The Arc of the Boomers

A dear friend with whom I spent several communal years in our hippie heyday has just turned 70. Oddly enough for a person of unfailing kindness, he was born the very day the first atomic bomb devastated Hiroshima.

Within the next few years more and more baby boomers will be reaching the Big Threescore and Ten. Personally, with memories accumulating "longer than the road that stretches out ahead," I've been looking at the mandate the Second World War issued to my generation, unique in its timing and divisive in its effects.

Unique in that never before in human history had people and nations inflicted murderous violence upon each other on so enormous a scale in so brief a time. The world my contemporaries (henceforth "we") entered as infants had quite recently slaughtered at least fifty million combatants and civilians by means of lethal industrial effort, demolishing great global swaths of mineral and agricultural wealth and human habitation and culminating in not one but two cities savagely incinerated in a matter of minutes. And everywhere the lingering after-effects.

To our parents who had witnessed all this destruction in battle or from newsreel and radio accounts, the sight of baby after baby after baby showing up and looking blissfully helpless as babies do must have bred concern and consternation: how, for the sake of these angelic newborns, could they prevent a repeat of the barbarity just ended? The life-affirming baby boom cast a shadow of justifiable fear.

Differing responses to this paradox created the divisiveness that has increasingly beset us boomers as we passed through infancy, childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. I'll argue that the polarizing is related to two distinct social developments whose advent pretty much coincides with our own, growing beside us like siblings, cooperative at first, eventually in contention and dispute. Now that, as triplets, we're crossing a key margin of longevity, I propose it's time for a closer look at some family history.

I was a clueless six-month old in July of 1947 when Congress passed and Harry Truman signed into law the National Security Act. World War II had been won with a concerted effort between the US Departments of State, War and Navy, but this system was deemed too sluggish to take on Stalin's Soviet Union. Who today remembers an America before diplomatic, military and covert operations were merged under a single multi limbed foreign policy octopus? Those well into their eighties and beyond. For the rest of us, Ike's historic formulation of the "military-industrial complex" was simply a foretaste of the realm we would come to know and not know, like fish complacent in their ocean: the National Security State.

1947's National Security Act was so sloppily drawn it had to be amended two years later, when the fledgling National Security Council redesigned the equally fledgling Department of Defense as America's first peacetime war machine. By then, between the Soviet A-bomb and the triumph of Chairman Mao, the Cold War was in full swing and the CIA, like us toddlers, was off and running. Starting in the Fifties its machinations in places from Iran and Guatemala to Congo and Indonesia were largely unnoticed (except in the participating countries); it took the 1961 Bay of Pigs debacle to nudge some public awareness of our escalating penchant for politically motivated international intrigue.

We may be forgiven our prior ignorance. Also in its infancy at the time was the highly innovative indoctrinating tool known as commercial television. Boomers were the guinea pigs for a method that proved its effectiveness immediately. The unprecedented postwar economic boom enabled the corporate state to provide not only guns and butter, but missiles and Cool Whip. We never guessed that the models of idyllic consumerism depicted in TV's hypnotic blend of advertising and entertainment were ultimately sourced by corporate collusion with foreign governments supportive of resource extraction. We didn't ask where the raw materials that fed the newly available "American Way of Life" came from. We were too busy watching Howdy Doody, at least when the puppet wasn't preempted by the Army-McCarthy hearings. All those stern, peremptory grownups, simultaneously boring and scary, a New Deal-targeting right wing insurgency masquerading as patriotism.

The state of Israel was in its infancy, too, as were the partition of India and Pakistan, the arms race, the fear of nuclear extinction, the toppling of colonialism and the ensuing U.S.-Soviet rivalry in what became the Third World. And all of these threads were intertwined with and fed the growth of the Na-tional Security State, groping toward its adolescence, as we were, under Ike & JFK.

