The theme has fascinated me for a long time. I feel profoundly dissatisfied with the development of conservative mores. I notice the fascination many of my contemporaries have for the generation born in the 1920’s and 30’s who lived their youth in the 1950’s. The post-war period in America and Europe were marked by the beginning of consumerism, buying a house, a car, a fridge and a stereo player. The old Soviet bloc lived through the same discovery in the 1990’s onwards. Materialism and consumerism are the panem et circenses of the political and social mainstream. As technology develops, this return to authority and order would seem – if unchecked – to be on the way to the archetypical totalitarian dystopia or Orwell or Huxley, hard or soft. Both Orwell and Huxley were writing in the post-war period when it was feared that the dead Hitler would be replaced by much worse. That is how it was developing in the Soviet Union with Stalin and Beria, in the USA with the “anti-commie” inquisition of Senator McCarthy and conservative England.
The effect of World War II, the Cold War and the Vietnamese war were extremely profound both sides of the Atlantic. I have been reading about the so-called Beatniks (contraction of the Beat reaction and Sputnik, suggesting that anti-conservatives were covert Communist agents), and I find much of the underlying philosophy fascinating. Out of the Beat set came the Hippies, Woodstock, the drugs and “music”, sexual deviancies that went far beyond the idea of replacing marriage and the nuclear family with some kind of tribe or commune. In the end, many of these subcultures became new conformity fashions and something extrinsic to personality or philosophy of life.
I am not a sociologist, but I recognise many of these themes in my own growth as a child and teenager in a sheltered family and schools in the north of England. My brother was more influenced by the “with-it” stuff than I, but my school reports from when I was 11 and 12 years of age mention my not finding the Prophets and the Gospels as being sufficiently “with-it” – modern, anti-authoritarian and in fashion. My two terms at Wennington in 1971-72 brought me into contact with tie-dye clothes and long hair on men and boys. I have noticed observations made about me at seminary that my attitude was too “bohemian” and not urban and conservative. I began to listen to the criticisms and ask myself where it was all coming from.
In my own life, I have been divided between the radical philosophy to which I was exposed as a boy and my love for church music, churches and medieval culture – which led me to a Christian commitment. The trouble is that most radically-minded people are not interested in formal liturgy and conservatives are not interested in other people’s freedom. That’s enough about me, because it’s my problem, nobody else’s.
As I looked into this generic category of counter-culture, I noticed a whole series of historical movements: Romanticism from the 1790’s to about 1840, the Beatniks of the end of World War II to the first hits of the Beatles, the Hippies of the 60’s and 70’s and finally the flotsam and jetsam of alienated urban youth of our own days.
Counter-culture seems to be a notion of opposition against mainstream politics, business, social status determined by money and warmongering. The Romantics had fairly clear philosophical ideas of opposing excesses of rationalism and organisation, laying the ground for modern ecology (the intrinsic rights of nature independently of its usefulness to mankind), pacifism and opposition to capitalism. The Beat Generation still had fairly clear ideas in what they wrote in books and articles. After then, it began to be all about sexual promiscuity, drugs and “music” that would imitate tribal rhythms and manipulate crowds. Eventually, the mainstream would identify the key ideas and assimilate them in order to maintain a predictable and docile population.
A counter-culture would typically aspire to a new society or a better life, the idealised utopia, and would eschew party politics and authoritarianism. Other manifestations would occur from the 1970’s like radical feminism and “come-out” homosexuality, two themes particularly opposed by “conservatives”. Orwell seemed to have a good handle on things when writing Animal Farm: the oppressed become the oppressors. Sociologists have found sub-cultures defining themselves in “counter” or negative terms, peaking, going into decline with some influence on mainstream norms and then absorption as young people got married, found employment and settled. The Romantics, Pre-Raphaelites, Bohemians, Beats and Hippies left a lasting impression in mainstream culture. Many marginal cultures remain, much to the distaste of those who are not part of them: Punk Rockers, Goths and those named for their “musical” preferences.
Many themes have been commercialised like clothing, “music”, ecology, the outlawing of discrimination against minorities, the LGBT scene and radical feminism. This hardly seems a victory of the “movement” but rather its assimilation by the authoritarian mainstream to put it all to some other use.
I have noticed in some studies how the internet has been found to be a place of free expression and protest against the “Machine”. In the early days, some people were hacking and doing damage to what they perceived as “the enemy” (government, business, banks, politics, etc.). Less anti-social elements would use e-mail, build up a web site and more recently move on to blogs and social media like Facebook. More and more of us appreciate the freedom of the internet and being able to transcend geographical limits and the cost of travel to socialise along the lines of common interests. We also find the theme of anarchism which is more or less nihilistic and perverse in terms of respecting other human beings and their freedom.
