The medium is the message.
– Marshall McLuhan (1911—1980)
Watching television is like taking black spray paint to your third eye.
– Bill Hicks (1961—1994)
If there is still one hellish, truly accursed thing in our time, it is our artistic dallying with forms… We are all like victims, tied to the stake, signaling through the flames.
– Antonin Artaud (1896—1948)
When the power of love overcomes the love of power, the world will know peace.
– Jimi Hendrix (1942—1970)
As the Bard once noted four hundred years ago, the past is prologue to the present–with history often repeating itself. So, 50 years on from the summer of ’67, is there any wisdom to be gleaned from that glorified season in the Sun? Was 1967 merely an outrageously garish fashion show for all of the beautiful people, or has the nature of what it means to be human evolved over the last half-century?
Without filtering our collective memories through the rose-tinted spectacles of nostalgia, a trawl through the old archives suggests: The more things change, the more they stay the same. Perhaps we were a lot more naÃ¯ve (and much less cynical) than we are now. But thanks to the antiquated messages of the media, we still appear to be hung up, hypnotized, and brainwashed by the divide-and-conquer, bread-and-circus, shuck-and-jive of creating separation among ourselves–based upon the tried-and-true tribal prejudices of class, race, gender, sexual preference, and competing mythological belief systems. And yet, 1967 (including the years leading up to it) was a portal into extreme novelty–the peak of an epoch where the imagined possibilities of the human race expanded at a rate that was revolutionary and mind-blowing. It wasn’t just the drugs talking, but rather a spiritual renaissance of imagination, innovation, and optimism–in other words, the dawning of a new age.
That optimism was established at the beginning of the decade by the charismatic John Fitzgerald Kennedy, in a series of progressive social programs dubbed the “New Frontier,” in which he implored the nation, and the world at large, to live out its fullest potential as a rational, intelligent, and compassionate species. Kennedy was a savvy politician, and he understood the power, and potential dangers, of the media in the Age of Information. He was the first U.S. president to fully exploit the visual medium of television as a soapbox to charm his way into the hearts and minds of his constituency. When his inaugural address was broadcast to millions of Americans in January of 1961, he used it as an opportunity to promote his philosophy of inclusion, compassion, and activism: “Ask not what your country can do for you–ask what you can do for your country. [And to] my fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.”
The Freedom of Man. Not since the Sixties have we heard a political figure speak in such an evocative manner. Clearly, President Kennedy was not your ordinary, run-of-the-mill politician: i.e., committed to bowing down to the altar of hegemony through bloodshed. But what forms of oppression was JFK referring to that compromise the freedom of humanity? Based upon a speech that he delivered to the American Newspaper Publishers Association on April 27, 1961, it appeared that he was speaking out against fascism and social engineering through the use of propaganda in the media. “The very word ‘secrecy’ is repugnant in a free and open society, and we are as a people inherently and historically opposed to secret societies, to secret oaths, and secret proceedings.
“No official of my administration…should interpret my words here tonight as an excuse to censor the news, to stifle dissent, to cover up our mistakes or to withhold from the press and the public the facts they deserve to know.
“For we are opposed around the world by a monolithic and ruthless conspiracy that relies on covert means for expanding its sphere of influence–on infiltration instead of invasion. On subversion, instead of elections. On intimidation, instead of free choice.
“The Athenian lawmaker Solon decreed it a crime for any citizen to shrink from controversy. And that is why our press is protected by the First Amendment–the only business in America specifically protected by the Constitution. Not primarily to amuse and entertain, not to emphasize the trivial and sentimental, not to simply ‘give the public what it wants’–but to inform, to arouse, to reflect, to state our dangers and our opportunities, to indicate our crises and our choices, to lead, mold, educate, and sometimes even anger public opinion.
“This means greater coverage and analysis of international news–for it is no longer far away and foreign, but close at hand and local. It means greater attention to improved understanding of the news, as well as improved transmission. And it means, finally, that government at all levels, must meet its obligation to provide you with the fullest possible information outside the narrowest limits of national security.
“And so it is to the printing press–to the recorder of man’s deeds, the keeper of his conscience, the courier of his news–that we look for strength and assistance, confident that with your help, man will be what he was born to be: free and independent.”
