“We risk being the first people in history to have been able to make their illusions so vivid, so persuasive, so ‘realistic’ that they can live in them.”
—DANIEL BOORSTIN, The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America (1961)
“If there is something comforting—religious, if you want—about paranoia, there is still also anti-paranoia, where nothing is connected to anything, a condition not many of us can bear for long.”
—THOMAS PYNCHON, Gravity’s Rainbow (1973)
FOR MORE THAN A CENTURY, Woodstock, New York, has been a place where artists, utopians, and bohemians have settled. It was a town, a New York Times article explained in 1932, where “everybody takes art very seriously.” As soon as he made a couple of records, Bob Dylan moved there. It became hugely famous in 1969, of course, when four hundred thousand young people attended the Woodstock Festival, even though that took place sixty miles away. By the following year, the Woodstock Generation was an all-purpose term for American youth. As a college freshman in 1973, I went to the town of Woodstock to visit my older brother, a rock musician who’d moved there from the Midwest with his band because…Woodstock.
One Saturday four decades later I went again, invited to give a talk about the 1960s. Most of the audience that morning consisted of people older than me who probably still thought of themselves as members of the Woodstock Generation. During the question and answer session, a bearded man with white hair pleadingly asked why, did I suppose, had the revolution they’d imagined been won in so many social and cultural zones—civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights, ecology, sex, drugs, rock ’n’ roll, natural foods and medicine, millions of old guys like him wearing jeans and long hair—but lost in the economic realm, with free-market ideas victorious?
There was a long pause. People nodded and shrugged and sighed.
I had an epiphany, which I offered, bumming out everyone in the room. What has happened politically, economically, culturally, and socially in America since the sea change of the 1960s and early ’70s, I realized and haltingly explained, isn’t really so contradictory or incongruous. It’s all of a piece, for better and for worse.
Our Woodstock-branded popular understanding of what grew out of the 1960s is selective, cherry-picked to please and flatter one side and appall the other. People on the left “still swear by the values of the ’60s,” Charles Reich, author of The Greening of America, recently said. They focus only on the 1960s legacies of freedom that they define as progress. And people on the political and cultural right still demonize the decade from around 1963 to 1973 as the source of everything they loathe.
In fact, what the left and right respectively love and hate are mostly flip sides of the same coins minted around 1967. All the ideas we call countercultural barged onto the cultural main stage in the 1960s and ’70s, it’s true, but what we don’t really register is that so did extreme Christianity, full-blown conspiracism, libertarianism, unembarrassed greed, and more. Anything goes meant anything went.
A kind of unspoken grand bargain was forged between the anti-Establishment and the Establishment. Going forward, individuals would be permitted as never before to indulge their self-expressive and hedonistic impulses. But capitalists in return would be unshackled as well, free to indulge their own animal spirits with fewer and fewer fetters in the forms of regulation, taxes, or social opprobrium. “Do your own thing” has a lot in common with “Every man for himself.” If it feels good, do it: for some that will mean smoking weed and watching porn—and for others, opposing modest gun regulation and paying yourself four hundred times what you pay your employees.
Legal equality definitely advanced in the 1960s. But beyond that expansion of equality, outside the statute books, was another more fundamental piece of Americanism: every individual became freer to be or believe whatever he or she wished. The idea that finally eclipsed all competing ideas was a notion of individualism that was as old as America itself, liberty and the pursuit of happiness unbound: Believe the dream, mistrust authority, do your own thing, find your own truth. In America from the late 1960s on, equality came to mean not just that the law should treat everyone identically but that your beliefs about anything are equally as true as anyone else’s. As the principle of absolute tolerance became axiomatic in our culture and internalized as part of our psychology—What I believe is true because I want and feel it to be true—individualism turned into rampant solipsism.
