CULTURE AND COUNTERCULTURE
"My central memory of that time seems to hang on one or five or maybe forty nights—or very early mornings—when I left the Fillmore half-crazy and, instead of going home, aimed the big 650 Lightning across the Bay Bridge at a hundred miles an hour wearing L. L. Bean shorts and a Butte sheepherder’s jacket ... booming through the Treasure Island tunnel at the lights of Oakland and Berkeley and Richmond, not quite sure which turn-off to take when I got to the other end ... but being absolutely certain that no matter which way I went I would come to a place where people were just as high and wild as I was ... You could strike sparks anywhere. There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning ...
"And that, I think, was the handle—that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting—on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave ...
"So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark—that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back."
-Hunter S Thompson
In the 1960s, young people recognized the culture they lived in and found it wanting. There were established traditions, morals, and patterns of behavior that the general public lived by, but were unable to defend or explain. Although culture had been passed down generation after generation, the reasons why things were done were just assumed, not explained. Parents did not think about why they held certain beliefs, and when confronted were unable to teach their young people. Part of this was because of a great failure of the primary foundational force of these cultural norms: Christianity.
Several major events in the late 19th and early 20th century sent Christian culture into a cowering wreck due to ignorance and fear of these events. Freud's theories of man and behavior seemed to negate the concept of sin to someone not entirely familiar with the man and his ideas. Darwinism seemed to offer existence without God. New political movements such as Communism seemed to offer a paradise for people based on works rather than belief.
Christianity by and large reacted by running away from culture and isolating its self. Rather than engaging culture and discussing these new ideas, the dominant faith in the Western world ran away, printing Christian phone books and Christian fiction, Christian music, Christian symbols on your car. Instead of being a force to shape and influence culture, much of Christianity decided to isolate its self from a culture it feared and did not understand, rejecting intellectual pursuits as destructive while at the same time beginning to reject the very basic tenets of faith and moving more and more to what is called "liberal theology."
These two movements caused culture to be detached from its roots, to be set adrift to survive on sheer momentum, and finally crash into a new orthodoxy being built in academia and entertainment. Finally an entire nation was full of people who could not defend their culture or beliefs. When young people were confronted by an increasingly leftist college culture, they could not defend what they believed either, and thus rejected it as "unthinking" and "unexamined." The counterculture was born, a new culture formed around left-leaning and atheist ideals with a new set of prophets and apostles, a new dogma, and a new faith.
In the place of the church, there was the state. In the place of sacraments, there was free love, abortion, drugs, and hedonism. In the place of restraint, temperence, and integrity there was freedom, relativism, and personal fulfillment. The family was jettisoned for the village, the pastor was rejected for the professor. Make no mistake, all the icons and institutions of the "square" culture were still there, they just were transformed to fit a new faith.
The counterculture sought to do two things: first, reject hypocrisy and corruption in the old culture, which was a real thing. The old culture had a church that taught love and acceptance, but paritioners who practiced bigotry and racism. The old culture loved mom and revered women, but too often treated them as helpless twits. The old culture praised hard work and business, but let business abuse their environment and workers with a wink. The old culture's faith considered the world to be a gift from God to be stewards of, but in practice treated the planet as a meal to be devoured and cast aside. Granted, not everyone in the old culture was this way (just ask John Muir), but too often these characterizations were sadly accurate.
The second effort of counterculture was to normalize behavior and activity that they enjoyed and wanted to do more freely. Homosexuals were frowned on and even attacked by society, drugs were considered destructive and wrong, sex was at best enjoyed in marriage alone and at worst considered a trial women had to put up with. People with new or radical ideas were shouted down without consideration in many cases, leading to stagnation and inability to defend one's own notions.
The counterculture wanted to repair the bad, reject the unacceptable, and embrace the new and different. Concepts such as bigotry and sexism were fought in terms of peace, love, and equality while holding up the declaration of independence the bill of rights as a way of demonstrating these ideas were the very foundation of America and what it stands for. A love of the environment and desire to cherish and protect it grew, a brotherhood among all man was lauded, with unpolished girls putting flowers in the barrels of guns to demonstrate that love and peace can conquer all. The best of the movement was very good indeed: a rejection of the wrongs and hypocrisies of the past, and an embracing of the best ideals the country was founded on.
