By Jay Fox
Brooklyn, NY, USA
You're not going crazy…you're going sane in a crazy world — The Tick
Psychoanalysis did a number on the legend of Oedipus. Even mentioning the play or the figure of Oedipus, especially if one is socializing in an academic circle, seems to necessarily refer to a familial love triangle, to the carnal love between a son and a mother, as well as an adversarial relationship between that same child and his father. Even for people who may not be particularly knowledgeable of Greek tragedy or the intellectual environment of Vienna at the turn of the 20th century, the word "Oedipus" indicates something that they know is perverse.
And yet the story of Oedipus, when it was conceived, was almost certainly not written to be a metaphor about unconscious sexual compulsions. It was about the nature of generations, about how they progress from one to the other. What we learn from the tale of Oedipus is that this process is not always peaceful. Sophocles was not the only Greek wise to this; Hellenic mythology has no shortage of older gods who were duped, imprisoned or tortured by their offspring, not because of a competitive sexual motive either conscious or unconscious, but because a generation must eventually assert its independence. The story of Oedipus tells us that if it is denied this biological imperative, if opportunity is denied to a generation because of corruption, incompetence or authoritarian rule, the ascendant generation will take recourse in violence. The Arab Spring is perhaps the most salient example of this phenomenon in recent memory.
For all the violence it can incite, the passing of culture from generation to generation forms the fundamental dialectic—one that is even more fundamental to human society than the economic dialectic that, according to Marx, produces history—that has not changed since social creatures first established social structures. Eventually the next generation has to preside over the society that the previous generation inherited, even if the older generation claims that the great structures the idle and entitled youth look upon with hungry eyes were erected entirely by the elder generation's collective sweat, blood and tears. They will gripe. They will claim that times were totally different when they were young. They will say that causes mattered back then, that the music was better and that technology hadn't turned the kids into vapid zombies. They will say that they had a good work ethic and never took anything for granted. In the hands of these not too bright youngsters, they will conclude, the world will fall apart.
And yet we're all still here.
This may seem like a rather strange prelude to a story on a bar in New York City, but consider this something of a conversation as we travel from Brooklyn to that region of Manhattan that isn't really the Lower East Side and isn't really Chinatown, and is now going by the name Two Bridges (as in, it is the part of the island that sits between the Williamsburg Bridge and the Manhattan Bridge). However, I will have to make one or two more proverbial detours before we get there, and you may want to hold your breath as we venture through the first one, as we're going to cut through the noxious land of demagoguery and idiot appeasement that goes by the name of Trumpville.
I believe that Trump is an extremely loud canary in an aging coalmine. He is the paragon of a facet of the Boomer generation that, on the one hand, has been the silent majority since at least 1968, and, on the other, equates their own position as a generation with the position of America in general. (One of the most cogent examples is how one commonly hears the silent majority of the Boomer generation refer to the day that Kennedy was shot as the day that America lost its innocence, even if the nation that they are talking about enslaved millions of Africans in order to become an agricultural powerhouse; performed genocide in the name of Manifest Destiny; invaded most of the nations in the Western Hemisphere in order to promote a type of free trade that was more theft than trade, and was free only with regards to the labor of those who worked the fields in the banana republics of Latin America; and, not twenty years before, was fighting in the single most brutal and deadly war in the history of humanity.) And while Trump has supporters from all age groups, it is the Boomers who have propelled him along the most fervently, and have helped to define the belief system of what the Atlantic recently dubbed "nostalgia voters."
When this generation was coming of age, manufacturing jobs were abundant (partially because so many working age men had died in war; partially because women were barred from many jobs; and partially because World War II had decimated the rest of the industrialized world, thereby leaving the U.S. without any real competition). These manufacturing (unskilled) jobs paid well, too. Even working class families seemed to be getting a fair share of the proverbial pie.
For Boomers, such a state of affairs has been considered normal ever since. Such a belief was only buttressed by Cold Warriors. For these propagandists fighting an ideological war against the Soviets, it was proof of American exceptionalism. And yet, with regards to the economic history of the United States, it was an anomaly.
This all began to change once all of those countries that had been bombed out during World War II started to rebuild their ravaged infrastructure. Suddenly, it became more difficult for the United States to dominate the markets. Rather than look at this as the obvious result of increased competition of the rest of the industrial world, the silent majority of the Boomers, many of them, like their fathers, unskilled workers without too many years of work experience, grew resentful.