Though I am a product of the 1960’s and reaction against post-war conservatism, and sympathise with many aspects of the underlying Romantic-based philosophy, I have no time for psychedelic drugs, crowd hysteria, noise blaring out of loudspeakers and instruments like electric guitars, drums and screaming voices. I don’t think I would have liked Woodstock, but I do enjoy the big sailing gatherings in France like the Semaine du Golfe, which is centred on traditional Brittany seafaring culture, not the same thing.
I am quite fascinated by the theme of alternatives to marriage and the “nuclear” family. As a priest of a Continuing Anglican Church, heavily marked by American conservatism, I have to be careful what I say. I have not seen an alternative involving children that has lasted or worked out for the best. I am told that many children of same-sex couples (adopted or conceived by artificial insemination) have become very balanced persons, free of many of the extreme oppositions between traditional masculine and feminine roles in society. Perhaps some but not all. When families are dysfunctional, marriage and the family become a living hell for the couple and the children. There were no children from my own marriage, and my own experience does not leave me inclined to beat the conservative drum. I know too little about children born into Hippie and other alternative communities, but I intend to do some more reading and watching documentaries. Is the nuclear family essential for a child’s identity and stability as a person? I am not completely sure. As for simple homosexuality without children, it may be against the traditional notion of natural law, but it doesn’t do any harm to others if it is the choice of two persons in a private context. After that, it is a matter of personal conscience in accordance with the persons’ beliefs and faith. Christian conservatives cannot legislate over non-Christians or non-religious people! I have already expressed a highly suspicious attitude in regard to “gender” issues and identifying with the opposite sex. There are scientific articles on “gender dysphoria”, but I am suspicious also about psychiatry. There are many things in heaven and earth… I prefer not to get into arguments with conservative moralists!
There are other themes more or less assimilated by mainstream culture and authority. One is protesting against wars of aggression waged principally by the United States in the name of imperial domination (if we can believe alternative news sources). The threat of nuclear war is now returning for the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989. Who can win a nuclear war? Apparently, there are men of politics who really believe that they can win a nuclear war or want to “suicide” the world!
Other themes include opposition to racial hatred, often manifested by conservatives and police forces. I agree that racial hatred is unacceptable in our society, and a study of history will reveal that there have always been ethnic minorities at the margins of every society. I have lived in Marseilles in the 1990’s wearing the cassock and walking around Moroccan and Algerian neighbourhoods without feeling threatened. I have lived in London’s East End (35 years ago) and didn’t feel threatened by black people, Jewish people and Muslims. Radicalisation is the real threat, but the problem is defining radicalisation. Christianity as expressed in the Gospels and the life of St Francis of Assisi is radical – but is doesn’t commit terrorist acts or kill people. Our world is becoming an ever-more dangerous place, and conservative warfare and policing are not solving the problems.
Christianity has become counter-cultural because its conservative tendency is rejected by the mainstream that assimilated and recycled aspects of the counter-cultural movement. If you like, it’s a reaction against a reaction against a reaction. Perhaps a good reading of Antonio Gramsci (cultural Marxism) and the Frankfurt critical theory school would shed light on what is going on. Being counter-cutural will do Christianity a lot of good after centuries of being in bed with repressive and authoritarian regimes. At last, Christianity becomes a manifestation of freedom and love instead of population control and hatred. This notion is central to my New Goliard theme.
Why does counter-culture has to be so tightly associated with “music” like rock, techno or rave? What is needed is another movement associated with the music of Bach, Mozart, Schumann and some of the twentieth century and nineteenth century composers. There was a little group of composers in Paris between the wars called Les Six, probably quite closely associated with Bohemians and Existentialist philosophers. I am very fond of Francis Poulenc who was one of the six. Much has been done to remove good music from the monopoly of the Establishment!
A good expression of Romantic Christianity would do much more good than a lot of the New Age and neo-pagan stuff that has been going around and making pots of money for charlatans. It needs to be separated from establishment conservatism, rigid moralism and brought to appeal to spiritual aspirations and sensuality.
Many of the excesses of the movement have died, leading to triumphalistic assumptions by conservatives. Historical parallels teach us a considerable amount from the Goliards to the Franciscans, Wycliffe and Hus who heralded the Reformation against excesses of clericalism and popular superstition. Many heresies were born of repression and corruption in the ranks of the ecclesiastical and political Establishment. As the Reformation became repressive and taken over by those with power and money, movements arose to oppose them. Christianity is called to find out what it really stands for and then it might attract the interest of the sorts of people Christ came to heal. I would say that Christianity now has a chance before it gets assimilated again by the “Beast”.
An opportunity, a challenge? Whatever. It seems to be a blank sheet of paper waiting for us to write on it – and enjoy the freedom whilst it lasts.