCarthy 1992


Brenda Rosser said...

Ah! Finally found an excuse to write about 'The Greening of America'. :-))

Shag from Brookline said...

Put me down for the "more likely" response, to which I might add:

"But I am not always succesful. However, this doesn't mean that I get discouraged or become a pessimist, for on balance I think I am successful, even if progess is slowly made. Many lawyers preceded me [I became a lawyer in 1954] and persevered over time such that the Warren Court in the '50s and '60s finally recognized fundamental rights that had long been ignored by the Supreme Court. It was the result of the continuing challenges of these lawyers that progress in criminal justice has been accomplished. This progress continues to be threatened, but lawyers and others continue to challenge such threats. Sometimes we win, sometimes we lose, but in my lifetime [I'm 79], there have been many improvements. I wake up every morning hopeful there will be more progress, especially for those whose voices are not heard or heeded. And praise be the non-lawyer dissenters [mentioned in Brenda's post] who have inspired many lawyers to do the right thing. And a special praise be to Justice Thurgood Marshall for reasons too numerous to mention. said...

You have to watch out for that Marshall McLuhan. I remember Woody Allen's Annie Hall when they are waiting to go into a movie and some guy in line is bloviating about McLuhan's ideas, and Allen tells the guy he is wrong and then produces the actual Marshall McLuhan to explain in detail just how and why the poor guy was wrong.

Brenda Rosser said...

Now, why do I feel that Barkley would like to be Woody Allen and tell me where I went wrong. :-)

So you're lawyer and became one the year I was born. You're aged 79. You're on the progressive side of politics. You live on the East Coast of the United States and you're not of Asian nor African descent. You have some Jewish relatives.

Give it up, Shag! At 79 why do you care if people know who is really writing these interesting snippets?

Shag from Brookline said...

My Jewish relatives are by marriage. When a Jew is attacked, I am a Jew. When a Palistinian is attacked, I am a Palistinian. When a Catholic is attacked, I am a Catholic. When an African-American is attacked, I am an African-American. (By the way, here in the Boston area, my longtime favorite ethic group are Italians - I am not.)

As for giving it up, Brenda, as Joe Welch said during the Army-McCarthy hearings, "I'm just a country lawyer." Besides, some know who I am. But I am not quite ready to be placed on an ice floe in Boston Harbor because global warming and pollution would not get me beyond the 3-mile limit. So the snippets will continue.

Brenda Rosser said...

Well Shag, as Joe Welch would say...Let us not assassinate this line of inquiry further....

I have Jewish relatives by marriage also, btw.