Bringing it All Back Home II: Mapping Cultural Waves

13 Apr

This post contains part XII (the final chapter!) of my senior capstone paper, Speed Limits: The Formation, Dissemination, and Dissolution of the Counterculture in American Literature 1951-1972. Click here to view a full list of works cited. Click here to view all sections of the paper.

A protester tries out flower power at an anti-war protest at the Pentagon, 1967. Image from wikipedia.com

A protester harnesses flower power at an anti-war protest at the Pentagon, 1967.
Image from wikipedia.com


There are lessons to be learned from the ultimate demise of the counterculture, precipitated by its constant push to extremity and its marginalization of moderate voices in favor of calls for radical social change. By constantly pushing boundaries in search of IT, those seeking an authentic, meaningful way of life fell victim to the same material excess they had tried to avoid. Although Kimball characterizes sex, drugs, and rock & roll as the counterculture’s “chief weapons against the obligations of traditional culture,” they were merely a symptom of a middle-class rebellion against its own limited existence (Kimball 7). Even by pushing social boundaries, counterculturalists found that they could not avoid the obligations of traditional culture for very long. When striving for social or political change, it is important to remember the value of diverse (even conflicting) opinions and of freedom tempered by moderation. The counterculture’s failure to achieve many of its political goals illustrates the dangers of polarizing rhetoric and extremity.

The American political climate is often compared to a pendulum, swinging left to right over time. The period after WWII represented a monumental swing to the left—in social attitudes more than the political establishment. The reasons for political failure are obvious; Suri notes the irony of the fact that “the political moderation that supported stability and prosperity came under attack for its very moderation” (Suri 53). As the counterculture movement migrated from Beat coffee shops to massive street demonstrations, violence became an increasingly frequent component of demands for domestic social change and peace abroad (case in point: the Weather Underground). Suri notes that countercultural groups in the early 1970s “treated violence as a means for proving cultural authenticity in an international environment filled with lies” (60). And yet it seems that moderation won out in the end; “countercultural disorder created a perceived ‘emergency’” to the point where citizens were easily galvanized to react against this disorder by any political party promising “law and order” (62). The militarization of the counterculture is an example of what happens when the political pendulum reaches the limits of its leftward shift, precipitating a rightward swing. The attempt at authentic experience that began with speed, grass, and jazz in the 1950s snowballed into overindulgent drug use and violent protests during the 1960s. This contributed to a loss of faith in the movement in the eyes of mainstream America—who had taken much culturally from this movement, only to betray its values ultimately in favor of its own security.

I, like Kurt Vonnegut before me, hasten to claim that “the American atmosphere isn’t really that terrifying” (Vonnegut 94); the countercultural wave in post-WWII America is not to be taken as a failure of the American Dream, but rather as an illustration of how social change can realistically be achieved not through extreme alienation, but through the balance of opposing views. “I believe that man is changing. . . in a radical basic way,” Kesey spoke at the Acid Test Graduation, “The waves are building, and every time they build, they’re stronger. Our concept of reality is changing” (Wolfe 395). Kesey had risen as a star in the countercultural community, embracing the Beat concept of IT and finding ways to spread what he saw as a message of enlightenment, only to be demonized by the movement he helped create because his own political pendulum had begun to swing back from its most extreme trajectory. Unfortunately, his visions of a life “beyond acid” came too late, leaving a once-hopeful generation in a state of fear and (self-)loathing (“WE BLEW IT!”).

While reviewing Thompson’s Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail  in 1973, Vonnegut claimed that Thompson and other New Journalists “believe that it is easy and natural for Americans to be brotherly and just” and that any transgression from that illusion, “if it is an illusion […] is perceived as a wound or sickness” (Vonnegut 94). History has shown, however, that brotherly love and justice do not come naturally, even in democratic societies. America’s struggle toward social progress has been long, painful, and ongoing—though no century saw as much improvement in civil rights as the 20th, much of this due to those on the political left, including countercultural activists. So though Vonnegut coined the term “Hunter Thompson’s disease” to describe those who “feel that Americans can be as easily led to beauty as to ugliness, to truth as to public relations, to joy as to bitterness,” he admits that this is only a temporary condition for most (94). To overcome this despair, one must employ a sense of perspective—both historical and cultural—and to learn from the mistakes of extremities past.

Cultural waves come and go. Through all his bitterness, Thompson carries with him the memory of “a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning […] We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave. . . .” (Thompson 68). That momentum was very real, and very powerful. It is crucial to examine the formation, movement, and eventual decay of these cultural waves in hopes of finding more effective waves of harnessing their energy to create meaningful social change.

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4 Responses to “Bringing it All Back Home II: Mapping Cultural Waves”

  1. Tom April 15, 2013 at 8:30 pm #

    Hi Emily,

    I found a link to this blog via Reddit, and I’m really glad I did. You’ve elegantly constructed a path through three of my favourite books, and I thoroughly enjoyed your analysis. This last article has been my favourite, and I hope that these ideas and this awareness will help to shape the next ‘wave’.

    Cheers,
    Tom.

    • emkaydoubleyou April 15, 2013 at 8:45 pm #

      Thank you for reading, and thank you for your kind words, Tom. When I first read these three books, I couldn’t help but connect them in my mind. I’m glad the connections clicked for you, too!

  2. Graham Rae August 3, 2013 at 12:31 pm #

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading all of the pages here about these three epochal works. You made some excellent connections that had never occurred to me before. Well done, and thank you for posting this work.

    • emkaydoubleyou August 4, 2013 at 11:31 am #

      Thank you so much for reading. I appreciate the feedback!

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