“Fear is the first natural enemy a man must overcome on his path to knowledge.”
In Jack Kerouac’s autobiographical Great American Novel On the Road (1957), Carlo Marx confides to Sal Paradise (Kerouac) that he is worried about what the future holds for himself and his friends—writers and artists who have positioned themselves outside the 1950’s mainstream. He need not have fretted.
In a sobering example of capitalism at work, Allen Ginsberg— Marx in the novel—blossomed into a wildly popular voice known worldwide and sold millions of books in his lifetime. The collective voice of a generation, embodied by Ginsberg, Kerouac, William Burroughs, et al, emerged as a cultural alt-brand by design. Capitalists, who recognized the writers’ talents and potential value, activated a standby method to exploit them. As with previous actors of countercultural expression, the Beat Generation suffered a litany of predictable misunderstandings during its takeover by the marketers. By formulating and propagandizing the cultural wars that persisted in the United States in the 1950s, and by answering the questions the cultural mediators themselves framed, businessmen formulated the next stage of the holy matrimony of capital and the counterculture—willing writers and their partners—money and fame—standing at the altar exchanging vows.
The Beat Generation joined the now ubiquitous pool of alt-everything in the 1950s. Prior to then other authentic literary and social movements were embraced by enough people to make the art-of-the-alt-deal make sense. The Transcendentalists Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson were—to borrow an advertising word—sexy. Collectivist bohemians and critics of the Mexican-American War (1846-1848), they became commodities when word leaked that their ideas possessed commercial potential. To a nation on the brink of civil war, their progressive ideas challenged authority—slavery was wrong, disobedience was an antidote to meddlesome governance; the interior life and the quest for peace were important aspects of existence. Coaxed on by the best their publishers could muster, public relations won. People bought their books and read them. An important movement became—prior to the word entering the American lexicon—branded. But the movement did not magically appear out of nowhere. Emerson published his friend Thoreau’s essay, “Civil Disobedience,” in Dial in 1849 under the title “Resistance to Civil Government.” It was promoted and advertised until it sunk into the consciousness of the era. The essay strengthened the movement and battled intellectual stasis.
The branding phenomenon in its sociological, alt-everything context, is a dialectical exercise. Everything people are capable of imagining is vulnerable to its pressures. Look at the wars fought in the name of religion. Theological brands fought over like cheap thongs in a Wal-Mart bargain bin. Jesus was first and foremost a revolutionary opposed to Herod’s abuses, alienated, suffering between his ears. His co-optation is presently driving the Christian war against Islam. Or is it the other way around? When Martin Luther, answering sixteenth-century papal indiscretions, conceived of a new and improved brand of religion, he attacked with his Ninety-Five Theses and kicked off the Reformation in high style. A hundred years later, bickering among Puritan theologians in colonial New England divided communities. Roger Williams, banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1635, declared that civil magistrates had no power over matters of conscience, i.e., he believed in the separation of church and state. The Quakers led by William Penn opposed slavery while embracing egalitarianism. Luther, Williams and Penn were deemed dangerous radicals by the conformists of their times, but where women were concerned intolerance and cultural anxiety became madness, manifest in the Salem Witch Trials of 1691.
The Holy Trinity of the Rebel—alienation, anxiety and despair—drives the impulse to renounce the smug marketers of ordinariness, the Holy Grail of conformity. To the Rebel, ordinary society is always a holy mess. Its leadership and iconography is to be ridiculed and denied in pursuit of the extra-ordinary. The anti-political Kerouac found solace in Buddhism. Forty years earlier the labor union and birth control advocate, anti-war agitator, and Progressive Era leader Emma Goldman, glimpsed a dim light in Anarchism, and spent two years in jail for protesting World War I. What happened to Kerouac and Goldman? Their rebel impulses were seized by the branders lurking in their respective isms. The writer became a best-seller; the activist earned a comfortable living lecturing.
