They tried to Abolish all that was normal…

The counter-culture of the 1960s produced art and ideas that have remained for half a century embedded in western societies, embedded so casually that how ‘counter’ cultural they really are is questionable considering that it is less counter and more normative. Yet still people, certainly people who lived through that period of ‘exploration‘ & ‘discovery(self?)’ look back to the 1960s with a sense of awe and admiration for those rebels and iconoclasts, the figureheads of the counter-cultural movements. Yet how much admiration do the figureheads of the counter-culture we live with actually deserve? Is it simply a matter of a courageous, adventurous, universally minded generation rising up to challenge the supposedly oppressive beliefs and cultural norms of older generations?

From the outset let me make it clear that it was a broad phenomenon in which many musicians, writers, artists, thinkers are involved merely by association or simply for being around at the time and happened to get caught up in the movement. The Beat poets are an interesting pre-cursor, some of whom went on to be the figurehead-activists behind the movement’s force and core-ideals. One such person was Jewish-American poet Allen Ginsberg. Ginsberg grew up within one of America’s many minority communities in New Jersey to a Marxist mother, whose psychological illnesses and trauma impacted him greatly. In fact Ginsberg spent several months in a psychiatric institution for several months as a young man.

Yet he went on to become one of the most widely read poets of the second half of the 20th century. He like many other poets of the modern period wrote in a free-verse structure without any regard to the formal structures of English poetry that had been the prevalent mode for centuries, furthermore up until the earlier 20th century, competence in pentameter and poetic form was a per-requisite to be even considered for publishing. It was not merely poetic tradition that was to be rebelled against for Ginsberg. Just about every social institution, every tradition and cultural tradition and norm needed to be challenged, and he along with others he inspired worked tirelessly through music, art and literature to overthrow what they saw as a regressive and oppressive world which inhibited people’s individual desires.

Politics was a self-serving cesspool of corruption which wanted to just make war and restrict individual freedom or such was the general perception to the idealism that drove the counter-culture movement. The only politics that was worth pursuing was oppositional politics in the streets, demonstrations which could display disenchantment and disdain for policy, the policy-makers and anyone associated with the corrupt ‘establishment‘ or ‘system‘. Ginsberg, a life-long communist did however lobby for reform in his country, he worked to emancipate fellow homosexuals from what was undeniably at times forms of discrimination.

Ginsberg however campaigned further, not merely for the political rights of a visible minority but for the unrestricted right of adults to have sexual relations with children, opposition to which was a product of oppressive, old-fashioned obstacles to human freedom such as religion, the state and first and foremost, the family unit. Timothy Leary who like Ginsberg was known for his advocacy of illegal mind-altering psycho-active drugs famously stated ‘don’t trust anyone over thirty’ an ideal intended to appeal to the inherent impulses for creativity and self-discovery present in young adults. Any attachment to their parents, to traditional ways of thinking and living were to be abolished, however persuasively.

The individual was supreme, all else could perish in an instant without a moment’s care, after all the goal was to be care-free, free of responsibility, free of commitment and ultimately free from certainty. The strategy to undermine all the old certainties, all the beliefs and norms of the past was for many counter-culture figureheads to pressure youth directly or indirectly to take illegal drugs to induce altered states, (which in reality was more akin to not thinking at all, to damage a functioning brain) and to sell new exotic, eastern quasi-religions, caricatures of traditional forms of religion found in the Indian Sub-Continent and the Far East.

Freedom was in the counter-cultural view and remains understood firstly as a negatively defined freedom, that is, the freedom to rebel, to oppose, and secondly freedom for the individual, that is to say in contrast and often at the expense of the collective or tribal good. The counter-culture of the 1960s produced an idealism, which has within it some underlying healthy, admirable values such as a questioning of power, a vague pacifism and a sort of open-mindedness, yet how those values are expressed and framed in language, how we, 50 years later project back onto that period that idealism is fraught with insurmountable problems and subjectivity.

The goals however of many counter-cultural figureheads were arrogant, selfish and perverse and it is those seeds that have sprouted more over time than the other seeds, seeds of human respect, trust and decency. What is left is the last generation, in western societies of adults, who worked, lived, and almost always married living among us, they came of age in the 1940s and 1950s when an outlook on life, however flawed, was shared, when the blind desire to rebel, to contradict and to ingratiate had not been fostered by mentally troubled poets and C.I.A operatives.

A deeply distrustful generation

I am of the generation of globalized millennials, that is to say I am in my twenties, although there many even now into their thirties with the outlook on life I am about to describe. I was led to believe early on that my generation was the most developed, that its life was the most leisurely and privileged, that we were on the cutting edge, though what that meant was never quite explained. We were told we were better because the older generations were wrong, in fact the world in which they lived was wrong, the structures and institutions that people identified with and lived under whether customary, political or religious were all a sham designed to manipulate people and supress their desires and individual freedoms.

What is most interesting is that the supposedly inter-connected, privileged generation to which I by no feat of my own belong, defines itself against the past, against the worldview and lifestyle of the generations before it. That is to say it defines itself negatively, by what it does not believe and how it does not live. What has been suggested to this digital/digitized generation is that it is invariably better (and better off) than its predecessors without it ever being consciously questioned what it does believe in, what values it does assert, and more importantly what its members actually share.

