Rock n roll is the soundtrack of the 60s. The revolution fueled by free spirited musicians breaking free of their past, of the stodgy old 50s, and standing up for a new world of peace and solidarity. Bob Dylan. The Doors. The Beatles. The Rolling Stones. “I can’t get no satisfaction”. A generation of young whites turning against their parents to support the new world of racial equality.
That, at any rate, is one way to look at it. The way that has been reified in our cultural consciousness.
Another way to look at it – which doesn’t displace the first way, but is its less glamorous, more psychologically inevitable side – is in terms of the excesses of rock n roll: the parties, the drugs, the wanton womanizing, the getting rich. The trashing of the hotels. It is surely a strange way to help create an equal society by throwing millions upon millions of dollars down the drain into parties, fancy rock n roll planes, into repairing whole hotel floors destroyed by white youth acting out in the name of equality. What was all that about?
It was an example of “minoritization”: the affirming of oneself as a minority, so that one can live one’s life as one wants free of the stigma of supporting oppression.
It was not simply white people supporting blacks, and with the focus mainly on blacks, so that blacks can attain equality. It was the white youth discovering themselves as a minority, as an oppressed group, held back and controlled by “the system”. It was working class, young males (doubly a minority!), who just happen to be white (but which doesn’t matter because they are minorities) discovering their liberation, their path out of oppression. So it’s fine if they waste millions of dollars on drugs and alcohol, and partying – while millions of people are starving or are going to prison out of civil disobedience – or if they buy fancy mansions or castles (as in the case of the Beatles or Rolling Stones or Elvis), and live like royalty, because they are themselves minorities really – part of the change of the status quo, of the people from the bottom getting to the top.
The point isn’t that Jim Morrison or John Lennon or Bob Dylan (all musicians I love) aren’t minorities, and that rock and roll was simply a way for white people to keep control of the society by coopting the revolution. That really they were part of the oppressors, who fooled themselves or others into thinking they are part of the oppressed. No, this isn’t it. The situation is more interesting and subtle.
What the rise of rock n roll shows is the explosion in the concept of a minority – of the myriad ways in which one could be a minority. One can be white, and male, and heterosexual, and yet still take on the mantle of being a minority – say, if you come from a working class background, or if you are young and feel oppressed by tradition. Or if you simply identify with a new medium such as rock n roll itself, as opposed to the traditional mediums of classical music or Broadway. One doesn’t have to a black or a woman or gay to be a minority. One just has to identify with an identity which is, in some important way, not the status quo, and which is therefore not represented as much in the public domain of “the cultured and the elite.”
This is the core truth of minoritization: find an identity that is under-represented in the usual pantheon of the ideal as represented in some powerful circles, and like a baptism, one is cleansed of any sins associated with the rest of one’s identities, and with the minority identity as a shield, one can grow unfettered, fresh and deserving of all the glories and riches the world has to offer.
I don’t say this as if to suggest that minoritization is a ruse, a ploy concocted by whites to retain power. That would suggest that simply being white renders any white person into a majority and an oppressor, who can never lay claim to being a minority themselves. And of course this is not true, as if evident by the women’s movement. Or the gay movement. Or the workers’ movements. Minoritization is real because there are no limits on who can be a minority. And that is because no person is defined by a single identity, even the identity of being white, or a Brahmin, or rich, and is instead a combination of a slew of identities, some of which are bound to be under-represented in the society.
When colonialism and segregration were the law, identities were bundled together, or at least presented as such: white, rich, educated, cultured, hard working on the one hand, and say, brown, poor, uneducated, uncultured, lazy on the other hand. This bundling of identities meant that there was meant to be a clear division of the rulers and the ruled.
So when colonialism and segregation ended, one image of what would happen next is that these concepts of the former rulers and the former ruled would be held constant, and the latter would rights and opportunities formerly monopolized by the former. On this picture, there is no expansion of the idea of minorities. Only a redistribution based on the colonial categories of the ruler and the ruled. Call this the fixed minority vision.
This fixed minority vision has a great grip on our imagination, and is how we image the future playing out as it leads to equality. But, at the same time, what we have seen in the last fifty years is not the fulfillment of the fixed minority vision, but its breakdown. Not just in that the former ruled still continue to struggle against systemic inequality. But more deeply, the very sense of the dichotomy of the rulers and the ruled has exploded into a thousand pieces.
The aim of the fixed minority vision is precisely to unbundle the identities formerly bundled together: that is just not true that white, rich, educated, cultured, hard working all go together with one internal necessity such that they form a unified bloc. These identities can be decoupled so that non-whites as well can be rich, educated, cultured, hard working. So far, so good on the fixed minority vision.
But the flip side of this unbundling is that white as well can go with many of the systemic inequalities which were formerly identified just with the non-white, ruled bloc. And it is was precisely this unbundling which the 60s started: an explosion in the idea of the white minority. The idea that someone can be white and male, and stand for the oppressed not just in the name of someone else, someone non-white, but can stand for the oppressed in one’s own name, in terms of one’s own life.
Several decades later, in the 90s, this was what made Nirvana such a unique and new voice, the culmination of the earlier punk rock breaking out into the American mainstream: a band of white men speaking completely earnestly of their disaffection and sense of being marginalized, forgotten, bored and lost to a wider, “majority” culture, as it seemed to them, running rough shod over them.
In a less evocative, pop sense, we now have someone like Justin Beiber, the white male from a working class background, forever displaying a note of rebellion against the system. What is he fighting against? One can’t quite tell. But what one is left with is the sense, and reality in a way, that here is someone who is not just a former ruler, but is someone who identifies as the oppressed in some important way – someone not just fighting for the equality of the black and brown people, but fighting for his own rights which “the system” is forever seemingly on the verge of repressing. A sense that he doesn’t have to sacrifice his life for other people, the minorities, since he has to do his utmost to fight for standing up against the majority for his own identity.
This sense of minoritization is not just a recent thing, or limited to the realm of music or pop culture. The William Buckley, National Review movement was self-consciously a move against the perceived liberal majority in academia and media. The very idea of a “silent majority” presupposes this sense of minoritization, since the implication is that if they are silent, it is because those in power of what is heard (in schools, in media, in entertainment) are oppressing the majority by not letting their ideas, identities and concerns be heard.
With this older conservative movement, this sense of minoritization was more implied than explicitly stated. But with Trump and the alt right, and their embrace of reality TV, twitter, social media and tabloids as a way of getting heard, their sense of minoritization is fully explicit, and so therefore is their sense of not being apologetic for wanting to “simply” protect their way of life.
What this means it that if one wants to disagree with Trump, it is no good simply to try to peg him into the role of the oppressor, as if he is the status quo opposing the true minorities. The more liberals try this approach, the more they will fail. Because what minoritization shows is that there is no such thing as the true minorities. The debundling of identities after segregation and colonialism implies that we are left with a plethora of identities in the public domain, many of which were formerly under-represented and so marginalized.
This minoritization which Trump wields as a shield is not simply a crazy, right wing conspiracy, which can be dismissed as kooky or without much support. To the contrary, it is rooted in the very heart of the American culture, even and perhaps especially the liberal culture, of the last fifty years.