Part II: The Small Mysteries of Transformation for Mind and Politics
Here is Part II of this lengthy article. To review Part I, click on this link.
The 60’s Generation and political change: No revolution
The question again puts my focus on the effects of the ‘60’s on culture. We heard then about a Generation Gap. Parents and their boomer children were divided by age, and age determined one’s cultural identity, was the argument. But of course there really is no family where two distinct cultures live within one home. Describing differences with one’s parents as cultural, seems to me very sloppy use of language; I might allow sub-cultural. My parents had shaped me so much by the time I was ten, to become so unlike them that I could say I was no longer of their culture would require transformation in me impossible without leaving my country, changing my language, and never seeing them.
The Generation Gap was not a difference of culture between generations. A fair evaluation of what our parents did in politics in the years from 1945 to 1970 would not condemn them with the label of backward conservatives. They were in fact pretty liberal and their legislative legacy is evidence of that.
We baby-boom children, born in such large numbers, were proof of our parents’ dream for upward social mobility for their family; that is in itself not an ignoble dream. Our parents, the WWII generation, attempted to respond to political challenges of the 1960’s by pushing governments in a liberalizing direction. Americans elected the likes of Kennedy and Johnson (meaning the LBJ who wanted a Great Society, black civil rights, and war on poverty) to carry on the legacy of the New Deal. Canadians chose Pearson, winner of a Nobel Peace prize, and Pierre Trudeau, proclaimer of a Just Society, as our prime ministers. Old-age security, medicare, welfare, subsidized educational systems, vigorous trade-unionism, feminism, civil-rights activism, were not the political achievements of we who were born from 1946 onward, boomers.
Up to 1973, parental liberal-left movement in politics was still not enough for us, their children, so we pushed beyond the limits of our parents’ political tolerance with violent street protests against the war, against university administrations, and even against capitalist values (especially during the Paris Spring of 1968). When the south-east Asian war was over, we would learn that the political right was not gone from power when Reagan, Thatcher, and their ilk arose, to the dismay of the Left. But not all youth are leftists. This is by far the most-important reason that 1960’s political change mattered much less than the cultural alterations.
The explosion in numbers of university students reflected parents’ dreams of family improvement by bettering earning potential in employments demanding higher education. University degrees were the passport and the young were happy to flood onto new campuses built at this time. There has been a profound unintended consequence of this mass rush to higher education: read about it here, an interview with Thomas Frank.
On university campuses, politics was dominated by the New Left Movement and the Viet Nam War and reactions to it. Campuses also accelerated drug-use, sexual and musical revolutions. Away from our parents, experimenting with adulthood, we were bold in trying things our parents never knew in their youth.
“Sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll” served as a sort of slogan. But that way of living was not growing only on campuses. It was growing among all sorts of people, and at the time this new form of personal, private, life, call it a lifestyle, earned the label of “The Counter-Culture” among writers about culture. Private life and lifestyles are not generally within the sphere of political manifestoes. Marx wrote about this private aspect of society as “civil” society to distinguish it from the public sphere where politics had hegemony.
The Sixties were prodigious for activity in both public and private spheres. The victory of the anti-war movement (public), the pervasiveness of “cannabis culture” and the proliferation of sexual unions without benefit of religion (private), the resignation of Richard Nixon and the violence of the Weather Underground (public), and last the obvious decline of church-going habits in the 1970’s — in Quebec particularly, the Quiet Revolution meant the end of the Catholic Church’s social dominance (private): not only politics and public affairs, but culture and private life, were awash in extreme new behaviours. These big events among others left my generation, the Boomers, thinking – not completely rationally — that we had changed the political landscape and the culture too, and we felt poised to make the world conform to more revolution.
However, youth who felt they would lead the way were youth who had aligned with leftist politics and who needed the older generation of liberals to help them along. We young leftists and liberals had to learn that many young people whom we didn’t meet on campus were political conservatives. It was a somewhat unpalatable fact that Youth did not constitute a bloc of liberal-left political voting sentiment after Nixon was gone. “We” did not remain a vast reservoir of opinion favouring a new-left Revolution.
Plenty of youth in all social classes did not feel alienated from the materialism and consumerism that (so the counter-culture said) “damned our parents to grey, boring lives, money-grubbing for The Man.” Words of Abbie Hoffman.