This is something of a conservative view, but in a sense that conservative is seldom used these days. The 1960s enabled a deep and broad believe-anything-you-want ethos that has powered the political right more than the left—and that extends way beyond politics. The 1960s gave license to everyone in America to let their freak flags fly—superselfish Ayn Randians as well as New Age shamans; fundamentalists and evangelicals and charismatics; Scientologists, homeopaths, spiritual cultists, and academic relativists; left-wing and right-wing conspiracists; war reenactors and those abducted by Satan or extraterrestrials; compulsive pornhounds and gamblers and gun-lovers. Do your own thing. Our epistemological and ontological levees were blasted apart and never repaired thereafter. Mistrust authority. Nonfiction fantasies were no longer held back or filtered out from the mainstream as they used to be. Find your own truth. Henceforth reality will be whatever you—you inviolate individual, you empowered American, you priest of your own religion, you author of your own story—wish it to be.
More citizens than ever of a nation constructed on almost-anything-goes Enlightenment principles, having been shaped by centuries of peculiar American conditions—our follow-the-dream inception, our Protestant mental habits, our extreme populism and individualism and subjectivity, our sheer space—rejected the claims of reason and rationality once and for all.
At midcentury, reason had seemed to be triumphing in its long global post-Enlightenment competition with magical thinking. Modernizing cultures, it seemed, were steadily and irreversibly abandoning beliefs in the supernatural and the otherwise impossible. The Sacred Canopy, a 1967 book by one of the most esteemed sociologists of religion, affirmed the intellectual consensus as far as religion went. After Western religion paved the way for modernity, advanced modernity was now finally killing off religion. “Christianity,” he wrote, “has been its own gravedigger.”
But not in America, where the Protestant fires still burned brightly. And even for people who found themselves unable to believe the biblical tales (or associated fan fiction), there were suddenly new, additional ways to fill the post-God fantasy gap. The dreams of freedom and abundance in modern America include an unprecedented abundance of choice. And so in the 1960s, several disparate countercultures—left, right, and apolitical, high and low, variously eager to embrace the irrational, to reenchant the world, to believe in underlying and overarching master plans—launched their counterattacks on multiple fronts, battling America’s rationalist fortresses as well as one another. And most of them won, or at least grew large and did not lose.
I DON’T REGRET OR DISAPPROVE of many of the ways the 1960s permanently reordered American society and culture. It’s just that along with the familiar benefits, there have been unreckoned costs.
I was two months shy of my seventeenth birthday the first time I took a psychedelic drug, mescaline, with one of my older sisters and two of her girlfriends. At some point, the girlfriends, both very pretty, took off their clothes and remained naked for hours, which was awesome. Over the course of the night, I had the kinds of holy-moly insights and hallucinations one is supposed to have—thermostats have a kind of consciousness, every living thing on Earth is connected, and so on. In the morning, I sweatily, happily walked home alone. In front of one house was a white plaster statue of the Virgin Mary. As I looked at it, she seemed to come alive for a second or two, gripping her gown and turning forty-five degrees—a sort of quick, sweet curtsy of acknowledgment. Never again did I have a drug hallucination so religiously specific. Yet not even later that day did I consider my vision of Mary a miraculous message from God, in whom I continued to have no real belief.
During the rest of high school and the first couple of years of college I took LSD maybe a dozen times. Once I thought I had telekinetically made the family cat vomit, another time that I’d willed pedestrians seven floors below me to drop their umbrellas repeatedly. Whenever the drug wore off, I always knew the supernatural episodes had been hallucinations, but the hundred flittering illusions and intuitions of the acid trips did change me, softened my brittle adolescent certainties, twigged me to the precariousness of perception and the accessibility of the mystical.
I grew my hair long, read Alan Watts, learned Transcendental Meditation, read and reread a giant paperback called The Movement Toward a New America: The Beginnings of a Long Revolution (A Collage)—A What? A few friends and I bought an old school bus that we drove down to Mexico and then up to Las Vegas (where some of us dropped acid) and to Disneyland (where some more of us did) and Big Sur. In college, I thought only pawns and automatons scrupled to attend every class.
The hundreds of older Beats begat thousands of beatniks. But in the 1960s and ’70s, the whole baby boom generation came of age. Suddenly America had more teenagers than ever before, and a much larger fraction of young people living together on college campuses, plus prosperity, mass media reflecting the new youthquake back to the youth, and an escalating war that teenagers were drafted to fight.*1 The American bohemian idea could roll out and cross over and scale, from the angsty Beat beta version to the 1960s mass-market viral app fully compatible with the ever-expanding fantasy-industrial complex.
