One of the great themes of the 1960s was to “do your own thing.” But usually “liberation” distilled down to creating your own rules and norms to justify allowing the appetites and passions to run free, while offering some sort of exalted cover for being either gross or mediocre — or both.
The hip generation that came of age talked about a new, perpetually youthful world that would supplant the values and aspirations of a fading bankrupt establishment (e.g., cf. Bob Dylan’s “the order is rapidly fading”). And in time the promise of the sixties, in fact, did permeate the last half-century, creating a contemporary culture of perpetual adolescence, of defying norms and protocols without offering anything much in their place.
From Lady Gaga to Iranian Nukes
Witness current events. A 22-year-old PFC Bradley Manning, without much experience, knowledge, or maturity, somehow becomes a “military analyst.” (I thought those were 2-star generals, RAND Ph.Ds, decorated colonels, or old Kissingerian National Security Council pros.)
And in our culture without hierarchy and requisites that title apparently allows him — in between downloading Lady Gaga music while in a combat zone in Iraq—to tap into the secret cables of the U.S. State Department, and destroy two decades worth of diplomatic contacts, trust, and friendships.
No matter — you see poor Bradley was also upset, depressed, and he felt underappreciated. In part, that was because his drag-queen boyfriend had recently dumped him. He was, in his own words, “regularly ignored except when I had something essential then it was back to ‘bring me coffee, then sweep the floor.’ … [I] felt like I was an abused work horse.”
Iranian nukes? North Korean missiles? Again, no problem. Bradley, you see, was depressed and in response had the desire and the power to change the global order. (Or in 60s parlance, “who is to say that Bradley doesn’t have the right to shut down the diplomatic world?”) Even Bob Dylan would be impressed with how “the times they are a-changin’.”
Next, enter one Julian Assange — himself on the lam, avoiding a little sexy horseplay that the uptight Swedish authorities for some reason deemed thus far sexual battery and molestation. Jason is also angry at “them,” the Western world that does horrific things like guarantees enough affluence and security for those like Julian to jet about at will without any visible means of support. In the tradition of sixties nihilism, Julian, of course, tries to gussy up his destructive egotistical angst into some sort of cosmic humane call for more transparency and nice behavior on the part of the U.S. State Department and military.
In more earthly terms that means he is supposed to be something more than a two-bit computer punk that he is, one who would be terrified to extend his online liberationist creed to Iranian mullahs, Chinese communists, Hezbollah terrorists, or Russian gang lords. The latter do far more to trample the human spirit than does any Western nation, but they also at times tend to decapitate, blow up, or jail permanently any would-be Julian who dares to cross them.
While this is all going on, we have the spectacle of brave curators at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery offering us for Christmas season a new exhibit, emblematic of this current post-“piss-Christ”/Andres Serrano age of art.
Its title is coyly encrypted in postmodern bipolarity: “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture.” And the exhibition apparently is full of Mapplethorpe-inspired gay-related imagery and offers us an image of Jesus being swarmed over by ants. Clever, brave, bold, shocking. Or in the words of the overseers of the federally-subsidized National Portrait Gallery, such artistic courage proves how the gallery is now “committed to showing how a major theme in American history has been the struggle for justice so that people and groups can claim their full inheritance in America’s promise of equality, inclusion, and social dignity.”