Everything Changes

on February 12, 2010

I’ve generally been referring to the development of the 1960’s counterculture as if it was all one continuous process. However, it actually consisted of two very different phases, the first extending from 1961 to 1967 and the second from 1968 to about 1976.

The initial phase was dominated by the interaction of two factors. One was the loss of faith in the science-and-democracy partnership that followed the Cuban Missile Crisis and the assassination of John Kennedy. The other was the ongoing realignment of chaos away from scientific materialism and towards holism.

Although they began independently, by 1964 these two factors had begun to interact with one another and create a positive feedback loop. As science-and-democracy collapsed, the science vision was increasingly discredited and its successor, the holism vision, was energized. This shift of cultural energy accelerated the turning of the chaos vision away from science and towards holism, and that in turn provided chaos with the energy and self-confidence to further challenge science-and-democracy.

Every part of this loop was important, but the most pivotal aspect was the rejection of the notion of a mechanistic universe in which nature, society, and even human beings could all be treated as physical objects and manipulated as if in a scientific experiment.

Here, for example, is Mario Savio, the unofficial leader of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement, making his case for civil disobedience during the Sproul Hall sit-in of December 2, 1964:

Well I ask you to consider — if this is a firm, and if the Board of Regents are the Board of Directors, and if President Kerr in fact is the manager, then I tell you something — the faculty are a bunch of employees and we’re the raw material! But we’re a bunch of raw materials that don’t mean to be — have any process upon us. Don’t mean to be made into any product! Don’t mean — Don’t mean to end up being bought by some clients of the University, be they the government, be they industry, be they organized labor, be they anyone! We’re human beings!

And that — that brings me to the second mode of civil disobedience. There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart that you can’t take part! You can’t even passively take part! And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus — and you’ve got to make it stop! And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it — that unless you’re free the machine will be prevented from working at all!!

Savio was a political activist, and his message was primarily intended as an attack on the corruption of the science-and-democracy partnership represented by the complicity of the University of California with “the machine.” But he added a certain element of chaos when he appealed to his listeners to stop the machine by throwing themselves into its wheels and gears — and that expectation of civil disobedience was further given legitimacy by the insistence that “we’re human beings!”

Or as Patrick McGoohan would memorably state in The Prisoner (1967-68), “I am not a number. I am a free man!”

This same rejection of machine society, only taken several steps further, would form a central element in the psychedelic counterculture that flowered in 1966-67. For the hippies, it was possible to dream not simply of sacrificing yourself to gum up the wheels and gears of the machine, but of dropping out altogether and rediscovering your humanity.

By the end of 1967, this irreverent refusal to play by the rules of the machine was even starting to influence the anti-war movement, in the form of the countercultural activists commonly known as the Yippies:

On Saturday, October 21, 1967, Washington, D.C., was rocked by a mass gathering. At least 100,000 people streamed into the nation’s capital that autumn weekend, most of them college-age men and women, many of them students eligible for the military draft, all there to protest the Vietnam War. …

Initially, and for much of the afternoon, the demonstration at the Pentagon was nonviolent. The activists staged sit-ins, sang songs, chanted antiwar slogans, and waved flags. The day’s most famous image is that of a Berkeley radical who called himself “Super Joel” approaching an armed soldier and slipping a flower into the barrel of his gun. Many of his fellow protesters followed suit.

But the day was not destined to end peacefully, and by nightfall the Pentagon steps were stained with blood. As the afternoon wore on, some activists became increasingly combative, hurling insults at the soldiers and pitching rocks through the building’s windows. The protest assumed an intentionally absurd character early on, with Abbie Hoffman, co-founder of the Yippies, promising to levitate the Pentagon into the air, and Allen Ginsberg, the beat poet, leading Tibetan chants in the hope of accomplishing exactly that feat. Ed Sanders led his band the Fugs in an “exorcism” of the building, calling on “the demons of the Pentagon to rid themselves of the cancerous tumors of the war generals.”

That demonstration at the Pentagon marked a major turning-point. It produced the most iconic example of defiance of the machine by the power of chaos-plus-holism, but it was also the moment at which violence took hold and events began spinning out of control.

Following the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy the following spring, and the savage repression of protesters at the Democratic National Convention in August, both the anti-war movement and the psychedelic counterculture fragmented into a myriad of contending factions and philosophies. The path to the future that had stretched out so clearly during 1967’s Summer of Love seemed to be irretrievably lost.

Or so it appeared at the time. But in retrospect, what was taken then as disintegration and failure can be perceived as an essential release of the energy that had been tightly wound up within the chaos vision, freeing it to spread out in a number of different directions.

The period from 1968 to 1976 was similar in many ways to the years from 1920 to 1933, which I previously compared to a Rube Goldberg device. During those years, all the visions were rapidly mutating and interacting with one another, creating not just a single feedback loop but an interconnected web of such loops.

The second phase of the counterculture was marked by a rapid development of the three newest visions — holism, multiculturalism, and the first intimations of a successor to chaos. At the same time, the chaos vision was acting as a moral filter, in much the same way as democracy had in the 1920’s and 30’s, and sitting in judgment upon the three visions older than itself.

Between 1968 and 1976, the last lingering traces of the reason vision were purged from the culture, the discredited science vision was stripped of any claim to moral authority, and the democracy vision was challenged to fulfill its promise of universal equality rather than tolerating a system in which some citizens were more equal than others.

All these changes can be clearly seen in the history of the civil rights movement. Immediately following the Brown vs. Board of Education decision in 1954, racists had defended segregation chiefly by claiming that blacks were intellectually inferior — an argument which linked Darwinian survival of the fittest with the old belief in reason as the highest human capacity — and were too backward to participate in democracy.

Even the white liberals who supported civil rights tended not to question the premises underlying these claims, but argued instead that school integration and voting rights were the tools that would bring black Americans up to white standards of accomplishment.

This position was rife with overtones of hypocrisy and condescension and was a primary reason for the appearance around 1966 of the black power movement — which cut through the dilemma by pointing out that racism had very little to do with authentic concerns about comparative achievement but represented an attempt to maintain existing power relationships within society.

This line of analysis would offer a model for the women’s liberation and gay liberation movements, both of which began in 1968-69. But by then a further element had been added to change the equation.

As long as chaos had been willing to bow to the authority of science, its implicit belief in the unique value of every person was subordinated to the Darwinian standard of survival of the fittest. But the rejection of science in favor of holism enabled chaos to incorporate a new standard, based on the concept of an ecosystem in which every individual plays an indispensable part.

It is no coincidence that the first Special Olympics Games, founded by Eunice Kennedy Shriver, were held in Chicago in July 1968. Shriver’s brother, Bobby Kennedy, had been killed just a few weeks earlier, and a few weeks later, Chicago would become the scene of violent repression at the Democratic National Convention. But in this small window of positive change, even Mayor Richard Daley knew enough to tell Shriver, “You know, Eunice, the world will never be the same after this.”

And he was right. Not only was a new understanding of human nature taking hold, but the seeds were being planted for democracy itself to be reconceived — not as a powerful engine to be guided by the best and the brightest, but as a complex network of dynamic forces.

And the world really never has been the same.

Related:

A listing of all my posts on the cycle of visions can be found here.

A general overview of the areas of interest covered at this blog can be found here.

A chronological listing of all entries at this blog, with brief descriptions, can be found here.

A simple list of all the visions can be found here.

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