What happened to America in the quarter-century between 1963, when the national ethos was defined by Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, and 1987, when it became defined by the “Greed is Good” speech by Gordon Gekko in the movie, “Wall Street?”
Stemming today’s perilous careen toward the “might makes right” radical “social Darwinist” tenants of the Ryan budget, now embraced by an entire political party, requires a hard look at how the shift in that 1963-1987 period happened.
June 1969 was pivotal. I’ve written about the confluence of events then that involved, on the one hand, a major ratcheting up of the anti-Vietnam War movement and, on the other, the “big bang” birth of the modern gay liberation movement around the Stonewall riots.
Those two simultaneous factors were the product of one of the most moral and courageous periods in history. Building on earlier achievements of the civil rights movement for racial equality, the U.S. population rose up to, for the first time in the nation’s history, actually stop a war.
Led by morally-inspired youth who risked all – jobs, careers, family ties, friends and personal safety – Americans shook the very foundations of traditional power in the U.S. They threatened to bring down that “military and industrial complex” governed by white men, all who felt enfranchised to systematically degrade the role of women, racial minorities and workers, to hate homosexuality, and to order tens of thousands of teenagers to ugly deaths in the jungles of Vietnam.
Such was what we called “The Man,” and “The Man” was being seriously shaken by a turbulent sea of righteous anger flooding the streets of his cities, surging like a terrible harbinger of Judgment Day against his cruel injustice.
So came our gay liberation movement. Inspired by the courage around us, legions of our own tribe, risking even more by “coming out” than the rest, stood up and, bursting with our own courage, claimed our right, the right of us all, to full integrity and our rightful, unique role in the progress of humankind.
Overall, it was the most amazing period since the Revolution in American history, spawning and empowered by, both, our gay liberation movement. It was the full force of the “I Have a Dream” speech played out on the streets of America.
But it didn’t last. As the war began subsiding, there was a rot spreading within the popular uprising whose effect was to turn people away from a fiery demand for justice for all and instead have them curl inward in pursuit of self-centered hedonistic excess.
The influence had been there all along. But as the fervor of the movement waned, it began to assert itself and take over, the flip side of the pursuit of justice and happiness for all. It involved a shift to a preoccupation with selfish desires over the well-being of the overall community. Spurring this tendency had a long history.
Since the rise of industrialism in the 18th century, captains of industry and privilege sought to devise ways to undermine the capacity to resist among those they sought to exploit. They saw collective resistance as the biggest roadblock to their unfettered success, and specifically, they determined to prevent anything like the American revolution from ever happening again.
Philosophies of the individual were developed and propagated, from Max Stirner’s “The Ego and Its Own,” to the theories of Friedrich Nietzsche and Sigmund Freud, and others, about empowering selfish self-obsession against social conscience. The science of “sexology” was devised as one variant.
The approach was formed out of a corruption of Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection, the notion that self-centered humans are by nature driven by two impulses, one toward socially responsible behavior and the other in selfish rebellion against it. The tension was defined in terms of sexual urges.
In typology drawn from Greek mythology, these contending urges were seen as Apollonian (socially responsible) versus Dionysian (pleasure seeking).
Key to this theory was its denial and suppression of a third natural human impulse toward advancing the general good of humankind and associated with the Greek myth of Prometheus.
(I assert that the vital role of same sex erotic attraction in society is derived not from a Dionysian corruption of the mating impulse, as “sexology” contends, but from the Promethean impulse to love humanity).
Fast forwarding to the 1960s, the deliberate cultivation and mainstreaming of a Dionysian “sex, drugs and rock and roll” counterculture was unleashed on the social ferment of that era to defuse it. That counterculture lured people to abandon social justice on behalf of individual radical hedonism, to “turn on, tune in and drop out.”
The mantra to “drop out,” to abandon the pursuit of one’s creative potential in an effort to shape a better world – namely, to extinguish the Promethean impulse – was its most insidious component. A massive offensive, it worked.
(To be continued).