Capitalism gave Kerouac success and Goldman opportunity to deny capitalism. Advertising is feverish with the impulse to play the name game. Isms sound important, as do Revolutions and Generations, and they are absolutely necessary to marketers, and to those demanding results—consumers. Lawrence Ferlinghetti, a fine businessman, understood this concept very well when he founded City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco, in 1955. He snagged the opportunity when he heard the authentic voice of Ginsberg’s Howl. The poem’s long, breathless lines, read aloud at the packed 6 Gallery in San Francisco in October, 1955, echoed the meter of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass (1855). Like must-have alt-ice cream, the poem was irresistible—it had the beat of non-conformity that Ferlinghetti, who would later take to calling himself the “Director of Alienation,” felt in his soul. Curiously, Howl branded itself immediately by referencing the “generation destroyed by madness,” giving it instant leverage with every disaffected searcher in the 6 Gallery that October night, including Kerouac, who sat aside the stage yelling, “go, go, go.” Genius met a convergence with the poem’s publication—poem and brand embracing like old friends. One can almost hear Ginsberg cackling over his mad generation one-upping the merely “lost” denizens of Gertrude Stein’s 1920’s Paris salon.
Howl pulled angst into the mainstream, whereas the Lost Generation was perceived as elitist, stuffy—beyond the commoner’s reach. Paris? Paris was for rich and elite intellectuals. The Beats were anti-intellectual intellectuals and often poor. The inevitable and deliberate homogenization of the Beats’ countercultural tendencies became exemplar of how happiness and success are defined by capitalism. Few write, or do much of anything in the arts, without keeping a keen eye on the potential profitability of the endeavor. Kerouac wrote The Town and the City to emulate Thomas Wolfe’s style, and to turn a few bucks, but he just as likely approved of Wolfe’s artistic vision from Of Time and the River:
“It is to snare the spirits of mankind in the nets of magic, to make his life prevail through his creation, to wreak the vision of his life, the rude and painful substance of his own experience, into the congruence of blazing and enchanted images that are themselves the core of life, the essential pattern whence all other things proceed, the kernel of eternity.”
A finer description of the purpose and artistic merit of On the Road would be difficult to find. The novel had it all; the “magic,” the “rude and painful substance,” the fire “blazing at the core” of Kerouac’s life. Once he unloaded the weight of Wolfe’s literary influence and found his authentic voice, Kerouac became suitable for picking—he had created Art, the holy commodity. He had arrived, joining a tradition of intellectual rebels in the United States dating from Thoreau and Emerson.
The race to claim Jack Kerouac as something rarified or merely useless tortured many intellectuals. Was Kerouac’s work as important as Norman Mailer imagined when it evoked jazz and deep-rooted interpretations of race relations in the United States, or was it “typing,” as Truman Capote claimed? The question conjures strains of advertising—“is it margarine or butter?” “Tastes great! Less filling!” As Thomas Frank maintained in 1994’s The Conquest of Cool, the business of co-optation has been around longer than is generally recognized:
“To begin to take co-optation seriously is instantly to discard one of the basic shibboleths of sixties historiography. As it turns out, many in American business…imagined the counterculture not as an enemy to be undermined or a threat to consumer culture but as a hopeful sign, a symbolic ally in their own struggles against the mountains of dead-weight procedure and hierarchy that has accumulated over the years.”
Never mind the 1960s. In the 1950s intellectual elites such as Mailer and Capote may as well have been arguing over the merits of two different brands of Scotch. Their promoters were happy to hear something, anything that might hopefully drive the dialectic and hasten the book consuming urge. Kerouac was a staunch capitalist according to his first biographer, Ann Charters. He craved the acceptance of Madison Avenue, and might have shouted “Yes!” like his good buddy Neal Cassady, Dean Moriarty in On the Road. If the greats Mailer and Capote read him, something, possibly the marketing plan, was working right.
Every minutia of the three writers’ lives, exemplified in their quibbling, became fodder for the public, at least among those who gave a damn. Their literary squabbles became a brand gestalt. People had to have it. The cliché—“if you want it enough you can have it”—was exactly what the Puritans believed regarding the “Kingdom of Heaven.” The cliché eventually morphed into reading all about it in the daily news and just doing it—shopping for shoes, renting a noir movie, sampling a new wine, or listening to jazz while lolling in a perfectly pure state of happiness. Puritanism became Nike. Religion became the State—just as John Williams feared—as metaphor
Ideas as product, counterculture as product, people as product, product as product—you can see where this is going. Western Civilization won the shootout in the Wild West because a righteous God prevailed, or so one version of President James Polk’s “Manifest Destiny” (1840s) goes. An alt-history gives Andrew Jackson, Indian fighter turned president, an itchy trigger finger. He expected “savagery” to be reduced to a whimpering memory as civilization pushed west. The alt-story of civilization and its discontents is bloodier than the ordinary story. Discontent reached its nadir with use of the atom bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in August, 1945. No longer did technology and “progress” appear divine. In the wrong hands it became an alternative to rationality and promoted murder, or genocide.
