Martin Elliot Jaffe looks back at a landmark book and its enduring relevance for today.
As a college student in 1970, I was captivated by the vision of a new America articulated by Yale Law Professor Charles Reich in his best-selling The Greening of America, where the ethos of enlightened, privileged middle-class college students were bringing America to an egalitarian, accepting, vibrant peace-loving utopia without strife, conflict or divisive barriers of race, religion income inequality, sort of a tie-dyed nirvana of bell-bottom jeans, Grateful Dead jams, high-quality marijuana— never mind the endless war in Vietnam, racial conflict akin to the moment I write in now. I too was a young college student, though at decidedly working-class Cleveland State University rather than Yale and drugs, sex and rock ‘n’ roll had some appeal.
Yet I was skeptical and critical of some core arguments of Reich, particularly his anti-rationalism and emphasis on feeling versus rational analytical thought. I’d like to share my perceptions of this cultural moment and how Reich’s cultural view still lives on among working-class Americans of a certain age who missed out on Reich’s upper-middle-class college experience and the irrationalism, mistrust of science and rationality that is alive and well in our culture today.
First, a brief review of Reich’s perspective. American culture was defined by an evolution of Consciousness, I, II, III. Con I was defined by America of limitless opportunity, sort of the John Locke vision of life liberty, property, Jeffersonian ideals, etc. While it led to the era of Robber Barons, greed, and so on until Con II, and our belief in balancing private power with public power, i. e. the New Deal meritocracy which, according to Reich, led to the rise of the Corporate State, where citizens are consumers, subservient to the consumerist culture and blandness of sterile American life. Reich shares much with Marcuse and other critics of corporatism/technology/capitalism of the time all of whom I spent many dull nights reading in graduate school dorms in the mid-’70s as I played political science intellectual.
Finally, in The Greening of America, Reich takes us to Consciousness III, the reaction to this shallow, bland banal existence. Under the sway of his upper-middle-class students at Yale, Reich sees their love of rock ‘n’ roll, bell-bottom jeans, and plenty of sex as new ways of being. Generationally, Reich writes ecstatically of how this generation sees every individual as having inherent worth, special in their own way, open to new experiences, non-aggressive, willing to experiment with new lifestyles and behaviours.
How will the broader society reach this enlightenment that lives in New Haven? To Reich it is simple. As more and more people see the great life Con III people live they will follow. As he wrote, ‘When self is recovered the power of the Corporate State will be ended, as miraculously as a kiss breaks a witch’s evil enchantment.’
The egalitarianism, openness to experience, tolerance attributed to Yale students in 1970 live on in the working class music lovers at the Dogg House Bar—though to the best of my knowledge no one there was at Yale in 1970.
For many years I’ve been spending Thursday evenings playing bass or singing at jam night with a terrific group of mostly older baby boomer, working-class, generally non-college educated players at a strip mall bar, The Dogg House in Avon Lake, Ohio, 15 miles west of Cleveland.
Imagine that you’ve just walked into the Dogg House with me for the first time—stylistically it looks like counterculture America in 1970; blue jeans and leather vests, ponytails for men ( though usually thinner and grayer) tattoos, boots, leather or work. Most of the Dogg House players missed the first time of counterculture style: many were in the military in 1970 or already working at the steel mill, Ford plant and varied unionized industrial settings that coated Lorain county with hazy gray dust that smelled like prosperity and now seems like a relic of an earlier, better time. The parking lot of the Dogg House is home to Harleys, vintage American cars, pickup trucks and lacks Audi’, BMWs and the favoured rides of the upper middle classes.
The usual setlist feels like an immersion in America 1968-1972—long jams by the Allman Brothers and Neil Young, Clapton rules, and vintage Fender guitars, Marshall amps, and humbucker guitar pickups are prized items. I often sing one of my original songs that capture the ambiance with the lines, ‘stepping out of work-worn cars, carrying our shining guitars, we’ll be rocking at the Dogg House tonight.’
Boomer fellow music lovers are warm, decent, accepting and the only judgement is can you play well, will you share solos and stage time and can we agree on a setlist.
The Consciousness III ideal that Reich envisioned was deeply anti-rational and skeptical of science and expertise. As stated by Reich, ‘in describing Consciousness III systematically and analytically, we are engaging in an intellectual process which Consciousness III rejects—they have a deep skepticism of both linear and analytical thought.’ Reich waxed eloquent about the Con III preference for experience instead of rational analysis; he wrote of a new way of knowing by ‘feel’. President Trump seems to be channeling the Reichian worldview fifty years down —his Twitter feed is like an ongoing playbook of the Consciousness III mind at work.
My Facebook friend comments are a daily reminder of the Reichian world of cyberspace. My 63 ‘friends’ – a mix of relatives, former colleagues, neighbours, actual real-world friends produce an endless stream of unfiltered id, often reading like we live in 1300 AD with articles passed about global conspiracies by George Soros, wisdom from Prager U, Judicial Watch, Fox News. The Bernie fans have been active recently about crimes Biden has covered up and the funds the DNC used against him in his threats to their ongoing collusion with the 1% and so on.
Dr. Amy Acton, until her recent resignation as Director of Public Health in Ohio, was a particular source of antisemitic venom and Jewish conspiracy to force us to wear masks, give up our guns—I live each day in dread of reading about the efforts of Jews to poison the wells—or coordinate with Hilary Clinton to take over the world bank in cahoots with Jeffrey Epstein (who is rumored to be dead).
What does this Greening Of America Consciousness hold for us in this pandemic-dominated, socially turbulent year ahead? Ask me tomorrow –I’m going to channel Reich now, close my eyes, take a hit, poof — 1,2,3 — ah groovy.