Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The Uday-Qusay Aesthetic and the Baby-Boom Generation

Since reading Frank Rich’s reflections in the Sunday NY Times about the tacky, sordid “culture” Americans have produced since the 1970s, as a result of our blind faith in the free market, I’ve been thinking (here).

Rich points out that the ultimate cause of our present economic conundrum was that we, as a people, have permitted an “obscene widening of income inequality between the very rich and everyone else since the 1970s.” And this has produced a “bubble culture” in which we assumed that “money ennobled absolutely.” Our bubble culture is a culture of the utmost tawdriness: “The level of taste flaunted by America’s upper caste at the bubble’s height had less in common with the Medicis than, say, Uday and Qusay Hussein.”

Rich is right. I know. I’ve seen the Uday-Qusay line of fashion in my own city, with my own eyes. And he’s right about when all of this started: my recollection is that there was a significant cultural turn as the 1980s got underway, and that turn is continuous with—it is largely responsible for—the mess in which we now find ourselves. It was a deliberate turn away from the openings represented by the 1960s, and a turn inward by those with most economic and political clout in our society, who were determined to call a halt to social change after that change had served their own selfish ends.

Here is what has happened in my own city, what I have seen with my own eyes, as a result of that cultural turn: I live in a city with a wealth of good housing dating from the 19th and the first half of the 20th century, which is now (in many cases) decaying. Boarded houses. Empty houses whose roofs are leaking. Abandoned places with overgrown, uncared-for yards.

At the same time in which these perfectly good (and in many cases, architecturally valuable) houses were being abandoned, my city has grown by leaps and bounds to the suburbs, to the northwest portions of the city that border on white-flight counties filling up with people moving away from the urban center. I should say, my city has grown by leaps and bounds geographically and through the construction of new houses, office buildings, restaurants, cinemas, shopping malls in the direction of its white-flight neighbors. It has not grown demographically.

The movement to the white-flight suburbs in the latter decades of the 20th century does not represent a demographic phenomenon requiring new housing. It represents a cultural choice—a choice to flee a city full of good houses and with a racially mixed population for suburbs that are largely white and middle-class.

And as in Dallas, Atlanta, Charlotte, Greenville-Spartanburg, Jefferson Parish, Louisiana—all over the South where this same movement has occurred in this same period—those suburbs are soulless and devoid of meaningful culture. I’ve been in some of the houses, the Uday-Qusay houses that are supposed to bowl me over with the luxury of their appointments.

I know a designer, a gay one, who “designs” for the occupants of these houses, and whose fundamental aesthetic principle is that if a little raw silk is good, a lot of it is better. Much, much better. Said designer promotes “puddles” of raw silk on the floor, at the bottoms of windows and wherever a puddle can be accommodated.

Another local designer who has gained national attention and who also subscribes to the more is better aesthetic specializes in plaids. And reds. If a little plaid and a little scarlet are good, more is better. Much, much better.

The Uday-Qusay houses I have visited in the white-flight outskirts of my city gleam—with marble, granite, crystal. They cause the eyes to pop with their puddles of raw silk and plaid. They make one oooh and aaah over bathrooms—ten of them for two people—larger than one’s bedroom, a comparison sometimes helpfully pointed out by the proud occupants of the Uday-Qusay house.

And they give one headaches. Literally. When I took a job in another state a few years ago and was expected, as an administrator at a university, to visit and oooh and aaah over the oceanfront Uday-Qusay temple in which the chair of the board of trustees lived—one of the most godawful displays of tasteless conspicuous consumption it has ever been my ill luck to witness—I came down with the worst retinal migraine of my life. From the moment I walked through the door and the bright sunlight glinting off the marble and glass inside the house blinded me.

The sunlight was, needless to say, not deflected by books. It never is, in these Uday-Qusay houses, I find. When I visit them, I instinctively look for books to remind me that I am in a house and not some frightful shrine to a postmodern nightmare from which I would prefer to wake. And I don’t find them, certainly not in the white-flight suburban houses of my own city.

Oh, I might find a set of tasteful leather-bound books here and there, bought at a “designer” shop by the yard, fetchingly displayed next to a plaid appointment or a puddle of silk or a faux Roman bust made of concrete fussed with in some “antiquing” shop. But I see little evidence that the occupants of these houses actually read, as they vie to send their children to the best of private schools and ivy-league universities, where said children will, it is hoped, replicate the Uday-Qusay life of their parents in some yet-to-be-discovered gated white community. Or as they go to the polls to pull the lever for the Republican party and its defense of family and values and the free market.

What wonders we have wrought, since the 1970s—we Americans, we baby-boomers. My people. My generation. We took the promise of the 1960s and produced . . . this. Because we were afraid of the hard work of systemic change that the 1960s signaled. Because we were selfish. If the cultural revolution of the 1960s had served our own purposes, it had done what was needed. No need to extend it further, or explore its implications for all of us.

The people most resistant to the idea of gay rights in the latter decades of the 20th century have been not precisely the religious right, but baby boomers. The very people who themselves benefited from the sexual revolution of the 1960s, insofar as that revolution opened the door to women and to heterosexual couples. Having gotten what they needed from the 1960s cultural revolution, they turned around and decisively slammed the door in the faces of their gay brothers and sisters, while taking full advantage of their own sexual revolution.

The Clintons are the face of a whole generation of people in that respect.

And so along came Reagan, and we welcomed him. We put him into power. My people. My generation. The baby-boomers who had begun to get what we wanted. And to hell with everyone else.

Frank Rich is correct to locate the roots of our present economic (and cultural—far more cultural than economic) crisis in the 1970s and the economic changes that began then, which Reagan consolidated with his voodoo economics and trickle-down magic. Bob Herbert confirms Rich’s analysis in a marvelous op-ed piece in today’s NY Times (here). As he notes, when we let the right-wingers get hold of us following the turmoil of the 1970s, we began the process of smothering the American dream, in full collaboration with the snake-oil salesmen of the right.

Who have sought to convince us that greed is gospel. And who have been permitted to spread their false gospel right in the bosom of the churches, which have become so fixated on abortion and homosexuality as evidence of cultural decline that they cannot see the real process of decline taking place all around us. Above all, in those affluent suburbs that have become the bastions of the “family-values” party for decades now, while the thoughtless hedonism and self-centered me-first philosophy that drive life in our affluent suburbs undermine family life more decisively than any outside force on God's green earth could ever do.