Today, the bomb is good, as in a hyper-consuming suburban white kid’s exclamation: “50 Cent is the bomb!” It is even better on the tip of a technocrat’s tongue, where it is “smart.” In the 1940s African Americans, facing a low-grade yet persistent genocide, invented bebop and demanded an apology from guilty white America. Miles Davis turned his back to the whites in his audience and said listen to this—“fuck you.” Mailer put it this way in “The White Negro,” first published in Dissent in 1957: “…in his music (the Negro) gave character and voice to the quality of his existence, to his rage and the infinite variations of joy, lust, languor, growl, cramp, pinch, scream and despair of his orgasm.” Not just sexy, but lustful, Miles blew the audience away—an audience ready to embrace sexuality in its every guise. Davis took up the call of the abolitionist John Brown, killing any number of white folk with cool, improvised riffs somewhere in Kansas—another blow against the residual effects of slavery.
Meanwhile, an angry white man, Lenny Bruce, responded with his own musical style—plain talk landed him an indictment on obscenity charges. “All my humor is based on destruction and despair,” Bruce said. He did not need an employment contingency plan. Bruce, like Ginsberg in “America”, gave his all and “received nothing” in return. A harsh critic of the Vietnam War, Bruce died of a heroin overdose in 1966 at age forty.
Music and the Rebel are inseparable, the yin and yang of alt-consciousness. Long an aspect of the counterculture and driven by constant experimentation and dissatisfaction with the prevailing sounds of successive generations, music is a natural for co-optation. Few aspects of culture are as volatile as the consumer’s taste in music. Consumer gyrations create huge risks and enormous payoffs among marketers; the trick is to find the latest alt-brand of music and make it alt-popular. Much has passed under the cultural noses of American consumers since Thomas Edison invented the phonograph in 1877. While high-brow and conformist Americans of the nineteenth century patronized the touring artists and symphonies of Europe and sent their young abroad to study at the feet of the European masters, indigenous music began its slow ascent to popularity among America’s workers and the poor.
Early jazz evolved from the black marching bands of New Orleans. Another musical national identity emerged in the symphonic experiments of Henry F.B. Gilbert, Arthur Farwell and John Powell, who incorporated the melodies of Native Americans, slaves, free blacks, and rural Southern whites into their scores. James Reese took a form of jazz-inspired popular music to Europe after World War I, where Igor Stravinsky admired its modernity and exotic feel. Post war, New Orleans American music, defined by King Oliver, Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton, shifted to Chicago, Kansas City, and New York. Country music, encoded by the blues and gospel, became urbanized as well.
American music continued to evolve as an expression of cultural change. The phonograph became commonplace and the mass appeal of music further commoditized its expanding genres. In the 1920s and 1930s, music was a significant contributor to the arts scene of the Harlem Renaissance, a social revolt against racism that began as a literary movement led my Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston. The 1930s and 1940s brought swing music into the mix. The expertly arranged music of Fletcher Henderson, Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller and Duke Ellington appealed to romantics and dancers during World War II and allowed the big bands’ soloist to show off their chops. Some of these soloists rebelled against swing’s conventions and standardized charts and invented bebop. Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Max Roach, and Curly Russell emerged as fiery soloist in “cutting” sessions downtown after the big bands and their dull fans went home for the evening. In kind, some critics lambasted them, disputing bebop’s musicality. After all, you couldn’t dance to it.
A cultural war was on, and capital hustled to meet consumers’ desires. Blue Note Records arose in 1939, the creation of a pair of German immigrants, Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff. By the 1950s they were recording most of the great jazz players on the scene. Other entrepreneurs founded small clubs to accommodate the bebop artists’ trios and quartets, while a second tier of smart record executives positioned themselves in the expanding market. The soloists earned contracts and became the new bandleaders. Bebop flourished behind the risks capitalists took to exploit the sound. The Beat Generation and bebop fused and the market expanded again, gaining credibility among the often indistinguishable hipsters and businessmen of the 1940s and 1950s.
By the 1950s a new response to cultural change moved through the film business. Noir, dark detective and femme fatale-plotted stories, had captured the bleakness and evil spirit of a dangerous world torn by war in the 1930s and 1940s. Post World War II, people began to find their demons on the domestic end. The threat was not Nazism now, but rather the juvenile delinquent in the third bedroom. Hollywood had the answer and his name was James Dean, who starred in Rebel Without a Cause (1955), a movie that deigned to show people that juvenile delinquency need not ruin the country.
