Fifty years into our poser-filled age, we now live in a zeitgeist so devoid of genuine art and even earnest human engagement that the concept of seeking a life of meaning strikes us as an against-all-odds pursuit. Social media and posing took to each other like hand to glove. Silicon Valley and their smartphone dopamine addiction sticks created a world where nothing is real and no one can be trusted. Everything is a manipulation and, as evidenced by the recent news out of Google AI, soon no one will know completely if the avatar they’re conversing with online is human.
The answer to this corporate escape room, though, is not to “shun the world,” but to “shed it.” The line comes from Lungfish singer and visionary artist Daniel Higgs, who in person looks like a gyrating, heavily inked version of Karl Marx come back to life. Higgs and Lungfish produced a series of hypnotizing albums during the ’90s and early ’00s, which were distributed on the Dischord record label created by hardcore legend Ian MacKaye. The former Fugazi frontman started the label, as he recalls for Michael Azerrad in Our Band Could Be Your Life, when members of his previous band Minor Threat demanded he “evolve.” In other words, they wanted him to start writing songs that sounded more like Bono’s in U2. That way they could make real money, not the slop they took in playing all-ages shows with $3 cover charges.
MacKaye rejected every aspect of the premise. Rather than hope against hope that some benign major-label producer allowed him to create halfway meaningful work, MacKaye forged his own record label and distribution system. He took the venture many steps further, too. All his bands’ records and CDs would be sold directly—postage paid—through Dischord’s mail-order catalogs at prices often 25% cheaper than they were listed in record stores. Fugazi also famously refused to play any shows that charged more than the price of a local movie ticket. In response to the corporate strumpets demanding he pose for pennies and plaudits, MacKaye instead created his own world and welcomed the like-minded into it.
Had MacKaye not forged his own path, Fugazi never would have become the most successful independent band in history. Nor would the nearly 200 albums Dischord has released have found an audience on their own artistic terms. There is a model for change in America, but it isn’t posing for pictures while asking for permission from elites and their self-serious gatekeepers who pay your bills while thumbing their nose at the poor workaday suckers in whose name you supposedly operate, except, in reality, you don’t.
In the early 1990s, while Fugazi built up a massive underground following, the famously prescient historian Christopher Lasch sat on his deathbed finishing his last work. No single act could have been more punk. Alongside his daughter, his lungs failing from cancer, together they pored over every page until, right before his death, at long last the manuscript was complete. The finished product, The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy, is a masterpiece of anti-boomer critique. In the book, Lasch dares ask America’s most forbidden question: Does democracy deserve to survive?
In Lasch’s view, maybe not. The boomer left lionized dilettantes and intellectual pretenders in a manner so omnipresent it was destroying the foundation of all knowledge pursuits. The problem, in his view, started nearly 100 years earlier with a small group of wealthy Brahmin Americans transposing their wealth guilt onto social politics. By the time of the ’60s, the problem had morphed with mass culture and consumerism into something far more dangerous. With the carefully crafted Hollywood personas of Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, and Clint Eastwood emblazoned into their occipital lobes, coolness—not integrity—became the boomer left’s utmost value. The way to rebel wasn’t to take part in broad-based campaigns for better wages, working conditions, and social safety nets (which everyone of all races and genders benefit from). To the boomer left, that was all passé. The dirty work of building bridges with Middle American normies was an unneeded concession of the New Deal-era and its buttoned-down ways. The best way to create change was to freak out the squares.
Being cool, in this new establishment left’s mind, changed things by itself. To lack coolness was the same as being a townsperson in the film Easy Rider—a gap-toothed nativist, fearful of anyone who thinks differently.
Boomer Ivy League elites maintained an all-consuming fear of becoming an IBM-punch card “organization man” like their parents. They wanted money and the accoutrements of establishment legitimacy, but to preserve their identities as cool political activists. In college they found the solution. Make change “from the inside.” In other words, they would sell out to business enterprise, government corruption, and consumer excess but don the costume of the collectivist radical—what people in punk rock would later call the “poser”: a prearranged identity worn by a scenester with nothing new to contribute, but seeking the recognition of creative coolness, socially, politically, or both.