Was there no alternative? Did the global psychic wound inflicted by the war have no choice but to fester into universal paranoia? Oliver Stone's "Untold History of the United States"
argues that nothing affected postwar history so much as FDR's replacement of Henry Wallace by Harry Truman as his 1944 running mate. Had the visionary Wallace assumed the Presidency we would no doubt be living in a very different world. A world in which two rival economic systems would have each learned to assimilate the other's virtues and correct their flaws.

"The hypothetical has charm," as historian Barbara Tuchman chuckles, "but the actuality of government makes history." No doubt the American obsession with National Security has made plenty. But the other sibling I'm about to invoke has been making history of a different kind. Based on a different interpretation of and response to the war.

Let's call it the Mainstreaming of Psychotherapy. It strikes me as more than coincidental that in the late 1940s the psychiatric profession took off in the USA as never before. Psychoanalytic theory had invented a set of tools, however primitive, for delving into the recesses of human consciousness with a specificity and depth previously encountered only in literature. Tools that couldn't have arrived at a more opportune moment.

In the aftermath of World War I, British hospitals vindicated Freud when his "talking cure" provided the one reliable key to healing shell shock. It worked. In 1917 there were no more than a few dozen licensed psychiatrists in the US. By 1948 it was closer to five thousand. Interest in self-examination mushroomed as varied psychotherapeutic streams branched forth from the original impulse and entered the culture through film, through theatre, through literature and magazines, highbrow and pop, releasing an unprecedented frankness about sexuality and its flip side, repression. A frankness viewed with displeasure by those of McCarthian temperament.

During the Fifties there were sporadic cultural rebel avatars: Brando and the Beats, the purveyors of jazz, folk and soul. There was the burgeoning of Abraham Maslow's humanistic psychology with its non-Freudian emphasis on the roots of well-being rather than neurosis. From Saskatchewan to Los Angeles and Boston, there were impeccably documented studies on the revelations of LSD and psilocybin. Alan Watts and other best-sellers illuminated Zen. Exploration of the mind's options and frontiers eventually affected social critics like C. Wright Mills and Paul Goodman as they warned of an artificial, plastic, dehumanizing quality creeping into civic life and reinforced by TV. They blew their whistles in vain, as viewers found "My Three Sons" and "Gunsmoke" and sports coverage even more mesmerizing with the advent of color transmission.

What seemed in the Ike/JFK era like unrelated issues were in fact headed for a collision, with boomers caught between. The "framers" of the National Security State held one truth to be self-evident: that the world is dangerous and safety is maintained through violent control. To the pioneers of psychotherapy danger was rooted in the mind and security maintained through self-development. Both responses acknowledged the demons unleashed by the war but sought to confront them with opposing methods. One embraced violence, the other renounced it.

They were able to co-exist, largely indifferent to each other, until the explosions that marked our coming of age, the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War resistance. These two in combination increasingly persuaded a huge segment of the critical young that America wasn't living up to the stand-ards proclaimed from Civics class to Madison Avenue. How America actually behaved toward other countries and to its own people contradicted our stated ideals, values and mythic virtues. The revelation was as shattering as finding hypocrisy in a trusted parent. Even more so, as the consequences were actually lethal. For a generation of complacent fish, there was now blood in the water. The Sixties was upon us.

My high school in Washington DC was one of the last to experience white flight. By the time I graduated, just before LBJ signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the racial balance was about fifty-fifty, something I'll always be grateful for and proud of. I won't claim that outside of school black and white kids socialized much (many parents on either side objecting), but at school there was never a hostile racial incident and the sports and cheerleading teams were fully integrated and admired. So was the music, black kids exposing the whites to Motown and whites countering with early Beatles. This may seem feeble from today's evolved perspective, but recall that "soul" is just another word for "psyche." The transformation of cultural norms in the Sixties owed a lot to the power of music to jump boundaries and reach across distinctions. The unshackled mind, left free to imagine, could picture a harmonious global existence transcending anything the dominant system offered.