Simply put, as we got older… we began to resemble our parents. Jerry Rubin joined The System he had hated as a young man, and got wealthy. Paul McCartney once struck a pose as a socialist at Apple Corps, but he is likely now the wealthiest rock star in the world, and professes no politics at all. We were part of our parents’ culture. We would not transform ourselves so profoundly as to break the trajectory of the middle class in materialism.
I like how Lawrence Kasdan (writer-director of The Big Chill) summed up what happened to the radical politics and idealism and unselfishness of ‘60’s youth movements:
“The Sixties generation gave up at some point and succumbed, to the impulses of getting rather than giving.
“You know what I mean: ‘I want the houses, I want the cash, I want the cars, I want the good schools.’ No matter how strong your beliefs… It’s like trying to hold back the ocean. You do not want the fear of having no money.”
I strongly recommend readers search out Tom Wolfe’s brilliant essay of 1973, “The Me Decade and the Third Great Awakening,” wherein he analyses the budding self-fascination of the young. Hyper-individualist self-regard, even narcissism, was apparent to him as an early facet of cultural transformation.
I will repeat the point about the political complexion of Youth after the war in Viet Nam was over: youth distributed itself along the political spectrum from left to right, with no clear advantage to socialism, liberalism or conservatism. Those political labels are for politics, not for culture. Just because our youthful years proved to have altered culture permanently did not mean that one point on the political spectrum had won a permanent victory when Nixon resigned.
Youthful radicalism is not a lifelong condition. It is not always radicalism aligned with the political Left; Fascism had a tremendous appeal to youth in the 1920’s and ‘30’s. Social class trumps youth, and young people want to stay in the class they were born to, or to “rise”. Human beings do not feel compelled always to be the people they think they are when they are in their late teens and twenties. One is not a hypocrite because one is not the person he or she was at age 21…
If I am pressed to assess the deep change wrought by the effect of 1960’s cultural change, this is what I see: the coming-into-being of people absorbed in themselves as selves and identities, people who want to be “stars” in their world, people who are in thrall to what Charles Eisenstein calls the “narrative of separate interior consciousness” confronting an external world of objects.
We are all subject to this mental culture of “control and separation.” I would argue it got even stronger in the Sixties. Because of the manifest defects of the post-modern world, many, not only Westerners, are trying to create a new consciousness of the connectivity of all life, all consciousness, and all matter too. Eisenstein says that his hope for change resides in young people most of all. Youth are still less formed than older people, and learn new ways faster.
An example of Western cultural change: India and Peru
I will outline one other major cultural effect of 1960’s change in habits. Most people who know the Beatles’ career path are aware that in 1966 they went to India and sat with a guru, the Maharishi. India and its culture began to flood the cultural consciousness of the West, since forerunners like Alan Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and Alan Watts had already been introducing Indian culture to us. (And well before them, European academics and cultural leaders who lived in the British imperial Raj before WWII were bringing consciousness of Indian culture to England and the West generally. Think of Krishnamurti.)
The impact of India on our culture today is so immense it is hard to remember how foreign it was in 1965. Now we all know about yoga, gurus, ashrams, mantras, sitars, karma, Buddha, Krishna, meditation, Tibetan Book of the Dead, yoni-lingam, kama sutra, bhang [hashish], patchouli incense etc. etc. and the clothing, music, religions and arts of that ancient culture. This was not instantaneous, of course, but it was irreversible. The changes were definitely made possible by Western mass middle-class affluence and the millions of Western youth who travelled in the East. The youth-tourist industry and the alternative-healing/ self-improvement industry – think yoga, meditation, and new-age services (such as the city of Nelson supplies to the Kootenays and beyond) — are worth billions in the economies of the West.
We were set on this path in the 1960’s when interest in the East grew strong. Western tourism to India accompanied what economic pundits love to call the Rise of Asia, the enrichment of huge new middle classes in India and China, and the integration of those two giant nations into the global economy. Popular Bollywood movies and the mania of Westerners for climbing Mount Everest are other consequences of the-West-looks-East culture that began in the 1960’s.
Today there is a new “Asia” entering our culture: the ancient Native pre-Columbian civilizations of the two American continents, particularly Andean and Amazonian regions (Peru is the epicentre for these, where exotic drugs originate e.g. ayahuasca, huachuma). Shamanism, native styles of music and clothing, the visual arts, of this area are now familiar to us as they were not in 1995. One book, The Celestine Prophecy by James Redfield, was crucial in this process of bringing Peruvian mysticism to the West.