Andy Warhol and Hannah Wilke were the maximalist personifications of the poser ethos. Unimaginative individuals who were masterful at manipulating wealthy donors and the art-going set into believing their pop culture obsessions represented edgy expressions of social transformation, they became icons and models for the next 50 years of boomer-influenced “edgy” self-expression as a business strategy that combined “progressive” poses with regressive policy. The administrations of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama took the leftish poser philosophy and made it part and parcel with the state itself. Economically, they behaved almost exactly as Ronald Reagan and the Bushes did. But they listened to Fleetwood Mac and the Stones, and their wives weren’t just about “baking cookies.” So they were cool.
The boomers’ obsessive portrayal of Woodstock as the cultural second coming imprinted a superficial change-maker identity onto Gen X—which would then go on to mimic the 1969 music festival’s hedonism with Burning Man, Coachella, and many other regional love and drug fest imitators. Through the force of repetition, boomers managed to manifest in their children and grandchildren all the wrong lessons from the ’60s. The only thing needed to “change the world” was to listen to cool music, have hip views on things, and every four years vote blue.
The acceptance of “different lifestyles” came to represent an all-encompassing political salvo for the left. Politics became identity, and vice versa.
The desire to think differently in some cool new way quickly got so out of control that the American left rapidly lost touch with working-class mannerisms (except as a barn-door target for satire) by at least the mid-’80s. In their place, they took on the values of the art-going set—a group desperate to prove how different it was from everyone else.
It’s no accident that some elements inside today’s lucrative sexual rights organizations prefer to let the letters on the LGBTQQIA2S+ moniker grow every few years. It’s the same reason why gay pride parades no longer seem to elevate primarily gay men and women anymore. Common cause with Middle America is not in fact their mission. Neither is general acceptance. None of those achievements would be cool enough.
For the contemporary American left, despite a great many pretensions to the contrary, the goal is exclusion, not inclusion. Alienating normies, suburbanites, and whatever dedicated social conservatives still reside in the country’s metro areas is in fact their raison d’etre. The goal is to advance identities different from those that include most Americans and thereby declare their membership, as Douglas Murray writes, “a bit better” than social traditionalists, who are pretty much the definition of uncool.
A century ago, when the United States had something akin to a functioning working-class political movement, people inside it debated whether wealthy art-show poser types were of any use. Now, after almost 50 years of operating under the iron grip of the Warhol generation, almost nothing on the American left remains but posers. As a direct result, the labor movement has shrunk down to almost nothing. Working-class pay has fallen steadily despite labor productivity skyrocketing. Housing went from highly accessible to a tragicomedy capable of destroying the country. Meanwhile, during the same five decades, large parts of America’s elite liberal education system devolved into a Nerf-world version of Pol Pot’s school system in Khmer Rouge Cambodia.
While Wall Street accelerated its demented war on working people’s pay and benefits, the Democratic Party transformed itself into the party of Herbert Hoover, throwing up its hands—as it has for the duration of Joe Biden’s presidency so far—pleading that it’s powerless to enact its own legislative agenda. But check out this cool documentary about Angela Davis that my kid is showing at Sundance! Power to the people!
If understood properly, all this should have been expected. Follow-through and persistence are not poser values. Neither is consistency.
Today’s poser left-wing political class claims in one breath that to enact its promised legislative itinerary would mean superseding the nation’s most cherished institutions—like, apparently, the Senate filibuster. Meanwhile, it also encourages the country’s young people to topple statues of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and even abolitionist heroes (who died fighting slavery) to demonstrate the depth of their righteous anger. Create a Piss Christ of the nation’s past. Throw milkshakes on conservatives. Tear it all down! In the poser’s mind, the self-immolation of entire communities was productive because the orange man was in office and, in case you didn’t know, he’s bad. Fire will teach dumb Middle Americans not to like him.