Counterculture did not seek to destroy the country, but to build it to a better place, a dream that the members of it saw and discussed. What would it be like if we didn't need guns any more? If we just loved each other and stopped fighting? If there wasn't any need or hunger, no poverty? What if we stopped hating the negro and the oriental, stopped demeaning women and listened to our youth, what would our future be like? Isn't that dream worth striving for?
There was a sense in the movement that what they were doing was self-evidently right, and further inevitable. That there were so many and influencing so much of the country on so many levels, that it was a matter of time before the right ideas with the right techniques brought about the paradise they envisioned. This combined with drugs brought a calm and happiness to the hippy that was unique in such a time of turmoil. My parents told me that the hippies were the most polite and respectful people met then. It was the kind of joy and peace that comes with being young and believing you're not only on the right side, but everyone who matters is with you and you're winning.
There were wins for the counterculture too. Along with the leadership of the black church, Jim Crow and the concept of "separate but equal" was demolished. The Vietnam war was ended in disgrace and humiliation for the country, repudiating the very idea of war as a means of policy in the eyes of the counterculture. Feminism pushed women out of the boundaries they'd previously been forced into and step by step the ideas about them that held power in the past were destroyed. Abortion laws and birth control pills took the nation by storm, enabling women to approach sex much the same way as men: pleasure without consequence, or so they thought.
With each of these wins, the counterculture took greater and greater hold in America, becoming part of each major institution and taking a greater hold of the culture at large. The counterculture took over academics and entertainment rapidly, as part of a plan hatched in the first part of the 20th century in recognition that the great nations of the west would never fall to revolution but could be incrementally influenced from within. The counterculture was so strong in major population areas that the ideology behind it has all but taken control of the governments and institutions there.
What happened in the counterculture movement is that like most movements, it falls prey not only to its own successes, but the flaws in its philosophy. The bulk of the counterculture movement was based on two conflicting and contradictory concepts. The first is relativism; that there are no absolutes and thus nobody can tell anyone else they are wrong, just of a different opinion than you are. I've posted on this ideology and its flaws in the past. The second is leftist ideology, which is based on several absolute concepts such as the supremacy of man, the falsehood of religion and God, and the innate goodness of humanity. This leftist ideology was sometimes unknown by members of the counterculture, and sometimes embraced willfully and with full knowledge. Some were complete, out and out communists and knew it, others were simply left-leaning but considered themselves Americans and happy with the system here - with a few tweaks.
For some like David Horowitz, the leftist roots were clear. Communist parents, communist summer camps, communist reading and meetings. The plan was for overthrow of the government, for communist rule in America - not by violent revolution, but by incremental step by step implementation of ideas that slowly nudged the public away from what the nation was based on and toward Marxism. Many of the leaders of this movement fit this pattern: educated and in full knowledge of their true plans and efforts. Most of the movement were unaware of this, and simply were interested in the good they could do for the world if only everyone would listen to them.
The drawbacks to this philosophy are many and varied, but the primary problem is that it simply doesn't work. Even the wishful, softer version of the followers was ignorant of human nature and the world we live in. People aren't basically decent. People aren't supreme in the world. We cannot make things a utopia through the application of proper ideas and techniques. The very idea that people are innately noble and good and become corrupted by society and others begs the rather obvious question: where did the bad come from to start corrupting others? Marx claimed it was the pursuit of money and greed, but that greed had to come from somewhere, money is merely an object, a representation of ownership and effort.
The flaw of this thinking is based on a common misconception of humanity: that bad comes from outside, and whats in us is good. It's often a Greek error, the thought that our spirits are pure but our bodies corrupt and what is more about the body is more corrupt, what is more about the spirit is better and purer. For others it simply was the Rousseauian myth of the noble savage: that civilization and interaction with others causes corruption of the noble and good. The truth is, if we took ourselves and snuck into some secret hiding place far away from the world with no outside contact... we'd bring our own corruption and sins with us, because the source of the problems comes from within, not without. Removing the obvious trappings of the world merely makes us more creative and basic in our cruelty.
It is this philosophy that is behind many movements such as gun control: remove guns and people won't shoot each other! Wouldn't that be wonderful? No, because people will use bows, and if you outlaw them, knives, rocks, and fists. The problem isn't the weapon, it's the people wielding the weapon. Most people in the world can handle a weapon without using it on someone else.
