Party like it’s the 1960s: “What’s Left?” July 2017, MRR #410

“Welcome to our humble abode,” Jake greeted us at the front door with a bow, doffing his dented black top hat with a flourish.

I was with a gaggle of fellow peaceniks from the Action Committee for Peace and Justice in Ventura. We were visiting Jake and Connie’s home, a rented two-bedroom bungalow in Ojai. It was a balmy summer night in 1970.

I turned 18 in a month and was required to register for the draft, having graduated from high school. As a peace activist in good standing, an anarchist pacifist with plans to pursue a Conscientious Objector deferment, I was freaked out. I’d also just started smoking marijuana or, more precisely, I’d just started feeling the effects after having inhaled for several weeks before. I wanted some smoke to calm my nerves.

“Hey Jake,” I said to the tall, skinny UCSB student wearing a tie-dyed vest. “Do you know where I can score some grass?”

“Connie can give you a referral,” he laughed, then tossed a thumb over his shoulder. “She’s somewhere back there.”

The party was wall-to-wall, with people also crowded into the rambling backyard. Sixties rock music blared, at the moment “Buffalo Springfield.” Most in attendance wore some sort of head gear, as hats were one of the party’s themes. Long hair and marijuana smoke abounded, as did tobacco smoke and denim apparel. I was tempted to ask any of the individuals passing around joints to pass one my way, but I was shy. Besides, I was interested in quantity, an ounce at least, and I didn’t want to get fucked up before negotiating the purchase. I found Connie, a zaftig woman who also attended UCSB, in the tiny kitchen pouring shots of tequila and arranging them on a serving tray. She wore a colorful Spanish peasant dress and an incongruous brown fedora. I declined when she offered me a shot, as I hadn’t yet started drinking alcohol.

“Anybody you know selling any grass?” I asked.

“Nigel’s got weed, acid, mescaline, coke, crosses, reds, anything you want.” She smiled and downed some tequila. “He’s around somewhere. Black bowler hat.”

Just then, a pair of scruffy males in their thirties I knew all too well from various anti-war meetings barged into the kitchen, arguing and exchanging insults. One wore a teal Mao cap with a Peoples Liberation Army star, the other a dark gray Bolshevik cap a la Lenin with a Red Army star. As they upped the volume of their row, Connie rolled her eyes at me, and hastily exited the kitchen carrying the tray of tequila glasses.

“You’re a fucking moron, Roger,” the Bolshie cap bellowed. “The NLF is the legitimate armed guerrilla force of the Vietnamese people in the south. I’m no fan of people waving the VietCong flag at demonstrations, but that’s the proper flag for Vietnam’s revolution.”

“That’s a nationalist rag, not a righteous working class banner, numbnuts,” the Mao cap retorted in kind. “I’m surprised, truly shocked in fact Bill, that you can renege on your professed proletarian internationalist principles so easily and surrender to bourgeois nationalism.”

Roger followed the Progressive Labor Party line on Vietnam, and Bill the Socialist Workers Party line. They had been good friends in 1965 when they’d both been affiliated with the US-Soviet Friendship Committee. Roger had been married to Susan, a social democrat, and Susan had an affair with Bill before coming out as lesbian. A fistfight followed, and acrimony persisted. Roger drifted into Maoism, Bill into Trotskyism. They were now bitter enemies, always attacking each other at meetings, denouncing each other to acquaintances, each fantasizing how to get even with the other. As I eased out the kitchen door before the shouting match came to blows, I realized I was learning a valuable political lesson:

THE PERSONAL IS ALWAYS POLITICAL

The first outstanding example of personal enmity becoming political antagonism, indeed the archetype for this aphorism, was Trotsky versus Stalin. Both members of Lenin’s Bolshevik party, they had an abiding personal dislike for each other, apparently due to personality differences. Trotsky considered Stalin lugubrious, provincial, crude, and plodding, while Stalin thought Trotsky arrogant, Westernized, bohemian, and elitist. With the death of Lenin, a power struggle erupted between the two within the party which took on ideological overtones. Trotsky opposed the bureaucratization of the Soviet state, promoted permanent revolution, and insisted on the rapid, forced industrialization of the country while Stalin was a master of bureaucratic manipulation, defended socialism in one country, and stood behind Lenin’s mixed economic NEP program. Stalin outmaneuvered Trotsky for control of the party, expelled him from Russia, and eventually had Trotsky assassinated in Mexico.

On rarer occasions, honest political differences breed personal hostilities. We come to profound political conflicts often assuming that our opponents are detestable human beings when they’re not much different from ourselves.

I threaded through the boisterous crowd in the combined dining and living rooms as Pete Seeger boomed over the stereo system. No bowler hat in sight, but I did notice a couple of sexagenarians I knew sharing beers on a couch nearby. Frank, an Industrial Workers of the World member from the 1920s, wore a blue striped railroad engineer’s cap, and Farley, in the Socialist Labor Party since the 1930s, had on a modest tan cowboy hat. I heard snippets of their conversation—the Palmer Raids, the split between the IWW and the WIIU, the death of Haywood and De Leon—but I didn’t stop to chat. Both organizations had been moribund by 1960, but were experiencing a revitalization thanks to the 60s youthful counterculture/New Left. I even had a little red IWW membership book at the time, more out of nostalgia then anything else. The IWW continued to experience membership and organizing ups and downs, whereas for the SLP the spike in activity was only temporary before it finally became a shell of its former self, bringing me to my second political metaphor of the evening:

THE NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD

The Left is littered with zombie organizations which refuse to die. Occasionally, groups merge, and even more rarely, cease to exist altogether. But defunct political organizations, like the defunct political ideas that spawned them, tend to persist. Just as De Leonism and syndicalism can still be found somewhere, if only on life support, so can the various iterations of Trotskyism and Schactmanism, the numerous Maoist strains of the New Communist Movement, classical anarchism and left communism, ad nauseam. Well, many of them anyway. I mean, there are still beatniks, hippies, and goths around for fucks sake. It seems that once something arises, it keeps on trucking along until a wooden stake is forcefully driven through its heart to kill it off, and then not even.

As for Frank and Farley, while I subscribed to the New Age platitude that the elderly needed to be valued and their wisdom cherished, to be honest I had little time for historical sentimentality. I was part of the New Left, with an emphasis on the new. The future of politics belonged to us, the youth of 1970, and I certainly didn’t anticipate getting old before we made The Revolution. So I averted my gaze and skirted their conversation, looking for my man.

