Looking at pictures of Richard “Bigo” Barnett in the U.S. Capitol last week, grinning, his foot resting on a staffer’s desk in Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office and his arms extended, I recognized a jarringly familiar if initially hard to place tableau. Barnett appeared to be acting, according to Saul Loeb, the Agence France Press photographer who snapped the picture, “just sort of like he owned the place.” Where had I seen this before?
Barnett and I are the same age, 60, and we’re both white men. I’d like to believe that’s where the resemblance ends. I’m not a Trump supporter, Second Amendment enthusiast, or from Arkansas. But we do, also, share generational experience. We both came of age against a backdrop of insouciant rebels resting their feet on the desks of authority figures.
When we were kids, in 1968, I vividly remember what at the time seemed an inexplicable photograph: a Columbia University student smoking a cigar, feet propped on the desk of the school’s president, Grayson Kirk, after taking over Low Library. I ingested a similar image a decade later. It was season 7, episode 1, of the hit television series MASH. Korean War anti-hero Hawkeye Pierce, famously portrayed by Alan Alda, reluctantly assumes temporary command of his unit. Suggesting disdain for authority even while exercising it, Pierce wisecracks and deadpans, feet on Colonel Potter’s desk, until the boss returns. That Columbia undergrad and Captain Pierce both seemed impossibly cool to young me.
Barnett’s pose, a trope from our childhoods, suggests something important about what motivated one of the more unlikely and disturbing mobs in American history. The rioters were, to a surprising degree, graying, white, male, overweight and short-of-breath, hardly figures of radical chic. More died of “medical emergencies” than from violence. Much has been made, rightly so, about the impact on them of social media, right-wing websites, the President’s words, and QAnon. But that still begs the question of what turned so many 50-, 60-, and 70-somethings into insurgents.
Their formative years may provide answers.
People my age grew up in a trough between two eras. Our childhoods and early adolescence are rooted in the 1960s. Television was our portal into the sixties’ violent implosion: the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, protests and police brutality at the 1968 Democratic convention, urban riots driven by black frustration, defeat in Vietnam, and Watergate.
Our early adulthoods were overshadowed by America’s right turn in the late seventies and 1980s: government dysfunction, deindustrialization and “stagflation” in the Carter years, Reagan’s assertion that “government is the problem” and his promise to “make America great again” by unleashing private sector entrepreneurialism.
Too young for the bonding experience of sixties activism, my generation was just embarking on adulthood when the working and middle classes started falling apart. Our teenage years transpired at a moment defined by novelist and social critic Tom Wolfe as “the ‘me’ decade.” We turned inward.
Little wonder that so many of the pop-culture icons of that time were deeply alienated loners: Robert De Niro’s taxi-driving Travis Bickle, Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry, Sylvester Stallone’s John Rambo, Mel Gibson’s Max the road warrior. These anti-heroes, laconic white males flecked with racism and misogyny, all experienced betrayal by government –which was invariably depicted as corrupt, imbecilic, out-of-touch and the agent of catastrophe. Therefore, they had to live violently, by their own moral codes, blurring lines between justice and vigilantism.
The dominant message, especially potent for young white males whose sense of identity is plastic, was that we were on our own. Neither government nor group action could help us.
Individualism has always been a significant part of the American character, but coming of age when we did made my generation particularly tone deaf to collaborating and prioritizing collective good. It’s doubtful that the “greatest generation” that endorsed the New Deal and fought World War II would have taken umbrage at the idea of wearing a mask during a pandemic. My generation does.
That leaves us ill-suited to the realities of 2021: combatting a global pandemic, fighting climate change, and rescuing democracy. None of these crises will yield to loner posturing.
My generation needs different stories on which to base our behavior. I was lucky to go to college and graduate school to study history. I learned that all the great reforms in the American experience derive from cooperative effort: abolition, women’s suffrage, the rise of labor to middle-class status, triumph in World Wars and over great depressions, scores of civil rights, healthcare, and scientific gains.
My generation remains susceptible to the power of stories. Lounging infamously in Speaker Pelosi’s office, “Bigo” Barnett clutched a cell phone in his right hand. Having grown up watching history unfold on TV, Barnett and his selfie-taking comrades apparently saw themselves as screen-worthy shapers of events. The challenge for the incoming administration, and for politically-inclined artists and activists, is to shift the lens of people like Barnett from themselves to the group, to get their feet off the desk, backsides out of the chair, hands off the phone, to get them working together, building not destroying.
Chris Doyle, PH.D teaches history at Avon Old Farms School in Avon.