Meanwhile, in Tupelo, Mississippi, a young white truck driver named Elvis Presley was feeling a little rebellious himself and had absorbed the textures of Negro blues and gospel. His sound caught perfectly the youthful angst and parental fear that swept over the United States in the 1950s. Entrepreneur Sam Phillips sank everything he had into Sun Records in 1952, and met Presley two years later, setting the stage for the mega-market of 1960’s youth culture. Invented by capitalists, the counterculture is linked to the historiography of cultural dissent that started in North American when the first European settlers, financed by London’s Virginia Company, jumped off the boat at Jamestown (1607). The culture industry has been in existence in the United States since the nation’s founding—indeed the word counterculture is simply another expression of the principal mode of thought in dialectical capitalism. The first colonial rebels did not call themselves countercultural, a term invented by capitalists to describe those who opposed current cultural and economic trends. The English colonies in North America sought economic justice and reprieve from the cultural injustices and exploitation of England’s King. The tensions between English capitalists and those whom they exploited persisted until war and independence created a new paradigm—the control of U.S. markets by Americans free to propagandize and dispense any information necessary to control the mass culture.
The relationship between the counterculture and the forces of capitalism is fraught with paradoxes. An interpretation of the relationship obliges an examination of the rhetoric associated with both countercultural expression and business.
In his introduction to A Freak’s Anthology: Golden Hits from Buddha to Kubrick (1972), Michael G. Horowitz argues that the textual record of the counterculture—writings by such luminaries as Marshall McLuhan and Herbert Marcuse, e.g.—provides society a foundation of “accountability,” something “all people” can grasp in an idealized democracy. That, of course, gives value to countercultural expression among those whom reject society, as well as the marketers of rejection—the anti-capitalists for whom hip means profitability. Horowitz’s democracy is fancifully utopian—and ill-equipped to resolve the tension between the rhetoric of countercultural expression and the soldiering of workers that society’s elite institutions demand.
Utopian ideals are flashpoints of resistance ignited by what McLuhan describes as the evolving tribal-to-individual construct of Western thought, first recognized and communicated by the Greeks. With Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press (1437), the cause of tribalism eroded further, upping the ante of individual expression. It is paradoxical that the counterculture’s 1960’s communal experiments were deliberately tribal in nature yet yielded a nearly pathological individualism among the hippies who scorned labels. In “On Being Wrong,” from The Upper Left Edge (November, 2000), Alison Clement recalls, with a sense of awe and bitterness, her realization that her communal vision may have been flawed and wrong-headed when she moved with “Chuck” to a remote outpost near the Oregon coast “years ago.” She lamented the lack of plumbing and cupboards in the house she shared with her daughter and Chuck. Material things, she realized, were important to her as an individual. Her story is a brutally sad and honest expose of where doctrinaire thought leads—no matter its intended direction.
The paradoxes of hippie experience are central to understanding how cottage industries, created by entrepreneurial dreamers, became the lifeblood of the hippie movement—or how closets and bathrooms were not completely thrown over a countercultural cliff. Burton H. Wolfe, in The Hippies, takes us to San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury, circa 1965, which was, in Timothy Leary’s words, “the hippie beginning.” One business catering to hippies, the Blue Unicorn Cafe, functioned in much the way an old-timer’s bar might, by becoming a message room for the habitually transient. A hippie down on his luck in The City might wait anxiously outside until the place opened while hoping the wire from Mom or Dad was in the offering. The abundant free love, joints and tabs of LSD floating around the perimeter were important, but survival was an instinctual necessity. If the hippies sought freedom, they often found enough of it to second guess their tribal instincts—and quickly. The entire movement was rife with weekend hippies in from the suburbs, but what about those who arrived by Greyhound from Chicago, only to discover that life was a bitch and cosmic consciousness might be a tad doctrinaire? The buses to and fro, guitars and packs stuffed in the overhead storage, were always full. The city’s ride boards bulged with desperate yearnings: Ride needed South, North, East, Anywhere! For some, going home became freedom.
