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What Happens to Truth

What Happens to Truth in an Age of Delusion? (part 3)
Architects of the Sixties Revolution

May, 2013


 “That ideology [of the Sixties] has insinuated itself, disastrously, into the curricula of our schools and colleges; it has significantly altered the texture of sexual relations and family life; it has played havoc with the authority of churches and other repositories of moral wisdom…. It has even, most poignantly, addled our hearts and innermost assumptions about what counts as the good life: it has perverted our dreams as much as it has prevented us from attaining them.” (The Long March, p.14)

Architects of the Sixties Revolution

 Every major cultural movement of radical change requires an infrastructure of leadership in the opinion-shaping agencies, especially the media, academia, and the arts, which is able to inspire a sizeable section of the population. The Sixties revolution was no exception and was able to draw on a wide range of public figures.  The following is a profile of four persons who played a major role in this culture-changing event in American history.  I am extensively relying on the information provided by Roger Kimball in his The Long March: How the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s Changed America.

Susan Sontag (1933-2004)

Susan Sontag was born in New York City, but never got to like her country of birth. She was a precocious child and became a prolific author, critic, novelist, playwright, filmmaker, professor, and political activist. She studied at major universities in England, France, and America.

In 1960, she obtained a teaching position in the department of religion at Columbia University. Her long list of novels, plays, nonfiction essays, monographs, and films paved her way into celebrity status in the world of letters and academia. Some referred to her as “The Dark Lady of American Letters.”  The New York Review of Books called her “one of the most influential critics of her generation.”

Her philosophy of life and her view of sexuality made her a powerful contributor to the moral perversion of the Sixties Revolution. She was openly bisexual, and was married at age 17 (1950) with Philip Rieff, her teacher at the University of Chicago. Their son David was born in 1952; they divorced in 1958.  Subsequently, she consorted with a number of men and women.  

Sontag became embroiled in the controversies surrounding America’s wars in Vietnam and the Middle East, as well as the Cuban revolution masterminded by the Castro brothers. As many on the political left, she harboured a strong sense of resentment not only toward her own country, but toward the entire Western civilization. In 1967, she wrote in the Partisan Review that America “deserves” to have its wealth “taken away” by the Third World. She then stated that all the benefits and cultural riches of the West “don’t redeem what this particular civilization has wrought upon the world. The white race is the cancer of human history.”

She visited Cuba in 1968, after which she wrote about the ”right way” to love the Cuban revolution. She contrasted what she perceived to be the deadness of the American way of life with the Cuban “new sensibility,” that is, a natural “southern spontaneity, gaiety, sensuality and freaking out.” She followed up with this canard that “the Cuban revolution is astonishingly free of repression and bureaucratization….No Cuban writer has been or is in jail, or is failing to get his work published.”

Sontag wrote in a similar vein about her visit to North Vietnam in her essay “Trip to Hanoi.” She dutifully repeated the outrageous lies she had been told by her hosts about the good care the American prisoners of war were receiving. She admitted that her report tended to idealize North Vietnamese, but that was because she experienced that country as one that “deserves to be idealized.”  Before her trip to Hanoi in 1968, she wrote that the U.S. (“a criminal, sinister country”) is brutally and self-righteously slaughtering a small nation.

Barely two weeks after the 9/11 treacherous attack on America, she  wrote in The New Yorker of September 24, 2001: “The disconnect between last Tuesday’s monstrous dose of reality and the self-righteous drivel and outright deception being peddled by public figures and TV commentators is startling, depressing….Where is the acknowledgment that this was not a ‘cowardly’ attack  on ‘civilization’ or ‘liberty’ or ‘humanity’ or ‘the free world’ but an attack on the world’s self-proclaimed superpower, undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions?”

Norman Mailer (1923-2007)

Mailer was born in Long Branch, New Jersey. He attended Harvard University at age 16 where he studied aeronautical engineering and began to take an interest in writing. He published his first story at age 18. After he graduated in 1943 he was drafted into the American army and served in the Philippines and Japan.  

In 1948, while studying at the Sorbonne in Paris he published his first book The Naked and the Dead, drawing on his army experience. It became an instant success and was on the New York Times best seller list for 62 weeks. It was declared to be one of the best American wartime novels, and the Modern Library called it one of the “one hundred best novels in English Language.”  Mailer wrote more than 40 books and many essays which catapulted him into the role of antiestablishment guru.  The critic Philip Beidler succinctly summarized Mailer’s ambition as follows:

there is no doubt that Mailer as a literary intellectual wished to assume the mantle of ‘60s youth-illuminatus, at once existential prophet and pied piper. Accordingly, his career across the decade revealed a relentless, almost obsessive wish to be the voice of ‘60s adversarial culture in its broadest sense:  a voice uniting the radical intelligentsia and dissenting youth in a new project of revolutionary consciousness spilling over from bohemian lofts and campus enclaves into the streets of the nation at large.” (TLM, 64)

In all his extensive writings Mailer displayed a total lack of respect for all traditional norms for social and political relations. He was obsessed with the sexual. He wrote in Advertisements for Myself that “the only revolution which will be meaningful and natural for the twentieth century will be the sexual revolution one senses everywhere.”  He was married six times and fathered eight children.

His attitude to crime and punishment reverses the roles by making the criminal appear to be the heroic victim of an oppressive establishment, as in his The Executioner’s Song. Mailer befriended Jack Abbott, a violent convict who sent him long letters about life in prison. He helped Abbott to publish these letters eventually in a book with the title In the Belly of the Beast.