Of course, John Kennedy would not live to see how ironic and prophetic those pronouncements would be. Full disclosure and transparency in governmental policy were antithetical to the agenda of Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon Johnson, who certainly wasn’t going to encourage the general population to demand truth from its government or to have “an improved understanding of the news.” But if we have learned anything over the last 50 years, it is to logically dismiss the Warren Commission’s hypotheses regarding Kennedy’s assassination as a smokescreen of willful deception upon the public, in order to protect the identities of those who masterminded this gruesome coup d’Ã©tat.
However, by the middle of the Sixties, many people were developing an improved understanding of current events through the power of television. What television did on a nightly basis in 1967 was bring into the living rooms of middle-America a view of how horrendously visceral the war in Vietnam was and, in turn, that view mirrored and inspired even greater violence at home. This was a new development in the delicate song-and-dance between the government, the media, and the populace–providing a painful lesson in understanding that controlling the media is paramount to controlling the narrative that goes out to the public. The Johnson administration discovered through gross trial and error that the pictures being broadcast on the NBC, CBS, and ABC nightly news were galvanizing dissent and polarizing the population. Adding to the general frustration were the foot-dragging antics of the government regarding civil rights in America, resulting in the “Long, Hot Summer of ’67,” which produced over 150 race riots across the U.S., with disturbances in Atlanta, Boston, Cincinnati, Buffalo, Tampa, Birmingham, Chicago, New York, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Rochester, Newark, Detroit, and many other municipalities. Burn, baby, burn…
At the same time, the Middle East was exploding with conflicts over the Suez Canal, the Gaza Strip, and the West Bank, with Israel deploying a first-strike offensive against the neighboring states of Egypt (the United Arab Republic), Jordan, and Syria in what would be called the Six-Day War (June 5—10, 1967). As people were flocking to California to attend the Monterey International Pop Festival, and listening to the latest LP by the Beatles [Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band] as if it had been hand-delivered by Moses himself, the United States Navy technical research ship, the USS Liberty, was being deliberately fired upon by Israeli Air Force jet fighter aircraft and Israeli Navy motor torpedo boats, resulting in 34 American casualties and 171 wounded. In 1967, it was nearly impossible to determine who were your enemies and who were your allies.
Perhaps much of the civil unrest throughout America could have been reduced if President Johnson had taken greater notice of the Machiavellian teachings of Edward Bernays, the nephew of Sigmund Freud, and one of the most significant figures of the 20th century for his insights into public relations and propaganda. Bernays advised dozens of major American corporations, as well as government agencies, politicians, and non-profit organizations. Two of his books, Crystallizing Public Opinion (1923) and Propaganda (1928), deserve special attention, if only for Bernays’ description of the masses as irrational and subject to herd instincts, and he outlined how skilled practitioners could use crowd psychology and psychoanalysis to control them in desirable ways. What a boon for the social engineering agenda of Madison Avenue!
With the current generation receiving its cultural clues from such revisionist Hollywood pap as Mad Men, a closer reading of the events of 1967 require tapping into a multitude of sources and understanding who is in control of what we see and hear in the mass media. Most of us still get our information and “news” from a very controlled syndicate, and when six multi-national conglomerates set the agenda for what passes as “current events” in the world, that is a very dangerous thing, as Paddy Chayefsky made painfully clear in his 1976 satire of television, Network. Mr. Howard Beale: “Right now there is an entire generation that never knew anything that didn’t come out of this tube. This tube is the gospel, the ultimate revelation. This tube can make or break presidents, popes, prime ministers–this tube is the most awesome goddamn force in the whole godless world and woe is us if it ever falls into the hands of the wrong people…
“When the twelfth largest company in the world controls the most awesome goddamn propaganda force in the whole godless world, who knows what shit will be peddled for truth on this network. So, you listen to me: television is not the truth. Television is a goddamn amusement park. Television is a circus, a carnival, a traveling troupe of acrobats, storytellers, dancers, singers, jugglers, sideshow freaks, lion tamers, and football players. We’re in the boredom-killing business. So, if you want the truth… go to yourselves, ’cause that’s the only place you’re ever going to find any real truth.
“We deal in illusions, man; none of it is true. But you people sit there day after day, night after night, all ages, colors, creeds–we’re all you know. You’re beginning to believe the illusions we’re spinning here, you’re beginning to think that the tube is reality and that your own lives are unreal. You do whatever the tube tells you. You dress like the tube, you eat like a tube, you raise your children like a tube, you even think like a tube. This is mass madness, you maniacs. In God’s name, you people are the real thing–we are the illusion. So, turn off your television sets, turn them off now, turn them off right now, turn them off and leave them off, turn them off right in the middle of the sentence I am speaking. Turn them off!”
