Friday, August 11, 2017

But Of Course! Blame It On the '60s

Not that it matters all that much these days, but I haven't been so annoyed by such a wrongheaded and overreaching piece in a long time as by Kurt Andersen's opus in the Atlantic, "How America Lost Its Mind."

It's frustrating because the piece makes a case--an easy-to-make case--that the minds of some Americans are conspicuously untethered to reality, and that this has political consequences.  But his analysis why this is happening right now is either glibly nebulous and unconvincingly supported or just oversimplified to the point that it's simply wrong. The question of "How America Lost Its Mind" is therefore in reality unanswered.

It really goes off the rails when he attributes much of the phenomenon to that grand bugaboo of our time, the 1960s.  Of course!  Why be original when you can be popular? He tries to lend his thesis credence by noting that he was a child then.  Well, I was a young adult at the end of the decade, and I saw things a lot differently.

I don't deny that some of what we are seeing now constitute perversions of cultural phenomena of the 60s, but not only of the 60s or after. The '60s also did not invent ignorance and isolated cultural myths.  He does mention some of this history, but always we come back to the 60s.  In many ways the 60s are just a target of convenience, not to mention a right wing bugaboo popularized by Newt Gingrich in the early 90s, that still plays well in certain quarters today.

Nobody denies there were excesses in the 60s.  But there were reasons for those excesses.  What happened in the 60s relating to conventional wisdom didn't happen all on its own. Much of it was in reaction to the failures and limitations of the conventional wisdom, and the fact that these failures were causing real harm, from stultified and despairing lives, to dead Americans and Vietnamese.  As well as threatening the planet with the thermonuclear logic of the Cold War.

In fact the major critique made in the 1960s was: underneath this mask of rationality, America is already insane.  If America lost its mind, it was already gone by the premier of Doctor Strangelove.

Andersen writes that the 60s fostered crazy conspiracy theories, and anti-science attitudes.  He mixes politics and New Age assertions as the reasons.

But let's separate a few things.  First, conspiracy theories of any kind did not begin in the 1960s.  Nor did the belief in UFOs, etc.

Second, let's remember the political situation.  The critique against the Vietnam War was begun, not by ideologues or conspiracy theorists, but by scholars.  The teach-ins of the mid-60s showed how the conventional wisdom in Washington was wrong about history, geopolitics and warfare in Asia.  They also asserted a different set of values and moral calculations, but their point was: the conventional wisdom was wrong.

Later in the 60s it was asserted, documented and proven that in addition to being wrong, those in charge of the conventional wisdom about Vietnam were lying.  There was in fact a conspiracy to keep facts from the American people.

Also, among the "conspiracies" that protestors talked about were that anti-war groups were being infiltrated by government agents and government provocateurs, and that lots of people were being monitored for their anti-war activity.  All of that turned out to be true.  Just as the later conspiracy 1970s theory that there was an organized coverup of ongoing authoritarian crimes in the White House.

Or the 1950s conspiracy theory that there is a military-industrial complex that perpetuates a certain conventional wisdom in foreign and domestic policy.  I believe that was started by that noted nutcake conspiracy theorist, Dwight David Eisenhower.

Anderson apparently sees the roots of today's anti-science crowd in the New Age movement, tracing it all to the Esalen Institute.  And the justification for believing anything counter to science is the fault of the 60s philosophy: "Do your own thing, find your own reality, it’s all relative." 

Anderson appears to have no idea of the meaning of those phrases in their contexts.  Breaking out of the strictures of convention, not settling for mind-numbing, soul-destroying conventional careers, especially those that were actively destructive, and not being afraid to live creatively,  were the references.  "It's all relative" and reality as a construct were philosophical--and scientific-- statements about the nature of reality.

Yes, it was about questioning authority.  It was fundamentally about questioning authority.  Which science is supposed to do, but not only science.

