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Remembering the 1960’s: Racism, Prisons and… What Went Wrong?
Alan Brooks   Jul 24, 2012   Ethical Technology  

The ‘60s were like the Beatles: overrated but good nonetheless…  What I remember is the incongruity of the era…

An optimistic person would tend to remember the positive, repress the negative; for example Giulio Prisco and I would tend to remember lunar travel but want to repress memories of the wars of the ‘60s-‘70s. One great positive was it was the first time we looked to the future.

The social movements of the first decades of the Postwar period were as a rule quite backward-looking in reaction to the distorted modernity of totalitarianism. The 1950s Beats in America were originally named after the Beatitudes in the Bible—not the modernised African rhythms incorporated in Rock ‘n’ Roll. The space program beginning in the late ‘50s was a reaction to Sputnik, not an intense interest in space. And the tailfins on the rear of autos back then were designed to make them appear more modern than they actually were.

The decade of the ‘60s was generally more forward-looking, if you include the early ‘70s as being part of it.  Question is, what went wrong? how did we go from ‘Soul On Ice’ to Thomas Sowell’s iciness? How did we go for instance from big black music to Michael Jackson and his little white glove?
 
My parents gave me ‘The Autobiography Of Malcolm X’ a year after Malcolm X had been assassinated, he was shot shortly after predicting he would meet such a fate. It was a bit of a joke reading the book, we lived in a white community where one of the choir ladies from the church nearby would drop in to say hello and ask what I was reading. “Oh, he’s reading ‘The Biography Of Malcolm X’”, Mom would reply. The choir lady would laugh because it was fairly incongruous: what did a notorious black radical have to with a crew cut white boy and church ladies preparing rolled ham, scalloped potatoes, and Jello for Wednesday’s “Blue and Gold” Cub Scout Dinner? Yet it was 1966 and the zeitgeist had become incongruous. Albert Goldman wrote a nasty ‘Tell All’ book about Elvis Presley, but even stopped clocks are correct twice a day:
 

“Elvis was a thoroughly responsive being who found himself in a decade when the national street sign pointed in divergent directions, and who responded by going in both directions at once”  - (paraphrasing what Goldman wrote smack dab in the middle of the book.)

 
Which is what I remember about the era; the incongruity of napalm in Vietnam, and at the same time incense in San Francisco. And it continued well into the ‘70s—in fact IMO it didn’t finish until circa 1982 or so. The tail end of it I remember as being when Timothy Leary gave a lecture in ‘82 concerning space colonisation and immortality. Leary said to us, “someday you will all take a pill and live forever”. Now although the audience was receptive to what Tim said, peering around at their expressions it did not appear anyone present was prepared to believe they would live forever by taking a pill. All the same it was a good lesson in erring on the side of optimism.


 
Again, what went wrong? First thing coming to mind is there was a curious overemphasis on the part of counter-culturalists concerning legalising marijuana. Not that marijuana legalisation is not an important issue, however the way they talked about “LeMar”, as they referred to it, you might be forgiven for thinking LeMar was the key to world peace and curing all want and disease. Another curious interest on the part of the New left was JFK assassinology, attempting to persuade readers that JFK was killed by conspirators. Perhaps there was a conspiracy involved in assassinating JFK, but even if there was, all the legalised marijuana and JFK assassination books in the world are not going to help us live better lives, especially since no substantiated conclusions have ever been reached on the JFK assassination (though how someone such as Jack Ruby could sneak a gun into a police station and kill the most famous prisoner in the world at that moment with one shot is an unsolved mystery. However maybe it was an accident, the tenuousness of foresight is something to keep in mind; an authority figure may be far more of a bungler than he is an asshole).
 
A few years before my parents gave me the Malcolm X book, we were walking across a bridge and saw a rare sight in our community, a black person. The incident is vivid because I had never seen an African-American before and so my parents asked what I thought. I replied that I didn’t want to talk to him; what makes the memory vivid is their sad expressions, as if to say, “what, did we give birth to a Klansman?”

However I felt no guilt, peer opinion can be even more influential than parental opinion: in school we had been told by older students how African-Americans “lowered property values” and you couldn’t argue with students from Rightist families, they were too quick-witted, hard-nosed. Fortunately, the Malcolm X book changed my mind, and such may have been the intent in making a present of the book.
 
Before reading ‘The Autobiography of Malcolm X’, my impression of prison had been something out of Elvis’ “Jailhouse Rock” film: handsome inmates dancing to well-modulated Rock ‘n’ Roll numbers. But by the late ‘60s, it was obvious from both reading Malcolm’s book and watching the news that prison inmates were All Shook Up for a reason other than love, they were living in a Heartbreak Hotel of a very real sort. One passage in the Autobiography was the most shocking I had ever read up to then—a fellow black inmate tells Malcolm he had cut off his male member and left it floating in the commode. Malcolm commented, “I looked and saw indeed he had.” Mark Twain had never written anything like that in Huckleberry Finn.

One rather ordinary, although special to me, experience was visiting an African-American family after a riot in 1967, the why of the visit is lost in the mists of time, but it was a pleasant visit due to the surreal zeitgeist of that year, soon to change the next year, or the year after.

