Counterculture and Democracy, p.2
January, 2002


In the context of this new counterculture, I want to make a broader, and stronger claim: that countercultures are the best guarantors of liberal democracy. The first thing that countercultures do is acknowledge something the mainstream culture refuses to acknowledge: that the mainstream is a definite culture with definite predilections, tastes, and ideas. Mainstream culture narrowly defines acceptable dress, occupation, language, appearance. It is threatened by identities that have not been ratified by it. While it professes pluralism, the boundaries of that pluralism extend only so far. While the genius of American democracy is that it does not patrol all of those boundaries with force, it certainly does patrol some of them with force (e.g. the “war on drugs”), and uses non-violent stigmatizers on the rest (“weirdo!”).

Go to any countercultural event, of any counterculture. Unless you make an effort to blend in, you’ll see how you stick out in how you look, how you act, and how you talk. You’ll see that what you take for ‘normal’ attitudes, clothings, behaviors – they’re not normal in some objective sense; they’re only normal relative to your culture.

Not a particularly profound point, maybe, but it’s one that hundreds of millions Americans appear not to get. And it is the point of pluralism: that your attitudes are, to repeat, “not normal in some objective sense; they’re only normal relative to your culture.” Such a point need not, and should not, lead to relativism – we can still compare norms across cultures. Just because abuse of women takes place within a certain culture doesn’t mean it isn’t a violation of human rights, for example, whether that culture is Islamic fundamentalism, pro-life Christianity, Haredi Judaism, or any number of secular subcultures which rationalize and excuse violence of any kind. But at least to recognize that we are making such judgments from a position of a culture, rather than a position of absence-of-culture – this is the beginning of wisdom.

Politicians are overwhelmingly white for a reason. The male ones have short hair for a reason. They are overwhelmingly rich for a reason. And those reasons can often lead to oppression of difference. My claim is that someone from a counterculture is more apt to realize this than someone who’s never stood in opposition to a culture, never understood how communities function, never understood that just because you have certain values, other thinking, rational people may have other ones.

This fundamental point should not be a tenet of big-L Liberalism, the kind maintained by a few left-wing Democrats and others. It is, instead, a basic principle of small-l liberalism, the kind the Founding Fathers wrote about (even if they didn’t quite practice it perfectly). We disagree, but we are united by certain bonds of nationalism and shared values (tolerance high among them), and that is what makes us strong. The disagreements are not over whether social security should be lock-boxed or not. They are over what makes a life good. They are absolutely fundamental to our self-definition.

Anyone can wear a tie-dye shirt, but to actually reorient your life around hippie values such as anti-materialism, freedom from possessions, self-exploration – these are big steps. The hippies know this, as do the hip-hop kids and the Jewish baal tshuvas and the Christian rockers, because they have all gone through the process of rejecting one culture in favor of another. Even if some of these cultures tend to be imperialistic and change or overthrow majority culture (e.g., 1968 instead of 1967, Christian Right instead of Christian Rock), they at least do not pretend that they represent some sort of value-free, neutral, objective, universally right “common sense.” And to repeat, that may be the beginning of wisdom. Or democracy.

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