IS THE COUNTERCULTURE
WHEN WE NEED IT?
The other day I got a call from
a student working on a college paper about Coffee 'n Confusion,
a Washington coffeehouse the local police had tried to close
down in the late 1950s as an offense against the community's
welfare. I had covered the story as a radio reporter and still
had the tape of Texas lawyer Harvey Rosenberg's magnificent plea
for unfettered artistic expression:
"We have been accused
of a cultural dearth in the United States. Wherever you go in
Europe they talk about the cultural lag. Personally, I must admit
that I have very little knowledge of poetry, or the bohemian
atmosphere that is found in Coffee n Confusion. But I have been
informed by personages who have visited Paris that this is the
way that numerous writers and poets who have reached the French
scene, and are recognized as outstanding authors and poets, began
their struggle in the artistic world.
"There must be some
area where people can get together and present their views, whether
it be on art, politics, chess or women. We have in the fair city
of Washington a number of emporiums dedicated to the latter search.
We have in Washington a number of emporiums dedicated to the
search for art in the sense of the Mellon Gallery. but we have
no place where the poet may congregate and present his work .
In Philadelphia, police official
Frank Rizzo didn't have to face such legal eloquence and managed
to close down three or four similar establishments. This success,
combined with later convincing the mob to do their murders anywhere
but in his district, helped Rizzo eventually to become mayor.
But during a time when history insists
nothing was happening in America there were still about 1,000
coffee houses across the country catering to the quietly alienated
and gently rebellious with poetry, guitars and bongo drums. It
would turn out later that the 1950s had been the sleeper cells
of the 1960s.
But why was there so much counter-movement
in the 1950s - including coffee houses, cool jazz, the civil
rights drive, existentialism, and the beats - and so little today?
Why, at a time when the country is more bitterly divided and
more overflowing with alienation than at any moment in modern
history is so little of the angst expressed in alternative action,
culture or community rather than largely in criticism, complaints,
protests, depression and despair? Where is the counterculture
when we need it?
To be sure, elements can be found
on a localized, random, or individual scale. Temporary autonomous
zones, in Hakim Bey's fine phrase, exist across our land - from
persistent strains of rebellion of the west coast to smaller
and more fragile manifestations such as the Ugly Fishermen, a
book club I visited the other night comprised largely of former
peace corps volunteers in their 20s and 30s that was stocked
with more conviction, consciousness and thoughtful self-examination
than I ordinarily encounter in a whole month. There are also
punk musicians, alternative agronomists, utopian urbanists, struggling
ministers, stubborn social workers and others whose lack of mention
here merely supports my point: although they share courage and
conceptions, attitudes and ideals, we don't think of them as
one, but only as lonely candles in the dark. And it is easy to
forget they are even there.
Some, mainly younger Americans,
have told me that a counter-culture is too much to expect. Every
promising rebellion in our society these days quickly becomes
commodified and corporatized. Certainly the road between Stonewall
and Queer Eye has become stunningly short. MTV and record companies
have stolen whole age cohorts for their rapacious purposes and
Starbucks has even made the word coffeehouse suspect.
This is all true enough, but as
one who has spent a lifetime of rebellious non-respectability
without even a hint of cooptation on the horizon, there seems
to be more to the vacuum of cultural alternatives than just the
manipulative mischief of corporate marketers.
For example, part of the problem
appears to be an unconscious acceptance of behaviors and ways
of thought promulgated by the very forces one wishes to overcome.
Big business, big bureaucracy, and big everything else have brought
with them a language and routine as well as a faux logic that
is semi-autistic in its inability to relate facts, principles
and theories to the social ecology in which they exist. We know
logically what is wrong and what needs to be done but limit ourselves
to the rigid and unresponsive tools and rules of large rigid
and unresponsive organizations.
It is what John McKnight noted over
a decade ago in describing the difference between institutions
"The structure of
institutions is a design established to create control of people.
On the other hand, the structure of associations is the result
of people acting through consent. . . You will know that you
are in a community if you often hear laughter and singing. You
will know you are in an institution, corporation, or bureaucracy
if you hear the silence of long halls and reasoned meetings."
I don't go to as many activist meetings
any more in part because the laughter and singing has largely
disappeared. No more standing in a church holding hands and singing
20 choruses of "We Shall Overcome" because the SNCC
speaker hasn't shown up yet. No more interrupting city council
meetings with musical parodies celebrating the cause at hand.
Instead, an agenda posted on the whiteboard indicates by the
minute what is to be accomplished with only six at the end devoted
to the cause that brought you there in the first place. And that
at a Green Party meeting.
I mentioned this problem to a national
figure in the Greens and he explained that the party had become
leery of things seen as idiosyncratic, tired of being made fun
of for being different and so, for example, hands wiggled in
the air as an alternative to applause was on its way out as the
Greens tried hard not to act and look too much like Greens.
This started years ago. As far back
as the 1970s, activists in Washington were making their organizations
appear more like traditional lobbying groups and dressing to
match. Gone were the days when Ralph Nader was the only progressive
in town who wore a suit and his was never pressed.
Today, the trend has expanded into
what might be called corporatized activism, in which the iconic
goals are admirably progressive but the means of achieving them
virtually indistinguishable from how those being fought would
The virtues of democracy are constantly
praised but the responsibilities of the targets of this enthusiasm
are largely limited to signing things - letters, petitions and
checks - while the practitioners have replaced the rally and
the caucus with the self-addressed return envelope. It is not
that Move On or Rock the Vote are wrong; it is just that they
are merely marketing strategies and not movements.
There is a similar problem with
segments of the alternative media. For example, the so-called
alternative weeklies are anything but. With sadly few exceptions
they foster a compliant corpacool culture in which hipness is
defined by one's purchases; dissent is limited to critiques of
style, activism is something you do at the gym, and politics
the last refuge of the hopelessly dull.
It is a well kept secret that many
of the articles in such publications are not meant so much for
the reader as for the clip file for when the authors abandon
their alternatives ways in favor of employment by more upscale
Neither has the Internet, all its
virtues notwithstanding, proved particularly effective at building
an effective counterculture save for the part-child part-adult
world of toys and trends inhabited by the techno-nerd. I'm just
not confident that when the revolution comes it will need a grenade
shaped like a Pac Man or a MP3 player stuffed into a Pez container.
As for politics and news, one gets
the sense hanging around the Web that many people come there
not so much for information as for confirmation. With the natural
atomization that such a truly free press produces there also
seems to be a strong bias towards the journalistically evangelical.
I do not say this with any clear
conscience. After all, criticism is to the journalist as heroin
is to the hood. It's a lot more fun to write about what's wrong
with the right than to try to get labor and Democrats and Greens
and Naderites all working together, or figuring out what the
waiting room of utopia should look like, or discovering how to
make rebellion a community as well as a cause.
But I also feel the vacuum, the
loneliness, the silence, the dehydration of the soul as people
who want desperately to save our Constitution, country, and planet
still wander the streets without even knowing how to say hi to
Perhaps that's how it could begin,
nothing more complicated than a new peace sign or maybe a sort
of high five that salutes the decent and the democratic. Or perhaps
a song to which we can all nod in agreement. Or perhaps new special
places we can meet in order to - as C.S. Lewis put it - discover
that we are not alone.
If we think of our rebellion as
only a means of destroying the evil around us we will go down
with that evil. We must not only bring an end to the wrong but
give birth to the good, the community, the culture and the values
that will replace it. We can't wait for the former to begin the
latter. And if we do, we will have failed.