Princeton Alumni Weekly asked Raymond Arsenault ’69, the John Hope Franklin Professor of Southern History at the University of South Florida, to share his reflections on AMS’s September 27-28, 2019 conference “Considering the Counterculture.” Arsenault participated in the conference, speaking on “The Mahatma Invades America: CORE, Martin Luther King Jr. and the Movement Culture of Nonviolent Direct Action.”
In the popular lore of the 1960s and 1970s, the “Counterculture” was everything, and it was nothing. Like an ethereal cloud it drifted in sometime around 1967, probably during Haight-Ashbury’s Summer of Love, drenching the cultural landscape with a hailstorm of acid trips, hippie communes, and free love, with a downdraft of Eastern mysticism thrown in. And then — mercifully, for those who longed for a return to the security of order and tradition — it all just floated away during the cultural drought of the Reagan years. Or so it seemed.
Of course, for scholars who study the Counterculture as a social and political phenomenon, and for those who came of age as I did during this tumultuous period, the calculus of change was never that simple. Here, as in virtually every aspect of cultural history, the basic questions of definition, causality, and timing are always challenging and sometimes confounding.
These and many other questions were on full display at a Princeton conference on countercultural history Sept. 27–28. Organized by the Program in American Studies, the conference brought together more than two dozen scholars from a variety of disciplines and a number of American universities. All were specialists in the study of the United States during the 1960s and 1970s, but otherwise there was diversity all around. The participants were as eclectic as the subjects they were discussing, ranging from professors of architecture and theater arts to a Black Lives Matter activist, a 22-year-old 2019 Princeton graduate studying women’s health reforms since the 1960s, and Harvard Law School’s venerable critical race-theory sage Mark Tushnet.
Of course, for scholars who study the Counterculture as a social and political phenomenon, and for those who came of age as I did during this tumultuous period, the calculus of change was never that simple. Here, as in virtually every aspect of cultural history, the basic questions of definition, causality, and timing are always challenging and sometimes confounding. What exactly was the Counterculture? Was it anything beyond a popular fixation with sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll? Where did it come from, and why did it emerge when it did? What was the Counterculture’s relationship with radical New Left politics? With feminism, environmentalism, and the African American freedom struggle? With New Age religion? With the movement to end the war in Vietnam?
In six 90-minute sessions titled “In Search of a Countercultural Moment,” “An Economy of Tools and Knowledge,” “Movements and Alliances,” “Scarcity and Abundance,” “Expertise and Radical Cultures,” and “Anxiety and Spirituality,” the presenters left no stone (or stoner!) unturned. Countercultural topics up for discussion included Stewart Brand and The Whole Earth Catalog; San Francisco’s Diggers, an influential band of anarchist street performers; “New Wave” food cooperatives; architects involved in the Community Design movement; the Boston Women’s Health Collective’s production of Our Bodies, Ourselves; the New Age artist Carlos Villa; the British playwright Tom Stoppard’s historical drama Rock ’n’ Roll; internationalism, World Federalism, and the planetary citizens movement; Martin Luther King Jr.’s reliance on Gandhi-inspired nonviolent direct action and his search for the “beloved community”; and the early experiments in globalized media known as the “Satellites of Love.”
The keynote speaker was the longtime democratic and environmental activist Frances Moore Lappé, the author of the 1971 classic Diet for a Small Planet. Fittingly, the first day of the conference concluded with a dinner featuring vegetarian and organic recipes from Lappé’s seminal book.
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