The Last Great Kapu (Taboo)?
It’s amazing how effective it was, the great Red Scare of the 50’s — thanks so much, Papa Stalin, the Dulles Bros, JEH and the mil/industrial complex.
The Red Scare achieved a successful — and incredibly durable — demonisation of any political position left of Eisenhower (who himself was significantly left of what we now laughingly call “centre” in US politics). To this day, the average American responds to words like “class”, “socialism”, “Marx”, “collective”, “public health care” (or just plain “public”), “state-funded”, “taxation,” etc. with kneejerk hostility or panic. It’s not so much a political reaction as a cultural taboo (or kapu). There are some things you just don’t talk about, and class, ownership, wealth, and power are on that list.
It’s like these are dirty words, and we’re all supposed to gasp and clutch our pearls and change the subject if someone utters them. Yet Americans can wallow in porny media, get easy access to guns and booze and drugs, cuss like drywallers — even their kids use language foul enough that it would have mortified my adult working-class grandparents… because they’ve knocked down one kapu after another over the decades, blown through all the creaky old social niceties.
A freewheeling and foul-mouthed informality reigns — not just among stevedores, but all the way into the upper classes and the institutions of power — which would have deeply shocked anyone who was an adult in1950. Hell, a lot of American pre-teens know all the names for sex acts I didn’t even know existed when I was their age.
Yet no one is allowed to name the proletariat. It’s just not done.
I realise this may sound like a sad tale of social decay, O tempora o mores and all that; but even to an oldie like me, many of these kapu discards have been welcome… it’s grand that most of us are now able to accept gay people as just another flavour of human being, that we “allow” women into the professions, that divorce and interracial marriage are mundane instead of scandalous and life-alteringly disgraceful. Other lost kapu, well… I admit, there are moments when I almost miss the more uptight, prissy, politer old days. Almost. But times change, and only fools try to turn back the clock.
What puzzles me is that through all this thawing or outright evaporation of rigid social conventions, vulgarisation of popular culture, and coarsening of speech and public conduct, Americans have preserved intact — all the way from the Frightened Fifties — the absolute ban on discourse about socialism. Period, end of story. Nothin’ to see here, move on.
Politically, it’s like they are still in the era of poodle skirts and no-sex-without-marriage and “illegitimacy” being a lifelong disadvantage. Suggest that Uncle Hank might be gay and you could get disowned by the entire family, back then; that same freezing silence descends today in most American living-rooms if you suggest that rich people really should pay higher taxes.
Strangely enough, it was back in Ike’s day — when being openly gay could get you jail time and divorce was a scandal — that rich people paid waaaay more taxes (under a Republican regime, too) than they do today! Like more than twice as much.
And gee whillikers, that was a period of enormous growth and prosperity for the American economy overall… modulo the exclusion of Black people and women from the good jobs, but still… it’s not like business wasn’t booming.
Any therapist can tell you that the first step in fixing your problem is being able to name it. If America can’t even name its oligarchy problem, its class stratification problem, its alienated labour problem, its core/periphery extraction problem, its rentier economy problem — if America can’t dip into the very useful lexicon built up over almost two centuries of smart people earnestly trying to figure this stuff out — how can it ever move towards fixing anything?
We don’t have to be fundies who take every word of Marx as non-negotiable Bible-truth, we don’t have to be tedious ultra-Trots; but the basic toolkit for critiquing capitalism, for analysing relationships of social power based on ownership, wealth, and class, is a very useful one. Like Newtonian physics, it may not describe the whole universe and needs a bit of updating, but it’s a pretty good start. And most Americans are completely unable to access it, unwilling to access it… as if just one stray thought about redistributive taxation or public health care were the gateway drug to Stalinist repression.
Having blown through just about every Fifties-era taboo with turbo-jets roaring, it seems so odd to me that this political prudery remains intact. When it comes to a discussion of class, wealth, and power, Americans are — metaphorically — still afraid to say “leg” in polite conversation because it suggests indecency. How incredibly quaint.
[Thanks to a couple of folks who by upvoting this comment of mine, reminded me of it and spurred me to turn it into a story of its own.]
If you enjoyed this essay then you might possibly also be interested in: