American society is widely recognized as youth-oriented, but it has been a long time since any authoritative source has given us really good news about the young. Recent reports from the American Medical Association, the National Research Council, and the Council of Physical Fitness have been especially discouraging: the young exercise too little, eat too much of the wrong food, and get too fat. Most of those who are worried about physical flabbiness are even more concerned about the spiritual flabbiness it implies. No doubt they would agree with the 27 educators, school officials, and policymakers who, after their conference in Washington in the fall of 1984, announced that the moral condition of the young was bad and likely to get worse. Young people today, they noted, “are more likely to commit suicide, or kill one another, and males are more likely to make unmarried females pregnant.” Their conclusion, issued in a “Thanksgiving Statement,” was that “schools in general are not doing enough to counter the symptoms of serious decline in youth character.”
Since America has always been a land of individual opportunity, a nervousness about the character of the young is inevitable: if the young become morally and physically flabby, we may individually and communally miss our opportunities. The character of the young has always been a precious natural resource. Even the immigrant Mafia kingpin Joseph Bonanno, in his autobiographical A Man of Honor, lamented that he was “too old for the modern world” in which there are no “certain fixed values” to guide the young as they strive toward manhood.
Fixed values (traditionally approved, of course) are what American character is all about, whether you take your stand with Cotton Mather, Theodore Roosevelt, or Jerry Falwell. And character, whether in the service of an establishment or a successful revolution, helps to keep human affairs moving at a manageable pace. This is no less true of America than of the Mafia and the Boy Scouts, both of which are threatened by the accelerating and centrifugal force of freelancing individualism. Indeed, the Boy Scout oath is not too different from the Mafia code. When Joe Bonanno’s tradition started to break down, he says he began to live between hammer and anvil. This is about where the 27 educators and policymakers saw the nation’s schools.
One of the last persons to be thoroughly optimistic about American youth was the late Ralph Gleason, a founding editor of Rolling Stone. For him the good news was that contemporary popular music “is an energy source today unlike anything in history, yes, even including religion.” This music, in its role of “societal glue,” was to Gleason a mind-expanding and view-realigning force that could not help but change society for the better, and in fact had already been incorporated fruitfully by advertisers, politicians, and preachers. Here, argued Gleason, was a program for the moral invigoration of youth.
Americans, of course, have long associated traditional character formation with the impulse-denying work ethic of the Puritans. Often enough they have allowed their thinking about character to be overdetermined by a caricature version of that ethic, so that it appears to be a moral straitjacket. This is why Margaret Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa, with its portrayals of a prelapsarian natural world uninhibited by bourgeois sexual conventions and crippling personal commitments, was so popular for so long after its appearance in 1928. Samoans, she wrote, “rate romantic fidelity in terms of days or weeks at most, and are inclined to scoff at tales of life-long devotion.”
We can guess that neither the Mafia nor the Boy Scouts would have thrived in such a society in which nature was put on the side of the natural, sensual self, where it belongs, in opposition to those crippling personal commitments to which people are inclined when they have been formed by culture. And even if the Australian anthropologist Derek Freeman is right when he argues that Mead was talking less about real than imaginary Samoans, she has had a halfcentury in which to spread the welcome news that nature could be trusted and that puritanical Americans were losing out on life.
Of course, Mead, Joe Bonanno, and conceivably even a former Colombian drug lord like Carlos Lehder Rivas (jailed since the summer of 1988) needed a few of the uptight bourgeois virtues to succeed in their line of work, no less than the literary artist does. This need, however, has not kept artists from feeling uneasy about such virtues, since they appear to be hostile to the generous commitment to experience that makes art possible. Lionel Trilling, in a 1933 notebook entry worried that the enforced decorum of his academic life, especially when measured against the more unbuttoned life of Hemingway, was ruining his chance to be a genuinely creative writer.
Margaret Mead could trust impulse because she believed that it had its own Apollonian controls. Timothy Leary seems to have trusted LSD for the same reason: the bad effects of the drug were the fault “not of the drug nor of the drug taker but of the people around him. who lose their cool and call the cops or the doctors.” He saw American society, led by the “puritanical Americans of the older generation,” becoming an “air-conditioned anthill.” However, being as confident about his LSD as Marx was about his dialectic or Gleason about his rock music, Leary expected that within fifteen years a New LSD Man would, to everyone’s advantage, be in control of the country. Neither the 27 educators nor Joe Bonanno would look forward with pleasure to such a future. However, it sounds more than a little like what Mead in her 1970 Culture and Commitment called “a prefigural culture,” one characterized by a “continuing dialogue in which the young, free to act on their own initiative, can lead their elders in the direction of the unknown.” A year before she published this remark, some of those young persons, acting on their own initiative in Oakland in anticipation of the arrival of Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones, announced in a manifesto that “we will play your music in rock ‘n’ roll marching bands as we tear down the jails and free the prisoners, as we tear down the State schools and free the students.”
