The youth origin of the alternative culture is crucial to understanding it. As previously discussed, the Wandervogel was a youth movement. In fact, in 1911, “there were more Germans in their late teens than there would ever be again in the twentieth century.”36 The seeds of that original youth culture were transplanted to the US, where they lay dormant until a similar critical mass of young people reached adolescence. The alternative culture as we know it is largely a product of the adolescent brain.
Because the brain of an adolescent is the same size as an adult brain, scientists once concluded that it was fully developed sometime around puberty. But with new technology like MRI and PET scans, we can literally see that the adolescent brain is very much “a work in progress.”37
To begin with, the prefrontal cortex (PFC) isn’t utilized in an adolescent brain to the extent that it will be in an adult brain. David Walsh, in his book on the adolescent brain, Why Do They Act That Way?, calls the PFC “the brain’s conscience.” According to Walsh, it is “responsible for planning ahead, considering consequences, and managing emotional states.”38 As well, a person’s ability to judge time is not fully developed until age twenty-one. Adolescents literally cannot understand cause and effect or long-term consequences the way an adult can.
The PFC is the “executive center of the brain.”39 When impulses fire from other areas of the brain, the PFC’s job is to control them. But because this region is still under construction for adolescents, they lack impulse control. Delayed gratification is not exactly the gift of that age group, who are also routinely associated with rudeness, irresponsibility, and laziness. All of this is a function of an underactive PFC. The “laziness” is compounded by a few other brain development processes. The ventral striatal circuit is responsible for motivation and it goes inactive during adolescence. As well, the adolescent brain undergoes a huge shift in sleep patterns. The amount of sleep and the timing of the sleep cycle are both affected. Much of the process is complicated and still under scrutiny. Fifty different neurotransmitters and hormones may be involved.40 Two things are certain: teens need more sleep, and they often can’t fall asleep at night. Forced to conform to an industrial regimentation of time, they’re often dead tired during the day, a tiredness based on their biology, not their moral failings.
Myelination is crucial to brain development. Myelin is a form of fat that protects and insulates our axons, which are the cablelike structures in the neurons. Myelination is the process whereby the neurons build up that protective fat. Without it, the electrical impulses are impeded in their travel along their axons—by a factor of a hundred. Unprotected axons are also vulnerable to electrical interference from nearby axons. A generation ago, scientists thought that myelination was complete by age seven, but nothing could be further from the truth. The myelination process is not only incomplete for adolescents, in some areas of the brain it “increases by 100 percent.”41 One of the areas responsible for emotional regulation undergoes myelination during adolescence, which, according to David Walsh, “accounts for the lightening quick flashes of anger” that are the hallmark of youth.42
Hormonal fluctuations are another factor that can create an amplification of emotional intensity, leading to the risk taking, impulsive behavior, anger, and overall emotionality of the teen years.
Walsh is clear that while “it is not the teen’s fault that his brain isn’t fully under his control, it’s his responsibility to get it under his control.”43 It’s the role of parents and their stand-ins in the larger culture to provide the guidance, support, and structure to help young people toward adulthood. Without adults to supply expectations and consequences, the developing brain will never connect the neurons that need to be permanently linked at this stage of life. This has been an important task of functioning communities for thousands of years: to raise the next crop of adults.
There is a window of opportunity for every period of development in the brain. Walsh reports that neurologists have a saying: the neurons that fire together, wire together. This is true from infancy—where basic neurological patterns for functions like hearing and sight are laid down—on through adolescence, where our capacity for self-regulation, assessing consequences, and relational bonding are either cultivated into lifelong strengths or ignored to wither away.
Beyond the biology of the teen brain is the psychology of adolescence. Psychologist Erik Erikson says that the biggest task of those years is identity formation. It is the time when the question of Who I Am takes on an intensity and importance that will likely never be matched again.
And thank goodness. I remember my relationship with my high school best friend. We would see each other before first period, at lunch, and for shared classes. When we got home, we’d talk on the phone immediately—having been separated for all of forty-five minutes, there were crucial things to say. Then after dinner, we’d have to talk again. The next morning, it started all over in the five minutes at her locker before homeroom. Looking back I wonder: what in the world were we talking about? But that’s the project of adolescence, self-revelation and exploration. It was all so new, so intense, so compelling. We talked about our feelings and then our feelings about our feelings and then our feelings about our … By the time I was twenty, it wasn’t half so interesting. By the time I was thirty, it was boring. And past thirty-five, you couldn’t pay me enough to have those kinds of conversations.
But this is where the counterculture—a product of adolescent biology and psychology—has been permanently stuck. The concerns of adolescence—its gifts and its shortcomings—are the framework for the alternative culture, and these community norms and habits have become accepted across the left in what Theodore Roszak calls a “progressive ‘adolescentization’ of dissenting thought and culture.”44 Its main project is the self, its exploration, and its expression, to the point where many adherents are actively hostile to political engagement. One common version of this is a concession that some kind of social change is necessary, but that the only thing we can change is ourselves. Thus injustice becomes an excuse for narcissism. As one former activist explained to sociologist Keith Melville,
“I had done the political trip for awhile, but I got to the point where I couldn’t just advocate social change, I had to live it. Change isn’t something up there, out there, and it isn’t a power trip. It’s in here,” he thumped his chest, and little puffs of dust exploded from his coveralls. “This is where I have to start if I want to change the whole fucking system.”45
Timothy Leary, the high priest of Psychedelia, continuously urged the youth movement to “turn on, tune in, and drop out.” He believed that the activists and the “psychedelic religious movement” were “completely incompatible.”46 John Lennon and John Hoyland debated the conflict between individual and social change in a public exchange of letters in 1968. Lennon argued by defending the lyrics to “Revolution.”