This fundamental flaw is what underpins the problems with most leftist ideology (and some on the right). There will never be a world where we don't need guns or fighting. As long as there are any bad guys at all, we'll always need to oppose them with the force the situation and evil requires. Failing to do so does not somehow end the evil by example, it frees the evil to be unrestrained and unending - just ask an unresisting Jew in the holocaust how well that works out.
By the seventies, the idealism and calm of the counterculture movement had been all but lost. With the death of Dr King and others, the feeling of omnipotent success was fading from the members. Many were growing up and facing a life that forced them to rethink their rejection of their parent's ideas. Drugs were causing more problems than their proponents cared to admit or face - not the least of which was a listless apathy and growing, doped stupidity in their ranks. The free love ideology wasn't as free as once was believed, leading to more drugs and more partying to cover the emptiness inside. Instead of the movement based on ideas of freedom and a better world, it became a party based on a desire to get and stay high and ignore the world.
With the victories, the very purpose of the movement became weakened. The Vietnam war was over, now what do you rally over? President Nixon was out of office, who's the enemy? Opportunities in the country for women and blacks were exploding, where's the cause? The very successes that the movement enjoyed began to undercut it's reason to exist, leaving people seeking the highs of being on the moral high ground and part of television history and leaders with a lust for the power, influence, and money they enjoyed. What was worse, they found themselves no longer on the outside, and in the position of having to defend the positions they took and the decisions they made.
The counterculture became the culture of the United States. While conservatism tried to fight for relevance and attention, liberalism took over all the major institutions of the country. The movement was wildly successful: they controlled business, entertainment, media, news, government, even judges. Laws were passed more to their liking, decisions made along their guidelines, policy set along their ideology. Jimmy Carter's election seemed like the completion of the entire effort. The movement became the dominant voice, counterculture became culture.
Now, schools taught their ideas, media presented their side of things, news broadcasts presumed they were right, government governed with a lean to their side and what's more the radicals of the 60's were the governors, judges, and legislators of the present. The philosophy of the left was presumed to be the philosophy of the country, it became dominant even in churches and formerly conservative institutions. The military even had left leaning ideology implemented.
It is always easier to be the voice of opposition - you need not even offer solutions, only point out problems. Being the prophet that declares doom for the enemy's ideas and policies is simple; being the ones in power and coming up with the solutions for everyone to attack and question is hard. Once the counterculture became the culture, it lost all it's sting. Instead of fighting the man, they became the man. They were no longer able to engage in counterculture activities, they'd won the fight and were the responsible ones with kids and jobs and bearing the burden of society and government. The television show Thirtysomething in the 1980's addressed this often, reminiscing on the good old days, remembering when they had time to party and protest rather than get to work and bear responsibility. For those not in the age group, it was insufferable and unwatchable. For those it was targeted at, it was amazing and insightful - and a top rated show for years.
For eight years in the 1980s, a reaction against the excesses of the 70's and the failure of Carter economic policies - not to mention embarrassing failures in foreign policy - led to the Reagan Revolution, with President Reagan being elected twice by an enormous popular swell of opinion and support. Reagan had a new voice that few had heard, an approach that differed greatly from the previous politicans and voices. He saw America as a great country, a shining beacon of liberty. He viewed communism as evil, government as a problem rather than a solution, spending as a drag on economy and society, not it's driving force.
Ronald Reagan was charismatic, persuasive, and a powerful leader who reversed the trends of the last 20 years. His positions were shocking to the left, who took for granted that they were the obvious, sane choice and any others were simply odd and dangerous. His leadership was so potent and popular that his Vice President George Bush the elder was swept into office with a similar gigantic landslide despite being far from the conservative Reagan was.
Yet even with this presidency, the culture was still in the hands of the left. Congress was solidly under Democratic Party control and the Republicans in office were by and large more left leaning than not. The major institutions of the country were still under liberal power, and their influence continued unabated. President Reagan was an aberration, although a potent one, and while he got the debate kickstarted in the country in a way no previous one person had, his impact in terms of culture was limited.
Even the 1994 Contract With America takeover of the House of Representatives by Republicans under Newt Gingrich was a minor event culturally speaking. It represented more a repugnance with the Democrats in power than a delight in conservative ideology. The concept of more responsible government with fewer taxes appealed to people not from any moral standpoint but more from a visceral opposition to corruption and a desire to have more money.