We have here, perhaps, several versions of a liberation scenario in which an irresistible force can be confidently submitted to, because an Apollonian component guarantees benevolent results. It is possible that the Colombian drug lord believed that the same component was in cocaine and saw no incompatibility between its effects and the firmness of character necessary for a principled struggle against American imperialism. Indeed, one might sense a mega-myth-in-the-making that dramatizes a New Man for a New World. This charismatic cultural hero is, say, a brilliant and bisexual young general manager of a worldwide distributorship of erotic videocassettes; his office portrait of Daniel Ortega is sandwiched between portraits of John Lennon and Yoko Ono; he snorts cocaine during his coffee breaks while listening to the Rolling Stones; he charitably cultivates marijuana plants in his basement for his less favorably situated friends; he lives in a comfortable menage a trois with his best girlfriend and best boyfriend; he spends his weekends working for unilateral nuclear disarmament; and he cries easily.
The expectation has always been that people with character are more likely to give a good account of themselves in crises and to go down with honor, perhaps even with grace, if they do not survive. It can, of course, be argued that people with character tend to go into crisis situations because character formation censors out the information that could resolve the crisis, or at least make possible a less extreme solution. Certainly, people with inflexible characters (such as Cervantes’ Don Quixote, Shakespeare’s Hotspur, Moliere’s Alceste, or Melville’s Ahab) tend to be crisis-prone, which means that they get into the right kind of trouble for good stories. Perhaps this is why Utopian scenarios are rarely memorable for strong characters. (It may also be why Soviet realism, propelled as it is by Utopian aspiration, has for so long favored a literature of happy endings.) Of course, in Utopias the total censorship of news is often the substitute for character formation. And as the dystopias of Aldous Huxley and George Orwell make clear, in the effort to install a utopia the managers might have to reinforce this substitute with an artificially induced orgy experience (something like the soma-induced states of togetherness in Brave New World or the ecstatic “Two Minutes Hate” sessions in Nineteen-Eighty-Four). This suggests that the organizers of the 1938 Nazi rally at Nuremberg knew something about what Gleason called societal glue, something that one-worlders like Marx, Mead, and Leary failed to take into account.
War traditionally has been the supreme crisis. William James was appalled at the idea of modern war, but at the same time he was convinced that the virtues of the military character were indispensable to civilization. He resolved this contradiction in “The Moral Equivalent of War,” in which he proposed a government-sponsored character-hardening program of socially useful activities that would have the effect of a controlled crisis. But since character formation was identified with the reduction of options, what James proposed as pro-civilization could be identified by others as anti-life. One cannot imagine Mead’s Samoans, Leary’s New Man, or the creators of the Oakland manifesto enlisting in James’s army. Even the US Army has become nervous about its identification as an institution that puritanically restricts available options. Indeed, its popular advertising slogan, “Be All You Can Be,” suggests that the Pentagon may have been inspired by Helen Curley Brown’s Having It All.
At present—thanks to the part bourgeois talents and character traits have played in creating the crises circumstances in which the world now lives—the psychological equivalent of war is nuclear anxiety. Nuclear anxiety not only reduces options but reduces them in the most frustrating of ways, for the technological advances that make nuclear anxiety possible are also those that promise a multiplication of options and an enhancement of life. Nuclear anxiety, therefore, threatens us in the same way that the impulse-denying ethic of our forefathers did. In a land flowing with milk and honey we are faced with the prospect of returning to our repressive beginnings. Under these circumstances, the drug-dependent lifestyle of many Americans implies that the Colombian drug lords have become their true life-affirming and option-multiplying champions. They stand shoulder-to-shoulder against the same bourgeois conventionality that inspired Walt Whitman to boast in “Song of Myself” that he wore his hat indoors or outdoors, as he pleased. It’s a safe bet, however, that Joe Bonanno, a Man of Honor who has always prided himself on his sartorial decorum, would never wear his hat indoors.
Nuclear anxiety has reinforced a particular perception of reality, according to which, as Lionel Trilling put it in The Liberal Imagination, “reality is always material reality, hard, resistant, unformed, impenetrable, and unpleasant.” And it is this perception of reality that makes it hard to believe in the validity of fixed principles and easy to believe that the people who have them are either fanatics, hypocrites, or prisoners within a monstrous deformation of consciousness. That reality, resistant and unpleasant though it may be, is a vale of soul-making, as Keats believed, and that character is formed in the world’s torrent, as Goethe believed, can be the worst of bad news to those who hold dear to this perception of reality.
Under these circumstances drugs, especially cocaine, have proved to many to be good news. Drugs are a way of living with the nuclear anxiety, which may be nothing less than the anxiety of being, writ large. To the user hounded by the necessity of choosing among too many options, the message of drugs is that all options are equal, so that choice ceases to be a problem. Drugs—a substitute for character—are in their own way not only a moral equivalent of war, but a way of returning to Margaret Mead’s Samoa. For if you can trust the present, as drugs and Mead’s Samoa say you can, you don’t need character.
But as both Heraclitus and Bob Dylan have assured us, the times keep on changing so that you can’t step into the same present twice. Timothy Leary is still into behavior modification, but now it is computer games, not LSD. And it’s quite possible that those framers of the Oakland manifesto who did not liberate, themselves into extinction now not only wear three-piece suits, but also vote Republican. Perhaps some of them, having experienced a measure of the world’s torrents, have even learned that character formation can be a liberating response to the anxiety of being, and that without it the artificial paradise offered by the Colombian drug lords can be hard to resist.