I believe the impact of Native imports into Western experience will soon be felt as much as the impact of India’s culture was felt in the years after 1965. Already new drugs from South America have become assimilated to a new generation of spiritual seekers, and of people who are simply seekers of sensation. On the streets of Nelson, in the trendy boutiques, the clothing and arts of Native Americans are nearly as common as the imports from Asia. It seems to me likely that African civilization will be the next to be absorbed into the West’s appetite for cultural assimilation. I do not foresee any reversal of the linear progression of our planetary village, the Earth, into integrated global culture.
Sex, Drugs, Music
I mentioned the slogan of “sex, drugs and rock and roll” from the 60’s. About sex I will reserve comment to a discussion of women’s rights issues, but I will take a glance now at music and drugs.
Popular music now has fragmented so enormously it is hard to say there is any mainstream of pop, and radio stations are generally reflective of this fractured musical scene. I have a fortunate position as a programmer at Nelson’s co-op radio station where I get to see the almost infinite varieties of musical tastes and influences. World-beat music now attempts to incorporate the traditions of all cultures, and rock and hip-hop bring in the instruments and rhythms, beats and harmonies, of cultures far beyond the old Western mainstream.
No evidence that this will ever be reversed, that the global village will devolve into separate streams each trying to be “pure” of outside influence, has appeared yet. This is cultural change, which brings changes of attitude to other people and their traditions, that no political party, or leader, or manifesto, has ever set out to make happen. Cultural change of this sort is out of anyone’s control. And, as ever, culture and economics are entwined, since material products are part and parcel of culture, and the selling of cultural material will always be a vast business for entrepreneurs seeing new opportunity.
A quick grasp of how important musical change was to my generation can be gleaned from two films: the Woodstock documentary film, and the recent drama “Almost Famous,” written by Rolling Stone critic Cameron Crowe. Of course Rolling Stone magazine itself is a source to document how the 1960’s changed our cultural landscape.
While I am making personal recommendations for reading, a book by Annie Gottleib, Do you believe in Magic? (1987) is a valuable study of what the Sixties meant. And do not fail to view The Big Chill (1983), the film that seriously probes what happened to people who matured in the ’60’s and walked career paths no different from their parents’. The “chill” of this movie title refers to the change in cultural temperature as youth grew up and left the bubble of the counter-culture on campuses and in the hothouse of ’60’s youth politics.
So now we come to the question of drug use. Alcohol was the only drug the West experienced for the masses in popular culture for ages; tobacco appeared rather late, hashish and opioids were known to an elite few. Now there is a plethora of other mind-altering substances available for recreational or habitual use. The affluent West and its moneyed masses have become a huge market for drugs. Addiction is a Western problem of great seriousness.
The spread of drugs from one culture and place to all places on the earth, but of course particularly from formerly colonized lands into the heartlands of Western capitalist wealth, is a change of our culture that is out of control. But in this instance, political parties and leaders have seen some value in attempting to dam the flood of exotic substances – “controlled substances” is the phrase they favour – from the so-called Third World into the First.
The War on Drugs is the result. Does anyone reading this believe the “war” has made a positive difference in achieving the stated goal of the warriors: to stop Western citizens of democracies in “free-market economies” from using drugs? Where politics and cultural transformation come into direct conflict, as in the USA and the West generally since the 1960’s, politics will prove weaker. Drugs are here to stay, as new forms of music are here to stay. Get used to that, and deal with it.
The best ways of dealing with addiction have been applied in northern Europe among the democratic-socialist nations. One day, the USA might conform to the pattern of what works. Or it may hew to its path of being an exceptional nation under its one true god, and refuse to embrace the wisdom of experience. I think the West, including the USA, will learn the wisdom of racial and ethnic equality and integration given enough time. What is “enough time” — I have no idea. And I have comments still to come about the West’s sense of superiority to traditions and civilizations not within its orbit of normalcy.
Race and Gender
America has disappointed the hopes of liberal, socialist, pacifist types of folk like me. Its race problem is a case in point. Its gender-justice record is less dismal, but where race is concerned, I wonder if despair is permitted. American society seems to labour under a curse, laid upon it for the evil of black African slavery in its past. No amount of education, no amount of liberalization of laws and equalization of civil rights, seems to prevent outrages of racist injustice breaking out in the present. Legislated change enforced by government action has happened in the USA, at least since Martin Luther King Jr. Today the legal system is not formally racist, as it was up to the 1960’s. Yet the statistical evidence of racial inequality and the persistence of racist mindsets are damning. The effects of historic chattel slavery on US culture go on and on.