What is shared is negatively defined: opposition to tradition, to political engagement (unless related to identity), to religious modes of being and thinking, to hierarchies of all kinds even simply to the idea of there being a substantive difference between a teacher and a pupil is challenged. For there is an ingrained sense of default self-worth which is not holy or wholly defined. It is a sense of egalitarianism that while on the one hand is dignifying is on the other hand a creation of false equality, is an apprentice equal to their master? No, we should know that the former is inferior within the given field of study or labour.

Yet there is a refusal on behalf of the millennials to even recognise the possibility of hierarchy which so characterised the past. A time when symbols, when traditionally figurative and metaphysical conceptions of life and society predominated. The idea that a teacher perhaps by their learning and commitment to philosophy or law for example is superior to a fresh student to the field. Or in politics that perhaps those engaged with the political system aren’t self-interested characters who necessarily operate by deception but may actually be a person of moral character acting in the interests and for the welfare of his fellow man.

The outlook is one of automatic suspicion, which indeed may occasionally be merited, yet fundamentally it leaves one blind and incapable of fair and impartial judgement towards others, it is an insight less into how the world itself works as to the loss of a cohesive value system or outlook by which the world is positively approached, by which other people themselves are viewed.

Our modern context

The most defining property of modernity, according to sociologist Anthony Giddens, is that we are disembedded from time and space. In pre-modern societies, space was the area in which one moved, time was the experience one had while moving. In modern societies, however, the social space is no longer confined by the boundaries set by the space in which one moves. One can now imagine what other spaces look like, even if he has never been there.

Why ‘Islam’ is not alien to the ‘West’

‘Islam’ and ‘The West’ are questionable rubrics that in a popular discourse have particular meanings and connotations. I want to take a look at how these seemingly diametrically opposed forces meet in possibility and actuality.

Islam is a world religion, roughly a fifth of people living identify with it. It is like any other religion, it is embodied in more than 1 way, that’s to say it looks and acts differently depending on where and when, different shades of the same colour on a palette you could say. This is an obvious but necessary point considering that repeated narrative of Islam’s one-dimensional nature.

The West is easier to definitely negatively, it is not a geographical area, after all Australia and Austria are nowhere near each other, nor does a language define it, I mean Portuguese and Danish don’t share much in common linguistically, perhaps the link is elsewhere. What has the power to relate people beyond immediate words in such a dramatic way? Religion seems to be the force.

The West is broadly speaking, Christian, it has different languages and more than a few ethnic groups, it  underwent a process of secularization which has changed different countries to varying degrees, so France is secular in a different way to how Portugal is secular. Most Muslim Majority Countries are Secular in the political sense yet different still because the Enlightenment was an activity restricted to a relatively small area of the world, to pockets of Western Europe, its ideas percolating over time through those societies in different ways.

The West has a Christian heritage, this is the underlying relation that is at the root, (often unconsciously) of this modern discourse of ‘The West’ as I see it. This discourse is often the basis of identity politics, a type of politics that often sadly reduces the world to a polarised story of us the good, us the hero, us the victim, and them, the ‘others’, the ‘savages’, the perpetrators. This is an inescapable aspect of identity politics of which ‘Islam’, as a civilisation plays in the same way, nor is it confined to ‘The West & ‘Islam’, it is a matter of identity, that is there all down through history.

Where is the meeting of the Monotheisms you ask? After all I have described two worlds that would seem to be separate…there is a separation but there are always  meeting points, even 1000 years ago there were meeting points, very few civilisations maintain lives apart from the world beyond them. Scholarship has shown that whether through trade routes, through philosophy, through migration, there has always been a link between Christendom and its younger cousin, the Islamic world.

This is excluding all the untold stories that scholarship can  perhaps never document, the only prospect that I find disconcerting is the loss of identity within both worlds, the commercialisation and post-modern process of a world of diverse groups living the same lives as consumers with the same goals and same importance and same truths….a world blind to nuance, without the wisdom to appreciate difference while distinguishing it.

The prospect of identity loss, loss of heritage and a watering down of human identity into a world of brightly lit consumerism and shallow selfish individualism is a prospect that should worry people, rather than the misguided and amplified fears of difference over Religions. A final thank you to patient non-religious readers, family, friends, strangers.

Amidst flux and impermanence

Amid the flux and impermanence of the commercialised, globalised metropolis,

the urgent challenge is to find soil in which one can be rooted,

the stability of being rooted or grounded in an erratic aesthetically, materially and symbolically unstable environment in which one faces a constant barrage of persuasive if not pervasive gestures and proposals which are designed in some way to appeal to our instincts of fear, hunger, identity & desire.

The task at hand is to seek out the means by which one can ground oneself, root oneself and ultimately guard the fragile human mind whose unconscious and vast depths are troubled, tempted and torn asunder in ways no campesino, no fellah, no farmer tolerate as their aching, sweating bodies endure a cycle of tasks the mind can meet whether on windy slopes or in midday heat!