I looked out over the backyard as people awkwardly tried to dance to Jimi Hendrix’s “Machine Gun.” Jake and Connie had arranged lit tiki torches around the yard’s perimeter, so the grotesque shadows of partygoers contorted across the unkempt lawn. A gibbous moon silvered the night air. I returned to searching for my dealer, just not in the hosts’ bedroom which had been commandeered by three couples intent on an impromptu free love orgy. The other bedroom had been converted into a combination trips/meditation/sewing room/office, which is where I finally found the man with the bowler hat holding court. With his English accent, coal-black eye shadow, and silver nobbed cane, Nigel anticipated the droogies of “Clockwork Orange” by a scant year.

“Spectacle, spectacle, all is spectacle,” he patronizingly addressed my friend Thomas, a fellow anarchist who wore a dark gray whoopee cap like the cartoon character Jughead.

“Is smashing the state mere spectacle?” Thomas asked. “Is a spontaneous peoples revolution against the government so easily dismissed?

“Your sad sub-anarchism suffers from the mystics of nonorganization,” Nigel said with a condescending smirk. “It’s spontaneism denies the power of the revolutionary proletariat and plays into capitalism’s rigged game. What is needed are moments of life concretely and deliberately constructed by the collective organization of a unitary ambiance and a game of events. What is needed is the revolution of everyday life.”

Nigel talked a good Situationist game. With two slim, styling Carnaby Street girls fawning over him, I admitted he impressed me. Associated with King Mob and the Angry Brigade in England, he was an ambassador’s son with diplomatic immunity, which was how he kept himself and his drug dealing business from getting busted. The raw noise of the MC5’s “Kick Out The Jams” blasted through the party as I shopped in Nigel’s briefcase drugstore emporium, sampled some seed-heavy Columbian Gold, purchased an ounce, and rolled a couple of joints to share around. As I and everybody in the room got high, or higher, I still hadn’t learned the lesson of:

LOOKING FOR THE NEXT BIG THING

The Situationists were revolutionary raconteurs and carny hustlers, a theater troupe that held one successful Paris performance in May-June of 1968 but hadn’t been active since. To me however, they were the next big thing. They certainly wowed impressionable young Leftists, anarchists in particular, with their panache and pizzazz. Situationist and post-Situ wannabes continue to proliferate to this day, but the real legacy of the Situationist International was a virulent sectarianism. Split after split reduced the SI to two remaining members by 1972, when the organization dissolved itself. I was impressed by the Situ-inspired Dutch Provos, but my real inspirations back in the day were the more wide-ranging, broadbased San Francisco Diggers and Dutch Kabouters. The search for the next big thing on the Left continues to the present, with insurrectionary anarchists and communizing ultraleftists still playing that game.

I was tripping when my Ventura friends collected me for the ride home. An owl swooped down silently to snag a mouse in the front yard as we climbed into a brightly painted VW minibus, it’s owner and driver none to sober herself. Me, I wore a soft gray British flat workers cloth cap, a newsboy cap with a snap button brim. As we meandered along Highway 33—soon to be immortalized in the godawful song “Ventura Highway” by the schlocky soft rock band America—I dreamed about becoming a political columnist for a famous future rocknroll magazine in an as yet unborn youth counterculture. Naw, that can’t happen I thought, and fell asleep.

DISCLAIMER:
This is a piece of fiction. Names, characters, organizations, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

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Fashion Statement or Counterculture: “What’s Left?” July 2016, MRR #398

FashionStatement
I attended a “Faces of Death” party in San Diego between 1980 and 1982. I don’t remember the exact date as I was drinking heavily at the time, and some details are pretty much a blur from those days. “Faces of Death” was a film compilation of various explicit on-camera death scenes—half of them fake—which led to a movie series, and then a horror genre. I’d heard that Boyd Rice organized the party, not around a video showing but in honor of the suicide of Joy Division singer Ian Curtis. The living room had a shrine set up, with black and red altar cloths and lit tapered black candles featuring a framed picture of Ian alongside one of Adolf Hitler. Boyd hadn’t yet transitioned into full-on racist fascism, so this was him being transgressive and oh-so-naughty. The soundtrack for the evening, besides Joy Division, included Throbbing Gristle, Boyd’s band Non, Cabaret Voltaire, and others.

I found the whole party morose and boring, and left soon after arriving, no doubt in search of more alcohol. But all the future dark tribes, from Industrial to Goth, were present in embryo. I’ve told this story many times before. What’s brought it to mind now was Genesis P-Orridge posting on his FB page a slick conspiracy video-remastering of the hoax “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” using the Rothschild family. I’m FB friends with several anti-fascists, and the reaction was intense. One individual in particular, someone whom I’d been corresponding with back and forth since before FB when he was commenting on my political blog, stated that he was distressed over what Genesis had done because he really liked both Throbbing Gristle and Psychic TV. In the FB exchange, I realized I harbored prejudices born of that experience some 35 years prior, that a “certain kind of music” invariably leads to fascism.

I should have known better. In my Hit List review of Craig O’Hara’s book “The Philosophy of Punk” I’d argued against his idea that punk is inherently anarchist by contending that no type of politics is innate to punk as a genre of music. Aside from a visceral rebellion often characteristic of youth, it’s really all just about sex, drugs and rock’n’roll. I also didn’t learn from my about-face on country western music, when I came to appreciate Hank William’s Sr. and not to categorize the entire musical genre as “redneck.” And yet, country western music is consistently associated with conservative politics, punk rock with anarchism, and industrial/goth music with fascism. How can we account for these persistent connections without labeling them innate or inherent?

Which brings us to the relationship between music and politics. I’m sick and tired of writing about the elections anyway and besides, the Democratic and Republican National Conventions are playing out even as this issue is being sold on newsstands.

“If the right kind of beat makes you tap your foot,” Frank Zappa once said, provocatively. “[W]hat kind of beat makes you curl your fist and strike?” Zappa was ardently anti-censorship, so this bit of hyperbole was meant to highlight the complex relationship between music and other forms of human behavior, not to nail it down. However, I will attempt to do just that by mediating the links between music and politics through the lens of counterculture. Let’s begin with the mother of all countercultures, the hippie counterculture. Forgive me if what follows is painted in broad strokes. The making of that counterculture, to paraphrase Theodore Roszak, involved the merging of a genre of music influenced by folk, blues and rock with various unconventional lifestyles from the Romantics, Bohemians and the Beats, all in opposition to the prevailing Establishment culture of the day. Rock music and bohemian hipster lifestyles overlapped, and the counterculture was born from their interaction on this common ground.

