Updated: Nov 6, 2020
by Shelley Gerstein
This essay first appeared in Coast Magazine’s Holiday Issue, 1996 reprinted with permission of the author
It’s said of computers, garbage in – garbage out. The same is true about understanding ourselves. If we rely on false myths about ourselves and our history, no matter how sophisticated our analysis, our conclusions about our society will be as false as the input.
The recent election has highlighted one of these myths. In the last days of the campaign, Perot called President Clinton a draft dodger and said the American people should be ashamed they elected him in 1992. And Dole’s criticisms, too, went beyond the political. Though never explicitly stated, there seemed to be the deeply held judgement that Clinton was a free-lovin free-loader who wouldn’t fight for his country; that he personally embodied what was wrong with America — a long-hair, a pot smoker, a hippie with a feminist wife.
Does “unfit to be president” really describe the character of those of us who were typical of our generation and are now middle aged? Whatever Clinton’s fundraising transgressions, was there really ever a generation of Americans worthy of such disdain?
Alan Watts, speaking of the most rudimentary myths thirty years ago, articulated the principles of the time:
“It is said that humanity has evolved one-sidedly, growing in technological power without any comparable growth in moral integrity, or, as some would prefer to say, without comparable progress in education and rational thinking. Yet the problem is more basic. The root of the matter is the way in which we feel and conceive ourselves as human beings, our sensation of being alive, of individual existence and identity. We suffer from a hallucination, from a false and distored sensation of our own existence as living organisms. Most of us have the sensation that “I myself” is a separate center of feeling and action, living inside and bounded by the physical body — a center which “confronts” an “external” world of people and things, making contact through the senses with a universe both alien and strange. Everyday figures of speech reflect this illusion. “I came into this world.” “You must face reality.” “The conquest of nature.” This feeling of being lonely and very temporary visitors in the universe is a flat contradiction of everything known about man (and all other living organisms) in the sciences. We do not “come into” this world; we come out of it, as leaves from a tree. As the ocean “waves,” the universe “peoples.” Every individual is an expression of the whole realm of nature, a unique action of the total universe. This fact is rarely, if ever, experienced by most individuals. Even those who know it to be true in theory do not sense or feel it, but continue to be aware of themselves as isolated “egos” inside bags of skin. The first result of this illusion is that our attitude to the world “outside” us is largely hostile. We are forever “conquering” nature, space, mountains, deserts, bacteria, and insects instead of learning to cooperate with them in a harmonious order. The hostile attitude of conquering nature ignores the basic interdependence of all things and events — that the world beyond the skin is actually an extension of our own bodies — and will end in destroying the very environment from which we emerge and on which our whole life depends. The second result of feeling that we are separate minds in an alien, and mostly stupid, universe, is that we have no common sense, no way of making sense of the world on which we are agreed in common. It’s just my opinion against yours, and therefore the most aggressive and violent (and thus insensitive) propogandist makes the decisions. A muddle of conflicting opinions united by force of propoganda is the worst possible source of control for a powerful technology. The Book on the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are Alan Watts, 1966
We cannot afford, these days, to be led by those who flunked the lessons of the 60’s or to have them misrepresent those values.
Winning the War
During the Vietnam era, the courageous were either in the jungles of Vietnam or the streets of America. They were not, for the most part, in Congress or the white house or the offices of corporate America. The majority of Americans, the patriots who forced President Johnson’s resignation, were victorious — the first people ever to force their government to stop a war. But those who lost that war, the same ones who counseled patience for their bigoted colleagues when ordinary people rose up for civil rights and would lead yet another war on the victims of drug abuse, never went away. They are the ones who lecture us about our morals. Only among those who do not understand what happened in the 60′ and 70’s is our history still misinterpreted to enhance the ambitions and egoes of the self-serving villians of the time. It’s as if the British were the only ones to record what happened in 1776.
Now those who ended the war, marched for civil rights, and insisted that women would not be second class citizens serve on the school boards and city councils. We run the businesses. We work hard. We honor a war resister with the presidency and take Rachel Carson (Silent Spring, 1962) for granted. In our culture, we don’t drink hard and fight hard. On the contrary, we value the soft spoken, the feeling of being one with the world and protecting it against our own exhuberance.
A New World
We are the culture, not the counter culture, and we need to be responsible for our values and history so that those younger than us may build on our achievements and avoid our mistakes. Challenged by events, the sixties and seventies were a time of responsibility and cooperation, not a time of loose morals as those who failed the nation would have it. The greed and selfishness of the lonely and hostile whose antiquated culture views life as a competition with death, did not regain influence until the eighties, when too many confused what is moral with what is legal, with what an attorney can get away with in court.
As this century opened, Woodrow Wilson envisioned a league of nations that would unite the peoples of the earth. As the century closes, changes in technology and trade that he could not have forseen are pushing his vision to fruition and we must promote American values as the standards people all over the earth will enjoy. The march of technology and international alliances are, at best, dignity neutral and democracy neutral. A world of discerning individuals and pleasant communities cannot be taken for granted as the authority of nations recedes in the face of global corporations.