A Psychedelic Spin On 'National Security'

Cross-posted from TomDispatch.com

It’s the 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love. What better place to celebrate than that fabled era’s epicenter, San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, where the DeYoung Museum has mounted a dazzling exhibition, chock full of rock music, light shows, posters, and fashions from the mind-bending summer of 1967?

If you tour the exhibit, you might come away thinking that the political concerns of the time were no more than parenthetical bookends to that summer’s real action, its psychedelic counterculture. Only the first and last rooms of the large show are explicitly devoted to political memorabilia. The main body of the exhibit seems devoid of them, which fits well with the story told in so many history books. The hippies of that era, so it’s often claimed, paid scant attention to political matters.

Take another moment in the presence of all the artifacts of that psychedelic summer, though, and a powerful (if implicit) political message actually comes through, one that couldn’t be more unexpected. The counterculture of that era, it turns out, offered a radical challenge to a basic premise of the Washington worldview, then and now, a premise accepted ― and spoken almost ritualistically ― by every president since Franklin Delano Roosevelt: nothing is more important than our “national security.”

And believe me, “national security” should go in those scare quotes as a reminder that it’s not a given of our world like Mount Whitney or the buffalo. Think of it as an invented idea, an ideological construct something like “the invisible hand of capitalism” or even “liberty and justice for all.” Those other two concepts still remain influences in our public life, but like so much else they have become secondary matters since the early days of World War II, when President Roosevelt declared “national security” the nation’s number one concern. 

However unintentionally, he planted a seed that has never stopped growing.  It’s increasingly the political equivalent of the kudzu vine that overruns everything in its path. Since Roosevelt’s day, our political life, federal budget, news media, even popular culture have all become obsessively focused on the supposed safety of Americans, no matter what the actual dangers in our world, and so much else has been subordinated to that. The national security state has become a de facto fourth branch of the federal government (though it’s nowhere mentioned in the Constitution), a shadow government increasingly looming over the other three.

It says much about the road we’ve traveled since World War II that such developments now appear so sensible, so necessary.  After all, our safety is at stake, right? So the politicians and the media tell us. Who wouldn’t be worried in a world where the constant “threats to our national security” are given such attention, even if at the highest levels of government no one seems quite sure just which enemies ― ISIS, Iran, Qatar, the Taliban, al-Qaeda, Russia, North Korea ― we should fear most.  Who suspected, for example, that Qatar, for so long apparently a U.S. ally in the war against ISIS, would suddenly be cast as that enemy’s ally and so a menace to us?

To judge from the increasingly dire warnings of politicians and pundits, the only certainty is that, whoever may be out to get us, we need to be constantly on our guard against new threats. That’s where our taxpayer money should go. That’s why secrecy rules the day in Washington and normal Americans know ever less about what exactly their government is doing in their name to protect them.  It’s “a matter of safety,” of course.  Better safe than sorry, as the saying goes, and even in a democracy better ignorant than sorry, too. 

The most frightening part of living in a national security state is that the world is transformed into little else but a vast reservoir of potential enemies, all bent on our destruction. Immersed in and engulfed by such a culture, it may be hard to remember, or even (for those under 65) to believe, that half a century ago a mass social movement arose that challenged not only our warped notion of security, but the very idea of building national life on the quest for security. Yet that’s just what the counterculture of the 1960s did.

The challenge reveals itself most clearly in that culture’s psychedelic light shows with their “densely packed, fluid patterning of shapes and fragmented images... [which] literally absorbed audience members into the show,” as the DeYoung’s website explains. They were events meant to break down all boundaries, even between audience and performers.  Posters advertising rock music and light shows displayed the same features and added “distorted forms and unreadable, meandering lettering,” all meant to “create an intense visual effect similar to that experienced by the shows’ attendees.”

In them, a vision of life and a message about it still shines through, one that gives us a glimpse, half a century later, into the most basic values and cultural assumptions of that moment and that movement.

Tear Down the Wall

Novelist Ken Kesey, impresario of the Trips Festival that presaged the Summer of Love, summed up the message in three memorable words: “Outside is inside.” When the Beatles kicked off that season with the first classic psychedelic record album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, George Harrison echoed Kesey’s vision in his song “Within You Without You,” a haunting meditation

“About the space between us allAnd the peopleWho hide themselves behind a wall ...
4 Published By - The Huffington Post - 2017.06.19. 21:36
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