Coming Unglued

on April 6, 2010

I’ve covered most of the major changes of the 1960’s by now, with one glaring exception — and that is what became of the democracy vision between the collapse of the science-and-democracy partnership in 1964-65 and the formation of the democracy-and-chaos partnership around 1976.

Frankly, I’ve been kind of baffled on that point. I’d assumed for years that the moment democracy was freed from the embrace of the science vision, it began to move closer to chaos, recovering much of its original authenticity and idealism in the process. But when I started looking for actual signs of such a renewal, I realized that was not what had happened at all.

Instead of being renewed in the late 60’s, it seems that the democracy vision became increasingly stuck in place. The presidential election of 1968, for example, was fought out between the old-school liberalism of Hubert Humphrey and the old-school conservatism of Richard Nixon — both of whom seemed determined to pretend that science-and-democracy was still a going concern. Meanwhile, the hippies and anti-war protesters just stood on the sidelines, watching the trainwreck.

I finally concluded that as soon as the science-and-democracy partnership collapsed, confidence in democracy all but evaporated as well. It was this near-total breakdown of both halves of the dominant partnership that made the late 60’s so liberating for some and so threatening for others.

The failure of the science vision had been a long time coming. By the early 60’s, books like Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961) and Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962) were already proposing that scientific dominance over nature and society might not only be ineffective but might be doing more harm than good.

But it took the abrupt disenchantment that followed on the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 and the assassination of John Kennedy in 1963 to precipitate the the complete unraveling of the science-and-democracy partnership. And as soon as the link between the two components was broken, not only did the science vision fail completely but democracy was left adrift as well.

For thirty years, the strongest appeal of science-and-democracy had been its promise of a better tomorrow — the hope that technological progress, combined with scientific planning, would enable democratic societies to become not only more prosperous but also freer and more equal. But once the science vision was out of the picture, democracy no longer had a plausible mechanism through which to fulfill that promise.

The dream of techno-utopia did keep going for a few more years on sheer momentum. It can be seen, for example, in the New York World’s Fair of 1964-65, which attempted somewhat feebly to replicate the impact of the 1939-40 World’s Fair that had served as an early showcase for the power of science-and-democracy.

But by the time the fair closed its doors in October 1965, the era of social reform which had begun with Roosevelt’s New Deal was already over. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the bill establishing Medicare in 1965 had been its final triumphs, and after that there would be no more.

By an apt synchronicity, the passage of Medicare occurred just three days after Bob Dylan’s pivotal July 25, 1965 performance at the Newport Folk Festival, where he discombobulated his fans by going electric. It might be accurate to pinpoint that last week of July 1965 as the watershed moment in which everything changed.

From 1966 to 1972, attention would turn away from both science and democracy and towards chaos and holism. During those years, the psychedelic counterculture rose and fell again and ecology became a national passion. But to the extent that social issues were addressed at all, it was in terms not of democracy but of the emerging multiculturalism vision, democracy’s successor.

A very clear-cut reflection of that shift in focus can be seen in US postage stamps. As late as 1962, the images on commemorative stamps had been tightly bound to the science-and-democracy partnership. There was a scattering of conquest-of-nature themes — atomic energy, the space program, the fight against malaria — but most were overwhelmingly historical in nature, celebrating the anniversaries of such democratic landmarks as the Homestead Act or Arizona statehood.

By 1966, however, the hard science stamps had been replaced by environmental ones, including Johnny Appleseed, the National Park Service, and “Plant for a More Beautiful America.” Over the next few years, these nature stamps would proliferate while the historical ones faded. And the decade would end with a third stage in the realignment, marked by the first of many stamps celebrating the multicultural roots of American culture — one in 1969 remembering W.C. Handy, the “father of the blues,” and another in 1970 picturing a Haida ceremonial canoe.

These postage stamps are useful as a reminder of the extent to which multiculturalism was replacing democracy as a public ideal by the end of the 60’s. But even stronger signs of the shift had already popped up a few years earlier — perhaps most notably in Star Trek (1966-69).

The original Star Trek was an interesting mixture of elements. On one level it might be taken as a last gasp of classic science fiction, set in a future where the dreams of science-and-democracy have all come true. But if that had been its only appeal, it would have faded from memory as quickly as the details of Hubert Humphrey’s 1968 presidential campaign, rather than becoming a 45 year long cultural obsession.

The real key to Star Trek’s staying power, I believe, is that the technological gadgets and the Federation were merely conventional background elements, there to make possible the voyages of the starship Enterprise. But what was truly new and exciting about the show was its explicit dedication to multiculturalism.

That dedication is apparent in the carefully balanced multi-ethnicity of the Enterprise’s crew. It is no accident that a kiss between Captain Kirk and Lieutenant Uhura in a 1968 episode is generally considered to be the first interracial kiss on American television.

But an even deeper commitment to multiculturalism underlies the Enterprise’s entire mission, which is not to spread democracy but rather “to explore strange new worlds” — and then leave them strictly alone to pursue their own paths of development. That insistence on the Prime Directive implies a clear recognition of the unique value of every culture.

And yet there were distinct limitations to Star Trek’s understanding of multiculturalism. The crew of the Enterprise, for example, presents no actual cultural differences. The Midwesterner, the Southerner, the Scot, the Russian, the East Asian, and the African all think alike and act within the paradigms of modern Western society — and it is only the half-alien Spock who offers an occasional hint of something more exotic.

This is hardly surprising. Multiculturalism in the late 60’s was still at a very early stage — comparable to the proto-holism of the 1920’s or to Thoreau’s formulation of chaos in terms of civil disobedience in the 1840’s. It was vibrant and compelling, but it was not yet ready to stand on its own as an independent vision. And one of its greatest limitations was its reliance on an attitude of nostalgia towards pre-modern cultures.

A longing for the past may be a constant in the formation of new visions. Horace Walpole had looked back beyond reason to medieval superstition when he expressed his dawning sense of chaos in the first Gothic novel. The early holists had rejected scientific materialism outright in favor of something resembling the old spirit-matter dualism. And early multiculturalism attempted to break out of the democratic ideal of the melting pot by finding inspiration in traditional societies.

But although that kind of retrospection might be sufficient to inspire an occasional Star Trek episode — or even to send late 60’s and early 70’s fashion into a frenzy of Nehru jackets, dashikis, buckskin fringe, and macrame — it could not provide an agenda for moving forward. Not only was it rooted in the past, but it was fundamentally at odds with the dynamic spirit of chaos.

When the democracy vision became dominant in the 1920’s, it had made any lingering attachment to the preceding hierarchy vision morally unacceptable. That was why proto-holism — with its hints of elitism and its gradient of value based on the assumed superiority of mind over matter — could so easily be driven from the field by a science vision that had been reconfigured to accommodate the egalitarianism of democracy.

In much the same way, the chaos vision in the late 60’s and early 70’s was busily erecting new moral standards based on an embrace of change and flux. And to the extent that proto-multiculturalism was built on an image of non-Western societies as repositories of eternal wisdom that needed to be protected from the corruption of the modern world, it was incompatible with those standards.

To its credit, Star Trek appears to have recognized this problem. The Prime Directive might demand strict non-intervention, but the Enterprise would violate it at the slightest excuse, acting as a disruptive element to prod traditional cultures out of their age-old stasis and set them on a more fruitful course.

It was precisely that identification with the creative power of change that multiculturalism needed in order to become a fully developed vision. And when it did reach that point, it would do so not by emulating the slash-and-burn methods of the democracy-and-chaos partnership that had formed in the middle 70’s, but by responding to the far subtler influence of creative imagination.


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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