The doctrinarism in countercultural expression is paradoxical. Certainly that is the point San Francisco Digger Emmett Grogan made in his 1972 autobiography, Ringolevio: A Life Played for Keeps. Recounting a speech he gave to radicals in London in the late 1960s, he writes that he cribbed the entire text from a 1937 Adolph Hitler Reichstag oration. A remarkable testimony to a stunning lie, Grogan told his cheering audience that “the revolution will never end!” They were Hitler’s exact words. Grogan had, in a sense, co-opted Hitler and the “movement” simultaneously. After confessing his mischief he left the stung-radical conference, saying “thank you, ‘n’ be seein’ you.”
Grogan was an interesting figure, often less naïve than the minions who sat at his feet or assisted him in the noble con of his concept. In his communiqué “There Is A Great Deal to Be Silent About,” one of the regular missives he distributed throughout San Francisco, he wrote: “Politics is an arena where words are juggled in a gigantic hoax.” What a wonderfully paradoxical slab of rhetoric, particularly for a writer who had made his own politics personal to the extreme. He must have known that his very declaration made a hoax of his own scribbling. The Dadaists wouldn’t have put an overt political tag on their brand of nonsense. The essay was a hilarious send up of automatic writing, but it did nothing to expose the political chicanery of anybody but himself.
The counterculture is riddled with other instances of the message being lost in the chaos of its own rhetoric. Exemplar of this was Bob Dylan, who began his career in 1960, singing in Greenwich Village coffee houses. His politically charged “protest” songs, such as 1962’s “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “denounced the complacence of middle-class society and quickly became an anthem of liberal dissent,” write David A. Horowitz and Peter Carroll in their survey, On the Edge: U.S. in the 20th Century. Dylan soon tired of providing the drumbeat of the countercultural/political nexus and struck out on his own, pissing off folksters by first electrifying his sound, then turning to wordplay and surrealism at the expense of a hardcore political stance. When his message turned out too personal and not political enough for liberals, many of them abandoned him. Ironically, Dylan’s new voice would eventually formulate a truer expression of countercultural modalities—by personalizing his politics into abstraction. Here is the opening verse of “My Back Pages,” off Another Side of Bob Dylan (1964). Clearly, Dylan is in the open field, running away from his tacklers:
Crimson flames tied through my ears
Rollin’ high and mighty traps
Pounced with fire on flaming roads
Using ideas as my maps
“We’ll meet on edges, soon,” said I
Proud ’neath heated brow
Ah, but I was so much older then
I’m younger than that now
Free to do his own thing, Dylan could speak through abstraction while not pretending to have the answers to the alienation sweeping 1960s youth culture in what Theodore Roszak, in The Making of a Counterculture (1969), called a “generational disaffiliation.” In arguing that technology had transformed society by turning it into a “regime of experts,” Roszak was among the first to understand the commonality of hippies and leftists as those two segments of the counterculture rejected the status quo. The rhetoric of the technocratic elites created generalized “assumptions about reality” and led to “quarrels between technocrats” that the disaffiliated were ill-equipped to understand, said Roszak. Technology workers became the new royalty, and the distribution of goods and services grew imbalanced among those elites and the burgeoning population of have-nots. Misdistribution, not scarcity became the norm.
At the same time, the media’s message was clear. If you were to live well on the planet, you needed to keep up with the Joneses. The expectations were lies that Americans believed—advertising ploys couched in the rhetoric of meaningless gibberish. (One of my fondest, “Raid kills bugs dead!” was a wonderful television cartoon/ad written by Lew Welch, who gave up advertising glory to become a San Francisco poet).
You ignored the advertiser’s claims at your own peril. Rebellion, as everybody knew, brought hardships. And the point of existence was not meaning, but the sort of ease a good electric can opener provides.
Advertising’s pre-enlightened days were ending, however. In The Conquest of Cool, Frank wrote of “advertising as cultural criticism,” a movement in and of itself. Pre-enlightenment, the industry was viewed more as a science, a pure numbers game, and creativity was given short shrift at the expense of a sort of neutral exposition, or social editorial. As more and more youth dropped out, tuned in and turned on in response to Timothy Leary’s call, advertising adjusted its rhetoric in a revolution from the inside.
Seeing they were potentially losing the big game, progressive advertisers such as Bill Bernbach had discovered creativity in advertising in the late 1950s. He realized hip did not evolve from crunching numbers and following the linear myths of American life, but from seeking out “anti-advertising” opportunities, i.e., by embracing the kids and the increasing numbers of adults in American society who were seeking alternative expression in the 1960s.