Since that onrush of foreign competition in the late Sixties and early Seventies, the resentful, silent majority has spent decades becoming increasingly bitter about how great America used to be when they were children and how it had become increasingly less great, even though it remained an exceptional place that was only not the absolutely greatest for a variety of factors. Over the years, they've found many scapegoats. They've blamed Russian spies and unions and minorities and illegal immigrants. They've blamed presidents, governors and senators. They've blamed the excessive greed (but never the greed inherent in capitalism) of some corporations. They've blamed the Beatles, disco, gay people, the Fox Network (for airing such shows as The Simpsons, Married…With Children and In Living Color, among others), Janet Jackson's tit, the Kardashians and Beyoncé for destroying the cultural fabric of our society. They have come up with odd theories to explain why, even if the United States has the largest economy in the world; even if it has the largest military in the world; even if its taxes are some of the lowest in the industrialized world, it is a weak shadow of its former self that is overburdened by a federal government that would like to asphyxiate all of the John Galts out there with red tape. They've passed down these beliefs to their children who, like their parents, have suffered because of a decline in social mobility and an increase in income inequality. Consequently, they too have nostalgia, but it is for an era that existed vita patris.
Neither group acknowledges the fact that American hegemony is necessary for the functioning of the global, capitalist economy in its current state, and has been since at least the Yalta Conference. This group of individuals is entirely unaware that the influence of the United States is no longer limited to spheres around the globe as it was during the Cold War; it encompasses the entirety of the globe with the exception of a few, small markets where the cultural, political and economic influence of the United States is not directly on display, but most certainly felt. No, to the silent, resentful, oblivious majority, the United States is getting kicked around. It doesn't win anymore.
(If you ask, Win at what? that's nothing but Commie talk.)
So the silent, resentful, oblivious majority feels as though they have been denied their birthright. They feel as though they were supposed to be entitled to good paying jobs so long as they were willing to work. They feel as though they've been sold out by a political establishment that only cares about doing just enough to perpetuate itself via reelection. They have seen their wages drop; their debt rise; and their culture become unfamiliar to them. When they complain, they are called racists or homophobes or xenophobes or sexists or some other name that, though true, just reinforces the belief that the "traditional America" of their youth has been replaced by something that feels utterly foreign to them. They are understandably pissed off.
However, their anger is not the only thing that is on display when they attend a Trump rally. So, too, is their gullibility. They believe that a trust fund bully with a penchant for late night Twitter rants is going to make America great again. They believe that a man who believes in the dictates of Hammurabi will operate under the banner of Christ. They believe that a vulgarian with no sense of modesty or decorum, a man who once shaved Vince McMahon's head after Trump's hired goon beat McMahon's hired goon, is going to raise the cultural bar while recapturing all of the liberal demons that escaped from Pandora's box during the cultural upheaval of the 1960s and made us look more like Gomorrah than the city on a hill. This is the guy who's going to resurrect the traditional America of Eisenhower and the Beav.
They believe that he is going to bring back jobs that pay well, even if they don't require a lot of experience, education or specialization. He's going to make the trains run on time, even if Congress won't allocate the money we need to keep our bridges and roads from crumbling. He'll replace the Affordable Care Act with "something wonderful." He'll battle the P.C. crowd for America's soul.
If Mr. Bergstrom, Lisa Simpson's substitute teacher and idealized father-figure, was right when he said, before boarding the train to Capital City, "That's the problem with being middle class—anybody who really cares will abandon you for those who need it more," Trump has essentially positioned himself to be seen as that father figure who has returned to Springfield as the great defender of mores that haven't actually been the norm in this country for more than half a century. The more he offends and terrifies the world's cultural elites, the more he looks like David battling Goliath. It doesn't matter if his act is all appearance, or that the endless parade of vulgar spectacles are theatrics meant to conquer and dominate the news cycle. To aging Boomers who have never been able to reconcile the severance from a tradition that never actually existed in this country, he promises, like Warren G. Harding in the aftermath of World War I, a return to normalcy (which, ironically enough, was not considered a word when Harding made it the heart of his campaign).
