My extreme disdain for Beat culture goes far beyond the obvious lack of talent in most of the work. No, I truly detest the rebellious course proposed by most Beat artists. Don’t misunderstand; I’m all for cultural rebellion. I’ve spent the better part of my life refusing to assimilate into the cultural norms before me, but Beat culture has turned rebellion for many aspiring young artists into a process of self-destruction that simply leads to addictions, poverty, homelessness, and sometimes even death.
Beat writers such as Kerouac, Bukowski, and Ginsberg glorified and glamorized lifestyles at the lowest end of the economic scale. In their writings, you can easily find passages in which these writers lambaste the middle-class; denounce money, ridicule employment within the establishment; uphold living as a hobo; and acclaim the wondrous benefits of narcotics. I understand well enough that these writers came out of the Fifties, a paranoid and stuffy period, and that their version of rebellion arose from the need to break free from repression, but that fact does not excuse these people, who mostly came from affluent middle-class backgrounds, for a distorted message. Granted, their intentions may have been good, but in this case, the road to ruin is indeed paved with those intentions.
There are problems within America’s middle-class, problems which have existed for the better part of a century. Money and the pursuit of obtaining it can blind many people to the important things in life: love, family, and morality. Suburban life has evolved into a bland, cookie-cutter landscape in which glitz and flash have replaced quality. This insular existence began as an escape from ethnic diversity within urban areas and has become a form of rigid social stratification, a way of isolating the well-to-do and their tax-base from the undesirables of the inner-city. As a result of taxes being taken out of the metropolitan areas, serious cultural erosion has gripped many urban environments. For example, in Memphis where I went to college and had the opportunity to teach, the most affluent suburb is Germantown, and its high school is a model for academic and athletic success. However, within the city limits of Memphis, it was not uncommon to find schools without air conditioning, never mind something as elaborate as a computer. While the inner-city suffers, the suburbs thrive in pseudo-isolation. I say pseudo because the suburbs couldn’t exist without the industrial and commercial centers of the city itself.
These problems with middle-class ideals are very real and deserve attention, but the problems of being poor in a capitalist society are, I believe, much more pronounced and dangerous. When a person is poor, mere survival becomes a challenge because everything requires currency. Even the homeless must pay money for food and clothing, unless they happen to find or steal these necessities. As most people know, the real paradox of capitalism is that it takes money to make money. As money for clothing and grooming decreases, opportunities to find gainful employment also decrease. As employment opportunities decrease, frustration and depression increase, which lead to more and more problems. Thus, the simple, often taken for granted act of survival becomes a challenge.
Among the lower classes, drugs, alcohol, violence, sex, and unwanted pregnancies are epidemics. Literacy, mathematical ability, and other basic educational necessities are not considered as important as toughness, strength, and bravado. Growing up in an impoverished, rural community in the Appalachian Mountains, I often heard people say that book learning and school were wastes of time. In Memphis, those sentiments were echoed by many of the poor I met. As an educator and a writer, I can’t describe my frustration at seeing friends, family, and neighbors reject education and literacy. The result of this rejection is an embracing of lowbrow culture such as professional wrestling and talk shows like The Jerry Springer Show. These forms of entertainment glamorize violence, sexual perversion, and ignorance. It could be argued that lowbrow culture is merely a mirror of society, but as the “art” forms continue to glamorize the problems, people within the lower classes gain a sense of vindication at having these problems. If people on TV are like this, it must be okay for me to be like this too. The problems compound because they are no longer viewed as problems at all.
In their rawest forms, the Beats would have you believe that this lifestyle should be an aspiration.
Cultural rebellion is a natural part of the human psyche. Without it, we have no progress. Without it, we are still scavengers at the water-hole picking flesh from the kills of predators. Without it, we do not land a probe on Mars. We as a species are driven by a desire to change things, to make things better than they were, and that desire is the crux of cultural rebellion. Rebellion of any kind should come from a need to improve conditions, but the rebellion proposed by the Beats does not lead to a better way of living or a better way of viewing the world. In this way, it cannot truly be called a rebellion at all. It should be viewed as a disenfranchising and debilitating pestilence on society.
In our society, this culture of money and greed and affluence and immoral behavior, a true rebel should strive for something truly rebellious. Anyone who claims to be rebellious should not strive to descend the socioeconomic ladder. No, a rebel should simply strive to be a decent person, someone who is nice and kind and considerate to everyone he or she meets. This attitude would shock the hell out of people. This behavior would indeed be viewed as bizarre.
In my youth, I watched friends who thought themselves to be rebels willingly place the modern-day shackles of lower-class life on themselves. We were born poor, and they in their rebellions quit school, partied, worked menial jobs, and lived in slums, permanently arresting themselves in the lifestyle they thought they were rebelling against. I say that a true rebel in the lower classes is the person who does not use alcohol or drugs, refuses to be left out of education, abstains from sex until after having a career. Those people are the ones who are truly not doing what they are supposed to be doing.
In the middle-class, I say that a cultural rebel is not the person who rejects the establishment and aspires to be poor. Rather, these true rebels are the people who embrace substance over image. These people reject the insular suburbs and reach out to the inner-city, trying to improve the lives around them instead of making their lawns the greenest in the cul-de-sac.
The Beats argue that the way to improve the middle-class is to reject it and become poor, but there is nothing virtuous and compelling in becoming disenfranchised. Poverty breeds problems that are powerful and crippling to the soul. Depression hangs on the lower classes like smog to an airport. Addictions destroy families in any class, but in the lower classes, the addictions I have witnessed become amplified by depression, a lack of money to support the addictions, and the basic need to survive. Cultural rebels should not embrace this lifestyle as something grandiose and beautiful. Cultural rebels should be truly rebellious. They should spend their lives trying to do what very few people in this country strive for anymore and that is to improve other people’s lives, not their own, because rebellion has never been anything except an attempt to make the world and the human existence better.