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A Chilling Paragraph from 1960
Sometimes people really can predict the future
I make a lot of predictions here at The Honest Broker. I’ve had a surprisingly good track record in recent months—at least I’m surprised by it. That’s because I’m painfully aware of how often prognosticators (including me) miss the mark.
Short term predictions are hard. And long term predictions are almost impossible.
I sometimes write entire articles filled up with failed longterm projections from the past. Oh what glee we feel when pointing out how silly the experts were! But who really has enough wisdom and insight to anticipate the world of 50 or 100 years from now?
Today I want to focus on a single paragraph published in 1960.
You’re asking yourself: How much can a single paragraph matter—especially if it was written 63 years ago? But read it first and judge for yourself.
It’s a chilling paragraph.
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First let me provide some background.
I’ve focused a lot recently on the apparent decline of the counterculture in American life. I’ve seen ominous signs that fringe and alternative voices aren’t as welcome as they once were. When this happens, the mainstream culture starts feeling stagnant and repetitive.
Fresh infusions from non-conformists and creative outsiders—which previously came from the counterculture—are shut out from dominant institutions. But that’s exactly what they need most.
To deepen my understanding of this, I’ve been pursuing an intense study of the counterculture that transformed American society during the middle decades of the 20th century.
I take this subject very seriously—because what happened back then is almost impossible to believe. In 1960, mainstream institutions in America mocked and ridiculed the counterculture. Beatniks and renegades were treated as jokes on sitcoms—Thelonious Monk only showed up on prime time TV for a laugh. And if you can believe Life magazine, there were only a few thousand of these crazy counterculture beatniks in the entire country.
Yet by 1970, the whole society had been changed by the counterculture, with those several thousand beatniks begetting millions of hippies, and these enlisting in turn all sorts of fellow travelers.
They were now a juggernaut of change agents who ended a war, overturned censorship, remade every style in every idiom, boosted environmental standards, turned natural living into a mainstream movement, and rewrote all the rules on sex, love, and marriage.
Nobody was laughing now. But how did that happen?
Even if you don’t support all of the 60s revolution—and, frankly, some of it doesn’t look quite so groovy anymore—the very fact that it took place, and so quickly, is extraordinary. How was that even possible?
I’m trying to answer that question. As part of the process, I’m immersing myself in the legacies of each of the key figures in that counterculture movement. I’ve already written in-depth essays on Jack Kerouac, Gregory Bateson, and Frank Zappa. And I’ve written (but haven’t yet published) detailed assessments of Hunter Thompson, Joan Didion, the New Journalism movement, etc.
Today I want to talk about one of the more prophetic figures of the era—yet one who is sadly forgotten.
His name is Paul Goodman.
Back in 1960, Goodman was one of the fiercest members of the counterculture. He published a book that year called Growing Up Absurd that became a surprise bestseller.
Everybody knew about this book. But young people were the main audience. Even when I came of age, more than a decade later, you would see Growing Up Absurd on people’s shelves, next to all those other books about troubled young people—such as Catcher in the Rye, On the Road, The Bell Jar, or Lord of the Flies.
Those books are still assigned reading—at least in some places. But Growing Up Absurd isn’t one of them. Few people read it nowadays, and certainly not teenagers. That’s a shame, because this book has lost little of its power to astonish and inspire
More than ever before, young people are faced with the prospect of growing up absurd. And those of us who are older and (allegedly) wiser don’t offer much help.
Paul Goodman was brilliant, but an unlikely person to change mainstream thinking. Before Growing Up Absurd, none of his books sold well. And his views were a bizarre hodgepodge. Depending on where you encountered him, you might call Goodman an anarchist or a religious prophet or an agitator or a hopeless utopian or a pragmatic progressive or a hidebound conservative or even a radical Freudian (Goodman helped launch the Gestalt psychology movement). He constantly blurred dividing lines between Left and Right—but most of the time Goodman was on his own, crafting some strange mixture of radical activism, nostalgic medievalism, grass roots democracy, and apocalyptic preachifying.
By any measure, he was one of the most eccentric thinkers of the era. Yet he anticipated our current situation with more insight than any of his peers.
Let’s look at this one paragraph from the Preface to Growing Up Absurd. It’s a long paragraph—it takes up most of two pages. So we will break it down into pieces.
Goodman begins with a puzzle he needs to solve—society is stagnating everywhere, and we all can see it. But there’s no action plan to fix it. There’s a lot of huffing and puffing and finger-pointing everywhere, but nobody has even started on developing a practical agenda.
According to Goodman, this is because people “have ceased to be able to imagine alternatives.” Everybody accepts that the current system “is the only possibility of society, for nothing else is thinkable.”
Now comes his analysis, and—to my surprise—Goodman begins by talking about music. This was the last thing I expected in a social critique, but for Goodman the manufacturing of hit songs is a metaphor for everything else that’s wrong in a stagnant society.
Let me give a couple of examples of how this [inability to imagine healthy alternatives] works. Suppose (as is the case) that a group of radio and TV broadcasters, competing in the Pickwickian fashion of semi-monopolies, control all the stations and channels in an area, amassing the capital and variously bribing Communications Commissioners in order to get them; and the broadcasters tailor their programs to meet the requirements of their advertisers of the censorship, of their own slick and clique tastes, and of a broad common denominator of the audience, none of whom may be offended: they will then claim not only that the public wants the drivel that they give them, but indeed that nothing else is being created. Of course it is not! Not for these media; why should a serious artist bother?