Again, this is not only about politics and political purpose, it is about cultural transformation. Minds must change; culture does that. Political acts do not force cultural changes. When political, legal, and institutional opinions push against their opposite point of view, the resulting shape of things will not be predictable. Political solutions of one decade can be repealed, or simply made imeffective, by a new set of political leaders with a new program in a different decade. Civil rights have not advanced in a straight line since the liberalizing zeitgeist of the Kennedy-Johnson era. Retreat and regress are not unusual.
Not everyone in the USA wanted equality of civil rights for all races when that agenda became front and centre in the USA in the 1960’s. Whites in America did not have a single vision then of what equality should look like, nor do the most-reactionary Americans even believe that whites and people of colour are equal. Given the eternally-compromised nature of political changes, where the will of a very large number — of voters in an electoral democracy based on corporate capitalist economics — must somehow give a result, it is not possible to carry one great transformation of race relations and racial justice through the USA using the forces of legal and political institutions.
A case in point of how original intentions produce consequences no one foresees is in the political movement that was simultaneous with civil rights in the USA, the “women’s liberation movement.” Feminism is a good example of how a “movement” with both political and cultural facets can be morphed by the struggle of opposing views.
Feminism is both politics and culture. It is not monolithic, and never claimed only a singular program, but it had more unity in its origins than it developed over time; feminism has splintered into shards since the ‘60’s.
What is “porn-positive feminism” or “capitalist-consumerist feminism,” for example? These are forms of women’s equality that some of the giants of original feminism did not foresee, since they did not perceive feminism being congruent with pornography and capitalism – original feminism in the ‘60’s had a distinctly socialist flavour and was hostile to women making a profitable career selling themselves as sexual pleasure for men.
Yet feminism has had to adapt to the multiplicity of opinions of what constitutes “liberation” for the female. Women have no more consensus about what femininity is, than men about masculinity. Women disagree with each other about what they want as a collective bloc; they are not a bloc, and they have not acted as one in politics. Racial politics have been fraught with the same divisions. It is the essence of politics. People differ but live in society and must establish a consensus reality in which they coexist side by side.
Racial and gender justice in the USA will continue to be fields of political struggle far into the future, one can conclude. For every liberal or socialist ideal of the “right policy” in regard to race or gender, there seem to be conservative or reactionary opinions of equal force. Politics is the art of the possible, it is said. It is not possible for the single vision of one agenda to be forced on all using the means of politics, which are the means of making and enforcing laws.
While political struggle over race and gender go on in the well-publicized over-world of government acts and parties and leaders, cultural change that has an impact on race and gender justice never stops. But it is harder to perceive. I pin my hope on more progress for women and racial justice on cultural change, on the invisible changes in our minds, attitudes, ethics, and norms, for the advancement of my particular ideal of a world where race and gender are not lines of division for inequality and bigotry.
The Masters of Culture: is anybody in charge?
There may be no President of Culture, nor King, Pope nor Emperor in charge of directing how our cultures change, but there are acknowledged leaders of the changes that happen in culture. I have named some in my introduction: the Beatles, Dylan, Dickens, St. Paul; they have changed our world in incalculable ways with song lyrics, literary writings, passionate example. We have been transformed by the products of their minds. But no one could have predicted that at the time these leaders of opinion were entertaining us. How a giant of culture leaves her or his mark upon our consciousness is never appreciated in the moment when they are producing their arts, their words, their thoughts.
Consider a few books that it seems everyone was reading in different decades. In the ‘60’s, The Lord of the Rings, the fantasy by Tolkien, was a must-read for university students, and in the ‘70’s the writing of Carlos Castaneda and Herman Hesse were similarly mandatory if one wanted to know the mind of youth on campus. Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein was the must-read novel on campus and gave our vocabulary a new word: “grok.”
How much influence have these authors had on changing the consciousness of Boomers? No one can calculate that. But no one would deny that books alter people, their values, thinking, attitudes and opinions.
Tolkien loved the natural world, disliked industrialism as Blake did, and loved and exalted the mythologies of old Europe; now his sorts of values are apparent in environmental politics and in “new-age” fascination with non-Christian religious traditions. Tolkien did not make a deliberate effort to direct young readers toward his desired cultural values, and would not have approved of Neo-paganism or drug-use (his politics were aristocratic-conservative), yet I see more effect from his literary legacy than I see left over from the political values deliberately promoted by Ronald Reagan or Margaret Thatcher.