Characterizing the hippie counterculture as all about “peace and love” is simplistic but fair, even as it misses the communalism underlying that social movement. Plenty of hippies like Stewart Brand had a philosophical hankering for capitalist libertarianism, and many others went on to become successful entrepreneurs. But the 60s were all about communalism—about crash pads, coops and communes—and as such the counterculture countered competitive American individualism. Hippie communalism was central to a naïve back-to-the-land movement, which laid the basis for today’s concerns with vegetarianism and organic agriculture. This conscious collectivism accounts for the incipient anarcho-leftism of much of the hippie counterculture, and it also explains the New Age fascism evident in other aspects. And to call the politics of the hippies collectivist is vague at best.

The 60s counterculture encompassed millions of young people around the world and by the Death of Hippie (dated 1967, 1968 or 1969, depending) there were already inklings of a smaller counter-counterculture in the making. Proto-punk music was emerging, and there was a growing disdain for the hippie “peace and love” mentality as too idealistic and impractical. Anger and aggression replaced those hippie sentiments—expressed in sayings like “search and destroy” and “fuck shit up”—and hippie communalism mutated into punk collectivism (squats, punk houses, venue collectives, etc.). DIY became the byword of punk action and the whole package, while not explicitly anarchist, tended toward the politically anarchic.

Also in reaction to the hippie counterculture, but somewhat later in time and still smaller in numbers, the industrial/goth/dark counter-counterculture took shape. There were distinct types of music and kinds of collectivism (Throbbing Gristle came out of the COUM Transmissions art collective and Laibach is part of the NSK art collective), but the doom and gloom of this scene was augmented by an intense obsession with all that is transgressive. And my argument paralleling punk rock is that while there was nothing in the industrial/goth/dark music scene that was inherently fascist, the fascination with being “oh so naughty” and transgressive also accounts for the tendency toward fascist imagery and even politics in the music.

This oversimplified history is not prescriptive, but descriptive. I’m trying to explain political trends without arguing that certain politics are innate to certain musical genres. Hippie peace and love was far different from punk anger and aggression or industrial/goth doom and gloom. But, apart from youthful rebellion and a desire to épater la bourgeoisie, these countercultures and counter-countercultures had at least three things in common: communal structures, DIY motivations, and transgressive impulses. Hippie communalism was intensely DIY, with the Whole Earth Catalog epitomizing the era. But hippie transgression was unashamedly hedonistic. I would contend that this counterculture went the furthest toward parrying the prevailing culture and creating a viable, wholistic alternative society that escaped simple left-or-right politics. In reacting against bourgeois society and the hippie counterculture, punk and industrial/goth further narrowed their respective cultural arenas, and further fragmented the wider society into numerous contending, jostling subcultures. Punk was violently transgressive, but its DIY emphasis was central, implying anarchistic politics. And industrial/goth was as DIY as punk, but it was the fascination with transgressive naughtiness that accounts for that counter-counterculture’s infatuation with fascist symbolism, which often spilled over into actual fascism.

Of course, it can be argued that whether it’s culture, counterculture, or counter-counterculture, the Western context for all of this is bourgeois individualism. From the libertinism and “do your own thing” of the 60s, the emphasis has been on the individual through punk and industrial/goth, various forms of communalism notwithstanding. Even to say that “it’s only rock and roll” is to acknowledge the primacy of this socio-political context for the cultural rebellions from the 60s onward.

I published an anarcho-punk zine called San Diego’s Daily Impulse from 1985 through 1989, which I distributed free at shows and to record stores. As part of that zine, I and a small group of friends put on an Anarchy Picnic in May, 1985. Several hundred people gathered to share food and beverage, acoustic music, and activities like frisbee and hacky-sack around literature tables, chalk, and sheets of butcher paper sprinkled with crayons and paint in Balboa Park. It was clear at the Anarchy Picnic that divisions like hippie, punk and goth were ephemeral, that tastes in music and fashion were not rigid, and that people mixed-and-matched scenes and countercultures as they desired. In the midst of this sunny picnic, with all the fun and frivolity, a couple strolled into the park wearing full Nazi Sturmabteilung uniforms, complete with prominent swastika armbands. The man was an SA-Gruppenführer, the woman his she-wolf of the SA, and together they walked a pair of Dobermans. They feigned being haughty and aloof, but it was clear that they pranced and preened over being so naughty and transgressive in their Nazi regalia.

No surprise, the Anarchy Picnickers ignored them.

Of countercultures and temper tantrums: “What’s Left?” August 2015, MRR #387

Mildred: Hey Johnny, what are you rebelling against?
Johnny: Whadda you got?

Marlon Brando and Peggy Maley, “The Wild One”

They had lost politically but they had won culturally and maybe even spiritually.

John Lichfield (writing of the 60s generation)
“Egalité! Liberté! Sexualité!: Paris, May 1968”
The Independent, 9/23/08

If I had to describe my political philosophy, I would say: “Libertarianism now, fascism later.”

J.P. Nash

She was a child of Beatniks who came of age in the mid-1960s and lived in San Francisco. There, she was a part of the hippie counterculture, danced with Sufi Sam’s dervish troupe in Precita Park, attended the 1967 Human Be-In/Gathering of the Tribes in Golden Gate Park, and belonged to the Diggers. After the “Death of Hippie” event in the Haight-Ashbury, as well as a series of high-profile drug busts, she moved to a commune in Olema in 1969.

He was a red diaper baby born of Communist Party members and lived in Berkeley. There, he participated in the burgeoning New Left, attended UC Berkeley on a Vietnam War student deferment, helped organize the takeover of Provo Park, and was a member of Students for a Democratic Society. After the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention, and the “Bloody Thursday” riot in Berkeley’s Peoples Park, he joined the Weatherman faction in 1969.

They met, fell in love, and married sometime at the end of 1970, beginning of 1971. Maybe it was at Vortex I, or during the Chicano Moratorium, or doing gestalt therapy at Esalen. Or perhaps it was at a Renaissance Pleasure Faire, or during the trial of the Chicago 8, or sitting in on classes at Black Mountain College. The exact date and place were never clear as she was hitchhiking around the country and he had gone underground after the Greenwich Village townhouse debacle. Besides, it was the 60s, or the second half of that decade anyway. If you remembered the 60s, you weren’t there. They stayed together a couple of years, even had a couple of kids. But they couldn’t make it work. She was indelibly eccentric and individualistic, New Agey spiritual and profoundly anti-political. He was rabidly political and atheistic, consensus-prone and surprisingly conventional. They got together on and off over the next decade or two, had a couple more kids, but finally decided to call it quits and finalize their divorce at the end of the twentieth century. True to form, they couldn’t agree when to do that, she insisting that it be at the end of 1999 and he at the end of 2000.

As the 1970s dragged into the 1980s, and then the 1990s, they lived their separate lives. She watched as most of what she believed in during her counterculture days entered the mainstream. Not only had sex, drugs, and rocknroll become commonplace, but so had a quirky entrepreneurial individualism and appreciation for alternative lifestyles. She eventually moved to Portland as an apprentice pastry chef, where she now owns a regional mini-chain of successful artisanal bio-organic paleo-grained brick oven bakeries, writes a popular food blog, and lives comfortably in the Pearl District. He watched as the Left he fought for retreated from the streets, ultimately to retrench in its final academic bastion. Not only had revolutionary politics and Marxism given way to identity politics and French postmodernism, but the Left’s scant successes had quickly dead-ended in political correctness. He eventually resurfaced with a teaching career in New York City, where he is now a tenured Sociology professor at NYU, lectures and writes on social movements, and lives comfortably in Park Slope.

And here’s where I walk away from my all-to-obvious analogy. My initial point is that pundits who proclaim that those who fomented the 1960s “lost politically, but won culturally” commit the most basic error of constructing a straw man out of the notion that there was one, unitary “60s generation.” There were two main currents to the 60s—the hippie counterculture and the Left/social movements—that share the coincidence of their proximate births and participant demographics, but little else. These two currents frequently interacted and occasionally merged, but ultimately they remained discrete, and experienced different fates. The hippies won culturally, and the New Leftists lost politically.

The conflation of different aspects of the 1960s is often not just an error of punditry, its a tactic of conservative Kulturkampf. Conservatives have long attempted to fabricate an imaginary, monolithic enemy-from-within, responsible for the decline of America and the corruption of its moral fiber since the 60s. The hedonistic hippie counterculture was in complete cahoots with a New Left become New Communist Movement, which was secretly in league with the Great Society welfare state, Democratic Party permissive liberalism, a mainstream media monopoly, corrupt socialistic unions, ad nauseam; thus inventing one sweeping, victorious anti-American juggernaut that every right-minded, freedom-loving, patriotic citizen needed to oppose by any means necessary. Culture wars have been the party line ever since the Reagan presidency. During that time conservatives moved American politics steadily, inexorably, to the right under an ideological variation known as neoliberalism, itself a supposed revival of 19th century classical Manchester liberalism. Because let’s make no mistake here, whether the counterculture won and the Left lost in the short run, capitalism wins out in the long run. The individualistic “do your own thing” hippies fit in perfectly with America’s self-reliant pioneer individualism and besides, everybody wanted to make money after the 60s.

I decided not to get cute and extend my original analogy to follow the children of my fantasy hippie/New Left couple by describing which one became a Wall Street broker versus which one became a punk rocker and so on. Most who went through the 60s as active participants, as well as their offspring, got jobs and became productive members of society, so what I’m interested in are those who rebelled against all that, even against the 60s, even for rebellion’s sake, oftentimes forming their own countercultures in the process. Rarely did such counter countercultural rebellions lump both “parents” into a single target however. Heavy Metal as a counterculture maintains a direct line of descent from the 60s counterculture, which makes its rebelliousness all rather conventional, even traditional. Punk rock rebellion was against “all that hippie shit” and created its own counterculture based on “do it yourself” and “fuck shit up.” But because punk was basically apolitical, it was easily swayed by politics, left or right, ultimately to descend into peace punks vs skinheads by the 80s.

There were those who had nothing against sex, drugs, and rocknroll, but who thought all that hippie “peace and love” was naïve bullshit. What chafed them unduly were the demands for political correctness which originated in academia, echoed around government and the media, and were blithely parroted by Gen X kids. These young white dudes, and they were mostly young white males, were angry about the influence of the PC Left in America. Inspired by the zine Answer Me! produced by Jim and Debbie Goad from 1991 to 1994, they created a rabid if limited anti-PC counterculture which, according to Spin Magazine, quickly transcended pissed off, working class whiteboy Jim Goad and his “fuck you and your feelings too” zine. There was the Unpop art movement, various publishing companies like Feral House, even an Angry White Male tour which featured Jim Goad, Mike Diana, Shane Bugbee, the Boone Bros., Skitzo, and King Velveeda. Lots of young angry white boys were plenty pissed that they now had to consider the perspectives of women, blacks, gays, and other minorities, and they believed their misogynist, racist, homophobic, frequently humorous invective was not “punching down” but rather “punching up” because, you know, liberalism and the Left were really in control.

Aside from Goad, the usual suspects in this post-60s contrarian counterculture included Boyd Rice, Brian Clark, Shaun Partridge, Adam Parfrey, Lorin Partridge, Nick Bougas/A. Wyatt Mann, Michael Moynihan, Larry Wessel, et al. As is invariably the case, antagonisms and rifts eventually split up these anti-PC counter countercultural bad boys, since they had really little in common other than their hatred of the Left, liberalism, and PC politics. Some drifted off into business-as-usual conservatism, others became neofascists, but most just wanted to make a buck. Their immediate heir was Vice Media, which at its inception as a magazine combined muckraking journalism with frat boy humor and soft porn skin mag aesthetics. What Lizzie Widdicombe described in “The Bad-Boy Brand” for the New Yorker as Vice’s early combination of “investigative reporting with a sensibility that is adolescent, male, and proudly boorish” has since been moderated for the sake of maximizing profit and moving into the mainstream. That leaves folks like Gavin McInnes—big Goad fan and ex-Vice cofounder fired for being unwilling to go along with the program—to continue the good fight ranting against the Left, liberals, and political correctness today.

One thing I find interesting is that right-wing libertarianism seems to be the default politics for those individuals intent on winning the culture wars while still snorting coke and watching porn. Goad might best be described as paleo-libertarian, while both Vice and McInnes are self-proclaimed libertarian. I think that claiming an absolute right to freedom of expression, aside from triggering such knee-jerk libertarianism, is invariably used as an excuse for their juvenile, rude, malicious, thuggish behavior. Once past hating on the Left, without their libertarian label of convenience, and no longer young, these angry white male morons would just be your run-of-the-mill GOP conservative good ol’ boys, maybe with a smidgen of neo-Nazi wingnut thrown in to keep things interesting. Said another way, scratch a Vice-like libertarian and you might just uncover a fascist.

Ethan A. Russell wrote: “In retrospect people often seem embarrassed by that time—the late sixties into the seventies—as if suddenly confronted with some lunatic member of your family, once revered, now disgraced.” (Dear Mr. Fantasy: Diary of a Decade: Our Time and Rock and Roll) Having experienced much of the 60s as a late hippie and New Leftist, I’m neither embarrassed by my life then nor do I revere that complicated decade now. I do think that efforts to frame things in terms of a singular “60s generation” are misinformed and flawed at best, and at worst help to construct a demonic hollow man out of the 60s as a conservative culture wars ploy. The Angry White Male shtick—with Goad for real and with McInnes as pose—will be around as long as political correctness persists. But that’s so, so boring.

(Copy editing by K Raketz.)

Season of the Witch redux: “What’s Left?” July 2013, MRR #362

If I knew I was going to live this long, I’d have taken better care of myself.

Originally, Mickey Mantle
and often repeated by Wavy Gravy, Peter Coyote, et al

And who should I say is calling?

Leonard Cohen, “Who by Fire”

I’ve just read Season of the Witch by David Talbot. In large part, Talbot’s style might be called nonfiction picaresque. Season of the Witch is a portrait of San Francisco, of the city’s outlaw social elements that became mainstream over two decades. For all of Talbot’s attempts to be hip and groovy, in deference to his subject matter, he often comes across as glib and pretentious. Had the book been a thousand pages, over twice its published length, still it would have been far from comprehensive or inclusive. Nor could Talbot have managed otherwise, despite his intent. Nevertheless, the work’s omissions are sometimes glaring. I snickered long and hard at the credulous psychedelic spirituality that the hippie counterculture trumpeted back in the day. Yet to fail to mention, even in passing, either Stephen Levine or the San Francisco Oracle, the newspaper that he helped to found, is negligent in the extreme. Most sobering is to go through the book’s index and realize that, no matter how abbreviated the history presented, the roster of obituaries is daunting.

Talbot’s book is a case history of “live fast, die young”—death by drugs, violence, crime, war, disease, accident, natural or human made disaster, and rarely, old age. Season of the Witch follows the decline and fall of the counterculture with a litany of death and destruction. Corpses mounted throughout the two decades from 1965 to 1985: the FBI decimation of the Black Panther Party through Cointelpro operations, the violent spasms of New Left urban guerrilla warfare via the Symbionese Liberation Army and New World Liberation Front, the terror of the Zodiac serial murders, the racial butchery of the Zebra killings, the horrific Peoples Temple mass suicide, the assassination of Moscone and Milk that inaugurated the AIDS pandemic. It is sometimes difficult to remember, first and foremost, that the era was epitomized by efforts at liberation, from the hippie effort to free one’s mind to women’s liberation, black liberation, chicano liberation, Asian liberation, gay liberation. I have a dog in this fight, no less than the producers and readers of this magazine, in criticizing Talbot’s almost complete exclusion of punk at the end of the 70s and beginning of the 80s from this compendium. (Jello Biafra and The Dead Kennedys are mentioned in passing) However, punk hasn’t been immune from premature death and wanton destruction either. Or, to quote Talbot: “There was always a brutal toughness in the beat and hippie” and punk “cultures, a shrugging awareness that casualties were inevitable when you challenged life’s limits. […] It takes a reckless kind of soul to tear down monuments and torch bridges, to shake the dead grip of the past. But by the end of the sixties, the revolution was entering its Jacobin phase, and the wreckage was growing wanton. If the revolution liberated the human imagination, it also unleashed humanity’s demons.”

Actually, I consider myself a late hippie and an early punk, having grown up at the tail end of the one counterculture and almost too old for the start of the other. I admired the Diggers; those “heavy hippies” like Emmett Grogan, Peter Coyote, and Peter Berg who sneered at the counterculture for believing that peace and love were sufficient, who helped conduct the brief-lived Free City experiment, and who resorted to arming themselves to defend their community, their politics and themselves. Of course, there was plenty to criticize about them as well, which takes us beyond a jejune book report of Season of the Witch. The Diggers free communalism was a precursor to the communization efforts and debates of Tiqqun/Invisible Committee on the one hand, and End Notes/Théorie Communiste on the other hand. Yet the insurrectionary anarchism and left communism of this current milieu suffers from the same problem that plagued the Diggers’ 60s hip anarchism, that of an inability to sustain itself over time, against the assaults of state and capital. At least Makhno managed to field a guerrilla anarchist army in the Ukraine capable of defeating Russia’s counterrevolutionary White Armies as well as of giving the Bolsheviks a run for their money. And Spain’s anarchists attempted a true social revolution on the ground while defending the Spanish Republic from Franco’s fascist hordes. Post 1950s anarchism, and its left communist sidekick with avant-garde delusions, have always been fugacious, unable to sustain a capacity for self-organization, self-activity and self-discipline, incapable of standing the tests of history and power. But this was so last column.

More to the point, both Peter Coyote and Emmett Grogan were strung out on heroin by 1969, a habit that in Grogan’s case killed him on a NYC subway car on April 1, 1978. The tendency to cite and mourn for those famous and influential who died too young, so conspicuous in Season of the Witch, is my inclination as well. There were untold unknown dead from the excesses of the Haight in particular and of the hippie counterculture in general. A well-respected columnist in the pages of this magazine on occasion writes an obituary of a well-known punk rocker who has met his untimely end. But who grieves for the numerous nameless punks who have also lived fast and died young, without amounting to anything in the process? Neil Young’s lyric that “[i]t’s better to burn out/than to fade away/than it is to rust” doesn’t speak to the anonymity and universality of death as most of us experience it. And for those who have survived their youth, despite all their excesses, there are the lingering aches and pains, injuries and traumas, damages and diseases to remind them each and every day. Whether or not they regretted their youthful indiscretions is beside the point. Coming to terms with their mortality in light of their experiences is. Complications arise when they don’t die, when they continue to grow old and continue to harm themselves.

I raged through my youthful excesses, then settled into decades of slow, measured, incremental drug abuse. I’ve stopped, but the destruction to my body and brain are irreparable, no matter what science currently says about neuroplasticity, or the capacity of human physiology to heal itself. As I said last column, there’s nothing with regard to socialism even remotely on the horizon that is capable of reversing humanity’s or the planet’s downhill slide into slow-motion apocalypse. Without the potentiality for socialist politics to materially change things, only two possibilities remain. On the one hand, taking political action amounts to symbolic acts and gestures, of which I’m not a big fan. On the other hand, engaging in political action is an expression of personal commitment or individual desire, or simply because, as Daniel Cohn-Bendit once put it, it’s a better way to live. That leaves little of the political that is not solely personal. In turn, I’m left with the three things that Siddhartha Gautama described as inevitable; old age, sickness, and death. And that’s if I’m extremely lucky. Old age, sickness, death; three aspects of life that are undeniably personal, but at the same time universal, experienced by every human being sooner or later.

