The counter-culture of the 1960s produced art and ideas that have remained for half a century embedded in western societies, embedded so casually that how ‘counter’ cultural they really are is questionable considering that it is less counter and more normative. Yet still people, certainly people who lived through that period of ‘exploration‘ & ‘discovery(self?)’ look back to the 1960s with a sense of awe and admiration for those rebels and iconoclasts, the figureheads of the counter-cultural movements. Yet how much admiration do the figureheads of the counter-culture we live with actually deserve? Is it simply a matter of a courageous, adventurous, universally minded generation rising up to challenge the supposedly oppressive beliefs and cultural norms of older generations?
From the outset let me make it clear that it was a broad phenomenon in which many musicians, writers, artists, thinkers are involved merely by association or simply for being around at the time and happened to get caught up in the movement. The Beat poets are an interesting pre-cursor, some of whom went on to be the figurehead-activists behind the movement’s force and core-ideals. One such person was Jewish-American poet Allen Ginsberg. Ginsberg grew up within one of America’s many minority communities in New Jersey to a Marxist mother, whose psychological illnesses and trauma impacted him greatly. In fact Ginsberg spent several months in a psychiatric institution for several months as a young man.
Yet he went on to become one of the most widely read poets of the second half of the 20th century. He like many other poets of the modern period wrote in a free-verse structure without any regard to the formal structures of English poetry that had been the prevalent mode for centuries, furthermore up until the earlier 20th century, competence in pentameter and poetic form was a per-requisite to be even considered for publishing. It was not merely poetic tradition that was to be rebelled against for Ginsberg. Just about every social institution, every tradition and norm needed to be challenged. He along with others he inspired worked tirelessly through music, art and literature to lambast what they saw as old-fashioned and oppressive, any remnant of religious, family-centred world which restricted individual freedoms and whim.
Politics was understood by the counter-culturalists as a self-serving cesspool of corruption out of touch with the ‘common man’ or worse legislating against people’s individual freedoms and desires. The only politics that was worth pursuing was oppositional politics in the streets, demonstrations which could display disenchantment and disdain for policy, the policy-makers and anyone associated with the corrupt ‘establishment‘ or ‘system‘. Ginsberg, a life-long communist did however lobby for reform in his country, he worked for equal legal rights for fellow homosexuals, one of many minority groups in the country who were due to cultural taboos kept their sexuality largely under the radar and had occasionally faced discrimination on a social level.
Ginsberg however campaigned further, not merely for the explicit political/legal recognition of a homosexual minority but for the unrestricted freedom of adults to have sexual relations with children, opposition to which was in his mind, a product of oppressive, old-fashioned obstacles to human freedom such as religion, the state and first and foremost, the family unit. Timothy Leary who like Ginsberg was known for his advocacy of illegal mind-altering psycho-active drugs famously stated ‘don’t trust anyone over thirty’ an ideal intended to appeal to the inherent impulses for creativity and self-discovery present in young adults. Any attachment to their parents, to traditional ways of thinking and living were to be abolished, however persuasively.
The individual was supreme, all else could perish in an instant without a moment’s care, after all the goal was to be care-free, free of responsibility, free of commitment and ultimately free from certainty. The strategy to undermine all the old certainties, all the beliefs and norms of the past was for many counter-culture figureheads to pressure youth directly or indirectly to take illegal drugs to induce altered states, (which in reality was more akin to not thinking at all, to damage a functioning brain) and to sell new exotic, eastern quasi-religions, caricatures of traditional forms of religion found in the Indian Sub-Continent and the Far East.
Freedom was in the counter-cultural view and remains understood firstly as a negatively defined freedom, that is, the freedom to rebel, to oppose, and secondly freedom for the individual, that is to say in contrast and often at the expense of the collective or tribal good. The counter-culture of the 1960s produced an idealism, which has within it some underlying healthy, admirable values such as a questioning of power, a vague pacifism and a sort of open-mindedness, yet how those values are expressed and framed in language, how we, 50 years later project back onto that period that idealism is fraught with insurmountable problems and subjectivity.
The goals however of many counter-cultural figureheads were arrogant, selfish and perverse and it is those seeds that have sprouted more over time than the other seeds, seeds of human respect, trust and decency. What is left is the last generation, in western societies of adults, who worked, lived, and almost always married living among us, they came of age in the 1940s and 1950s when an outlook on life, however flawed, was shared, when the blind desire to rebel, to contradict and to ingratiate had not been fostered by mentally troubled poets and C.I.A operatives.