Normal Madmen

Maybe you had to be there, but the sixties were difficult for everybody. In the fifties everyone knew what to do – AMC spun that series Madmen on that premise, which seemed to be true. That series takes place in 1960 or so, when everyone agrees that yes, they still know just what to do in any situation, but is beginning to realize they have no idea why they’re doing this or that. Everyone is going through the motions, doing what should be done, and saying what should be said, and buying the right products, and wearing what’s the right thing to wear (skinny ties at the time for the men, and stiff bullet bras for the women) – but they seem awfully unhappy. It seems what is different than why. And so the buttoned-down world of Madison Avenue advertising agencies, where the job is to know the cultural tropes and manipulate them for profit – to play on conventional expectations, or create them – stands for all of America. If you want to be anything like normal you buy the product, and those that rise to the top in advertising know everything there is to know about normal – they’re experts on that, and on playing on people’s deep culturally-conditioned fears that somehow they won’t be ordinary and conventional and uncontroversial, which was, as everyone knew, where happiness and peace was to be found. The product helped you fit in, if you spent up the bucks. Peace of mind could be purchased.

But at the time, as the new decade began, the whole premise – about the obvious imperative to fit in and keep your head down – was under fire. You see that in the characters in that series – they find they’re just not normal and are doing what they shouldn’t, and starting to imagine that might be a good thing, or might not. And from nine to five they’re immersed in the normal, where they make scads of money because they know it so well, and can use it devastatingly well. Yeah, every drama needs a core conflict. That’ll do.

Oddly enough, in the fifties, the attacks on the concept of the normal had not amounted to much. There were the Beats, but Allen Ginsburg didn’t win the day, no matter how much he howled – the Beats got co-opted, and we got Maynard G Krebs – the beatnik as lovable sidekick, funny and utterly harmless. And there seemed to be one of those in every Beach Blanket movie of the time, a character inserted to reinforce the primacy of everything that was customary and normal. And James Dean might have been a rebel for no particular reason in that famous movie – but he was really a nice boy, who talks about wanting to settle down in suburbia with Natalie Wood and just be normal, and not so troubled.

And then it all fell apart. Maybe it was the civil rights movement – what’s always been normal and right ain’t right for a whole lot of people, and never was, and everyone realized they knew that, so it was time to change things. Maybe it was the Vietnam War. Why were we there, exactly? Or maybe the Be-Normal Fifties collapsed for the same reason the Soviet Union did – internal absurdities. Some things are a bad idea in the first place. Why be normal?

Of course that’s a phrase widely used in advertising now. If you want to be conventional and fit in, and be cool, buy this product, which shows to everyone that you don’t give a hoot about being normal, and you’ll fit right in. Your troubles will be over. Everyone loves a rebel. Yes, there’s something deeply weird about that. But you market to those who want to be the rebel, and thus fit in.

This led to CBS, from February 5, 1967 to September 15, 1969, broadcasting The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour – the show with the two quite irreverent folk singers who were unconventional, and safe. CBS would capture the key demographic – the young who spent a whole lot of money rather indiscriminately. These two rebels would be wildly popular, and that means CBS could charge big bucks for the commercial segments, and everyone would get rich. It was brilliant.

But it didn’t work. It was those internal absurdities. The brothers booked Pete Seeger to sing Waist Deep in the Big Muddy, an anti-war song that sure seemed like an insult to Lyndon Johnson and his Vietnam War policy, and would scare the advertisers away, and the affiliates would back out, one by one. And this was Seeger’s first appearance on network television since being blacklisted in the fifties – so CBS said no dice. And then CBS caught such crap from its young viewers that they permitted it in a few weeks. Everyone over twenty-five was watching Bonanza in the same time slot. The young were all CBS had. Pete Seeger sang his song.

But after that incident, the network ordered that the Smothers Brothers deliver their shows finished and ready to air, ten days before airdate – the censors could then edit the shows as necessary, and that took time. And CBS deleted the entire segment of Harry Belafonte singing “Lord, Don’t Stop the Carnival” – the background shots of the mess during the 1968 Democratic National Convention just wouldn’t do. And there was that David Steinberg sermon about Moses and the Burning Bush. Some might not find that funny. And Joan Baez paying tribute to her husband, David Harris, heading off to jail after refusing military service, was the last straw. CBS pulled the plug – CBS CEO and President, William S. Paley, canceled the show on April 4, 1969. These two stars had refused to meet the pre-air delivery dates as specified by the network, to accommodate the quite necessary review by the censors before airing. The show was over. The brothers then filed a successful breach of contract suit against the network, and won damages, but the show never returned to the air. They had their Emmy Award that year for best writing, and the cash from the breach of contract suit – but no show.

And that’s the legacy of the sixties – now we all want the unconventional, we want someone to shake things up and the truth (with grace and good humor, if possible), but not make anyone else, or us, feel uncomfortable. We like our rebels respectful and reverent, and happy, and nonthreatening, or very minimally threatening, if they must. That is why we elected Obama to change things, but not that much. There are things that are as they are, because that’s how things are. We scoff at conventional wisdom – this isn’t the conformist fifties – but with our fingers crossed behind our backs.

So Obama has his work cut out for him. He’s got to ride this tiger.

But then, he did ask for it. He said he’d change things, knowing full well people actually hate that sort of thing, so he’d better not change much very fast, if at all – but he’d better change things, as that’s what he was elected to do. That calls for a lot of sly work, and thus you have the current mess with healthcare reform, which will change everything, but not change that much, so you needn’t get all upset. Is that the message? Those who scream stop this now, and forever, are on much more solid ground. At least the message is clear, although a change-nothing message has little appeal for people worried and broke and angry – and it makes you seem like you somehow got stuck in the fifties, sipping martinis, with your new Studebaker parked in the driveway, which is kind of pathetic.