Which brings us to the heart of Donald Trump's success. He's not just selling anger. Like Mussolini and Hitler and Putin, he is allowing his supporters to view chauvinism through the lens of a false history. What they see when they peer through this lens is authority, stability and, most important of all, a return to what they consider normal, even if it was never normal and is now completely fantastical. This is why Trump has been so successful. He is promising to return us to a home that was, when it briefly existed, an economic anomaly. He is promising white working class people the chance to once again say "us" without it referring to anyone but white people. He is selling what Marx, in The Poverty of Philosophy, called idyllism, which, in this instance, is the desire to reject the post-industrial era in favor of a brief stretch of the industrial one.
Nostalgia, like home, is a lovely idea (provided you ignore all of those elements that make the halcyon era in question not so halcyon to a rather sizeable portion of the population), but it is not something to which you can properly return. To once again reference the Greeks, this is the primary theme of the Odyssey—or, for those who are more familiar with movies from the 1980s, Pet Cemetery: "Sometimes dead is better."
To return to what's dead and gone will necessarily be to return to a perversion. And that's what Mr. Trump is selling: a perversion. On all fronts. Everything about him is perverse, from his narcissism to his complete lack of nobility, compassion or civic virtue. He may not be the anti-Christ, but he is most certainly the anti-Cincinnatus. And yet what he represents to the silent majority who are now entering into their golden years is the authoritarian father figure returned. Trump is a charlatan claiming to be King Laius (Oedipus' father) recalled to life.
The truth that the silent majority seems so willing to ignore is that we live in an incredibly dynamic society, and the speed at which the world changes is only increasing. To reverse course would be the ultimate in perversion, even if the world that the typical American is cognizant of is only getting more vulgar and profane. Jane's Addiction Nothing's Shocking and Serrano's Piss Christ seem somewhat tame when you have to sort through thirty years of obscenity to find them.
Conversely, New York City is getting less vulgar and less weird. It has become, instead, quirky. The people are quirky. The bars are quirky. It's almost like the city is trying to be cute.
Which brings us to the bar that used to be called King Size (evidently because it is as wide as a king size bed), but is now Clockwork (21 Essex Street, Two Bridges), which has been described as a storied punk rock bar, regardless of the fact that it opened in 2013.
I don't have anything against the bar. It reminds me of several of the places I used to frequent in Alphabet City during Bloomberg's first years as mayor. It's coated in layers of graffiti. The music is good. The beer is cheap. Even the people sitting at the bar look strangely like doppelgangers from my past. (Except for the girl who, one night around seven pm, blew on my shoulder. When I turned to ask why, she just smiled. "I just blew you. Get it?" Where was she when I was single?)
If you want to relive the early 2000s, this is the place to do it.
However, the popularity of the bar and others like it reveals that the desire to return is common to others besides Trump supporters. Trump's desire to return America to the time when it was great, no matter how delusional it may sound to those of us who do not share his fascistic worldview, appears to be not all that different than the perennial whining about how New York is no longer New York because it isn't weird and dangerous and punk rock anymore. There continues to be a certain allure in punk rock and the Lower East Side of the 1970s, as well as a lamentation about how so much of the city has changed. There is also very real anger about the manner in which the city continues to be flooded with money for the development of neighborhoods into exclusive enclaves that are beyond the reach of working class people, artists or the aesthetes who have made this city the most vibrant place in the world.
Look deeper, however, and you'll see that the attraction to punk rock era is largely aesthetic, whereas the core tenets espoused by those who are attracted to it are more universal in the sense that just about every counterculture in the west for the past hundred years has essentially said the same thing. And that may be the reason why Trump's call for a return is a perversion, whereas it is not a perversion for New York City's Millennials to adore a counterculture that was born and briefly existed vita patris. It's simply an aesthetic preference.
Whereas Trump's promise to return to the dawn of the Atomic Era is tinged with a fascistic call to reinstate what was an anomaly, the grievances of New York City's countercultures, particularly those who continue to make the extol the punk rock era, want, conversely, to end a perverse anomaly. This anomaly is the fact that Millennials have been unable to come into their own, largely due to economic factors beyond their control. This is a perversion. That the good old days are gone is not.
If punk rock is a celebration of youth and rebellion, as well as a violent condemnation of the most repugnant aspects of a system that places an emphasis on conformity and submission, then it is understandable why a generation who has been saddled with debt, locked out of the most lucrative job markets and unable to become adults in the conventional sense (buying a home, raising a family, etc) would be attracted to it. It understandable why we would be angry and demand change. It is also understandable why so many of us can't resist a grimy bar on the purlieus of both Chinatown and the Lower East Side that specializes in selling cheap tall boys of PBR and shots of whiskey.