Let me get something out of the way at the start. I am not a fan of Allen Ginsberg, the beat poet or the person.
Ginsberg the poet was pro-communist and a staunch anti-capitalist. I don’t understand how his style of poetry, that utilized a continuous rat-tat-tat delivery, is art. But as I’ve said many times, what do I know about art?
Ginsberg the person was not a good man. He was a heavy drug user. He was a member and supporter of an organization that worked to abolish age of consent laws and advocated for legalizing sexual relations between adults and children. Seriously. The organization is the North American Man/Boy Love Association (NAMBLA), and it is believed to still be in existence today, in a clandestine form.
Until a few weeks ago, there was not a single thing I liked about Ginsberg and much of what he stood for I found repulsive. Every time I came across him or his work, my feelings only solidified. Ironically, it was another historical figure I admire greatly who provided an insight of Ginsberg’s that resonates in 2021.
That person was William F. Buckley Jr., the conservative thought leader. By chance, I came across an old 1968 Firing Line episode hosted by him where Allen Ginsberg was the featured guest. That’s one of the things I love about Buckley: he never hesitated to go head-to-head to match wits with the elite of the opposition in front of a live audience.
Much of the Firing Line episode is what you would expect, with Buckley Jr. and Ginsberg debating a range of issues in chaotic 1968 that they had very different views on. Ginsberg read some of his poetry to the audience, and Buckley Jr.’s facial expressions during the rendering of the prose were priceless.
But Ginsberg raised a subject that shot through the grainy 1968 video and hit me. The subject was free speech, particularly how the suppression of freedom of thought is censorship. Ginsberg, I have to say, scored major points with his views.
What got the topic rolling was Ginsberg pointing out that the Firing Line producers prior to the show asked Ginsberg to refrain from cursing during the live debate. Ginsberg felt that the request was censorship of his thoughts because artists like him used obscenities in the normal course of developing thought patterns. If you disrupt the vocabulary that constitutes the thought patterns, you disrupt speech as a result.
I listened to Ginsberg and immediately drew a parallel to the politically correct and language-matters police of today.
Instead of obscenities, campuses today prohibit use of pronouns such as ‘his’ and ‘she.’ Lewd words are acceptable across the spectrum of media today, but you better not utter ‘Christian’ unless you are ridiculing the faith. And crude references are fine in art displays funded by today’s foundations and museums, just don’t speak of ‘capitalism’ in those rooms unless you are promoting its demise.
Ginsberg continued with his theme, going beyond the Firing Line producers’ request. He posited that the “octopus of the state” was intruding on the “language consciousness” of society. Ginsberg would be shocked at how long that octopus’ arms have become in 2021 when it comes to controlling our consciousness, especially considering how government collaborates with media, tech, and academia to control speech, language, thought, and opinion.
He lamented to Buckley Jr. that America was becoming a police state, like Eastern Europe at the time. America today has become a police state run not by the Right, as Ginsberg feared, but instead by the Left. The Left’s high priests do not tolerate dissenting views on climate change, socialism, school choice, or even politics. Step in tune with the officially sanctioned views or face the career- and life-altering consequences.
Ginsberg was also predicting the future when he articulated how in the late 1960s more money in the arts was wasted on fighting the system than was invested into making art. To Ginsberg, that was an outrage.
A business owner toiling in today’s economy can certainly commiserate with the poet.
Our economy’s ‘doers’ must constantly throw more and more hard-earned dollars into fighting the administrative state: to keep their business open during the pandemic, to stop incessant regulatory creep, to keep taxes from ratcheting excruciatingly higher (while also paying to navigate the tax code), and to counter the system’s perpetually looping message of how business is the problem and not the solution.
Ginsberg exhibited the personal behaviors of a deviant. Much of his politics were wrong-headed. But one night over fifty years ago he articulated astute positions on free speech, censorship, and the dangers of the state. The poet’s words from the spring of 1968 on these subjects are instructive to all today.
You can view the Firing Line episode here on the Hoover Institute’s YouTube channel.