The Culture War that followed has been documented beyond any need for reminders, but it helps to realize that Woodstock Nation and its tie-dyed acolytes, though mocked as widely then as now, were viewed in certain quarters as a serious threat to the American way of life. A threat to be emphatically eliminated. Corporate lawyer and soon-to-be Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell warned that "the American economic system is under broad attack." The aggressor, as he saw it, being this newfangled cultural trend challenging the yoking of public policy to the search for unlimited corporate profit. His confidential memo to a 1971 Chamber of Commerce conference fired up the reactionary think-tank blitzkrieg that gave us among other blessings the Heritage Foundation, the Reagan Revolution, ALEC, "conservative" media, all the minions who nurture antagonism today. Nurturing antagonism is, after all, the business of the National Security State.

Looking back from my seventh decade it's easy to see the polarization in America today as an outgrowth of the countercultural upheaval of the Sixties and Seventies. Not content with marginalizing the hippies and their broad-based rejection of militarism, puritanism and consumerism, the disdainers then turned their wrath on any cause, from environmental protection to feminism to climate change, that might share the evil taint of liberalism. Their misdirected efforts have helped trigger today's global chaos, and frankly they're welcome to it.

But "they" is a misnomer. We're all affected and must respond. From a wider perspective it's only a wee bit past the dawning of the Age of Aquarius. The foes of health and wisdom for all their mischief may be the attention-grabbing trees who hide the greater forest, where the roots of evolving consciousness grow deep. They draw their nourishment from an inherent gift of our humanity. Call it hope. Call it love. Poet William Blake, back when we were a young country, called it Jesus the Imagination. He was not a religious man.

The divisions between liberal and conservative, Democrat and Republican, or merely Left and Right, make for convenient labels, but these labels don't really approach the heart of the crisis facing our species. We may find it more useful to think in terms of the authoritarian versus the imaginative temperaments. Caiaphas and Jesus, Churchill and Gandhi, Nurse Ratched and McMurphy.

One temperament wants obedience, with an emphasis on punishment; the other wants exploration, with an emphasis on possibility. At the extreme of one there's cruelty; of the other foolhardiness. Fortunately they can moderate each other; they are siblings, after all. Even the mellowest groovy parents know that small children from time to time have to be told "Don't do that!" Duly taking my morning blood pressure pill doesn't make me an authoritarian type. There's a continuum in everyone (authoritarians, take note).

What will always matter is what approach, what blend of temperaments, we apply to solving problems. It's not an either/or proposition, whatever authoritarians may insist. They offer solutions with a coating of Should; imaginatives prefer Could, since it presents more options. That's where the pushback comes in. When Shoulds run governments, they generate resistance and their problems don't get solved. Just worse. Flexible thinking is the elixir Coulds contribute.

Despite the Should camp's efforts, Coulds have seen some remarkable transformations in just my lifetime. There has been a widespread if incomplete dropping of racial, sexual, verbal, medical and other cultural taboos, and when taboos fall, defenses follow. Of course there are holdouts who won't repudiate violence, Should's perennial ace in the hole. What becomes of the force addicts among us remains to be seen. Will they follow the Neanderthal path to oblivion, or take everybody else with them? The handgun problem, for example, will only resolve itself when we become the kind of people who won't use them. "Why did anyone think they were necessary?" future generations will ask, or there won't be any.

I overstate, but that's an aging hippie for you. Back when hitting my quarter-century mark was a big deal, NASA released the first Blue Marble image of our planet. To this day contemplating it retrieves my youth. It will never lose its impact. Mandala of all the life we know, it conveys to anyone who looks closely, as all must, a sense of wholeness that transcends the spatial. It points to a wholeness located in the human psyche, a peaceful interior realm, the original Utopia of which all literary versions are just hearsay. It is born of the vital stream that pulls us insistently and even despite our objections to recognize a kinship with all that draws breath.

I hope in my remaining time here I get to see increasing numbers of my fellow humans accessing this realm and applying it to healing our world.