Hot Mood 1
ROLLING STONE – May 18, 1989
These Are Not the Best of Times; These Are Not the Worst of Times. At the End of the decade, We Are Turning Ambivalent. Maybe.
NOWADAYS, THERE ARE TWO SIDES to every answer. We don’t face
facts and, hell, simply decide. No. That would be too instinctual, too easy, too blithe, too unlike us.
Instead, we consider every alternative and feel complete enthusiasm for none of them. We postpone. We fret. We second-guess. Whether it’s a matter of deciding what to have for lunch (a sandwich? a salad?) or how to spend the rest of our lives (duplicitous corporate scumbag in New York? bad lyric poet in Seattle?), neither a wholehearted yes nor an unequivocal no comes naturally. We say maybe. We try to act on both impulses, to be unsentimental romantics, to work uptown but live downtown or vice versa, to have it all, foreclosing no option. As individuals, and even as a nation, we grow faint at the prospect of absolute commitment, whether it’s marriage, or military intervention in the third world, or thirty-year fixed-rate mortgages. We find it hard to feel unalloyed pleasure (would you say you love Bette Midler’s Disney movies?) or unmitigated disapproval (would you say you hate George Bush?). To most of us, every city, every book, practically every way of life is an interesting place to visit, but we wouldn’t want to live there. Would we? Ours is a generation comfortably adrift, bobbing on a sea of ambivalence.
But that’s not all bad. Probably.
Ambivalence as a defining sensibility, widespread and full-blown, is something new. There is virtually nothing today about which thoughtful people – especially thoughtful younger people – do not feel mixed emotions. Every hankering, whether it’s for a policy (like national health insurance), or a commodity (like microwave ovens), or a performer (like David Letterman), comes with disclaimers, a special codicil of qualifiers or qualms.
This is not to say that one’s parents and their parents never second-guessed themselves. Despite the upbeat sheen of the official 1950s, the last generation had its own ambivaloids: Jack Lemmon, John Updike, John Cheever and, in his thuggish tavern-philosopher way, Frank Sinatra are all about being of two (or more) minds, about the competing seductions of suburb and city, convention and impulse, the familiar and the new.
But Lemmon’s discombobulated characters were ex-ceptions, Cheever’s and Updike’s white-collar Hamletsmere literary creatures. Until rather recently, television was obliged to depict the official dad – Ward aeaver, Omie Nelson, Mike Brady. Today the only remaining official dad is the president of the United States, and TV’s most beloved parents, downscale (Roseaime) and up (thirtysomething), are knots of no-easy-answers ambivalence. Thirlysomething is appealing, one of its creators explains, because its stories are untidy, its characters irresolute. “Ambiguity and ambivalence,” he says, “are as much a part of life as resolution.” And according to Newsweek, the film Broadcast News was “the first romantic comedy driven by ambivalence.” Tell me Fm smart and attractive, yes, but even better, tell me I’m smart, attractive and coed.
In 1962, Tom Hayden drafted the Students for a Democratic Society charter, the so-called Port Huron Statement, which launched the New Left. Its jumping-off point was a collective sense of ambivalence, its signaroties people privileged enough to harbor mixed feelings about their privilege. “We are people of this generation,” Hayden wrote, “bred in at least modest comfort, housed now in universities, looking uncomfortably at the world we inherit” Because they were very young, and because the injustices were more spectacular and more remediable, the New Lefties coped with ambivalence by plunging into unsubtle political commitment, not (as they would later) by wandering away, jaded and flip. It was simple in the Sixties: Once the world came up to snuff – no more war, no more greed, no more lies – ambivalence would be outmoded. And indeed, for most of those who felt it, the thrilling surge of antiwar sentiment was the last moment of absolute certainty about politics.
Today’s ambivalence is a post-Vietnam syndrome, civilian shell shock. The war itself was a mess of second thoughts from beginning to end. Presidents Kennedy and Johnson were ambivalent about sending U.S. troops. The war was waged ambivalently by infantrymen ordered to kill and protect the same people by generals ambivalent about strategy and tactics. From 1968 on, the American public was composed not mainly of hawks or doves but of confused, anxious citizens. Even to those who demanded withdrawal, the final spectacle – GIs bashing would-be refugees on the helipad, North Vietnamese tanks rolling through Saigon – was not exactly gladdening. The memorial to Vietnam veterans in Washington, D.C, is a grand, heartbreaking dead end, ambivalence in black granite.
By the time the war ended, a certain “Hey, who cares?” fecklessness had already set in among the young, a rejection of both hippie abandon and conventional sobriety. It was cocaineandhottub swingerism; the order of the day was still selfindulgence, now without any pretext of forging a new order. A generation was gradually giving up, along with its adolescence, its lateSixties habit of certitude. But the need to believe had not disappeared. In the Seventies, thanks to est and its ilk, you could believe in yourself, only yourself and even that faith lasted only long enough to make Werner Erhard and Michael Korda rich. By the time of Reagan, thoroughgoing ambivalence was back
The rebellion of the Sixties sought to discredit orthodoxies in nearly all realms religion, music, sex, race, work, politics, foreign policy. But it succeeded most thoroughly at displacing the idea of orthodoxy itself, of easy moral consensus and clarity. Americans now come equipped with a snickery skepticism that runs as deep as the hopeful stoicism of the Forties After the Sixties, nobody took heroes seriously. After the Seventies, nobody even took antiheroes very seriously. After Vietnam, Americans didn’t become pacifists, but they could no longer imagine any plausible circumstances that would justify largescale US. military involvement After Watergate, they didn’t become anarchists, but they stopped investing much hope in politicians and national politics. And after Paul McCarmey formed Wings, they never listened to music again.