I started having more empathy/sympathy for African-Americans, but not to any great degree… peer opinion back then was omnipotent, and besides there’s always been a sense if one complains, authorities will take something away from you—even something intangible—or perhaps eventually you will be in some kind of a Heartbreak Hotel yourself and better someone else live there than you. All the same, the dire situation in prisons gradually led to the realisation America wasn’t necessarily the greatest country in the world as we had always been told; US agriculture was and is the best in all of history—but not the prisons. No way.

Thus how could, how can the allegedly greatest country in the world possess a dire, un-great prison system? a system not being dedicated to corrections but rather to the penal, to capriciously punishing its inmates? Someone once mentioned how the prisons in Denmark were so good the inmates did not want to leave. Contrary to what a palace guard remarked in ‘Hamlet’, when it comes to prisons it isn’t something in Denmark which is rotten.

To be fair, the US is similar to China and Russia in being a behemoth of a nation, we cannot expect a truly decent prison system in a large overheated country, nevertheless it strongly appears little attempt has been made to change the situation albeit some improvement could surely be realized. Unfortunately those responsible are pretty calloused, what happens is they start out idealistic and then give up when they realise the enormity in attempting to fight against the tide of inertia and the urge to punish, the desire to scapegoat (even for minor offenses) that prisons represent. A prison employee once told me, “we are here to keep them [inmates] alive, give them three hots [meals] and a cot, and that’s it!” Especially, it seems, when it comes to African-American inmates.

If America is a Christian country, it has a strange way of showing it.
 
This article is not about prisons, however the bad-by-any-civilised-standard prison system is emblematic of how things either did not improve in the the last half century or worsened. Take your pick. Naturally, non-progressives are not concerned about prison conditions because what happens to people they don’t care about means little or nothing to them; but if progressivism is to signify anything, progressives ought not be so coldblooded—even if deep down progressives themselves also don’t care much more than Rightists do. Most of all, IMO life has improved materially in the past half century, yet has changed little in other ways: not socially, not politically, not spiritually; if spiritually is to mean anything.
 
It does not appear the school system has improved either, and we could go on and on with a laundry list of what is wrong. One salient factor is how the Vietnam War began circa a half century ago, certainly such was a factor; yet of course it goes without saying there were many other factors, too numerous to list save for in a full length, probably tedious/dreary, book. So I can’t tell you exactly what went wrong, although, by progressive lights, commercialization of culture went too far, to the point of true overkill. The singing combo ‘The Fifth Dimension’ sang about saving the planet… less than twenty years later Michael Jackson sings in a TV commercial about drinking soda pop; and we can’t blame it on Reaganism or Rightists in general, as such commercialism—IMO overcommercialisation— transcends the Left-Right dichotomy.


 


Alan Brooks
Alan Brooks was born in 1956, discovered futurism in 1976, and transhumanism in 1989.



COMMENTS

From a European perspective I would say that the oil shocks do the 1970s also helped to break the innocent optimism of the 1960s. Also, didn’t the movement somehow contain the seeds of its own destruction? Peace and love are fine things, and IMO even finer when decoupled from religious narratives that place then some kind of metaphysical incentive structure (be it karma or Judgement Day), but to make them work in practice one has to take more account of human nature (and what ACTUALLy happens when you experiment with sex, drugs and rock’n'roll) than the ‘60s counterculture did.

None of which is to contradict the conclusion that overcommercialisation is a big part of the reason why the movement failed to live up to it’s apparent potential. Only that it’s perhaps not the whole story.

>The tail end of it I remember as being when Timothy Leary gave a lecture in ‘82 concerning space colonisation and immortality. Leary said to us, “someday you will all take a pill and live forever”. Now although the audience was receptive to what Tim said, peering around at their expressions it did not appear anyone present was prepared to believe they would live forever by taking a pill.

Leary shows that bohemians, hipsters and radical intellectuals generally don’t age well, much less provide enduring examples to younger generations. I got to meet the 70-something Leary in the early 1990’s, and I wondered then what people saw in the guy. The same goes for men in their 80’s now like Hugh Hefner and Fidel Castro. They might have seemed cool and edgy to many people 40-50 years ago, but not now when you suspect they have to wear diapers or ostomy bags. I also came away unimpressed by the sexual revolutionists in the 1960’s other than Hefner whom Gay Talese profiles in book “Thy Neighbor’s Wife.”

By contrast, solid, respectable bourgeois men like Warren Buffett have staying power as they age, apparently because they have oriented their lives around a more stable, time-tested way of doing things. Widespread LSD use, nonstop sexual excess and communist revolutionizing don’t work well as lifestyle choices or social models.

In ‘82, Leary still had ‘it’, the women in the audience at the university ogled him like he was fresh cooked tofu. At the end of the lecture I went to shake his hand, and while trying to squeeze through the crowd I heard Leary say into the microphone,
“I don’t like my own fans”:
looking at me after he finished saying it—he was aware of his surroundings and one would have to admit he had something going for him. What didn’t make sense was Leary moaning “I had my career [Harvard PhD psychologist] ruined”.. real whining on his part. People lost their liveS because of drugs but Leary pines for his career. He did suffer a great deal, being moved around the world to escape heavy prison sentences for petty offenses—plus he spent months in prison, he did suffer; but his Career! Smart people can say the dumbist things.

@Pete, as usual you see right away the factors I missed; however it isn’t a good idea to load down an article with too much, there’s a balance between comprehensiveness and the flow of the piece. But of course you know all that.



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