With all the conjecture regarding what constitutes “fake news” these days, understanding the media and our sense of history is as important today as it was in the Sixties, perhaps even more so, because what is portrayed in the media as “news” shapes our paradigm, and acts as a precursor to what our individual and collective psyches project into the world.
An extraterrestrial being, newly arrived on Earth–scrutinizing what we mainly present to our children in television, radio, movies, newspapers, magazines, the comics, and many books–might easily conclude that we are intent on teaching them murder, rape, cruelty, superstition, credulity, and consumerism. We keep at it, and through constant repetition many of them finally get it. What kind of society could we create if, instead, we drummed into them science and a sense of hope?
– Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark
Entrainment or entertainment, the choice is up to you. What’s it going to be?
The most impoverished aspect about society, both then and now, is our lack of innovative ideas, and to embrace the values of collectively balancing ourselves. And clearly, as Chayefsky and Sagan state above, if we’re looking to the media for any form of guidance, we’re hitching our wagon to the wrong outhouse.
Regarding his time as a student at Bard College in upstate New York (1966—69), Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen has this to say about the cultural climate of the late Sixties: “It always seemed to me that the class of ’68 was the last bunch of kids not seriously despoiled in their youth by television (with its insidious brainworm commercials) and drugs. Chances were they’d spent their first years of life without a TV and had to use their imagination to entertain themselves. Perhaps they even played with some non-corporate-developed toys and read a few books. Sans malls, they hung out at candy stores and had milk delivered by the milkman and the doctor came to their bedrooms when they were ill. Since then, TV and the malls and the drugs have compounded the Big Stupid we live with now.”
When television personality Tom Snyder interviewed Marshall McLuhan in 1976, he asked, “What would happen if you shut off television for 30 days in the entire United States of America?” McLuhan: “There would be a kind of hangover effect, because it’s a very addictive medium. You take it away and people develop all of the symptoms of a hangover–it’s very uncomfortable. It was tried two or three years ago in Germany and in Great Britain; they actually paid people to not watch TV for a couple of months. And they discovered that they had all the withdrawal symptoms of drug addicts. TV is a very, very involving medium and it is a form of ‘inner trip.’ And so, people do miss it.” Snyder: “The thought just occurred to me that if you turned off television there would be a lot of people who would say, at the end of the 30-day period, we will not permit you to turn it back on. Do you think that could happen?” McLuhan: “A great many of the teenagers have stopped watching television–they’re saturated–saturation is a possibility. As for the possibility of reneging on any future TV, I doubt it. Except through saturation. But TV is so demanding, and therefore so soporific that it requires an enormous amount of energy to participate in. You don’t have that freedom of detachment. One of the effects of television is removing people’s private identity. They become corporate peer group people just by watching it. They lose interest in being private individuals. This is one of the hidden, and perhaps, most insidious aspects of television.” Or, as Artaud might have imagined: television as an absurd theater of cruelty.
Speaking of insidious, to peruse the TV Guide in 1967 is to understand that for every show as brilliant as The Prisoner or potentially thought-provoking as Star Trek, there are 20 times as many programs that are the epitome of banality: Gilligan’s Island, The Flying Nun, Mothers-In-Law, Petticoat Junction, Please Don’t Eat the Daises, et al. ad nauseam. Even programs that might have been considered innovative or edgy at the time–say, The Monkees or the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour–in retrospect just demonstrate how innocent the times were in comparison to today’s more sophisticated mores.
Parallel to McLuhan’s observations, on March 29, Âa 13-day TV strike began, with the employees of all three television networks walking off the job. News continued to be broadcast daily with substitute anchors and pre-recorded shows until an agreement was reached on April 10–just in time to broadcast the annual Academy Awards program live from the Santa Monica Auditorium.