Advertising came up fast, beginning with the Volkswagen campaign of 1959 by Madison Avenue’s Doyle Dane and Bernbach. The campaign transformed the former “Nazi” car into something else—an “anti-car” that made a statement. The car rejected normality, i.e., big fins and motors and road hogging dimensions. What was good (and successful) for cars became good for an array of products and services, from beauty products to soft drinks. And it hasn’t stopped. Nike once reminded us that Steve Prefontaine, the long distance runner who died tragically young in 1975, was first and foremost a “rebel.” In reality, he was an irresponsible drinker who drove drunk and paid the ultimate price.
To meld an understanding between consumers and producers, it would be left for the technocrats of advertising to eventually embrace the counterculture by the forces of co-optation. When Peter Coyote and Emmett Grogan led the Diggers in San Francisco in the mid-1960s they inadvertently discovered themselves as news items. By performing in the street and keeping a communal lifestyle focused on humane values, they understood themselves to be—as Coyote writes in Sleeping Where I Fall (2002)—in “a common quest for transformation (on) the edge of the counterculture.”
On December 17, 1967 the Diggers held a “Death of Money” parade in conjunction with the Hells Angels and the poet Michael McClure, a highly publicized affair that featured the first free rock concerts of the Grateful Dead and Janis Joplin in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. The experience impressed certain suitors in the filmmaking business as well as the Diggers themselves, who were, Coyote says, “flushed with our ability to make things happen.” They became part of ‘’the emerging countercultural aristocracy.” In that cauldron Coyote discovered the exhilaration and disgust he felt for being singled out and courted by the hip scenarists and journalists who were determined to exploit the Diggers.
Coyote is convinced that Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper got it all wrong in the movie Easy Rider (1969), which he advised on, pointing to a failed third act that picked the counterculture’s bones clean by killing the movie’s heroes. In the movement Coyote envisioned, violence was out of character. In the movie it became a gratuitous plot device. The movie was, he argues, intellectually dishonest, which happens to be the inevitable result of the romantic impulse of cinema and its rhetorical character. It was, in Coyote’s mind, counterpropaganda and a “sideshow to the real work of the Diggers—free life amid the desert of industrial capitalism.”
Before Easy Rider, Bonnie and Clyde (1967) found an audience willing to embrace its two Depression Era anti-hero criminals. Horowitz and Carroll write that the characters “appealed to 1960s fantasies of a mobile youth culture, escaping from adult institutions and living more ‘naturally.’” The movie, straight out of the mainstream Hollywood ethos, divided critics. Some thought the movie romanticized violence. Others saw it as a parable of the times, raw with new views on sexuality, freedom, and the sweep of rebellion that had become America as epitomized by “the long hot summer” of 1967, when riots and protests of the Vietnam War and racism became pandemic.
By 1967 the countercultures of the antiwar movement, the hippies, black and academic radicals and the advertising sloganeers had melded. They were all credited-up and rolled into one alt-everything, prepared to embrace the newest members of the alt-lifestyle everybody sought. Tom Wolfe wrote about the support black radicals, such as Huey P. Newton, Bobby Seale and Eldridge Cleaver gained among the upper class in his expose, Mau Mauing the Flack Catchers in 1970. The Black Panthers were but part of the convergence of alt-consciousness and politics. Enter the radical feminists of the women’s movement and the homosexuals. The Stonewall Tavern riot in New York’s Greenwich Village in 1969 is the line of embarkation for gay rights. For the first time that year gays fought back when a corrupt law enforcement apparatus shook them down. Women found a solid voice in Betty Freidan’s important 1963 study, The Feminine Mystique, which led to the National Organization of Women and other groups committed to equal pay and rights for women.
The rhetorical convergence of the various aspects of the counterculture was stated succinctly by John Sinclair (circa 1969) in his essay, “We Are a People.” Addressed to his “Brothers and Sisters,” the message defined the countercultural experience as more than a protest movement. It had evolved into a full-on “liberation movement for total change and total revolution.” Total freedom of the planet was its ultimate goal. In revolutionary terms, the screed called for the overthrow of everything. It is thinly veiled Marxism, speaking of the ownership of society and the control of goods and services; of inadequate education and capitalism’s utter meanness; of repression and colonial greed; of exploiters and brainwashers; of a lingering “taxation without representation;” of endless war and the death machine; of a homegrown colonization; of secession.
