Sunday Night Journal — January 30, 2005
Folly Chasing Death
One last note on the general lack of repentance on the part of the cultural revolutionaries of the late ‘60s, after which I plan to leave the subject alone for a while: I haven’t yet mentioned the evangelization for drug use that was as prominent in its time as the sexual revolution.
There’s been a joke going around for some time that “if you remember the ‘60s you weren’t there.” Very funny. Let me revise that, with no humorous intention whatsoever: if you believe that drugs and sex were not at the center of the late ‘60s counter-culture, you weren’t there. Of course there were many other ingredients, left-wing politics most obviously, but those were the essential common ground. If you dissented on either of these, in principle or in practice, you were at the margins of the revolution.
If you can push aside and ignore the self-congratulatory history of the movement written by those who created it or at least sympathized with it, the truth looks something like this: certain of the spoiled young people of the ‘60s made it popular and fashionable to take a wide variety of illegal and mostly quite dangerous drugs, with harmful, sometimes devastating, consequences for millions of people. The fashion spread at the expense of the physical and mental health of those drawn into it and has taken its worst toll among the poor who have fewer resources for recovering from mistakes. Going on forty years later, it has become a major and apparently permanent social problem. And yet one rarely finds, among those who still feel allegiance to the counter-culture of the late ‘60s, any sense of real regret for having initiated this phenomenon.
It is true that the counter-culture did not invent or even introduce these drugs, but it did make their use glamorous and help to push them into every nook and cranny of society. It is true that I’m generalizing about a wide assortment of drugs, not all of which are equally harmful. It is at least arguable that the laws against drugs have actually done more harm than good. Granting all that, though, it remains a fact that the counter-culture believed its drugs to be a positive and liberating good and that most of the people involved have never admitted they were terribly wrong.
If you read the history of the counter-culture as written by a sympathizer or participant, you will most likely find very little sense or acknowledgement of any connection between its embrace of drugs and the devastation that followed. You may not find open applause for drug use, but you will find it winked at as a sort of engaging naughtiness, and quite possibly given credit for freeing people from convention and so forth. You will find this same attitude in present-day treatments of rock stars and other celebrities.
Of course there is nothing now that the aging hippies can do about all this; the evil genie was out of their control as soon as it emerged from the bottle. So why am I saying these things, and what do I want? Public confession and recantation from a lot of fifty-something men with gray pony tails would be of no use now. I suppose what I’m after is, simply, a clearing of the air, something like what has been called, in reference to the crimes of Communism, the purification of memory. I want it understood and acknowledged that a kind of crime occurred, in which dangerous foolishness was set loose, to the terrible and continuing harm of many. And I have the sense that in some obscure way the moral progress of our society is inhibited by the lack of this acknowledgement.
And if these reasons are too vague, I have more immediate and concrete ones. Over the past summer two families of my acquaintance endured the death of a son from a drug overdose. I don’t know either of the families intimately but I do know they were both stable and as far as I know healthy, and that the young men were not, prior to their involvement with drugs, pathological in any apparent way. In short these were not the sort of deaths that can be explained by easy references to poverty and family breakdown.
No parent needs any prompting from me to imagine what these families are suffering. After the second of these deaths I started making a mental list of the number of people I know who have died or been seriously damaged by drugs. It grew appallingly long. I began to wonder if any family has been untouched. When I remember the way drugs were advanced in the ‘60s as part and parcel of liberation, I am sickened and angered. And I’m ashamed of the part I played in what I am beginning to think of as the Stupid Revolution. (As I related in my autobiographical essay, my involvement with drugs was pretty limited, but that was due more to a constitutional inability to enjoy them, not to any good sense on my part.)
One of the Mardi Gras societies of Mobile, the Order of Myths (no, I don’t know how they come up with these names), is traditionally the last one to parade on Mardi Gras Day. (We use this redundant term to distinguish the actual Tuesday from the weeks-long season leading up to it.) One of their floats carries a strange device which seems a bit macabre when you first see it in the middle of the festivities: a pole around which revolve two figures, a skeleton and a fool in cap and bells, with the legend Folly Chasing Death. It’s a perfect end to the silliness (and, to be honest, the occasional sin) of Mardi Gras, and a good beginning for the seriousness of Lent.
It’s also a perfect epitaph for the sex-and-drugs movement. In the end, real folly is no laughing matter.