Ira Chernus | ( Tomdispatch.com ) | – –
It’s the 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love. What better place to celebrate than that fabled era’s epicenter, San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, where the DeYoung Museum has mounted a dazzling exhibition, chock full of rock music, light shows, posters, and fashions from the mind-bending summer of 1967?
If you tour the exhibit, you might come away thinking that the political concerns of the time were no more than parenthetical bookends to that summer’s real action, its psychedelic counterculture. Only the first and last rooms of the large show are explicitly devoted to political memorabilia. The main body of the exhibit seems devoid of them, which fits well with the story told in so many history books. The hippies of that era, so it’s often claimed, paid scant attention to political matters.
Take another moment in the presence of all the artifacts of that psychedelic summer, though, and a powerful (if implicit) political message actually comes through, one that couldn’t be more unexpected. The counterculture of that era, it turns out, offered a radical challenge to a basic premise of the Washington worldview, then and now, a premise accepted — and spoken almost ritualistically — by every president since Franklin Delano Roosevelt: nothing is more important than our “national security.”
And believe me, “national security” should go in those scare quotes as a reminder that it’s not a given of our world like Mount Whitney or the buffalo. Think of it as an invented idea, an ideological construct something like “the invisible hand of capitalism” or even “liberty and justice for all.” Those other two concepts still remain influences in our public life, but like so much else they have become secondary matters since the early days of World War II, when President Roosevelt declared “national security” the nation’s number one concern.
However unintentionally, he planted a seed that has never stopped growing. It’s increasingly the political equivalent of the kudzu vine that overruns everything in its path. Since Roosevelt’s day, our political life, federal budget, news media, even popular culture have all become obsessively focused on the supposed safety of Americans, no matter what the actual dangers in our world, and so much else has been subordinated to that. The national security state has become a de facto fourth branch of the federal government (though it’s nowhere mentioned in the Constitution), a shadow government increasingly looming over the other three.
It says much about the road we’ve traveled since World War II that such developments now appear so sensible, so necessary. After all, our safety is at stake, right? So the politicians and the media tell us. Who wouldn’t be worried in a world where the constant “threats to our national security” are given such attention, even if at the highest levels of government no one seems quite sure just which enemies — ISIS, Iran, Qatar, the Taliban, al-Qaeda, Russia, North Korea — we should fear most. Who suspected, for example, that Qatar, for so long apparently a U.S. ally in the war against ISIS, would suddenly be cast as that enemy’s ally and so a menace to us?
To judge from the increasingly dire warnings of politicians and pundits, the only certainty is that, whoever may be out to get us, we need to be constantly on our guard against new threats. That’s where our taxpayer money should go. That’s why secrecy rules the day in Washington and normal Americans know ever less about what exactly their government is doing in their name to protect them. It’s “a matter of safety,” of course. Better safe than sorry, as the saying goes, and even in a democracy better ignorant than sorry, too.
The most frightening part of living in a national security state is that the world is transformed into little else but a vast reservoir of potential enemies, all bent on our destruction. Immersed in and engulfed by such a culture, it may be hard to remember, or even (for those under 65) to believe, that half a century ago a mass social movement arose that challenged not only our warped notion of security, but the very idea of building national life on the quest for security. Yet that’s just what the counterculture of the 1960s did.
The challenge reveals itself most clearly in that culture’s psychedelic light shows with their “densely packed, fluid patterning of shapes and fragmented images… [which] literally absorbed audience members into the show,” as the DeYoung’s website explains. They were events meant to break down all boundaries, even between audience and performers. Posters advertising rock music and light shows displayed the same features and added “distorted forms and unreadable, meandering lettering,” all meant to “create an intense visual effect similar to that experienced by the shows’ attendees.”
In them, a vision of life and a message about it still shines through, one that gives us a glimpse, half a century later, into the most basic values and cultural assumptions of that moment and that movement.
Tear Down the Wall
Novelist Ken Kesey, impresario of the Trips Festival that presaged the Summer of Love, summed up the message in three memorable words: “Outside is inside.” When the Beatles kicked off that season with the first classic psychedelic record album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, George Harrison echoed Kesey’s vision in his song “Within You Without You,” a haunting meditation
“About the space between us all
And the people
Who hide themselves behind a wall of illusion
Never glimpse the truth…
We’re all one
And life flows on within you and without you.”
What could this possibly have to do with “national security”? Applied to our moment, think of it this way: if we’re all one, if outside is indeed inside and within you is without you, then it makes no sense to blame our problems on foreigners and build walls to keep “those people” out of our land and our lives. In Summer of Love terms, it would instead make perfect sense to tear down every wall enclosing our Trumpian world — walls that are supposed to divide Americans from foreigners, Anglos from Latinos, straights from gays, men from women, elites from the working class, and so on into an endlessly “secure” future.