But people do get stuck in the conventional, as it’s not just conventional thinking about healthcare reform. There’s the issue of Iraq, and in this item Greg Scoblete comments on an ongoing discussion between two prominent thinkers. It seems that Thomas Ricks and Andrew Sullivan have gone back-and-forth over the issue of retaining additional troops inside Iraq to keep the peace – following the 2011 withdrawal date established by the Status of Forces Agreement.

Ricks believes that such forces are essential to maintain stability in the country and has one simple question – “What could be more imperialistic than invading a country pre-emptively on false premises and then leaving many years later in a selfish, callous and clumsy manner?”

Sullivan has one simple answer – “Staying forever, while your own country goes bankrupt.”

And Scoblete says this:

I ultimately believe that Ricks’ argument is going to win the day, not because it’s terribly persuasive on the merits, but because it operates within the conventional wisdom about how the US should interface in the Middle East.

It’s the conventional again, even if the conventional is not very persuasive on the merits, and Scoblete points out that he wrote about this during the campaign:

To believe that Obama is serious about ending America’s commitment to Iraq is to assume either that the progress Iraq has made to date is irreversible (which almost no one believes) or that he has placed the removal of U.S. troops from Iraq ahead of other regional interests. After all, it is impossible to maintain America’s traditional sense of responsibility over events in the Middle East and simultaneously remove large numbers of troops from Iraq, come what may. The only way to convincingly argue on behalf of ending the war is to mount an argument in favor of fundamentally redefining America’s interests in the region. Short of that, any proposal for withdrawal will be hostage to the persistent specter of regional instability.

You talk about change, but, as with healthcare, you don’t change the basics.

But Scoblete argues that gets you nowhere at all:

The trouble with Ricks’ argument, and the course Washington appears to be on, is that it is predicated on best-case scenarios. It is, fundamentally, a gamble that nothing major will go wrong inside Iraq that 50,000 U.S. troops cannot contain. If we bet wrong, there is absolutely no rationale for not sending in even more American troops. A commitment of 50,000 troops is essentially a commitment of 150,000, to be stationed in the country indefinitely.

This argument is also predicated on what I view to be a fairly hubristic reading of Washington’s capacity to micro-manage events inside Iraq to our liking. As I’ve said before, if we had such skills, why did we not employ them in the years 2003-2007? That the surge succeeded in quelling violence is no guarantee that Washington can hit the next curve ball Iraq throws at us.

Cue Pete Seeger singing Waist Deep in the Big Muddy.

But at least Obama is not Bush. But in this column from Michael Cohen you see that may not matter that much:

This week’s parliamentary election in Iraq – the second since the fall of Saddam Hussein – was the latest sign that America’s ill-fated intervention in Iraq reached a critical turning point, and that perhaps the most controversial legacy of President George W. Bush’s foreign policy stewardship has at long last come to an end. If only it would be so easy for the Obama administration to fully turn the page on the Bush years.

But it’s just not that easy:

Even more than a year after his inauguration, President Barack Obama’s foreign policy agenda is still largely devoted to fixing the messes he inherited from Bush. And that’s likely to continue to be the case for quite some time to come, unless Obama makes a more fundamental break with the failed policies of his predecessor.

And here are a few of the traps, where change, to the unconventional, is now next to impossible:

Iran: During the Bush years, little progress was made in dealing with Iran’s burgeoning nuclear weapons program. Not only is the problem getting worse, but it is also sucking up diplomatic and political energy with key partners in Europe as well as Russia and China. Indeed, repairing relations with these powers has taken up a disproportionate amount of Obama’s time as president.

Multilateral issues: Eight years of inaction on climate change and other multilateral issues has left the world suspicious of U.S. intentions, making agreement that much harder to achieve.

Israel: The same can be said of the Middle East peace process, where Bush’s decision to focus on the Palestinian election brought Hamas to power, contributing to a rightward turn in Israeli politics that has made political reconciliation seemingly impossible.

Intelligence: Worst of all is the damage to the intelligence community, which became deeply politicized in the Bush years and saw its key focus in the war on terrorism shift from analysis and intelligence gathering to interrogation. Obama will need to spend serious political capital to turn these agencies around.

That’s just part of the list. Change is hard, and what had become conventional wisdom abroad is a real problem too:

There was, after President Obama’s inauguration, a sense that the country had closed the book on a damaging chapter in its foreign policy history and was engaging with the world anew. Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize showed just how deeply many around the world yearn for active and engaged American leadership.

But the efforts of the Nobel Committee, notwithstanding, Americans may not fully appreciate the damage wrought by the Bush years in how America is perceived as well as its diminished moral authority and political suasion. These problems can’t be fixed overnight and may have permanently affected U.S. interests, capabilities and power around the globe.

Moreover, the obsessive focus of the Bush years on terrorism not only masked the rise of rival states and the growing importance of a number of transnational issues, but it shielded the United States from its own decline in relative power and influence.

Matthew Yglesias thinks that’s about right:

For a mix of good and bad reasons, the Obama administration has mostly gone in a different direction from Bush without really challenging the legitimacy of Bush-era policies as within the bounds of the American political mainstream. So while people around the world may or may not be glad that Obama seems unenthusiastic about the idea of – for example – launching wars of aggression, there’s no real reason to believe that America has turned the page on this idea. So policymakers and opinion leaders abroad still need to view the US military juggernaut as something that’s reasonably likely to be used in grossly irresponsible ways.

It seems people always get stuck. They want change, but not really, and then, if they see change, they don’t believe it is change, really.

Well, maybe we never left the fifties.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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