May 7, 2012

Getting the counterculture out of the closet

Sam Smith

I know it’s not really my business but since no one else seems interested, I thought I would start a counterculture.

I also know that countercultures are meant to vast in size, vague in origins, and viral in creation. But these are not ordinary times. We are organized by Facebook, communicate with thumbs tapping on tiny buttons, and accept bureaucratic and legalistic formulations as an adequate substitute for community, justice, passion, love and joy.

To be sure, we have the Occupiers, but they are a movement, not a culture. A culture doesn’t have a common goal so much as a common soul. But in a society that claims to honor the rational, spirit doesn’t count for much.

Besides, in recent decades the moral and the wise have been neatly separated into little niches so the environmentalists don’t have time to fight torture and the local food folk are too busy to worry about violations of civil liberties. As a journalist covering these things, I am constantly struck by how many good causes function in sad isolation. We have forgotten how to come together and discover the varieties of things others share with us. And I have never seen a time when so much was wrong and so many were trying to act as if nothing had happened.

Sane and decent America is acting like gays in the closet. Having been convinced by the corporate media and our leaders - either by being ignored or dismissed – that its views have no status or power, it accepts the unacceptability that has been assigned to it.

But the facts are quite to the contrary. For example, recent polls show a majority of Americans approve of abortions, don’t think we should be in Afghanistan, approve of Planned Parenthood, believe climate change is occurring, favor legalization of marijuana, think the economy should be improved by government investment rather than tax and spending cuts, want stronger environmental controls, think food stamps shouldn’t be cut, want more control of fracking, don’t believe the First Amendment goes too far, oppose cuts in Social Security, would ban Super PACS, support increased taxes on the rich and lower military spending.

Now ask yourself: how often has the national news media or our major politicians even hinted that this is the dominant national politics?

Some try to deal with this problem in typically rational ways, such as web sites promoting clicktivism or formal coalitions gathering on the Mall and hoping to get that a corporate media refuses to spare.

What is missing is not organization but the multitudinous confluences that create a culture – yes, organization, but also music, spirit, values, gatherings, habits. . .

To be sure we have grisly imitations all around us: coffee shop culture replaced by Starbucks, “hip” apparel determined by multinational corporations; a presidential candidate promising “hope” and “change” but providing neither, teens learning to scream at music rather than listen to it in preparation for lifetime service as loyal consumers. Whether it’s Facebook, Abercrombie & Fitch or Barack Obama our task is to buy it and shut up.

When, if ever, we think of counterculture, pot, love beads, and Joan Baez may come to mind. Or bongo drums and berets. Or freedom schools and singing We Shall Overcome.

While they are just examples from particular times, they are instructive because they reveal something our intellect easily forgets: change is an act of art and music and theater as much as of organization; of symbols as much as substance, of informal dress on a bar stool as much as formal addresses on a podium.

And above all, positive change doesn’t need a mission statement, strategic plan, or table of organization; it requires the creation of a community of common dreams and values and a meaningful way to express them.

Writers often live their whole lives in a counterculture – and too often a counterculture of one. We are minorities of the mind always seeking integration into something greater. Sometimes, as in the Sixties and the time of the beats, it is there, but now it seems invisible and unattainable.

So you’re lonely, but you also cling to the faith that at some point millions who also feel lonely, angry and sad will come out of their cautious closets and discover each other - not just for a protest, not just for a piece of legislation, not just for one cause, but for the sum of what a better America might be like- and to follow the advice of Alan Watts: “The only way to make sense out of change is to plunge into it, move with it, and join the dance.”

We live in a time when more American progress is being cancelled or reversed than at any point in our history. A time of justified angst and anger. Yet where is the music, where are the symbols, where are the special places that symbolize and share both our cares and our dreams?

Every time I see a young child wearing a T shirt with a peace symbol, the irony hits home. That half century old sign still has more power than anything describing our present condition.

Countercultures are about everything beyond our specific agendas. In the Sixties for example, the peace, anti-poverty and civil right movements shared alternative space because there was so much more behind what they were up to than just their chosen priorities.

Today, our various causes share too little beyond isolation and lack of common ground with others. The Green Party and labor unions don’t know each others. Nor the prison reformers and the anti-war activists. What will bring us together is not our agendas but our spirits and our souls.

And that is what missing.

OK, I know it is neither my right nor skill to start a counterculture.

So consider mine just a place holder.

Get your own counterculture going. Give it symbols, songs, style - and places where we can go when we escape our silent surrender to the current disaster.

I’ll be there.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

I'll be there too. I believe there is much more autonomy in contemporary America than most commentators on the left would have use believe. Rampant capitalism has left a plethora of forgotten places--in cities, small towns, and yes even in the suburbs. Those forgotten spaces are the breeding ground for independent thought of a variety of stripes that will outlast the dead consumerism of mainstream culture.

Anonymous said...

A possible counterculture would be based on patriotism. People would passionately participate in MLK day, Washington's birthday, Lincoln's birthday, Jefferson Day, Memorial Day, Independence Day, Labor Day, Veteran's Day, NAtive American month, Cinco de Mayo, Black History Month, etc with festivals, panels, parades, contests and informational conventions while everything else stops. Most people would make annual pilgrimages to DC to lobby on behalf of democratic legislation. All people would be required to vote and would be trained in lobbying their delegation in their districts,organized voters would have their own issues websites. Rather than obsess with sports statistics and phony pop politics, citizens would be typically obsessed with legislative proposals, constitutional history, environmental science, cases before the Supreme Court, the minutuae of the lives of the founders and past leadership, and economics issues. All people would be trained to support unions and strikers. Past heroes like Eugene Debs, Emma Goldman, etc. would have cults devoted to highly attended events and community projects, with numerous wildly popular Hollywood movies about them. The public schools would emphasize civics, and prepare students for the defense of democracy. College graduation rates would be above 95%. Professors Krugman and Stiglitz would have their own channels like Oprah does. The regulation of corporations would approximate the successes of Scandanavian socialism, and there would be no poverty and no gross income gaps, in the interest of the national defense. Military service would be universal, with the Peace Corps, Americorps and USAID being the most heavily funded departments. The Pentagon would be converted into a pilgrimmage hostel, as the DOD moves over to modest offices on K street.

Anonymous said...

Sometimes in the pursuit of anthropology, people encounter Edward Sapir. If you ask him what is culture, he will say: just a word, nothing more, nothing less; we might as well have it mean something good, like that which fulfills people's lives. "Culture: Genuine and Spurious" (1917). Further, don't worry, the U.S. doesn't have a culture. There is nothing there to counter. What you are countering is described by the word "civilization" a different phenomenon. If you want to create a culture, you create people who fulfill on life, like the Native Americans who lived where you now reside.