 In the introduction Mailer described Abbott as a radical intellectual and potential leader with a vision of a better world through revolution.  Mailer helped Abbott get early release from prison.  But shortly after his release he went to New York and killed a 22- year old Cuban-American waiter. When Mailer was asked about the family of the victim, he stated that he was willing to gamble with a portion of society to save this killer’s talents.

Charles Reich

Reich was born in 1928 in New York City. Kimball writes that few embody the spirit of the Sixties better than Charles Reich, one time Yale law professor turned guru of a higher consciousness. His Greening of America (1970) “was both a blueprint for America’s cultural revolution and a paean for its supposedly glorious results.” Published by Random House, it became an instant best seller as well as a national preoccupation. Yet, there were also a few critics, including Stewart Alsop, in Newsweek, who refused to join the choir. In fact he described the book as “a bag of scary mush.”

However, that did not stop this book from becoming a sensation. Here is a taste of the author’s hubris when he predicts in the beginning of his book that there is a revolution coming. He continues:

“It will not be like revolutions of the past. It will originate with the individual and end with culture, and it will change the political structure only as its final act….It promises a higher reason, a more human community, and a new and liberated individual.  Its ultimate creation will be a new and enduring wholeness and beauty – a renewed relationship of man to himself, to other men, to society, to nature, and to the land.” (TLM, 180)

Reich depicts America as a “vast terrifying anti-community” in thrall to a false consciousness that strips away all creativity and personal uniqueness. To counteract this robotic kind of existence he developed a three-fold typology, which he called Consciousness I, II and III. Consciousness I originated in the nineteenth century when rugged independence, capitalism, character, morality, hard work and self-denial were the dominant motivators. Reich’s list of Consciousness I types include farmers, small business owners, AMA-type doctors, gangsters, Republicans, and “just plain folks.”

He thinks that this type of consciousness has been overtaken by its successor, Consciousness II, which by now also has passed its “best before” date since it is dominated by the American Corporate State. This began with the New Deal, but that progressive initiative has run its course. According to Reich, its “ethic of control, of technology, of the rational intellect… was the real enemy of liberation.”

Kimball writes that Reich’s Consciousness III is hard to describe, yet it spread like the measles. Its power to attract must lie in its rejection of all authority, schedules, accepted customs, and deference. As Reich puts it: “Accepted patterns of thought must be broken; what is considered ‘rational thought’ must be opposed by ‘nonrational thought’ – drug-thought, mysticism, impulses.”

Perhaps the core meaning of Reich’s thoughts – which explains its instant popularity among the university students and professors -- is most clearly centered on his notion of liberation. He states that “the meaning of liberation is that the individual is free to build his own philosophy and values, his own life-style, and his own culture from a new beginning.”  A more contemptuous and defiant statement about the human condition is hard to imagine.

Eldridge Cleaver (1935-1998)

Cleaver was born in Arkansas and grew up in the Watts section of Los Angeles. Early in life he started getting into trouble with the law for theft and selling marijuana. In 1954 he was sent to prison for possession of drugs. In 1957 he was arrested again and sentenced to a maximum of fourteen years in prison for rape and attempted murder. While in prison he read the revolutionary authors such as Marx, Lenin, Bakunin, as well as the contemporary authors Norman Mailer, Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs. He was released from prison in 1966.

While in prison he began writing a number of philosophical and political essays, which were first published in Ramparts, then in 1968 republished in a book titled Soul on Ice. It became a major source of inspiration in the black power movement, and The New York Times Book Review declared it to be “brilliant and revealing.” It helped to boost Cleaver into a position of influence in the leadership of the Black Panther Party, becoming its Minister of Information from 1967 to 1971.

Soul on Ice is a collection of Cleaver’s thoughts on prison life, race relations, and especially his sexual obsession with white women.  It has often been assigned reading in schools and colleges.  The critic Maxwell Geismar wrote this in the book’s introduction:  “Cleaver is simply one of the best cultural critics now writing.” Here is a sample of the tenor of his musings:

“I’d like to leap the whole last mile and grow a beard and don whatever threads the local nationalism might require and comrade with Che Guevara, and share his fate, blazing a new pathfinder’s trail though the stymied upbeat brain of the New Left….”

Cleaver bragged about the fact that he became a rapist, first of black girls in the ghetto, but then he crossed the tracks and “sought out white prey…. Rape was an insurrectionist act. It delighted me that I was defying and trampling upon the white man’s law, upon his system of values, and that I was defiling his women…. I felt I was getting revenge.” Though he later renounced his stand on rape, he did not display any regrets for the content of his Soul on Ice.

In 1968 Cleaver led a gunfight with Oakland police in which he and two officers were wounded and a young Black Panther member was killed. Cleaver was charged with attempted murder, but managed to escape to Cuba, and later lived in Algeria and France. He returned to America in 1975; his murder charge was dropped, and he was ordered to perform several hundred hours of community service.

Cleaver later became a Christian, a follower of Sun Myung Moon, a Mormon, and a Republican. During his wanderings through these discordant spiritual/political “homes” he found the time to lead what he called the Eldridge Cleaver Crusades, preaching a mixture of Islam and Christianity that he called Christlam.

Despite Cleaver’s  decline into a pathetic figure in his later years, the spirit and tenor of  Soul on Ice lives on in the minds of the current crop of radicals who long to complete the cultural  revolution of the 1960s.

Harry Antonides