IN 1962 PEOPLE started referring to “hippies,” the Beatles had their first hit, Ken Kesey published One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and the Harvard psychology teacher Timothy Leary was handing out psilocybin and LSD to students. And three hours south of San Francisco, on the heavenly stretch of coastal cliffs known as Big Sur, a pair of young Stanford psychology graduates, one of them pals with Kerouac and Ginsberg, founded a school and think tank they named after a tiny Indian tribe that had lived on the grounds long before.
“In 1968,” one of its founding figures recalled four decades later,
Esalen was the center of the cyclone of the youth rebellion. It was one of the central places, like Mecca for the Islamic culture. Esalen was a pilgrimage center for hundreds and thousands of youth interested in some sense of transcendence, breakthrough consciousness, LSD, the sexual revolution, encounter, being sensitive, finding your body, yoga—all of these things were at first filtered into the culture through Esalen. By 1966, ’67 and ’68, Esalen was making a world impact. At that time, many people came here looking for…the golden elixir.
This is not overstatement. Essentially everything that became known by the 1970s as New Age was invented, developed, or popularized at the Esalen Institute. Esalen is a mother church of a new American religion for people who think they don’t like churches or religions but who still want to believe in the supernatural. And who, like Anne Hutchinson in Boston in 1636 and the revivalists at Cane Ridge in 1801 and the Pentecostals in Los Angeles in 1906, want their beliefs affirmed by ecstatically feeling and experiencing the divine spirit. “It is a place,” Esalen’s website declares today, “where miracles not only happen, but where they happen all the time.”
Esalen developed and popularized a wholesale reinvention of psychology and medicine and philosophy driven by a suspicion of science and reason and an embrace of magical thinking (also massage, hot baths, sex, and sex in hot baths). Esalen was a headquarters for a new religion of no religion, as they came to say, and of “science” containing next to no science. The idea was to be radically tolerant and undiscriminating of therapeutic schemes and understandings of reality, especially if they came from Asian or Native American or other shamanistic traditions. Invisible energies, past lives, astral projection, whatever—the more exotic and wondrous and unfalsifiable the better.
The psychotherapist Fritz Perls, a German protégé and former patient of Wilhelm Reich’s, had moved to the United States after the war and, as the 1960s began, to California and Esalen. As an alternative to psychiatry’s dominant Freudian mode—talking, recalling events, analysis—he and his wife had developed “Gestalt therapy.” Perls’s approach was to focus entirely on patients’ perceptions, without judging. At Esalen, Perls distilled his approach into four sentences, the famous Gestalt prayer:
I do my thing and you do your thing. I am not in this world to live up to your expectations, and you are not in this world to live up to mine. You are you, and I am I, and if by chance we find each other, it’s beautiful. If not, it can’t be helped.*2
Fine. Except that in America, which began on a slippery slope of subjectivity, this new creed helped accelerate the giant slalom toward a concoct-your-own-truth culture and society.
Not long before Esalen was founded, the main cofounder suffered a mental breakdown and was involuntarily admitted to a private psychiatric hospital, where he spent a year. His new institute embraced the radical notion that psychosis and other mental illnesses were labels imposed by the straight world on eccentrics and visionaries, that they were primarily tools of coercion and control, not legitimate medical conditions at all. This was the big idea behind Ken Kesey’s bestselling novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, of course. (In the summer of 1964, one stop on his legendary transcontinental ur-hippie bus tour was Esalen, where he conducted a workshop called “A Trip with Ken Kesey.”)
And within the psychiatric profession itself, this idea had two influential proponents, who both published unorthodox manifestos at the beginning of the decade—R. D. Laing (The Divided Self: An Existential Study in Sanity and Madness) and Thomas Szasz (The Myth of Mental Illness). “Madness,” Laing wrote when Esalen was new, “is potentially liberation and renewal.” Psychosis and schizophrenia are a “potentially natural process that we do not allow to happen,” “an initiation ceremonial,” and a “natural way of healing our appalling state of alienation called normality.” The Esalen founders were big Laing fans, and the institute became a hotbed for the idea that madness was just an alternative and often superior way of perceiving reality.
