Is Conservatism the New Counterculture?

If I had to guess, being hip began around the time of Prohibition when drinking went underground and it became a form of rebellion in order to stick it in the nose of the government by going to the local speakeasy on a regular basis. Once Prohibition was repealed and drinking became mainstream again, being cool and rebellious took a break while the country had to get serious about protecting itself during WWII.

Then came along Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs, the trio of writers that begat the beat generation who rebelled against the conformity of the post-war years in the 50s. Coolness came into its own with the new bohemians and beatniks. In popular culture, they were further defined and refined by the likes of James Dean, Steve McQueen and the slick and violent anti-heroes in Bonnie & Clyde played by Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway.

But it was the Vietnam War and the hippie culture that really super-charged the new zeitgeist of coolness. Rebellion against the establishment was in high gear and reached its apotheosis in the ultra-counterculture event, Woodstock. Somewhere around 300,000 attended the seminal rock extravaganza. But there was a downside to this event that many overlook when the Woodstock generation went searching for a new social order.

It turned the music industry into big business and co-opted the "revolution" for monetary gain. And that's been pretty much the way it's been ever since. This was magnificently portrayed in the movie, The Big Chill, where a bunch of former University Of Michigan students spent a weekend contemplating and lamenting being sell-outs to their youthful rebellion by becoming part of the 'establishment' they once decried while in college. (A review I recently wrote, Failed Idealism, The Big Chill, Revisited, can be found here.)

But the new morality was in and the old was out. They smoked pot, snorted cocaine and jumped into bed with one another just like the old days at Michigan. It event went so far as to have one married character played by Kevin Kline get the green light by his wife to sleep with her friend played by Mark Kay Place, in the hopes she could conceive a baby since she never married and her biological clock was winding down. And a married character played by JoBeth Williams sleeps with Tom Berenger’s character, making up for an unrequited romance both wish they had while at Michigan.

So the liberal revolution turned out to be a flop, but the “hipness” and “coolness” that was part of it still lives on in our popular culture, media, education, corporate America and even mainline religions. It has become the de facto way of life whether we realize it or not with the creation of new cultural norms now taken for granted. How can anyone make a coherent argument that what was once the liberal counterculture is not the new mainstream culture? So in turn, doesn’t that make conservatism the new counterculture?