The excesses of New Age thinking (which didn't get formalized by that name until the 70s) have been individually critiqued, often by prominent participants of the time.  But Esalen was also home to Gregory Bateson (author of Steps To An Ecology of Mind and Mind and Nature) and others who developed concepts crucial to systems thinking and cybernetics, as well as ecology.

Exploring relationships of mind and nature, science and spirituality, the individual and society, fact and value, and well as bravely exploring areas that may yet find a place in explaining reality, remain relevant.  As messy and goofy as some of those explorations may have been in the 60s.  (At least we had some fun.  Maybe that's behind all this.  We had too much fun.  Well, don't worry.  We also had a lot of pain.)

Some of those "unscientific" explorations are, fifty years later, accepted within the body of science. Esalen developed or introduced therapies that explored mind/body connections, and the application of nonwestern practices such as yoga, that are part of holistic medicine as practiced today, including by certified physicians who integrate it into their conventional medicine practice.

Even some of the apparent excesses Anderson "exposes," like R.D. Laing's approach to mental illness, were responses to the corruption of the conventional treatments of the day, yielding insights that today are themselves conventional.

Lynn Margulis, a hero of science who
questioned conventional evolutionary
science--and won.
And that's really the problem that pieces like this share with others that try to explain the origins of today's attitudes towards certain scientific findings.  They tend to be all or nothing, either/or.  Either you adhere to the conventional wisdom on evolution, say, or you must be an anti-science creationist.

Or in another common formula, you must accept all conventional conclusions--extremely well-founded ones based on years of results taking numerous approaches such as climate change--as well as others that are more narrow, and dubiously aligned with corporate interests--or you are anti-science.

  Or the big one: if you believe that science may not be up to explaining everything about reality, then you are an anti-science bigot.

There are people who are anti-science, at least in one area or another (they don't "believe" in evolution but accept medical science) and then there are people who don't believe in bad science.  The 60s revolted against inadequate narrowness in the conventional scientific wisdom of the day--and there is always very powerful conventional scientific wisdom.

Some of what people in the 60s came up with remains fringe if not disproven, but other ideas have become quite respectable.  It used to be believed that people couldn't intentionally change body states or brain activity.  Now the results of brain scans on Buddhist monks in deep meditation have proven they can.  Again, mind/body relationships are now part of medical practice.  Much of what today is called preventive medicine was dismissed by scientists back then.  Maybe even called pseudoscience and New Age anti-scientific drug-addled hippie nonsense.

Others aspects of Anderson's piece are equally maddening, as in the 60s elevation of fantasy (without the context of its cultural critique, and suggesting that it implied no operational difference between fantasy and reality) as the reason that fantasy movies and television are so prevalent, and so many people are deeply involved in those worlds.

Well, people have been deeply involved in fantasies, and at some level believed them to be true, for not just fifty years but thousands of years. The history of drama, from myths chanted around the winter fire to medieval mystery plays and so on, all suggest such involvement is hardly new.

 Story-telling is a human cultural expression and product, with all kinds of functions.  Quite a few cultural observers explore why fantasies are prevalent, and why particular fantasies are prevalent at a given time. It's an entertaining and at times enlightening game.  I play it myself.  But it requires a less blunt instrument than this piece brings to bear.

We might suggest, for example, one reason for the prevalence of fantasy stories might be the novelty of how they are told, especially the special effects and the relationship to gaming, social media and fandom.

Moreover, many of these fantasies inevitably explore reality through metaphor or character, as stories and especially myth always do, if only in the responses of some of their readers or audience.  They may be as much an escape from the noise of the moment into the nub of reality, or at least other possibilities, as an escape from reality itself.

Anderson makes other remarks about the 60s that also miss the mark.  He skeptically critiques The Greening of America (a 1970s best seller) as if what he has to say is a revisionist expose, when in fact that book was largely laughed at in media of the time, particularly in the alternative press.

 I hope that future writers looking for a cultural fall guy will restrain themselves from choosing the popular target of the 1960s.  But I'm not counting on it.

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