These influential early critiques by the left-wing Laing, the libertarian Szasz, and the left-wing libertarians at Esalen had some bad consequences. Szasz opposed any involuntary psychiatric intervention and, along with the Cuckoo’s Nest portrayal, paved the way for the disastrous dismantling of U.S. mental health facilities. But more generally they helped make popular and respectable the idea that much of science is a sinister scheme concocted by a despotic conspiracy to oppress the people. Mental illness, both Szasz and Laing said, is “a theory not a fact”—now the universal bottom-line argument for anyone, from creationists to climate change deniers to antivaccine hysterics, who prefer to disregard science in favor of their own beliefs. The Esalen elder who called it the center of the youth rebellion cyclone has also said that its founders “gave refuge to the craziest characters in the Sixties,” and during the 1970s “in rushed a bunch of charlatans promoting messianic cult visions.”
Esalen was the main headwaters, but big-time non-Christian American magical thinking had other sources. Among the most important and least known is Jane Roberts. Like Scientology’s founder, she’d been an author of sci-fi and fantasy fiction before she began claiming her fictions were real. After moving to western New York State, Roberts had an epiphany in 1963—“a fantastic avalanche of radical, new ideas burst into my head with tremendous force….It was as if the physical world were really tissue-paper-thin, hiding infinite dimensions of reality, and I was flung through the tissue paper with a huge ripping sound.” Using a Ouija board, she discovered a supernatural being called Seth, whose words she believed she spoke and her husband transcribed—channeling divine revelations at the south end of the Finger Lakes as Joseph Smith and the ghost-communicating Fox sisters had done a century earlier at the north end. “What we see in our lives,” she reported, “is the physical picture of what we have been thinking, feeling and believing.” In other words, You create your own reality—which would become one of the central tenets of New Age theology. The author of the several books she subsequently published, she said, was actually Seth. Roberts’s prose is prototypical New Age–speak—physics-derived pseudoscience, hand-waving about consciousness, sneering at empirical reality. “The selves we know in normal life,” she wrote in one of the books,
are only the three-dimensional actualizations of other source-selves from which we receive our energy and life. Their reality can’t be contained in the framework of our creature-hood, though it is being constantly translated through our present individuality….
Seth’s books may be the product of another dimensional aspect of my own consciousness not focused in this reality, plus something else that is untranslatable in our terms, with Seth a great psychic creation more real than any “fact.”
YOU KNOW HOW young people always think the universe revolves around them, as if they’re the only ones who really get it? And how before their frontal lobes, the neural seat of reason and rationality, are fully wired, they can be especially prone to fantasy? In the 1960s the universe cooperated and did seem to revolve around young people, affirming their adolescent self-regard, making their fantasies of importance real and their fantasies of instant transformation and easy revolution feel plausible. Practically overnight, America turned its full attention to the young and everything they believed and imagined and wished.
If 1962 was when the Sixties got going, 1969 was the year the new doctrines and their gravity were really cataloged by the grown-ups. Reason and rationality were over. The countercultural effusions were freaking out the old guard, including religious people who couldn’t quite see that yet another Great Awakening was under way, heaving up a new religion with its priesthood of all believers, people “who have no option but to follow the road until they reach the Holy City…that lies beyond the technocracy…the New Jerusalem.”