The Jefferson Airplane, a house band of the Summer of Love, put the message of that moment in an explicitly political context. Presenting themselves as patriotic “Volunteers,” they urged Americans to “tear down the walls” so that “we can be together.” To be sure, most people remained deaf to such calls. But two summers later, at the Woodstock Festival, a new nation would take an initial step toward creating itself through the revolutionary act of tearing down its own walls and fences. “There was no security,” a photographer at Woodstock recalled. “The idea was that it wasn’t necessary.” By logical extension, today’s political borders of all sorts deserve the same treatment because they, too, are unnecessary.
As the hippies came to see it, all the walls and fences we create are more than just unnecessary. They are, as George Harrison sang, illusions born of and built around the fiction of separateness. Recognize that illusion and another one immediately becomes obvious: the fears that spark the obsession with “national security” are largely illusory, too. Yet they are endless because what we are truly trying to fend off is not an external enemy but, in the famed words of President Roosevelt in his first inaugural address, “fear itself.”
At about the time Ken Kesey was hosting his Trips Festival, John Lennon of the Beatles discovered The Psychedelic Experience, a book co-authored by LSD gurus Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert. It moved him to sing that there really was nothing to be afraid of: “Turn off your mind relax and float down stream, It is not dying, it is not dying.”
The psychedelic rock shows, light shows, and posters were all meant to turn life into that single swirling stream, dissolving every imaginable boundary line, and so teaching that reality itself is just such a stream. To quote the nineteenth-century poet Walt Whitman (as so many did in the Summer of Love), let yourself be “loos’d of limits and imaginary lines” and “you are henceforth secure, whatever comes or goes.”
The most widely read San Francisco intellectual of that year, Alan Watts, caught the moment (and pushed it yet further) in the very title of his book, The Wisdom of Insecurity. He spelled out what the light shows and posters communicated in a flash: what we think of as separate places, inside and outside, are merely two intertwined parts, two different ways of describing a single reality. Ditto for self and other, friend and enemy, life and death. The pursuit of security, he suggested even then, creates an illusory separation between friend and enemy in an effort to protect the self and life against the other and feared death. It is, he insisted, always doomed to fail, since all those opposites are inseparable. And ironically, the more we fail, the more frightened we become, and so the more frantically we pursue both the walling off of others and the illusion of security. Far wiser and more life-enhancing, Watts concluded, was to accept the inevitability of insecurity, the truth that in the stream of life, the next moment is always as unpredictable as it is uncontrollable.
Why worry about security at all if, as Lennon announced just as the Summer of Love was reaching full swing,
“There’s nowhere you can be that isn’t where
You’re meant to be,
All you need is love.”
The English language has no word to describe the state where love (if you’ll excuse this word) trumps both security and insecurity. The hippies had little interest in finding a new word to describe how life was truly to be experienced, but perhaps, until something better comes along, a term like non-security — a state of being unconcerned with the whole issue of security — will do.
The gospel of non-security went forth from Haight-Ashbury (and New York City’s East Village) across the land. Hippies everywhere (even in Nebraska, my wife, who comes from there, assures me) assiduously cultivated such a state of mind. It was perhaps the most essential byproduct of their counterculture and it helped underpin a mass movement, seldom considered in the context of national politics, that remains the most radical and powerful challenge yet to Washington’s present ruling passion for “national security” and the vast panoply of 17 intelligence outfits, tens of millions of classified documents, a surveillance apparatus that would have stunned the totalitarian states of the twentieth century, and a military into which taxpayer dollars are invested at an unparalleled rate.
When the Counterculture Met the New Left
Fifty years later, the counterculture’s thinking on the subject of security may sound like little more than a quaint and spacy fantasy. Even then, non-security was light-years away from the reality of most Americans in a country that would soon elect Richard Nixon president. California, always at the cutting edge, had already made former Hollywood actor Ronald Reagan governor and so began to pave the superhighway that has now led Donald Trump to the White House.
President Trump and his minions are visibly eager to take money from people in need and lavish it on what is already the world’s largest military budget, larger than those of numerous other major powers combined. They are just as eager to spend money on a wall stretching from the Pacific to the Gulf of Mexico, high, wide, and forbidding (or as the president likes to say, “big, fat, [and] beautiful”) enough to keep Spanish-speaking foreigners out of the U.S.A. They would also expand the electronic eavesdropping network that can track our every word. And so — as novelist Kurt Vonnegut would once have said — it goes. They justify such plans and so much more in the name of — yes, you guessed it — “national security” or (more tellingly yet) “homeland security.” With such people in power, the very idea of non-security seems beyond utopian, like a concept from outer space.