THE NEW COUNTERCULTURE
The truth is, conservatism and Christianity are countercultural movements. As opposed to the entrenched assumptions of leftist ideology in the institutions of America and other countries in Europe, conservatism offers a different way. Out of power and looking in from the outside, both movements have a different solution to problems that leftist ideology have not solved, and often made worse. Conservatism is in the place the radical was in the 50's and 60s: stating the problems we face and trying to start a dialog with the world.
In the place of Timothy Leary, we have Rush Limbaugh. Rather than Malcolm X, we see Dr Walter Williams and Larry Elder. In the place of Reverend Jesse Jackson there is Dr R.C. Sproul. The movement today is not the left influenced by communism, but the right influenced by classical thought and the foundational philosophies of the United States. The dialog, the conversation is being shaped by the conservatives and Christians in the country whose ideas after 3 decades seem new, fresh, and even shocking. Assumptions, particularly undefended, unthinking presumptions such as Affirmative Action being good are being challenged and analyzed. The institutions of race baiting and radical feminism who have shaped policy and law for years are being questioned openly.
Christianity offers a reason behind behavior that the world lacks entirely. Relativism and humanism without God set the world and philosophy adrift until it wrecked in nihilism, leaving us with an emptiness that seems to indicate that life is meaningless and humanity worthless. Rather than triumphing in the glory of human excellence, we've seen one dream and hope after another reduced to tyranny, debauchery, and misery. The more complex and advanced science gets, the harder it becomes to defend the idea of there being no creator - leaving some scientists trying to defend the notion that everything simply "popped into existence" from nothing, without cause, logic, or scientific principle.
Humanity's barbaric and horrid behavior toward each other and the successive failure of one new utopian idea after another is nudging people back toward the idea of sin and redemption. The argument that people are basically not good and need an external help to be better is looking more and more reasonable to people, despite how it undermines many basic assumptions about politics and life.
Conservatism calls people back to the good in the past. Yes, the hypocrisy was wrong and bad, but the hypocrisy couldn't exist if there wasn't a good ideal for behavior to vary from. The mistake of the radical youth in the counterculture movement was to reject the very concepts of the past rather than their errors. love and acceptance, revering women and praising mom, lauding hard work and business, considering the world to be a gift from God to be stewards of are all great concepts. Rejecting them was not a step forward, but a step back that we suffer from today. A world where we reject progress because of the wrong some do with it is a foolish world. Keep the good, embrace what was great in the past, while moving forward to the future is what conservatism calls for.
And the most clear call of conservatism in the past is the constitution and its founding ideals. Rather than imposing modern philosophy and assumptions on the document, conservatives call for reading and understanding not only the founding fathers but the thinkers they based their ideas on and the worldview they held. Conservatism calls us back to the time when we fought against tyranny to embrace a liberty tempered by virtue and proper moral behavior. Conservatism wants the government to be smaller, in its constitutional boundaries no matter how well-meaning the expansion was. Conservatism sees you, not government, as the best to handle your money.
In the past, conservatism has suffered from the same errors and corruption as the left as I mentioned above. The assumption has been that free markets are able to properly regulate and control themselves, but this is only true if the markets are run by moral people who are responsible and feel a duty to the social contract. Conservatism embraced and clung to traditions without understanding or even knowing why these existed - some were repellent like Jim Crow. Some were wonderful like family and community. It is only recently that a true movement to recapture the philosophy and understanding behind why we believe certain things and reject others has arisen, and conservatism is at the forefront of this change.
The most interesting side of the conservative and Christian counterculture is that it stands in opposition to both major parties in the United States. Democrats and Republicans both find themselves in the firing line of idealogical battle, although the GOP is a more comfortable fit for most because it still is the party of Ronald Regan. Most Republicans in power are more left leaning and opposed to conservatism, and the few conservatives who gain power often seem to lose their way in the process, like the '94 Republicans soon did in congress.
We live in a culture dominated by the left, influenced primarily by that philosophy and policy primarily set by these ideals. Conservatism and Christianity challenge those ideals and thoughts. It is not anarchy or leftist thought that challenges today's culture, rather the opposite. It is the ancient ideals that led us to build the countries and civilization we enjoy today in the west that is the outside calling in. If you want to be a true radical, a real countercultural force, if you want to fight the man and make a stand against what's wrong and what needs changing in today's society, look to the right, my son.