See America First

Easy Rider

directed by Dennis Hopper. Columbia Pictures

Alice's Restaurant

directed by Arthur Penn, produced by Hillard Elkins

In 1969, the Year of the Pig, participants in what is known as (descriptively) youth culture or (smugly) hip culture or (incompletely) pop culture or (longingly) the cultural revolution are going through big changes. For choices have to be made now; they can no longer be left to a dubious mañana. After hearing Nixon’s speech—“North Vietnam cannot defeat us; we can only defeat ourselves”—who can doubt that America as we have known it could completely disappear between one day and the next? Or maybe it already has, and what we are feeling now is phantom pain from an amputated limb. In this crisis our confusions and ambivalences about this country, our country, no matter how securely they seem to have occupied it, become more than intellectual gossip. Our lives may literally depend on how we resolve them.

The current generation of bohemians and radicals hasn’t decided whether to love or hate America. On a superficial level, the dominant theme has been hate—for the wealth and greed and racism and complacency, the destruction of the land, the bullshit rhetoric of democracy, and the average American’s rejection of aristocratic European standards of the good life in favor of a romance with mass-produced consumer goods. But love is there too, perhaps all the more influential for being largely unadmitted. There is the old left strain of love for the “real” America, the Woody Guthrie-Pete Seeger America of workers-farmers-hoboes, the open road, this-land-is-your-land. And there is the newer pop strain, the consciousness—initiated by Andy Warhol and his cohorts, popularized by the Beatles and their cohorts, evangelized by Tom Wolfe, and made respectable in the bohemian ghettos by Bob Dylan and Ken Kesey—that there is something magical and vital as well as crass about America’s commodity culture, that the romance with consumer goods makes perfect sense if the consumer goods are motorcycles and stereo sets and far-out clothes and Spider Man comics and dope. How can anyone claim to hate America, deep down, and be a rock fan? Rock is America—the black experience, the white experience, technology, commercialism, rebellion, populism, the Hell’s Angels, the horror of old age—as seen by its urban adolescents.

At this point, hate and love seem to be merging into a sense of cosmic failure, a pervasive feeling that everything is disintegrating, including the counter-culture itself, and that we really have nowhere to go. The current exodus of young people to the country, while a healthy expression of people’s survival instincts, is in a way an admission of failure, a retreat rather than a breakthrough. The back-to-the-land movement, insofar as it represents a serious attempt by both communes and conventional families to make a living at farming, with all the hardships that involves, is just a replay of that part of the American dream that dies the hardest. There is an obvious contradiction between the consciousness of the dissident culture, which is based on an apprehension of what it means to be human once simple survival is no longer…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.