I interviewed a woman in Boston recently who had attended Franconia College, a small, experimental, liberal arts college that existed in New Hampshire from 1963 to 1977.
Visiting the college website, Margaret (not her real name) was stunned to see the number of her alums who had died tragically. The “memoriam page gives a summary cause of death and some of these are gruesome: “murdered at home by unknown person, “jumped or was pushed off roof, “alcohol poisoning, “suicide, “murdered by FBI(?), “overdose, “after accidentally eating water hemlock, while collecting and eating water cress. Most poignant perhaps is the entry for Robert Silver: “died of being Robert Silver and all that entailed. I dont have sociological details on the people who attended Franconia, but this is not the kind of thing that usually happens to graduates of a liberal arts college.
This reminded me of my own “window on the costs of the counter culture. In 1964, I happened to know one of Vancouvers first hippies, Barb. It was thrilling to visit the “hippy house in which Barb and her friends lived. To a 13 year old, these people seemed glamorous. They were, I thought, pioneers, the first to take up full-time residence in the new ideologies of the moment.
This experiment ended tragically. Barb and her house mates moved from daily LSD consumption to speed to heroin and finally, to pay for the heroin, to prostitution. (This is not altogether different from the ethnographic portrait of the eldest daughter in the Gordon family painted by Donald Katz in his remarkable book, Home Fires.)
Each cultural trend brings benefit and we have a deft way of hanging on to these benefits even as the trend itself recedes. But we do not calculate the costs. In the case of the counter-culture the costs were high, and wouldnt it be interesting to have a full quantitative rendering of what these costs were? But we dont, as far as I know. We have several thousand books and articles on the music of Bob Dylan, and almost nothing on the costs of the world this pied piper helped create. Let us put this down to a willful, collective amnesia that resembles the military’s “dont ask, dont tell policy. In our case, its “dont reckon, dont remember.
Other trends are costly, too. The “Studio 54 disco era was spectacularly wasteful of careers and lives. The “alternative moment in the 1990s created many casualties of the 60s kind. (Kurt Cobain was only the most conspicuous.) But even when the costs are not spectacular, they are still expensive. One thinks of all those kids who worked in used record stores rather than for ‘the man. These are costs, as well.
We are a little like the hunters and gatherers who looked for foodstuffs everywhere by eating everything. Many died, but the rest got fed. Substitute “culture for “nature, and there we are. We try everything and damn the consequences. Driven now by a cultural imperative, we are ceaseless in our exploration. Some will pay, all will profit.
This is, in our case, a classic emergent system, driven by individual decisions, not collective objectives. No individual sees herself as a heroic figure or a sacrificial offering. Barb did not spin into tragedy that the counter culture might flourish and that our world might be transformed. She was, now to use the term from a couple of posts ago, following her “bliss.
What difference would it make if we had a systematic account of these costs? There are no “policy implications here. We do not want to discourage cultural innovation on the grounds that it is dangerous. But surely a sharper understanding of who we are and how we work is not out of the question. We could, for instance, work out the “commit and release paradox (see last post) by which we participate in new trends. Some people commit and wont or cant release, even when the personal costs are astronomically high. We could get better at “commit and release.
But the larger issue is pretty straight forward. It is time to put aside cultural amnesia, and to create a more sophisticated book keeping and a closer eye on the debit side.
While we are at it, why not ask the largest question: what is that cultural imperative? Why does the culture ‘that has everything prove to be so restless, experimental, and ready to take risks? Hunters and gatherers would get the self sacrifice. But they would be a little astonished to see where we now put the bet. “You do this to change? they might exclaim. “This is the kind of thing we do to stay the same.
Franconia college “memorial” page
Katz, Donald R. 1992. Home fires: An intimate portrait of one middle-class family in postwar America. New York: Aaron Asher Books.