That line is from The Making of a Counter Culture: Reflections on the Technocratic Society and Its Youthful Opposition, published three weeks after the Woodstock Festival in 1969. Its author was Theodore Roszak, age thirty-five, a professor in the Bay Area, who thereby coined the word counterculture. Roszak, thoughtful and expert in history and literature, spent 270 pages, more or less reasonably and rationally, glorying in the younger generation’s “brave” rejection of expertise, rationality, “all that our culture values as ‘reason’ and ‘reality.’ ” So-called experts, after all, are “on the payroll of the state and/or corporate structure.” A chapter called “The Myth of Objective Consciousness” argues that science is really just a state religion, scientists our culture’s version of wizards—except that he hates the former (“bad magicians”) and loves the latter (“good magicians”). In order to create “a new culture in which the non-intellective capacities…become the arbiters of the good [and] the true,” he writes, “nothing less is required than the subversion of the scientific world view, with its entrenched commitment to an egocentric and cerebral mode of consciousness.” Although thanks, science and technology, for making “economic security…something [youth] can take for granted,” because “we have an economy of cybernated abundance that does not need their labor.” Oh, the cybernated abundance of Big Rock Candy Mountain!
He disparages previous American fantasists—“Theosophists and fundamentalists, spiritualists and flat-earthers, occultists and Satanists”—yet in the same sentence pivots to extol the current ones, welcomes the “radical rejection of science and technological values…so close to the center of our society, rather than on the negligible margins….Those who opt for rationality darkly warn us against the terrors that have come of submerging the intellect beneath a flood tide of feeling.”
That same summer of 1969, a forty-one-year-old University of Chicago sociologist (and Catholic priest) named Andrew Greeley alerted readers of The New York Times Magazine that beyond the familiar signifiers of youthful rebellion (long hair, sex, drugs, music, protests), the truly shocking change on campuses was the rise of antirationalism, a return of the sacred—“mysticism and magic,” the occult, séances, cults around the Book of Revelation. When he’d recently chalked a statistical table on a classroom blackboard, one of his students reacted with horror: “Mr. Greeley, I think you’re an empiricist.” A fellow scholar of religion at MIT, who had practiced mystical forms of Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam and taken psychedelics with Tim Leary, described to Greeley one of his seminars. “I cannot recall the exact progression of topics” the MIT students wanted to discuss, “but it went something like this”: the Tibetan Book of the Dead’s guide to the hypothetical state between death and reincarnation, “astrology, astral bodies, auras, UFOs, Tarot cards, parapsychology, witchcraft and magic. And underlying everything, of course, the psychedelic drugs.” An impressed student marveled to Greeley that his woo-woo classmates “really believe that what they say is true,” and all the students he interviewed “resolutely refuse to dismiss as foolish” anyone who really believes anything.
Three months later, right after Woodstock, the Times Magazine published another middle-aged intellectual’s take on this “youth disturbance,” which looked to him like a “turning point in history.” Paul Goodman was a countercultural godfather who’d written Growing Up Absurd, a bestselling 1960 explanation of what’s-the-matter-with-kids-today and who co-wrote Fritz Perls’s Gestalt Therapy. He saw the diffuse surge of new belief as a “New Reformation,” with all the anti-Establishment rage and righteous metaphysical certainty that had reshaped Christendom and generated the ultra-Protestants’ would-be utopia in America. The younger generation in the 1960s, he decided, was defined “not, as I used to think, [by] their morality, political will and common sense,” but by their “religion,” their reflex to be “scornful of rationality.”
Recall Jonathan Edwards, the fortyish minister out of Yale who in the 1740s saw and encouraged “a flash of lightning upon the hearts of young people.” As 1969 became 1970 in New Haven, a forty-one-year-old Yale professor was finishing his book about the new youth counterculture. Charles Reich was a former Supreme Court clerk now at Yale Law School, tenured at one of rationalism’s American headquarters. But hanging with the young people had led him to a midlife epiphany and apostasy. In 1966 he had started teaching a seminar called “The Individual in America,” for which he assigned fiction by Kesey and Norman Mailer. He was feeling it, and he decided to spend the next summer, the Summer of Love, in Berkeley.
“Out here the atmosphere among the students is profoundly anti-intellectual,” he wrote from California to a friend, but “one can’t help admire some of their values….On Sundays the park is full of great sights and sounds…electric bands with such names as…Big Brother and the Holding Company, and The Grateful Dead.” On the road back to New Haven, he had his Pauline conversion to the kids’ values. His class at Yale became hugely popular, and he let in hundreds and then thousands of undergraduates.
