Skip to content

Counterculture counters complacency, so it isn’t just a waste of time

November 2, 2012

One of the few things I find interesting about the United States of America, in a historical sense, is its glorification of ‘counterculture heroes’.  You don’t have to watch many Hollywood movies to catch on to this motif.  There’s a disaffected rebel loaner whom nobody likes; he (I think it is usually a he) is the kind of guy who might pick his nose in public, or show up to a fancy dress party in torn jeans and a cowboy hat.  But this irritating person solves the problem nobody else can solve, by thinking outside the box, or by daring to challenge some misguided authority figure.  In the end, the other characters still don’t quite like the rebel (if they did like him it might imply that he had been accepted into their social group, and so lost his rebel identity; a kind of death), but he does finally get some respect.  The movie Top Gun goes so far as to name its hero Maverick; most movies like this make the point a bit more subtly.


In the real-world U.S. of A., as opposed to the fictional one, people who go against the grain rarely get political or economic rewards.  John McCain did get marketed as a “maverick” during his bid for the presidency (and I have no doubt that word was chosen because he used to be a naval pilot), but realistically speaking he married into wealth and his views aren’t remotely revolutionary.  For all the hype about the American dream, the statistics show a country where the poor stay poor.  (See e.g., the World Bank’s `World Development Report’ for 2006: ” evidence from the United States (where the myth of equal opportunity is strong) finds high levels of persistence of socioeconomic status across generations: recent estimates suggest that it would take five generations for a family that earned half the national average income to reach the average.”  The World Bank does make that report available online, but the old link to it doesn’t work anymore, and the functioning one I found through Google is so long and ugly that I don’t think it would work if I posted it.)


Well, so the US is politically and economically conservative.  But it does have a bit of dynamism on the cultural front.  It doesn’t glorify harmony; at least not these days.  The culture doesn’t expect people to `know their place,’ even if most people’s ‘place’ in the scheme of things is quite rigidly defined and static.  So there should be some opportunity for ideas to move up the hierarchy, even if not much opportunity for people to do it.


Perhaps the US has really been a bit innovative in this respect; a bit, dare we say, exceptional?  They’ve promoted the idea that irresponsible-seeming social outcasts might, in rare circumstances, have something invaluable to contribute.  So it follows that free speech is something that communities should protect for all their members.  (I remember Salman Rushdi referring to free speech as “the jewel in the crown of the American constitution.”  He was probably being gently ironic, given that the constitution came out of a war against the British crown.  But it was clear from the rest of his speech that he meant it seriously as well.)


From → Uncategorized

  1. This post hits upon one of the things I’ve always found so paradoxical about the U.S. Sure the counterculture figure has been glorified in Hollywood, which is of course seen as a bastian of liberalism. Nowadays, though, the concept of free speech has become a favourite political football of the far right. It really, really irks me that first amendment principles are now being treated as the sole province of conservative thinkers. They claim it’s a reaction to political correctness, and I will concede there’s an argument to be made there. But the counterculture figure that embodies this value is usually fighting against the very systems right-leaning politicians want to uphold. How can people parot lines about free speech in one sentence and then decry gays/muslims/reproductive rights in the next? I don’t get it, and it makes me crazy. I see the same sort of thing happening here too, which is disheartening…though not as much as the fact that you just reminded me of Top Gun’s existence. Thanks for nothing. 🙂

    • Thanks for that comment. I’ve been thinking about it, on and off, for days. 🙂

      There was a book that came out in the 90’s, called “Free Speech for Me, But Not for Thee: How the American Left and Right Relentlessly Censor Each Other”. I never read the book, but the title stuck in my head and made me think of ‘free speech’ as a principle that’s above left/rightism. It’s like the ground rules of the debate: stuff like “Five minutes per speaker; two minutes for rebuttals… free speech will be respected…”

      Also, when I talk about ‘free speech’ I’m more often thinking of free writing. The attitude on the old internet was very strongly “If you don’t like what I write, don’t read it!” That’s a lot easier to defend than defending some guy yelling profanity at a gay pride parade, say.

      I do think free speech is something worth striving for. Whenever we feel the urge to censor someone, we should have to ask ourselves whether the situation is really exceptional enough to justify making an exception to the ‘free speech is allowed’ rule.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: