In their just-released compelling book, That Used to Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back, Thomas Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum acknowledge the important fact that the U.S. went through some sort of sea-change somewhere in the latter part of the 20th century, and it was not a good change.
But they don’t address what caused that change, which is what I’m writing about in this brief series. They operate in the world of typical politics and academia, and not at all in the realms where the change was actually carried out – in the rise of the counterculture and the forces behind it.
The new documentary film about LSD guru Ken Kesey, “The Magic Trip,” serves as a useful inflection point for grasping what really happened.
As for the consequences of the social change, Friedman and Mandelbaum identify it well, if in part. “Somewhere in the last twenty years of baby boomer rule,” they write, “Americans decided to act as if we had a divine right to everything – low energy prices and big cars, higher spending and lower taxes, home ownership and health care, booms without ceilings and busts without massive unemployment – all at a time when the country was waging wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and then Libya. Our sense of entitlement expanded far beyond Social Security and Medicare to encompass…well, everything.”
Underlying the new “sense of entitlement” were the changes in the national ethos launched in the 1950s and 1960s, initiated by pro-McCarthyite elements in the covert U.S. intelligence services, as revealed through testimony and documentation provided in the U.S. Senate’s Church Committee hearings and the Rockefeller Commission report in the mid-1970s.
The self-absorbed, radically anarcho-hedonist “counterculture” was cooked up by these elements, including the mass proliferation of LSD and other drugs on 44 U.S. college campuses, known as Operation MK-Ultra. The “counterculture” project elevated the East Village Beatnik culture to exemplary, superstar status among susceptible college students.
The goal was to knock the civil rights and other progressive movements off track, substituting for a morally-grounded public, fresh from defeating genocidal tyranny in World War II, a selfish, self-centered, “consumerist” one. East Villagers combined with the Madison Avenue marketeers and credit cards, and the “selfishness” offensive targeted the “baby boomer” generation.
This succeeded as by the 1970s, known as the “me decade,” the groundwork was laid for the unbridled greed and “might makes right” values of the Reagan revolution. By 1988, Gordon Gecco’s greed speech in the movie, “Wall Street,” had supplanted Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech of 1963 as the nation’s clarion call.
The “Rosetta stone” for unraveling this lies in philosophies.
On the one hand, there is the long tradition of humanitarian and scientific values, dating to Plato, that was the bedrock of the American revolution and our democratic system. It peaked with the U.S.’s generosity following World War II, funding the Marshall Plan in Europe and the reconstruction of Japan, and the promotion of the United Nations and its “International Declaration of the Rights of Man.”
On the other hand, there is the tradition of the cynics and anarchists, the purveyors of greed and superstition, who developed systems of thought in the 19th century to undermine emerging democracies and the empowerment of the working man. Their tool was an appeal to paranoid “each versus all” thinking, radical individualism and hedonism. Nietzsche, existentialism, anarchism and “social Darwinism” were the resources, and in Europe, this translated into fascism.
This latter current was dumped into the U.S. counterculture of the 1950s and 1960s, and its targeted enemy was American humanitarian generosity of spirit.
CIA tool Ken Kesey was a major force behind the 1967 San Francisco “Summer of Love” project, and the counterculture’s heavy-handed promotion of “sex, drugs and rock and roll.” His and Timothy Leary’s efforts were complemented by the work of shady (as in covert intelligence-backed) entities like the Esalen Institute and the mushrooming of counterculture organizations, techniques and cults, most documented in Marilyn Ferguson’s comprehensive 1980 book, The Aquarian Conpiracy, written from a pro-counterculture perspective.