Just before publication of his book in 1970, The New Yorker published a third of it—at seventy magazine pages, the longest excerpt it had ever run. The Greening of America became the bestselling book in America, and remained on the Times list for most of a year. How huge and crazed was the attention paid? The Today show was so eager to hop on the bandwagon that when Reich turned down an appearance, they booked Yale’s media-friendly left-wing chaplain to chat about his colleague.
At sixteen, I bought and read one of the two million copies sold. Rereading it today and recalling how much I loved it was a reminder of the follies of youth. Reich was shamelessly, uncritically swooning for kids like me. The Greening of America may have been the mainstream’s single greatest act of pandering to the vanity and self-righteousness of the new youth. The first sentences appeared on the book jacket: “There is a revolution coming….This is the revolution of the new generation.”
In addition to the perfect timing and blue-chip imprimaturs, the book’s underlying theoretical scheme was simple and perfectly pitched to flatter young readers. There are three types of American “consciousness,” each of which “makes up a person’s perception of reality…his ‘head,’ his way of life.” Consciousness I people are old-fashioned self-reliant individualists rendered obsolete by the new “Corporate State”—essentially, kids, your grandparents. Consciousness IIs are the fearful and conformist organization men and women whose rationalism is a tyrannizing trap laid by the Corporate State—your parents. And then there is Consciousness III, which “has made its first appearance among the youth of America,” “spreading rapidly among wider and wider segments of youth, and by degrees to older people.”
If you opposed the Vietnam War and dressed down and smoked pot, you were almost certainly a III. “Wrinkled jeans and jackets made of coarse material” are “a deliberate rejection of the…look of the affluent society.” Check. “The violence with which some older people have reacted to long hair shows that they feel a threat to the whole reality that they have constructed and lived by.” Check. And “in a society that keeps its citizens within a closed system of thought…marijuana is a maker of revolution, a truth-serum.” Check!
In other words, simply by being young and casual and undisciplined, you were ushering in a new utopia. The “choice of a life-style is not peripheral, it is the heart of the new awakening.” Sweet. It was like a smart, cool, successful uncle assuring you that, yes, your parents are miserable phonies, whereas you’re revolutionary and heroic because, you know, you just get it.
Reich praises the “gaiety and humor” of the new Consciousness III wardrobe, but his book is absolutely humorless—because it’s a response to “this moment of utmost sterility, darkest night and most extreme peril.” Conspiracism was flourishing, and Reich bought in. Now that “the Corporate State has added depersonalization and repression” on top of the other injustices, “it has threatened to destroy all meaning and suck all joy from life.”
Reich’s magical thinking mainly concerned how the revolution would turn out. “The American Corporate State,” having produced this new generation of long-haired hyperindividualists who insist on trusting their guts and finding their own truths, “is now accomplishing what no revolutionaries could accomplish by themselves….The machine has begun to destroy itself.” Once everyone wears Levi’s and gets high, the “old…forms will simply be swept away in the flood.”
The inevitable-imminent-happy-cataclysm part of the dream didn’t happen, of course. The machine did not destroy itself. But for all his book’s silliness, Reich was half-right. An epochal change in American thinking was under way and was “not, as far as anybody knows, reversible….There is no returning to an earlier consciousness.” His wishful error was to believe that once the tidal surge of new sensibility brought down the floodwalls, the waters would flow in only one direction, carving out a peaceful, cooperative, groovy new continental utopia, hearts and minds changed like his, all America Berkeleyized and Vermontified. Instead, Consciousness III was just one early iteration of the anything-goes, post-reason, post-factual America enabled by the tsunami. Reich’s faith was the converse of the Enlightenment rationalists’ hopeful fallacy two hundred years earlier: once granted complete freedom of thought, Jefferson and company assumed, most people would follow the paths of reason. Wasn’t it pretty to think so.
IN THE EARLY 1970s, two of my siblings became devotees of a very young Indian named Guru Maharaj Ji, who led the Divine Light Mission, a large movement with tens of thousands of followers. He was known as the Perfect Master and Lord of the Universe, and the meditation technique he taught was called Perfect Knowledge. His followers believed he was about to usher in a magnificent new age, and my siblings devoted themselves to his mission in their twenties.