Sinclair’s effort to give meaning to the forces of dialectical capitalism is laudable. However, it is unnerving to remember what happened when American youth actually took it to the streets in protest of the “death machine” rolling into Cambodia in 1970. To borrow from Bobby Fuller, they “fought the law and the law won” at Kent State and Jackson State. If there were any doubts left about society’s transmogrification from World War II savior to imperial power with fascist tendencies, they were soon cancelled like a hippie’s bad check.
Along with the consensus of Sinclair’s “brothers and sisters,” the spirit of constitutional federalism had been wiped off the slate. Imperialism, and U.S. hegemony arose on the wings of the United States’ burgeoning technology sector and the beginnings of globalization made possible by advances in transportation and communications. Roszak had nailed it alright. Corporate sponsorship of friendly dictators around the globe became the impetus to seeking power and the friendly corporate money to gain it. Sinclair’s “people” would never again be represented by politicians, even in the utopian dream of the New Age, the next step in the evolution of alt-consciousness
Unlike the New Left, with its vestiges in the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the Panthers and Weather Underground, all of which collapsed for reasons of class war and the murder, imprisonment, subjugation and assimilation of its principal proponents, the New Age is happily still with us. Who can resist a Tarot reading, a scented candle, a nicely turned vegetarian meal? Who can resist the economy of food co-ops and freedom as defined by ecological purity? Good food, good vibes, good times? They are there for those who have the New Age stuff—a car say that is hybrid, or better, a philosophy of multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-nationalistic spirituality. A profession helps, one that offers the relaxation of meaningful work and reward enough to find comfort wherever it exists. A job that pays well and is unlikely to be outsourced while providing the freedom to transcend the mundane world of capitalism is New Age by definition.
New Age workers are not working to gather bushels of money, but rather toward peace and understanding. And what’s so funny about that, asked Elvis Costello? They work to impart wisdom and knowledge, to deconstruct the abstract. It is simply unfortunate that New Age musician George Winston’s music isn’t quite as significant as Costello’s. The New Age is lovely when viewed through the prism of its rhetorically charged constructs—“auras,” “energy fields,” “channels,” “psychic perception,” “aliens.” It is a rosy world. At its conception, the New Age “appealed to professional elites because it combined the countercultural spirit with advanced science,” write Horowitz and Carroll. The New Age became a lasting legacy of the counterculture because, in final analysis, it is benign.
There are other lasting perceptions of the rights and wrongs committed by countercultural adherents. Christian fundamentalists, particularly, revile the memory of the 1960s and its remnants. That is why they have fought so hard to gain the political hold they have at present. Liberals are still the bogeymen among the conservatives. Liberals project a dangerous desire to be soft on criminals. They have ruined family values and support same-sex marriages. Liberals hate George Bush because he is an American. Liberals hate freedom and would give the country to the welfare-loving horde. Liberals own the media. Liberals are dividing America and weak in the face of tyranny and terror for goodness sakes.
On the other hand—and there is another hand unless it has been blown off in the most recent war— conservatives are intractable. Conservatives are hypocritical and two-faced, like Rush Limbaugh, who denounces and uses drugs. They drink the Kool-Aid in Halliburton’s kitchen and love it. Conservatives designed the torture chambers at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib. Conservatives protect their gun rights while the inner city is a battlefield. And, by the way, conservatives are divisive and own the media.
The din of the debate between liberals and conservatives is a legacy of the counterculture. Until somebody, an enlightened leader perhaps, comes along with a new and improved brand of government the reality will not change. The co-optation of Congress by corporate interests will continue as it has since the roiling of the first hints of U.S. neo-imperialism backed by the bomb. The legacy will remind us that Oregon’s Vortex I in 1970 was a state-sanctioned rock concert for radicals, pure enough to make the Vietnam War palatable for another day. The legacy will remind us that radicals are best kept in a fenced-off “free speech zone” blocks away from the debate among the foreign and domestic policy apparatchiks of capitalism’s nobility. The legacy gives us hip amid the clamorous call to suffer and die for “freedom,” which Kris Kristofferson said was “just another word for nothing left to lose.”
All the words are just other words saying something paradoxical. The counterculture is still with us. The counterculture began as an absurd and contradictory moment and progressed to this instant. It was never anything more than a dream. It was never anything more than a dialectical impulse, a promotion and a statement, a rhetorical flourish. It was genius and guts. It was outlandish and criminal and oft-stupid and protected by the U.S. Constitution. The counterculture is an old friend who cannot be forgotten or forsaken.
Terry Simons lives in Portland, Oregon. His new book is Alt-Everything.