Well, no. The generational disappointment did not spiral on, unchecked; for most Americans this is not, after all, a time of despair. We are merely ambivalent: Despite the squirmy fits of selfdoubt, we are, a lot of the time, enjoying ourselves, more or less. We are ambivalent about giving beggars only a quarter on our way to buy elevendollar wines, but the wine is really, really good. We are ambivalent about working fourteenhour days while strangers raise the children, but the work is really, really satisfying. We are ambivalent about a TV show that panders to us shamelessly, but The Wonder Years is really, really effective at pandering.
Sometimes our reflex ambivalence is a matter of faint ethical qualms, a lite residue of angry idealism. It is the suspicion no, the certainty that our nineteenyearold selves would have disapproved of our thirtyfouryearold selves. And sometimes it is Peter Pannishness: We don’t wanna grow up. In fact, these strains nearly always come bound together, and it’s hard to know which is which. Are we holding ourselves to moral standards we believed fiercely at nineteen or do we just want to be nineteen again? Is our hesitation about moving to the suburbs some cryptopolitical act of resistance? Or are we just mortified by the idea of becoming our parents rumpus room, lawn mower and all? Or is that saying the same thing?
As ever, we try to have it both ways, to have it all. We may live in Highland Park, but on weekends we play old Dead tapes, loud. We may drive a sedan, but it’s German, and it could go very fast, if we wanted to. We may go to the mall, but we joke about the shops (Bad Art n’ Things) and our fellow shoppers. We may attend PTA meetings, but it’s us, not the kids, with a Gumby on the desk; it’s us watching Peewee and reruns of Mr. Ed; it’s us wearing sneakers and jeans and Tshirts; it’s us riding bikes and playing Frisbee and eating ice cream straight out of the carton it’s just us kids, at thirty, thirtyfive, forty. Yes, this is a $900 blue pinstripe suit but look, the tie is loosened. Yes, these are red suspenders but look, I have a ponytail, sort of. Yes, I’ve sold out but look, not completely.
Just as there are now situation comedies that take midlife ambivalence as their weekly subject, rock & roll has been retrofitted for this generation of chic mugwumps. Talking Heads and Elvis Costello and They Might Be Giants embody a kind of aggressive uncertainty in every lyric, every stage gesture, in their very names. If postmodern architects, by designing cartoon versions of classical buildings, showed their mixed feelings about history, the latest generation of fashionable architects is ambivalent about materials, mixing cheap plywood and custommade glass, concrete blocks and polished marble, Formica and gold leaf.
Once restaurant patrons would commit themselves, up front, to a dinner consisting of just a single entree. Now, seduced by everything and nothing, diners “graze,” eating a bit of this, a nubbin of that, some of whatever. At home, meanwhile, they shovel down croissants and Haagen Dazs and crème fraiche and all kinds of premium fat despite their simultaneous mania for cardiovascular perfection. Advertisements for fatty foods actually play on the ambivalence: If it makes you feel guilty, says one, it must be good. Give us all the soft, warm, reassuring nanny foods corn bread, mashed potatoes, chocolatechip cookies and Irish oatmeal. But give us all the sc4 alien dishes, too sushi and venison and miniature vegetables.
Now Ronald Reagan, the last great holdout against onrushing ambivalence, is gone for good. Indeed, what made Reagan so popular was his simpleminded, blackandwhite certainty. Most Americans, cursed with an ability to see grays, yearned to be as serenely sure of themselves as Reagan. A Reaganized life sounds tempting: Initial a memo, smile, tell an old story, chuckle, cut some brush, dream. Even those predisposed to loathe Ronald Reagan could not help feeling of course ambivalent toward him.
While Reaganites were promoting a fundamentalist politics, however, the rest of us could not really play along very convincingly Who does not have mixed emotions about abortion, about Nicaragua, about the death penalty, about the West Bank? Who was a real devotee of Mondale or Dukakis? It has been decades since the Democrats ran a presidential candidate about whom they were unequivocal. A few years ago, the ambivalent left even invented a term for its philosophy neoliberalism. Now the neoliberals don’t call themselves neoliberals much anymore. They seem ambivalent about the term.
It’s not that thinking people don’t want to believe in leaders and ideas wholeheartedly. In fact, as pundits grope for a handle on the Nineties, they look wishfully to the Sixties, imagining that the spirit of social activism really does run in fixed thirtyyear cycles. To some wouldbe believers, environmentalism looks like a perfect way out of the trough of ambivalence. Come the Nineties, they figure, as worries about pesticidecoated apples and the Brazilian rain forests turn to anger, we will become once again the concerned, committed people we used to be, or like to imagine we used to be.
Maybe. Ambivalence can be paralyzing. It can make us ineffectual, unwilling to engage. It does not necessarily make for a gustograbbing life. But ambivalence may also be the natural emotional and intellectual state of grownups childhood is sweet, adulthood bittersweet Who isn’t ambivalent? Madmen, children, ideologues. Ambivalence is not weakmindedness. It is a function of habitual selfcriticism, of seeing both sides, of an eclectic unwillingness to cast one’s lot with the avantgarde or MOR, with tidiness or funk, with West or East, with one zealotry or its opposite Until the world turns uncomplicated, ambivalence only makes sense.