“This year,” Maharaj Ji wrote in a 1973 letter to his followers, a lot of whom believed he was a god, “the most Holy and significant event in human history will take place in America….This is a festival not for you or me. It is for the whole world and maybe the whole universe.” So a week after Halloween that year, my parents flew from Omaha to Houston to attend Millennium ’73, a three-day event at the Astrodome for Maharaj Ji’s followers. Some of them believed the flying-saucer-esque Astrodome was going to lift off that weekend, literally rise from the Earth.
My parents sat in a special section reserved for parents of devotees. Rennie Davis, an antiwar celebrity turned Maharaj Ji apostle, announced that “honestly, very soon now, every single human being will know the one who was waited for by every religion of all times has actually come.” They listened to the guru, who wore a bejeweled crown and sat in a throne atop a thirty-five-foot-high Plexiglas stage, deliver his sermons to enraptured followers. My mom and dad found it all very strange. Yet if their friends in Omaha remained their friends despite professing to believe all kinds of incredible things—the parting of the Red Sea, the virgin birth, the resurrection of Jesus, the blood and body of Christ sipped and eaten every Sunday morning—why wouldn’t they cut the same slack for their own children’s exotic new beliefs?
THE STRAIGHT WORLD’S discombobulated OMG reactions back then are understandable given how quickly everything had changed. Marijuana use is a good proxy for tracking the speed of the shift. In 1965 fewer than a million Americans had smoked pot; in 1972 the number was twenty-four million. In 1967 only 5 percent of American college students had smoked; four years later it was a majority, and a third were getting high every day.
Around the time I turned twenty, after I’d hallucinated voices a few times when I wasn’t high, I mostly stopped using illegal drugs apart from cannabis. We all know that drugs can make you bonkers. Personally, I don’t regret my own adolescent use, especially the acid trips, including the frightening ones. It was a highly instructive, character-building phase I passed through mentally intact, all part of my…journey. I’m convinced that plenty of people were improved and importantly inspired by smoking pot, dropping acid, eating mushrooms. Steve Jobs is only the best example.*3
But I also think that the culture’s sudden and enthusiastic embrace of psychotropics probably helped turn America into Fantasyland. Psychedelics and even marijuana obviously fog up the boundaries between reality and fantasy, make it easier to believe that all sorts of delusions and imaginary connections are true. Thirty-two million living Americans have used psychedelics; if they were members of a religion, it would be the second largest in the country. Americans’ rate of lifetime use of cannabis is two or three or four times that of northern Europeans. For many people, drugs’ fantasy-encouraging effects extend beyond the minutes or hours of being high, leaching into everyday thought, not always usefully.
THE GREAT CONTEMPORANEOUS firsthand account of this 1960s, I think, is The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Tom Wolfe’s book about Kesey and his acid-dropping Merry Prankster adventures. Eight years later, in the mid-1970s, as the Big Bang of subjectivity and hedonism blasted its new elements and energies through the American universe, Wolfe memorialized the larger transformation. He wrote an essay in New York magazine that’s remembered today for coining a term, the Me Decade, still used as a catchphrase for the touchy-feely narcissism of the 1970s’ newfangled self-improvement schemes. And while Wolfe did spend a lot of his twelve thousand words talking about est workshops and their ilk, the full title is “The ‘Me’ Decade and the Third Great Awakening.” That is, Wolfe kept paying attention to the deeper continuities that Greeley and Goodman spotted in 1969, that what had been unleashed was a multifaceted American delirium, a complex shift with particular American sources and antecedents.
As he wrote, “the ESP or ‘psychic phenomena’ movement began to grow very rapidly in the new religious atmosphere” of the late 1960s, because
ESP devotees had always believed that there was an other order that ran the universe, one that revealed itself occasionally through telepathy…psychokinesis, dematerialization, and the like. It was but a small step from there to the assumption that all men possess a conscious energy paralleling the world of physical energy and that this mysterious energy can unite the universe (after the fashion of the light of God)….Even the Flying Saucer cults began to reveal their essentially religious nature at about this time. The Flying Saucer folk quite literally believed in an other order…under the command of superior beings from other planets or solar systems who had spaceships….