Between the eternal Buddhist verities concerning human experience and the universalities of leftist politics downgraded to the merely personal, there is much that I still enjoy. The love for my wife, the affection for friends, my writing, compelling music, literature, film, art and food, New York and Paris in the fall, mindful meditation, scintillating company, a good laugh. Yet the movement of my life over the past six decades has been a process of telescoping down, of reverting from the macro to the micro, of focusing from the big picture to the mundane. David Talbot’s Season of the Witch starts in 1965 with a generation attempting the promethean, the creation of a counterculture as the first step toward achieving a revolutionary, universal consciousness. It ends in 1985 with one subculture of another generation coming to terms with its own inevitable mortality through the widespread death of many of its members in the AIDS pandemic. Talbot does his best to couch his history as some sort of ultimate triumph of the human spirit, some sort of “deliverance” attained through perseverance and despite tremendous odds. Nevertheless, Season of the Witch is a profoundly pessimistic chronicle, of a constriction of human hope and possibility. This demoralized narrowing of vision, of focus, of scope is what speaks to me at this point in my life.

That’s more than enough doom and gloom.

Conservative book ends: “What’s Left?” November 2010, MRR #330

I recently noticed that my life seems to be book ended. That’s not a pleasant revelation. For one, it means I’m approaching the end of it. My life, that is. I’m pushing 60, and the fact that the beginning and ending to my life are coming to resemble each other is overshadowed by the realization that “[s]eventy is the sum of our years, or eighty, if we are strong; Most of them are sorrow and toil; they pass quickly, we are all but gone.” (Psalm 90:10)

Sorry to get all Biblical on your ass. It was the mythology I was raised on, and I seem to be returning to it in my dotage. I told you this wasn’t pleasant. Equally unpleasant is the content to the alpha and omega of my life.

I grew up in Eisenhower’s America. Conservative, God-fearing, patriotic to the point of McCarthyite/HUAC witch-hunts. I experienced the rise of political liberalism—in Kennedy’s election and Johnson’s augmentation of the welfare state via the Great Society—as relatively progressive, paralleling as it did the racial and social liberalization of American society. Today, however, liberalism in every form is in full retreat. And conservatism is triumphant, marked by a resurgence of God, country and witch-hunts.

In the 1960s, the John Birch Society expressed the conspiratorial fringe of American conservatism. Everything from water fluoridation to the United Nations was considered part and parcel of the international Communist conspiracy to destroy America. Even President Eisenhower was declared a willing tool of the Communists. Yet the John Birch Society did break with those conspiracy-mongers on the right who posited that Jews, blacks, Catholics, Masons, et al were behind some vast anti-American conspiracy by accepting individuals from such groups into their membership. Today, the great purveyor of wingnut conspiracy theories, with his chalkboard flowcharts of hidden influence and money, is Fox News commentator Glenn Beck. Progressives and their secret socialist agendas are plotting to destroy this country according to Beck. And, like the John Birch Society, Glenn Beck is cited for liberating the realm of conspiracy theory from its anti-Semitic, racist, anti-Masonic, and ultra-Protestant promoters.

The final capstone to this tale of “forward into the past” is that the recent census is predicted to show that poverty in this country has risen to levels not seen since 1965.

I often lament that the political, social, and cultural movements of 60s and 70s didn’t revolutionize this country, or the world, sufficiently to make a revival of the right impossible. My personal investment in that bygone era motivates me to figure out why that was the case. A while back, I spent a whole column discussing Geoffrey Wheatcroft’s brilliant opinion piece, entitled “It was fun, but 1968’s legacy was mixed,” in the 9/5/08 Guardian Weekly. Wheatcroft dismisses the tired trope that “the right has won politically and the left has won culturally,” and then proceeds to systematically debunk various other myths born of 1968. His conclusion? That the 1960s cultural upheavals were profoundly individualistic, even libertine, and that “since 1968, the West had grown not only more prosperous but more sybaritic and self-absorbed” as a consequence of the Left’s cultural successes. “The ‘bourgeois triumphalism’ of the Thatcher (and Blair) era, the greed is good ethos and our materialistic individualism might just have had their roots 40 years back.”

Recently, I read Keith Abbott’s poignant memoir of Richard Brautigan, Downstream From Trout Fishing In America, in which he comments: “One thing that tends to be overlooked about the hippie scene was it was pro-American, but with a distinctly western vision of America, one where individualism and delight in all the senses demanded an anarchistic freedom for their personal lives. Most important, this western vision issued the refugees of the Haight a license to start their lives over. This notion concealed an innate right-wing bias too, one which emerged later in the various communes and their ingrown sexism and fascism.” The argument has been made that the political New Left was significantly different from the profoundly apolitical hippie counterculture of the 1960s. Yet apparently both shared a commitment to an intense, American-style individualism that made a recoup by the right not merely possible, but inevitable.

The anarchic and anarchistic aspects to the Western youth revolts of the period were paralleled by anti-colonial and anti-imperialist struggles, as well as by the social democratic and Leninist political movements that supported those struggles. Wheatcroft’s and Abbott’s critiques hardly explain the devolution of Western Communism into EuroCommunism or Social Democracy into neoliberalism, the collapse of the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union, or the transformation of Third World national liberation into national capitalism. We’re talking here about a retreat of the 60s across the board before global capitalism. I think the seeds to the rise of the right can be found in all of those 60s struggles and movements that a triumphant right now so vehemently denounces. Yet accounting for the failures of those struggles and movements will be more complex than simply blaming individualism and libertinism.

Nostalgia for the 60s: “What’s Left?” September 2008, MRR #304

I was having flashbacks.

I laid out the columns for MRR #302 at the end of May. As I sat in front of a computer in the Mother Ship—MRR HQ—the soundtrack playing was ‘60s rock’n’roll, protopunk, garage, psychedelia, whatever you want to call it. The Seeds, 13th Floor Elevators, Them, on vinyl of course. Yet, other than myself, no one listening had been born when that music was first produced.

Intellectually, I understand the impact that Sky Saxon, Roky Erickson, Van Morrison and their break-out bands had on the music that followed, up to the present day. Emotionally, however, I was asking myself, why the hell does anybody listen to this crap? That’s because the music threatened to invoke nostalgia. I’m no fan of nostalgia, even on the best of days.

For me, nostalgia is pitiable emotion conjured up by less than accurate memory. I’m particularly repelled by nostalgia for the “good old days” of the 1960s because, in my opinion having lived through the decade, very little was changed by the unrest and ferment of those years. Recently, I listened to a Brecht Forum panel discussion on Obama and the Left put on by the Nation Magazine and broadcast on NPR. I couldn’t help shaking my head, and chuckling out loud. For all our pipe dreams of revolution and overthrowing the Establishment in the ‘60s, in America today the Left is a joke. I recognize that we were delusional at the time, but it still makes me sad, and not a little angry, to realize how pathetically insignificant the Left, not to mention the left of the Left, is at present. And how out-and-out reactionary this society remains.