You say you’ll change the constitution
well, you know
we all want to change your head.
You tell me it’s the institution,
well, you know,
you better free your mind instead.
To which Hoyland replied, “What makes you so sure that a lot of us haven’t changed our heads in something like the way you recommend—and then found out it wasn’t enough, because you simply cannot be turned on and happy when you know kids are being roasted to death in Vietnam?”47
The endless project of the self is fine for people who are fifteen, as long as they are surrounded by a larger community of adults who can provide the structure for the physical and psychological developments that need to happen to produce a mature individual. But anyone past adolescence should be assuming her or his role as an adult: to provide for the young and the vulnerable, and to sustain and guide the community as a whole. For a culture of resistance, these jobs are done with the understanding that resistance is primary in whatever tasks our talents call us to undertake. We are never delinked from the larger goal of creating a movement to fight for justice.
The legacy of the Romantics is especially prominent in the politics of emotion embraced by many different strands of the alternative culture. Emotions are understood as pure, unmediated by society, a society whose main offense is seen to be the suppression of these always-authentic feelings. The paramount emotional state varies—for the hippies and New Agers, it’s love; for the punks, it’s rage; and for the Goths, it’s exquisite suffering—but the ultimate goal is to achieve the selected emotion and maintain it. Emotional states are not always clearly defined as a goal in these subcultures, but these efforts are accepted as the unexamined norms.
Under the influence of therapy and “personal growth” workshops, the expression of all emotions has achieved a status that approaches a human right. To tell someone you refuse to “process” or to suggest that a group stay focused on discussion and decision making is to provoke outrage. All appropriate sense of boundaries and discernment are considered not the hallmark of adults but conditioning that must be overcome. We must be willing and able to reveal the most intimate details of our personal histories with strangers, and the more intense and performative that sharing, the better.
This individualist stance was taken up as politics across the counterculture in the ’60s. It found its zenith in Abbie Hoffman and the Yippies. The title of Hoffman’s book, Revolution for the Hell of It, is just an update on “Our lack of purpose is our strength” and is about as useful for a political movement. Set aside the misogyny (Hoffman molesting flight attendants), homophobia (“the peace movement is fags”), and the excruciating right-on racism. It’s the self-centered idiocy of this book that’s unbearable. Yet it inspired a counterculture that still plagues the left today.
It’s also hard to critique this book knowing that Hoffman was bipolar and committed suicide. The mental illness shrieks from the page.
The Diggers left after we had talked the whole night. The SDS’ers slept all night very soundly. They had nothing to talk about in those wee morning hours when you rap on and on and a dialogue of non-verbal vibrations begins. You Relate!! You Plan!! You Think!! You Get Stoned!! You Feel!!48
You need lithium and a caring support system.
The book is a scattershot of antiauthoritarian rants that claim intense emotion—usually brought on by staged drama—as the ultimate goal. Hoffman urged actions like this:
Stand on a street corner with 500 leaflets and explode.… Recruit a person to read the leaflet aloud while all this distribution is going on. Run around tearing the leaflets, selling them, trading them. Rip one in half and give half to one person and half to another and tell them to make love. Do it all fast. Like slapstick movies. Make sure everyone has a good time. People love to laugh—it’s a riot. Riot—that’s an interesting word-game if you want to play it.49
This self-conscious display stands in stark contrast to a serious resistance movement. Comparing this behavior to the courage, spiritual depth, and personal dignity of Erich Mühsam or the rank and file in the civil rights movement, it’s hard not to cringe.
The continuum between bipolar disorder and the adolescent brain is apparent in Hoffman: the lack of judgment, the runaway emotional intensity, the knee-jerk reaction against all constraint, the entitlement, even the sleeplessness, all tragically magnified by the manic states of his illness. A culture of youth without the guidance of adults will produce exactly what Hoffman envisioned. It will also be unable to recognize frank mental illness when it’s costumed by a radical stance, or to help the people consumed by such illness. That help can only come from a stable, committed community. Ironically, building and maintaining such a community requires that some people embody the values that Hoffman and the youth culture rejected out of hand: responsibility, commitment, respect.
Beyond the personal tragedy lies the political tragedy that befell the left, as the drop-out culture diverted disaffected youth from building a serious resistance movement against real systems of oppression—racism, capitalism, patriarchy—and a culture of resistance that could support that movement. Instead, with the enemy identified as “middle-class hang-ups”—as anything that got in the way of any impulse—and liberation defined as an internal emotional state, the idealism and hard-won gains of the ’60s collapsed into the “me” generation of the ’70s.50 And now all that’s left is a vaguely liberal alterna-culture, identifiable by its meditation classes and under-cooked legumes, its obsession with its own psychology, and its New Age spiritual platitudes. Nothing bad will ever happen if you keep your mind, colon, and/or aura pure, which leaves believers in a very awkward position of having to blame the victim when disease, heartbreak, or smart bombs fall. This is in no way to erase those stalwart individuals who have never lost their commitment to a just world and continued to fight. It is to mourn with them a generational moment of promise that was squandered and has yet to come again.