May 25, 2013
Civilization and Its Malcontents
Posted on May 26, 2011
By Mr. Fish
In post-1950s America, an average person’s concept of what might be the meaning of life was more likely than at any other time in history to draw on a wide range of source material culled from a broad swath of disciplines throughout the culture. In order to understand why peace was elusive in Indochina, for example, in addition to looking to contemporary scholarship and modern reporting on the subject, one was as likely to draw on the teachings of Gandhi, Jung and McLuhan as much as on the work of Kerouac, Coltrane and Warhol. When contributing to a conversation about baseball, transcendental meditation or political assassination, insight was as likely to stem from a passage pulled from C. Wright Mills, Samuel Beckett or Susan Sontag as it was from a musical quote excised from Charles Mingus or a visual denouement remembered from Ernie Kovacs or a publicly pulled punch line from Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters. MAD magazine was in competition with The New York Times for truth-telling; female sexuality was the volatile and thrilling combustible MacGuffin created by combining equal parts Miller and Millett, and the news analysis offered from “That Was the Week That Was” and “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In” was often eminently more insightful than that offered from Walter Cronkite and CBS News or Bishop Sheen or Mom and Dad.
Specifically, the concept that one required a certain familiarity with a number of different points of view in order to perceive the three dimensionality of existence—that is, that one need not automatically assume that mainstream media was the most complete and reliable information source available—was verging on common knowledge, and, as a child, I thrilled to the notion that I might grow up both contributing to and becoming enlightened by all the burgeoning guesswork being offered by humanity as to what it meant to be the missing link between the most compassionate apes and the most treacherous angels.
In fact, there was a definite sense while growing up in the early ’70s that, finally, after a very deliberate and concerted effort by a dedicated group of very brave and very imaginative baby boomers, all the repressive social apparatus that had found its fullest expression by the middle part of the 20th century had been unraveled by the emergence of the counterculture and the growing popularity of a number of different literary, social and art movements, including the beatnik movement, the civil rights movement, bebop and cool jazz, abstract expressionism and action painting, protest folk, modern dance, Theater of the Absurd, neorealism and art house films, gonzo and New Journalism, the Confessionalist movement among poets, the feminist movement and the satire boom. Never again, so sounded the promise, would Americans need to feel so pressured to believe that their civic duty to both God and country alone trumped whatever personal journey of self-discovery their natural curiosities and personal inclinations begged them to commence. Never again would the citizens of the United States believe that in order to succeed in life they had to subjugate themselves to the woefully narrow fairy tale that the upward trajectory of Western civilization required that everyone maintain an unquestioning allegiance to, and nonparticipation with, the bureaucratic elitism of the federal government while simultaneously maintaining an almost manic devotion to cloying patriotism, rampant materialism and the codification of racism, sexism and classism into the status quo.
Because of the counterculture, anti-establishmentarianism could no longer legitimately be regarded by straight society simply as a non-belief—as nothing more than a reactionary disdain for the tenets of the dominant culture for the sole purpose of demonstrating contrarianism—but, like atheism, was correctly perceived in more contemporary terms as a viable, humanitarian philosophy unto itself, characterized by its own moral and intellectual purpose and self-perpetuation and frank usability. In other words, there was a definite sense while growing up in the early ’70s that, finally, after decades of political and cultural and existential struggle, American democracy was enjoying its fullest expression and that anything—at long last!—was possible.
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