Such is the arithmetic of the activism-as-art-installation crowd. Life is just a performance. They merely long for a good show. To meticulously plan out how to effectively challenge vested interests—much less carry out the decadeslong work needed to erect useful social supports—might endanger a steady flow of checks from wealthy donors. It’s far better to talk a good game and take selfies outside the Supreme Court.
Prior to our poser age, America used to be, as historian Daniel Boorstin theorized, a country characterized by its “doer” spirit. The late-19th- to early-20th-century labor movement that finally started to gain momentum during Franklin Roosevelt’s administration—nearly 40 years after the Pullman Strike—had little patience for intra-elite parlor games. The theatrics of champagne socialists, and the Mable Dodge Luhan-type exhibitionists of the political world, were kept at arm’s length.
The notion of punk hadn’t been coined yet of course, but the New Deal—and the labor leaders that pressured the government into creating it—were “all killer no filler.” Just as with the original punks of the Anglophone world during the late ’70s and ’80s, Roosevelt came to, in his own words, “welcome the hatred” of the country’s wealthy and well-connected. He gained motivation from the Depression-era labor movement’s dignified suffering for their cause. Like his true heir Lyndon Johnson, Roosevelt yearned to cut through Washington bullshit and carry out tangible improvements in the lives of the poor and working classes. Whereas Nancy Pelosi, in her perfect embodiment of the poser ethos, instead prefers to solemnly read poems in front of cameras.
Why, though, would you expect the House Speaker to act when her job is to perform? In her mind, tearing up Donald Trump’s speeches and mock-clapping with a carefully measured face of disgust is her real job—not passing legislation that alienates the captains of industry she serves.
In the TikTok era it’s easy to assume that, if given the chance, all Americans throughout history would have posed for profit. That assumption, though, is false. It wasn’t true for the foot soldiers of the American Revolution, or the mostly poor and immigrant Union battalions that fought against the Confederacy in the Civil War, or the 19th- and early-20th-century American labor movement, or the Civil Rights Movement. Members of each risked personal injury and even death for the causes they were unlikely to benefit from personally.
Posing for hire was never an option for the true Gen X punk pioneers, either—the Ian MacKayes, Rick Frobergs, and David Yows of the world. If you came of age in ’90s rock and these musicians remain unknown to you, it might be because you have no taste. It could also be that MTV veejays and corporate-controlled disc jockeys were told what to play and how often to play it. In consequence, pedestrian bands like Pearl Jam and Stone Temple Pilots were declared pioneers of the new “grunge” and “alternative” sound, when in reality, every last one of the millionaire ’90s bands were milk-and-water versions of the post-rock and math-rock creative explosions happening at the time in small venues and independent labels.
The corporate takeover of the American music industry, not coincidentally, perfectly matched the timeline of the corporate heist of the American university system and the deracination of the working class from the Democratic Party. In all three industries, innovative yet accessible work was put forth at a staggering rate throughout the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s. Then, like geese fleeing a charging mountain lion, all at once an entire flock of trends took flight in the opposite direction. Once the poser class gained traction inside these American institutions, by the early ’80s, all true creativity (and concern for the injuries of the working and middle classes) was pushed out. American art and expression returned to its Gilded Age form—malnourished, against the grain, and remunerative only for the very wealthy and well-connected.
It’s time Gen X and everyone younger realize that there’s no cavalry coming to save us. The Democratic Party and the GOP are effectively one monster with two heads, squabbling about how best to rule the nation on behalf of the Fortune 500. Our universities are now pyramid schemes (and professional sports teams) with social justice veneers. Holding out hope in any of it is a fool’s errand. If there is an American future, it won’t be built by participating in identitarian battles fought on handheld screens. Raising a placard and protesting institutions that don’t fear or care about the public is equally useless. Only by creating our own organizations and institutions—outside and separate from the unsalvageable ones now in power—can anything change. If there is any democratic future in these United States, erecting it will require effort, not bullshit posing.
B. Duncan Moench (@DuncanMoench) is a Tablet contributing writer and a scholar of political thought and American character studies.