[Thus we had entered] the greatest age of individualism in American history! All rules are broken!…Where the Third Great Awakening will lead—who can presume to say? One only knows that the great religious waves have a momentum all their own.
I remember when fantastical beliefs went absolutely mainstream in the 1970s. I remember, for instance, when my mother bought and read The Secret Life of Plants, a big bestseller arguing that plants were sentient and would “be the bridesmaids at a marriage of physics and metaphysics.” The amazing truth about plants, the book claimed, had been suppressed by the FDA and agribusiness. My mom didn’t believe in the conspiracy, but she did start talking to her ficuses as if they were pets. In its Sunday review of The Secret Life of Plants, the Times registered the book as another data point in how “the incredible is losing its pariah status.”
Indeed, mainstream publishers and media organizations were falling over themselves to promote and sell fantasies as nonfiction. In 1975 came the bestselling autobiography by the fraudulent young spoon-bender and mind-reader Uri Geller and Life After Life,by Raymond Moody, a philosophy Ph.D. who presented the anecdotes of several dozen people who’d nearly died as first-hand evidence for an afterlife. “The notion that these accounts might be fabrications is utterly untenable,” Moody flatly declared. The book sold many millions of copies; before long the International Association for Near-Death Studies formed and held its first conference at Yale.
During the first six decades of the twentieth century, the popularity of homeopathy had declined as medical science won the battles against pseudoscience. But as the incredible suddenly lost its pariah status, homeopathy recovered from its own near-death experience, first in California and the Pacific Northwest, then everywhere. During the 1970s, U.S. sales of homeopathy’s placebo medicines increased more than tenfold.
Real scientists got caught up in the mysticism as well. In 1965 a chemist designing life-detection instruments for NASA’s Viking mission to Mars had a revelation: the entire Earth, he became convinced, its atmosphere and forests and seas and creatures, is a single organism perfectly and mysteriously tweaked to produce life—what he called “the Gaia hypothesis,” Gaia being his name from Greek mythology for “this creature.” He proceeded to develop the idea in collaboration with a microbiologist, publishing scientific papers and then in the 1970s a popular Oxford University Press book called Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth.*4 Gaia, he writes, “is now through us awake and aware of herself.” And so on. An “aura of intention or planning…hung over the Gaia hypothesis,” the main chronicler of Gaia has written, and led its developer for the rest of his life to try “to cleanse Gaia of its crudest…excesses.” But the idea’s popularity opened the door to a deluge of wishful and dubious understandings, including the new and improved creationism known as intelligent design.
*1 In 1963, 16,000 U.S. soldiers and Marines were in Vietnam, 122 of whom died in combat; in 1968 the American deployment reached 540,000, of whom 16,592 were killed.
*2 It’s worth noting the big difference from the somewhat similar Serenity Prayer, written decades earlier by the Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr—which aims for an ability to discriminate rationally, to accept immutable facts but change other facts and have “the Wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.” Whereas Perls’s 1960s prayer sends everyone off to inhabit his or her own custom-made reality.
*3 “It was great,” he told his biographer Walter Isaacson about a 1972 trip at seventeen in a wheatfield in what had just been named Silicon Valley. “I had been listening to a lot of Bach. All of a sudden the whole field was playing Bach. It was the most wonderful feeling of my life up to that point. I felt like the conductor of this symphony with Bach coming through the wheat.”
*4 The NASA scientist was James Lovelock. His friend William Golding, author of Lord of the Flies, came up with the name Gaia. One of Lovelock’s young NASA colleagues in 1965 was Carl Sagan, who didn’t buy the Gaia idea (and later wrote a good primer on distinguishing science from pseudoscience called The Demon-Haunted World). At the time of Lovelock’s epiphany, Sagan was divorcing his wife Lynn—the biologist who became Lovelock’s collaborator on Gaia.