Regarding the state of literature and the dominance of television and film in our culture, the iconoclastic author Terry Southern [Candy, The Magic Christian] had this to say in 1962: “It used to be that books were to be more highly regarded than plays, and that plays, in turn, were better than movies. It was not the advent of television itself that rattled this hierarchy, but the fact that all the major film studios, to improve poor balance sheets, began unloading their entire back catalogs of films onto the TV networks. It was then possible to see, free and in the comfort of home, the exact type of film which was being shown outside; and people in the millions started kicking the movie habit–lending breakneck acceleration to the decline in movie attendance–until, in 1959, it was 50 percent of what it had been before TV, and still dropping. It was recognized that a ‘different’ type of general film than was being seen at home would have to be created to bring people back into the theatres… Now, when Film gets good, Book is in trouble. Theoretically, it is not possible for a book to compete, aesthetically, psychologically, or in any other way, with a film. Of sensory perceptions it is well established that the most empathetic are sight and sound. It is for this reason that to see someone badly hurt, for example, hit by a car, bleeding, crying with pain, is a totally different experience from reading about it in the paper. In short, next to having been the victim oneself, the most meaningful thing would be to have witnessed it firsthand. ‘Seeing,’ as they say, ‘is believing.’ Film, by its very nature, more closely approximates first-hand experience than does print. And there, of course, the advantage only begins.”
In cinematic terms, a “different type of general film” was beginning to be made in America and abroad: it was called “independent production.” What is it about the cinema that allows us to reflect upon our shadow side, but only in the relative safety of a darkened theater? 1967 was the time of the anti-hero–a character that the audience can identify with because they too wish to stick it to the Man, and beat the system at its own game. After JFK’s assassination and the worldwide escalation of violence, films such as Bonnie and Clyde and Cool Hand Luke caught the mood of the times, lodged within the generation gap where outlaws became romanticized (“What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.”). Issues of self-identity and racial prejudice were brought to the fore by Stanley Kramer’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?, where Sidney Poitier’s character says to his father “You think of yourself as a colored man–I think of myself as a man.”
But the most significant mainstream film of the year was certainly Mike Nichols’ The Graduate. This was the very stuff that Frank Zappa was heaping scorn upon in 1967’s Absolutely Free with the song “Plastic People,” and it is easy to see why audiences were identifying with the recently matriculated Benjamin Braddock, brilliantly portrayed by Dustin Hoffman. Adrift and confused about what to do with himself now that he has graduated from college, he receives this bit of advise from a friend of his father: get into the plastics business–it’s the wave of the future. As the antithesis of authenticity, for everyone who had become hip to how the game of life and commerce are played, the notion of a plastic society became the symbolic byword of what bohemians throughout the land rebelled against en masse.
Here’s a query: How might the effects from our past programming be healed, in order to move forward from the psychic shackles that linger in our unconscious shadows? Until we can truly answer that question for ourselves, we will continue to perpetuate the divisions and misconceptions that have left us wanting.
What is important to note about the summer of ’67 is what it eventually begat, with the flower power and optimism yielding to a militant impatience for worldwide change NOW! The escalation of bloodshed in Vietnam by Lyndon Johnson and his cadre of war hawks also managed to successfully eliminate those whose voices were powerful enough to oppose the Satanism of the military industrial complex: i.e., Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy. Popular music was shifting as well–you can hear it in the songs of The Beatles as they continued to mirror the times, with John Lennon’s “Revolution” being a primary example of how much had changed between the end of ’67 and the end of ’68. “If you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao, you ain’t gonna make it with anyone anyhow” was a tremendous departure from “newspaper taxis” and “Semolina Pilchard climbing up the Eiffel Tower.” Like it or not, the psychedelic explosion of 1966 was peaking in ’67, and by 1968, the soft optimism of the era was turning dark and ugly–the equivalent of trading in your face paint and rubbing dirt all over your cheeks; like a crouching solider in a rice field, so that no one can see the glare of your soft pink flesh as you prepare for battle on the ideological field of racist, globalist exploitation.
While the media at large continues to drone on nostalgically about the “Summer of Love,” the innovative ideas that emerged from this time are still waiting to be fully explored. The radical youth of the day managed to see a multiverse of possibilities that had scarcely been hinted at before. The collective imagination was loosened to the breaking point, and everybody who was turned on beyond the constrictions of dogmatic impotence tried their damndest to share those dreams and visions with their fellow brethren. The true secret for collective ascension is for enough people to experientially understand how to expand the morphogenetic field of human capabilities, and for all of us to pull the oars in the same direction–viola! Paradise found, baby…
We are still emerging out of the Dark Ages into a world not yet born that holds the promise of being a true spiritual revolution. In 1967 a significant amount of people began to visualize a world where the vibration of love is predominant. And not just the adolescent dream love eros myth of Romeo and Juliet, but a grander form of agape that puts compassion and empathy above all forms of selfish aggrandizement. You can get it if you really want it. Peace and love to you and yours. Now: let’s make it happen, Captain!