In 1968 our democracy was in crisis. An unpopular president sat in the White House while his party controlled both chambers of Congress and his critics, at home and abroad, ridiculed him as a fascist and a moron. Russian espionage was rumored to be yanking on innumerable puppet strings sewn covertly into the national fabric, while professional athletes showed their support for the black struggle against white supremacy and were banned from future competitions. Mass demonstrations opposing war, discrimination, censorship and income disparities crowded the streets and disrupted traffic. Cartoonish politicians blew racist dog whistles and won elections after appealing to frustrated voters who feared that brown-skinned people were on the verge of becoming their neighbors, taking their jobs and raping their daughters. LGBTQ people were demanding equal respect and the decriminalization of their lifestyles, while women raged against the groping misogyny of a male-dominated society. U.S. interventionist wars polka-dotted the horizon like ghoulish campfires alive with sizzling indigenous meats, and nuclear warheads swam through the depths of our national consciousness like ravenous sharks circling a dying leviathan. Environmentalists presented scientific evidence that industry was threatening the survival of the species with its balance sheets, and whole police forces were under investigation for terrorizing private citizens. The chasm separating the right from the left was too wide to traverse, and the dystopian stirrings of public surveillance, extraordinary rendition and mass incarceration seemed to prove that we were a free society in reputation alone and that our demise was imminent. Sound familiar, minus the small detail of there no longer being a Congress controlled by a single party?
So how did we save ourselves and pinch the wick on self-annihilation?
Remember that 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 works 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 punchline 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 by Walter Cronkite and CBS News. Or Bishop Sheen. Or Mom or Dad.
The truth, never capitalized, was a sloppy approximation of accumulated thoughts and feelings about singularly fleeting moments; it was not a rigid and uncompromising mandate from God that was so far beyond our comprehension that we’d need to spend our entire lifetimes straining, and forever failing, to lift it off our brains.
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 the baby boomer generation thrilled to the notion that it would be growing 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 very definite sense during the 1960s that, finally—after a very deliberate and concerted effort by those intrepid European and Russian intellects and Far and Middle Eastern philosophers from previous decades to facilitate the worldwide propagation of Marxism, psychoanalysis, existentialism, individualist anarchism, modernism, bohemianism, naturalism, realism, nihilism, agonism, futurism, absurdism, Taoism, Confucianism, illuminationism, transcendentalism and Buddhism—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, the free speech movement, the free love movement, bebop and cool jazz, abstract expressionism and action painting, protest folk, modern dance, theater of the absurd, neorealism and art house films, New and Gonzo 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 absolute fidelity and unwavering duty to both God and country trumped whatever personal journey of self-discovery their natural curiosities and personal inclinations begged them to commence upon and that 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 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.
In other words, we were able to save ourselves through a collective effort by enthusiastically funding our support of an alternative and independent press that communicated comradery over clout, curiosity over conceit and courage over commercialism. A press unmolested by the psychically disfiguring appetites of the Retail-Industrial Complex and its advertisers. A press that celebrated and propagated art, activism, contrarianism, bohemianism and anti-corporatism in its many forms, effectively giving voice to uncommodified progressives, truth seekers and a young generation’s fledgling embrace of a worldwide People’s Movement built on socialized empathy, communalized self-reliance and a radical intolerance of the automatizing institutions that had given us several hundred years of grim and unrelenting oligarchic tribalism.
And, just as before, it’s time to save ourselves again. How? By muscling our critical thinking and genuine love of life past all the flash and impatience of the corporately controlled mainstream media in search of something truer and self-evidentiary. America has been rendered very impatient, indeed, by a news industry reconfigured to be kneejerk and overly sensationalized for the purpose of capturing our virtual attention, demanding an immediate reaction, not a measured response, to the chaos threatening to rob us of our hearts and minds and to keep us in a constant state of panic expressed as either flash fear or elation. It should be obvious that there can be no real comprehension of the world with such a distracting staccato going on 24 hours a day, nor can there be any deliberation about where we’ve been and where we should be going as a culture when all the so-called journalism we’re bombarded with is rendered to be little more than bug-eyed bait for clicking.
It should also be obvious that since its founding in 2005 Truthdig has demonstrated its commitment to producing commentary and providing uniquely insightful reporting on all that exists beneath the surface, venturing well past the pride, pomp and circumstance that so many other news organizations seem all too willing to focus on, as if the fashion of our politics and the brand-name regalia of our celebrity culture are viable alternatives to getting at the naked truth.
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