Individual and Mass, Leadership and Following
People follow political leaders quite self-consciously, knowing that they are supporters. This is much less true of how people allow a cultural figure to enter their consciousness and change their minds. Literature and music have power to alter us and our mind-habits and opinions and attitudes, but we do not know it in the way we know our political values.
Barack Obama is a politician with far less power to change people than Oprah Winfrey the super-woman of a hundred cultural faces. A political supreme leader operates as a commander, requiring that decisions for policy be communicated to a vast structure of personnel in government, similar in model if not in practice to a military command structure. The reasons why the plans and agenda of a leader and a party are never manifested, that the politicians cannot construct the exact society designed in their blueprint model, are many. Simply making law is not enough; society and citizens are not altered only because a political party and its leader wish it. People will resist what they do not want, and can wait for the leader and the party to lose power.
Cultural leadership is nothing like that. Bob Dylan or Oprah Winfrey have not an ounce of power to command people to follow their lead or conform to their ideas of having good lives or relationships. Yet we know that the impact of cultural leaders and their examples on how people think is enormous, even if we do not know how. It happens. We know parents affect their children, we cannot predict how. It just is so.
Therapists and the purveyors of self-change dogma offer ways to counter those parts of our mental furniture we wish to reverse. I have written about my own faith in being able to change myself by the application of neuroscience and the ways of altering neural pathways. Changing the culture between your ears or within an entire society does not invite a thinking person to be a politician, in my opinion. Planning political change looks easy compared to making a culture change; Bernie Sanders seems to think so. Obama did, in 2008… Change. Hope. Yes We Can. I think most of his hope was unfulfilled, his vision for fundamental change in American social justice failed.
To repeat myself: politics is not in command of culture.
Conclusions: the Personal is Private, is Cultural, is Political, is Public
Earlier in this piece I distinguished between private and public spheres, the places where culture and politics, respectively, exercise strong hegemony over our lives. I also intimated that politics and culture can be fused, not separated.
Gloria Steinem supplies me with the perfect slogan that points to my conclusions. She famously said “the personal is political” in regard to how women make the Women’s Movement progress politically by their acts in private, personal life. The choices women made, she believed, during the heady days of Liberation in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s, would advance, or retard, the cause of women’s equality. Her comment is counterintuitive, because the usual way of thinking puts politics in the public sphere, and our personal life in the private.
The personal is private, but it is cultural also, existing in our consciousness. I think we are at a phase in historical development of the human experiment where the private/ public distinction is eroding, and not for the first time. It always was a rather unusual phenomenon in history, just how much the West allowed individuals so much space for private life. Village life in medieval and early-modern Europe was pretty collectivist. Now we have a global village and the internet is a cyber-community, with the attendant defects of vigilantism and public shaming typical of a village, minus the wise elders.
Historically, socialists and Marxists have not held individualism in high regard, since socialism asserts collective life is more to be valued than the capitalist bourgeois notion of private individualism. Individualism has been vigorously denounced by the more extreme leftist doctrinaires; Mao Zedong set the youth of China loose in the Cultural Revolution in an explicit attack on older traditions of private life and respectable conduct. Mao set China back by his extremism, unleashing vicious forces whose damages took a decade or more to repair. His successors now say he was “70% correct” in his career, and the episode of youth attacking age was one of his great deviations from wisdom.
Social media are breaking down the private/ public boundary, as is noted by social critics. About that, I will say little, since it is a commonplace observation.
Political celebrity of the Justin Trudeau sort is now as potent as rock star celebrity, according to many observers. Politicians used to avoid being seen in the company of cultural figures who might appear frivolous or merely transitory in fame. No longer. It seems that all categories of celebrity – artistic, musical, literary, political etc. — love to congregate in the same places for the same cameras for selfies and social-media.
Does this give us a better or worse quality of political leadership? I don’t think celebrity and fame add or detract from the effectiveness of political leaders. Their work is not helped or obstructed by celebrity, although that quality can surely help them get elected.
As private and public, cultural and political, boundaries collapse into one another, we will adapt quickly to the new reality. Humans are good at quick adaptation. But those of us who have lived a certain length of time may be permitted to express nostalgia for what was normal in our youth, and to say we prefer to have some privacy. I say that. I will adapt to change, and I will keep my values of privacy as vigorous as the wider culture will allow.
The only way not to be assimilated by cultural change around you is to do what the lead character in the film Captain Fantastic does: drop out completely, go off the grid of the mainstream as far as possible. I might dream of it, but would never do it. It looks far too arduous.