Which is weird because conservatives in this country believe exactly the opposite, that the Left won what they call the Culture Wars of the 1960s. For them, the remnants of LBJ’s Great Society welfare state and the much curtailed countercultural hedonism of sex, drugs and rock’n’roll are signs that the Antichrist triumphed some forty years ago, which conservatives have been assiduously fighting to overturn ever since. The Right has successfully used affirmative action, feminism, liberal media, abortion, gay rights, school prayer, et al, to distract people from the reality that corporate capitalism is fast reducing the United States to a Third World banana republic.

Geoffrey Wheatcroft summarized popular attitudes to that contentious decade in a Guardian Weekly opinion piece (“It was fun, but 1968’s legacy was mixed,” 9/5/08) when he wrote:

[André Glucksmann] now sees les événements de mai as “a monument, either sublime or detested, that we want to commemorate or bury,” which is one way of putting it. Another is that 40 years ago were sown the seeds of the story since, when “the right has won politically and the left has won culturally.” Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but not for long.

Wheatcroft proceeds to systematically demolish the myths of 1968, beginning by comparing Paris 1968 to Europe in 1848, using the analogy of sexual orgasm followed by post-coital depression. “Even at the time, as Paris was brought to a halt by rebellious kids, there was an awful lot of play-acting.” He quotes the French Communist Party’s analysis of those events as “street party, not revolution,” and favorably mentions AJP Taylor’s comment about 1848: “it’s a sure sign of political backwardness when any movement is led by students.”

The list of ‘60s veterans who have become part of the establishment, even right-wingers, is disheartening, and not at all “amusing, if unkind” as Wheatcroft puts it. But he is particularly cogent when he discusses the political consequences of 1968:

The copains believed they would bring down Charles de Gaulle, but they didn’t. When he did resign the next year, he was succeeded by Georges Pompidou, and the Elysée palace has been occupied by the right for 26 of the past 40 years. Likewise, British youths jeered at Harold Wilson, who was duly replaced two years later by Edward Heath, and the Tories were in power for 22 of the next 27 years.

Across the Atlantic, 1968 saw assassination, riot and antiwar protest; the year ended with Richard Nixon’s election, and Republicans have been in the White House for 28 of the 40 years since. It’s true that the US eventually left Vietnam; that country now has an explosive capitalist economy—not quite what those who chanted “Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh, We will fight and we will win!” had in mind.

Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and the collapse of Soviet Bloc Communism heralded the political and economic victory of the Right, as foreshadowed in 1968. Yet, with respect to the cultural (“or emotional or sexual”) victory of the Left, Wheatcroft contends that “even there, the story is ambiguous.” For, as he points out, the 1960s cultural upheavals were profoundly individualistic, even libertine, and that “since 1968, the West had grown not only more prosperous but more sybaritic and self-absorbed” as a consequence of the Left’s cultural successes. “The ‘bourgeois triumphalism’ of the Thatcher (and Blair) era, the greed is good ethos and our materialistic individualism might just have had their roots 40 years back.” I consider myself a proxy soixante-huitard, yet I heartily agree with Wheatcroft’s rather bleak assessment of the legacy of 1968. I’m even inclined to second Eric Hobsbawm’s comment that “the revolution is puritan,” by which “[h]e meant that the sex-drugs-and-rock hedonism of the 1960s was not only not the same thing as changing the foundations of society, it might be actively inimical to doing so.”

Damn, I’m getting old.

This analysis doesn’t take into account that the rebellions of the 1960s had two disparate sources; the hippie counterculture and the student New Left. Hippies were often proudly anti-political, whereas New Leftists frequently dismissed the counterculture as escapist. Wheatcroft is essentially saying that while the counterculture nominally won, the New Left was resoundingly defeated. Another way to look at this period is to see both counterculture and New Left going down to defeat, with the ruling elite of the day then selectively recuperating elements from each camp in order to stave off future rebellion. Had these two aspects of the ‘60s truly triumphed to any degree, we might have seen a creative fusion that could have shaped a stunningly libertarian socialism to shame Stalin’s gulags and Mao’s reeducation camps. But this is the stuff of science fiction and alternative history, not of thoughtful analysis.

As I write this column the San Francisco Mime Troupe begins a new season of free theater in the city’s parks. The current production, called “Red State,” has as one of its themes that the US economy is becoming so bad that the Right can no longer bamboozle the American public with social and moral issues. The sleight-of-hand trickery that stirred up people with the red flags of gay marriage, teenage abortion, reverse discrimination against whites, and welfare mothers on crack so that they voted, and acted, against their economic interests, is no longer working. Economic issues are once more coming to the fore, and overshadowing the rabidly repressive social agenda of the conservative movement. We should comprehend and encourage this potential, instead of futilely pining for the “good old days” of the ‘60s.

Religion Reconsidered: “What’s Left?” March 2008, MRR #298

One of my many contradictions, from a Marxist perspective, is that I’m a wimpy, waffling agnostic, not a hardcore, commie atheist. The reason I’m an agnostic instead of an atheist has nothing to do with finding flaws in atheism’s arguments against the existence of God, or with finding redeeming features in the horror show that is religion. I’m undecided about whether or not God exists because, throughout my life, I’ve had personal experiences that might be described as spiritual, mystical, even religious.

I’ve had these experiences since I was a kid, long before the psychedelic drug use of my hippie days. A momentary, overwhelming sensation that I was a part of everything, and that everything was a part of me. A fleeting, all pervasive feeling that I had suddenly risen high above this mundane, everyday existence. The inexplicable awareness that I had briefly stumbled upon some greater reality, the true, scintillating reality behind this dingy, decaying façade that was life. I’ve had these experiences well after I stopped doing psychedelics. As for the psychedelics-acid, mescaline, psilocybin-they produced quasi-mystical experiences forcefully driven, selectively amplified, and seriously distorted by the chemicals in question.

I was loosely raised Catholic, though I don’t associate my childhood spiritual incidents with Roman Catholicism. My parents wanted me to get the sacraments up to Confirmation, just in case the Big Guy was Catholic. I was on my own after that, and I never bothered to go back to church. I’ve never tried to cultivate these mystical moments by pursuing a spiritual practice or, Marx forbid, an organized religion either. I simply experienced them, marveling at many of them, enduring the rest, and getting something out of them all. Of course, I’ve come to my own understanding of what Tom Wolfe, in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, referred to as the kairos, the how and why and what-for of this “time out of time,” this “most propitious moment.”

