Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Black Bobos

So it turns out that Black Boomers grow up to be bobos too. This really shouldn’t be surprising after all. Black Boomers emerged in the sixties with just as much idealism and vitriol as white Boomers did. In the end though, radicalism fails, and stales, and eventually ends up in the politics of authenticity.

What the hell am I talking about? I was listening to NPR (National Professor Radio) last week and found out that former Black Panther Party members are now selling hot sauce. Yup. Hot Sauce.

White radicals in the sixties grew up. And this presented a problem for them. When you commit to a revolution at 20, what do you do when you’re 30? Especially if the revolution seems ever more unlikely? At some point you will realize that you are tilting at windmills. At 30 you might still be extra cool for not selling out. But face it, at 40 if you’re still tilting at that same old windmill when all of your friends now have careers and families and suburban homes, you’re going to seem out of touch. By 50 you will just be pathetic.

‘Bobos’ is the term David Brooks came up with to capture what happened to those guys. At least the ones with the houses and careers. Since you really do have to get a career and children and a house and all that other grown up stuff, you start to focus on the little things. Like Vasque boots, Birkenstock sandals. Or extra-natural stuff in your house –granite counter tops, slate showers. As it turns out, being green is quite expensive. Which is good, because if you spent your early 20s being anti-materialistic, and you end up making some money, it’s going to be quite embarrassing to end up being a flaming materialist.

Somewhere in there, your politics change too. One can’t be expected to be a radical after one has bought so deeply into the system. Private property is not so bad if you’re sitting in a half million dollar mcmansion. Soul searching forces the question “Was I wrong when I was young?” The answer ends up being “No – I was committed to my beliefs (always a good thing).” The focus turns to authenticity. As in “I was authentically a revolutionary.” So as not to completely contradict their youthful idealism, they turn their revolutionary zeal into life’s mundanities.

LikeBen and Jerry’s ice cream. Good certainly – but horribly expensive. In trying to live up to their earlier idealisms, the cows have to be owned by local farmers, and milked to NPR every morning, by old women.

Patagonia clothing company is another of my favorite examples. They use organic cotton, instead of regular cotton (too destructive an agriculture), but prefer organic hemp. Since we here in the US are afraid someone is going to try and smoke the feedstock, this has to be imported from some third world country. Which means it has to be fair trade hemp, and so on. They recycle everything they can. 2 litre bottles for polyfleece sweaters for instance. They use lots of solar and wind power for their headquarters. You can see where this is going. In trying to be the perfectly sustainable company they drive their prices so high, the average person cannot afford Patagonia clothes.

To wear Patagonia illustrates that one is willing to suffer a little for their ideals (I really do like their clothes, but find I only want to suffer enough for a belt). It also shows a certain affinity for the climbers, skiers, backcountry types that the company claims is its inspiration. Here’s why this is important. We might not be able to fix global inequality. We might not be able to save the environment. We might even find our contemporary abundance a tad embarrassing. But, if we use some of that abundance to support a company that promotes fair trade with third world farmers, that does its best to be gentle to the environment, then our pudgy middle aged selves don’t need to feel so alienated from the revolutionary idealist from our youth.

Just as boomers were authentically revolutionary when they were young, they now try to bring their ideals into their daily lives. In a sense, their commitment to their lifestyles, their authenticity as it were, is a measure of their moral worth. For if instead of buying Patagonia clothing, they simply shopped at WalMart for whatever cheapest sweatshop rags fit, they would then be hypocrites. They would be inauthentic. They would be immoral.

Back to the Hot Sauce. There was much for Black Americans to fight for in the 1960s. There still may be. I won’t say – that’s their battle after all. But time moved on and those windmills aged just as fast as the revolutionaries did. However to hear Bobby Seales proclaim that revolution really means evolution, and that somehow this evolution is tied to hot sauce, well that makes this Xer giggle. Of course there is plenty of good in hot sauce. It might be recipes passed down within the culture. It illustrates the importance and goodness of using your skills and selling your product as craftsmen. It provides great role modeling for a group that needs it. And it is wonderfully sensual. It is the opposite of Marx’s alienation.

But, I don’t know. It’s kind of funny. At least the attempt to tie it into the earlier radicalism of the Panthers. Over the course of your life, a man leads many different lives. It might sound less funny to just say: “We’re selling hot sauce now.”

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