When I first read this, I was dumbstruck. Goodman wrote this during the winter of 1959 and 1960, when radio stations were independent and freewheeling. Back in my teen years, a single business was only allowed to control one AM station and one FM station. In 1985 this was increased to 12 stations on each band. And in 1994 this was raised again, this time to 20 AM stations and 20 FM stations.
But then all hell broke lose when the Telecommunications Act of 1996 passed in the Senate by a 91 to 5 margin and was signed into law. Now the sky was the limit—and all the airwaves it contained.
Soon Clear Channel Communications owned more than 1,200 radio stations in some 300 cities. The company began the process of standardizing and homogenizing our musical culture. We still suffer from that today.
Even after radio started losing influence in the Internet Age, huge streaming platforms (Spotify, Apple Music, etc.) ensured that access to the ears of America would be controlled by a tiny number of huge corporations. A musical culture that was once local, indie, and flexible has become centralized, corporatized, and stagnant.
How could Paul Goodman even dream of such a scenario back in 1960? That future was decades away at the time.
But we are only at the start of this visionary paragraph. Goodman now explains that the same thing will happen in universities.
Colleges and schools were small and non-bureaucratic back in 1960. Yet Goodman sees a crisis looming. On the next page Goodman warns against “the topsy-turvy situation that a teacher must devote himself to satisfying the administrator and financier rather than to doing his job, and a universally admired teacher is fired for disobeying an administrative order that would hinder teaching.”
Administration at US colleges has grown exponentially in the last two decades and has turned almost every academic institution into a plodding bureaucracy—but how in the world did Goodman anticipate this in 1960?
Now let’s return to our chilling paragraph. Immediately after discussing radio stations, Goodman adds a gargantuan sentence. It jumps all over the place but hits the target at every twist and turn:
Or suppose again (as is not quite the case) that in a group of universities only faculties are chosen that are “safe” to the businessmen trustees or the politically appointed regents, and these faculties give out all the degrees and licenses and union cards to the new generation of students, and only such universities can get Foundation or government money for research, and research is incestuously staffed by the same sponsors and according to the same policy, and they allow no one but those they choose, to have access to either the classroom or expensive apparatus: it will then be claimed that there is no other learning or professional competence; that an inspired teacher is not “solid”; that the official projects are the direction of science; that progressive education is a failure; and finally, indeed—as in Dr. James Conant’s report on the high schools—that only 15 per cent of the youth are “academically talented” enough to be taught hard subjects.
Here in a nutshell is the credentialing crisis of our times. Learning is replaced by exclusionary certification programs that limit career opportunities—unless you take out loans and ‘purchase’ the necessary credential from these academic gatekeepers.
This has become so destructive in our own time that many are crushed by student loans, and others seek ingenious ways of bypassing college entirely. There’s no way that Goodman could have grasped this in 1960—when only 7.7 percent of Americans had college degrees.
Nor could he have known about the replicability crisis in science or the destructive games now played in awarding of scientific grants. Those are the problems of our times—not his.
But somehow Paul Goodman saw it coming.
Goodman still hasn’t finished his paragraph. Now he turns immediately to the healthcare system and singles out pharmaceutical companies. This is surprising because drug prices were modest in 1960—less than 10 percent of their current cost in inflation adjusted terms.
Yet Goodman writes:
This preempting of the means and the brains by the organization, and the shutting out of those who do not conform, can go so far as to cause delusions, as when recently the president of Merck and Company had the effrontery to warn the Congress that its investigation of profiteering in drugs might hinder the quest of scientific knowledge! as if the spirit of Vesalius and Pasteur depended on the financial arrangements of Merck and Company.
Merck was tiny in those days, and many people back then would not even have recognized the name—its total global sales were just $200 million in 1960 (compared to $50 billion now). Even after adjusting for inflation, it has grown 2,000%. Yet you almost think that Paul Goodman had a crystal ball, and saw this coming.
Goodman couldn’t have known about the opioid crisis or fentanyl—that didn’t exist back then. He couldn’t have foreseen all the cozy behind-the-scenes dealings of Big Pharma and government. (The term ‘Big Pharma’ didn’t even exist until the 1990s.) But 63 years ago, he already understood what happens when drug companies feel that they should get to set their own rules.
That’s a lot of insight packed into a single paragraph. In one sweeping movement, Goodman casts an indictment at the music business and culture sphere, the universities and their growing bureaucracies, the self-dealing science establishment, and profit-maximizing Big Pharma. And he links all these to the youth crisis of his time.
He sees connections between these spheres that others would never have noticed. And still don’t.
That was a long paragraph. But Paul Goodman follows it up with a very short one. Here it is in its entirety:
But it is in these circumstances that people put up with a system because “there are no alternatives.” And when one cannot think of anything to do, soon one ceases to think at all.
I really need to write more about Paul Goodman and Growing Up Absurd. This is a rich topic for inquiry and speculation. I’ve only addressed the Preface here.
But let me conclude with Goodman’s own assessment.
It is my belief that we are going to have a change. And once the Americans can recover from their mesmerized condition and its astounding political apathy, our country will be in a most fortunate situation. For the kinds of radical changes we need are those that are appropriate to a fairly general prosperity. They are practicable.
He was right in the 1960s, when the decade following the publication of his book witnessed the biggest cultural shift in American history. Changes that many had previously assumed were impossible happened suddenly and decisively.
We may need another shift of that magnitude today. But where will it come from this time? It all seems so impossible. But if the counterculture of the 1950s and 1960s is any indicator, it only takes a few thousand people to start the process.