The how is simple enough. The actual experience, no doubt, is biochemically based, a natural, internal analog to the psychedelic drugs I experimented with during the early 1970s. That said, establishing such a cause-and-effect doesn’t reduce the spiritual event to a biochemical phantom, nor does it relegate the whole episode to some mechanical, materially determined process. To grasp why this is the case, we need to delve into a little bit of Marxism, in particular, Marx’s notion of dialectical materialism.

For Marx, the economic base of society gives rise to a superstructure comprised of society’s legal and political structures, as well as of the “higher ideologies of the art, religion and philosophy of bourgeois society,” as Karl Korsch described it in Marxism and Philosophy. Yet, just because the social superstructure is a product of the economic base does not make it any less real. “[Marx and Engels] always treated ideologies-including philosophy-as concrete realities and not as empty fantasies.” “[I]t is essential for modern dialectical materialism to grasp philosophies and other ideological systems in theory as realities, and to treat them in practice as such.” What’s more, society’s political and ideological superstructure achieves a measure of autonomy to act back upon the economic base to change it, creating a dialectical relationship between the two that defines “bourgeois society as a totality.” Or as Marx himself put it in the Introduction to a Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right: “Theory itself becomes a material force once it takes hold on the masses. Theory is capable of taking hold on the masses … once it becomes radical.”

This clearly distinguishes dialectical materialism from the crude materialism of Newtonian science, in which one billiard ball hits another in a simple linear chain of causality. I’d argue that dialectical materialism is much more akin to the systems and information theories pioneered by Gregory Bateson in the areas of psychology, biology and ecology. But how does dialectical materialism relate to my discussion of personal spiritual experiences?

In contending that mystical moments have a biochemical basis, similar to the endorphin high produced by vigorous exercise, I’m not refuting the reality of these events. No doubt, all individual thought and feeling can be traced back to biochemistry, yet it cannot be denied that these thoughts and feelings frequently have material effects and consequences in that we act on them. In the same way, human interest in and pursuit of spiritual experience spurs activities intended to reproduce and refine those experiences, generating on the one hand spiritual practices like yoga, meditation, chanting, and ecstatic dancing, and on the other hand the practices, institutions and ideologies of organized religion.

This isn’t to repudiate the fact that society’s economic base leaves profound marks on spiritual practice and organized religion, only to assert that the initial impulse for both resides elsewhere. Nor would I be surprised to learn that millennia of spiritual and religious activity, in turn, have acted upon this biochemical substrate to distill and shape it, and that the two have coevolved over time. The great Gothic cathedrals of the Middle Ages, like Notre Dame or Chartre, can be appreciated, in part, as finely tuned machinery incorporating a variety of spiritual technologies designed to induce mystical experiences in the participating individuals. While the triggers for spiritual episodes are often social and cultural then, their impetus is transhistorical, imbedded in that problematic realm known as human nature. The instances of spontaneous, unbidden spiritual awakening, some resulting in the founding of entirely new religions, bear this out. The capacity for mystical experience seems to be hardwired to some degree into most of us, perhaps as a peculiar expression of the wider human pursuit of altered states through drug use, artistic endeavor, SM, asceticism, exercise and sport. The question is, why? What function does it serve?

Marx posited a kind of human nature in asserting that we are social beings, a concept covered by the hotly debated term species being. You can be sure that human sociality and spirituality are keenly related within the context of species being. That there is overlap between spirituality, sexuality and power also goes without saying. The spiritual experience is often described as fiery, capable of reducing all that is false to ash. In its crucible is forged the certainty of individual belief and the unity so necessary for social cohesion. I’m not sure what Marx thought about individual spiritual practice, but his views on the rituals, churches, traditions, theologies and holy wars of organized religion are well known:

The foundation of irreligious criticism is: Man makes religion, religion does not make man. Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness.

Gotta love those dialectics. That religion in bourgeois society serves to delude, comfort and pacify the masses doesn’t tell us much more about the function of the more elemental mystical moment however. Aside from acting as a kind of experiential superglue for personal belief and social unity, there’s another aspect to spiritual episodes that’s worth discussing.

First, let’s talk a little bit about consciousness. Human consciousness arises from a very small number of neural circuits in the brain that monitor the rest of the mind, and the body. Given that consciousness relies on a small percentage of gray matter to function, it cannot possibly be all encompassing, and the scope of human awareness is thus severely limited. With regard to sensory perception, for instance, we are flooded with sensory information all the time, yet our conscious mind is only aware of a small fraction of that information. As an example, our clothing is in constant contact with the skin under it, stimulating our sense of touch over a wide area of our body. We’re not conscious of everywhere our clothing touches our skin though. We feel our clothes only in certain places, particularly when they impinge or restrict us. Therefore, the sensory input from the rest of our skin in contact with our clothes is filtered out of our awareness. Aside from purely biological filters, there are also cultural, social and personal filters that further restrict this torrential sensory flow.

We receive, and process, vast amounts of sensory data on many levels other than the conscious. Aldous Huxley proposed, in The Doors of Perception, that psychedelic drugs temporarily knock out these filters so that we experience heightened sensory impressions, even forms of synesthesia. Whether or not this is the case, the overwhelming influx of sense perception that comes in under the radar of consciousness does have other interesting side effects.

Sometimes, bits and pieces of this unconscious sense data percolate up into an individual’s awareness. The result is a hunch, an intuitive feeling, which cannot be pinned down to anything obvious. When patterns begin to emerge through this process, something quite innocuous can trigger a sudden, epiphanal moment. Then we say “everything fell into place,” “the scales fell from my eyes,” “all was revealed,” and “I saw things as they truly were.”

I’m intentionally using quasi-religious phrasing here in anticipation of my next point. There is a certain category of spiritual experience known as “the road to Damascus” moment, when the mystical episode bowls over the individual and literally changes his or her life. Paul, of the New Testament, had a profound religious awakening on his way to Damascus, and went from being a Jewish persecutor of Christians to a Christian believer. Paul’s personal sense of his place in the scheme of things radically shifted in an instant. Perhaps this kind of spiritual experience is like a hunch on steroids.

What I’m postulating is that certain life-changing mystical incidents act on the deepest levels of human perception, our sense of ourselves and of our place in the universe. None of my spiritual experiences were ever that profound, though I always learned something from them. That all such spiritual moments come permeated with a sense of the supernatural Other, what we interpret as the sacred and the divine and call God, is what gives me pause. Ultimately, it’s why I can’t declare myself an atheist.

BBC-TV did a movie, Longford, about the English aristocrat and prison reformer who became involved with one of Britain’s most notorious criminals, child-killer Myra Hindley. Hindley gets one of the film’s better lines, the implications of which would fill another column. I’ll close on the character Myra’s words. “Evil can be a spiritual experience too.”