In some ways that was true in the Summer of Love, too, and not just because, even then, it was so far removed from the reality of a dominant culture that would handily survive its challenge. There was also the brute fact that, when thousands of young people heeded the siren call and traveled to San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood to experience that season of love in person, it essentially became another crime- and poverty-ridden inner-city slum. Look magazine journalist William Hedgepath, for instance, found the hippies there “working toward an open, loving, tension-free world,” but also found himself “spending the night in a filthy, litter-strewn dope fortress.”
Before we rush to judgment, however, it’s important to remember a reality often overlooked in the history books on hippiedom: most people whose countercultural lives were touched by the gospel of non-security were also touched by, and sometimes swept up in, the much larger political movement to end the war in Vietnam. This meant that their largely unspoken challenge to “national security” was woven together with another kind of challenge, one that came from the more overtly political New Left leadership of that antiwar movement.
Unlike the hippies, the New Left had no particular interest in experiencing the unsaid and undefined. They were eager instead to find precise words to make their anti-establishment case. And they first did so in 1962. That year, members of a group that called itself Students for a Democratic Society drafted a manifesto at a United Auto Workers retreat in Port Huron, Michigan. It, too, ran against the security thinking of that moment by proclaiming that “real security cannot be gained by propping up military defenses, but only through the hastening of political stability, economic growth, greater social welfare, improved education.”
Nonetheless, the writers of the Port Huron Statement remained worried about security in a sense that any American of the time would have understood instantly. They, too, divided the world into us and them, friends and enemies, good guys and bad guys. “Economic institutions should be in the control of national, not foreign, agencies,” they declared, critiquing America’s imperial role in the world. “The destiny of any country should be determined by its nationals, not by outsiders.” The best their manifesto could foresee in the world arena was “coexistence” between America and its foes, fueled by economic rather than military competition.
In that sense, radical as it was, the statement offered no direct challenge to the bipartisan consensus that security was every American’s most important concern. Indeed, its language on security issues might easily be endorsed today by the most progressive voices in the Democratic Party, and on the issue of national sovereignty, eerily enough, by Donald Trump and his supporters.
Still, the New Left was focused on using rational planning to move toward a future of more genuine security and less fear for all. In such a future, everyone would be able to develop his or her potential to the fullest, free from a major source of insecurity seldom mentioned more than half a century later: rampant technology deployed by a rabid capitalism that values profits above people.
The counterculture went further, even if rather incoherently, aiming to create a present in which the whole question of security, if it didn’t simply disappear, would at least become a distinctly secondary concern. It would be a present in which, adapting a phrase of that moment, all you needed was love. Charles Perry, the historian of Haight-Ashbury, recalled one hippie who summed up the difference between his tribe and the more political types this way: “They talk about peace. We are peace.”
Each of these sixties critiques of “national security” was, in its own way, utopian in terms of the realities of its moment, and most radicals of the time, however unconsciously, did their best to negotiate a path between the two. Non-security — an escape from the usual Washington concerns — remained an ideal then, and today it’s hard to even remember that anyone ever challenged the idea that “national security” should dominate our lives, our fears, and our dreams.
Half a century later, it should be clear that Washington’s present quest for “national security” can never end. The national security state itself is a machine that constantly fuels the very fears it claims to fight. In doing so, what it actually condemns Americans to is nothing less than a permanent state of insecurity.
The quest for a more balanced (or even unbalanced) approach to security in the 1960s pointed a way toward at least the possibility of an American world of diminished fears. Now, with a man in the Oval Office who sees enemies everywhere and declares that he alone can save us from them, and with nearly 4 in 10 Americans still approving of the way he’s trying to “save” us, if only there were a radical critique of “national security” somewhere in our world.
Perhaps it’s time to take a retrospective look at that Summer of Love moment, half a century ago, and reacquaint ourselves with the two kinds of radicalism of the time, one promoting a more humane idea of security and the other aimed at building a new kind of life that transcended the question of security altogether. Perhaps between them they might spark some truly new thinking about how to respond to the power and dominance of our national security state and to a way of life that shuts us down, locks us in, ratchets up our terrors, and offers us a vision of more of the same until the end of time.
Ira Chernus, a TomDispatch regular, is professor emeritus of religious studies at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and author of the online “MythicAmerica: Essays.” To read his earlier TomDispatch look at the 1960s and today, “Trump, a Symptom of What? A Radical Message From a Half-Century Ago,” click here.
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Copyright 2017 Ira Chernus