How to Counter a Culture In Your 20s
A 5 Step Guide
As a 22 year old student soon to graduate and enter the “real world,” a source of anxiety for me is a nagging feeling that as a graduate I must not only have my own opinions, but also act on those ideas. I am aware of my privileges and biases growing up in a middle class family in Silicon Valley, and being able to attend an academic institution such as UC Berkeley. I have never personally experienced a lot of the issues that face a huge percentage of the American population today, such as homelessness, racism, and unemployment. But now that I am graduating, I feel a pressure to answer the bigger questions: What do I feel is important? What difference do I want to make in the world? How do I make that difference?
Throughout the California and Countercultures course I’ve found myself jotting down quotes that inspired me, tidbits of advice, and ideas that resonated with me about how I might approach becoming a leader and creating a change. I’ve compiled them into a sort of self-help, DIY-style, 5 steps to keep in mind and practice:
- Create the Conditions You Describe: Believe in the idea of minimizing the gap between daily life and wildest dream.
“Who could be agents of change? Who could be revolutionary?” asked Professor Sean Burns, Director of the Office of Undergraduate Research and Scholarships at UC Berkeley on the afternoon of Monday, February 13 2017 at approximately 1:00 pm,
Professor Burns’ questions got me thinking: Could someone in the audience be an agent of change? Or considered a revolutionary? Could I? Are there some of us more qualified for that position due to previous experiences, degrees, or perceived influence and power?
Professor Burns posed these questions as part of a lecture introducing the historical and social context of the shift from the old left to the new left. He talked about the subsequent redefinition of revolution and new conception of politics during the long sixties. Rather than union workers (predominately white and male) as the agents of radical change, new populations such as students, educators, artists, and others emerged as the centerpieces of the howls for change. With this shift came a shift of the location of the struggles and politics to spaces such as schools, parks, galleries and streets.
A strong culture of student activists emerged during this time, particularly at Berkeley: student groups (such as SLATE), student participation in national politics (such as anti-HUAC rallies), and of course the Berkeley Student Movement. So perhaps one group of people that could be agents of change are students, at universities such as Berkeley, who unify to rally for change. These students seemed to be adhering to Paul Berg’s notion of “create the conditions you describe,” or as Professor Burns put it, “believing in the idea of minimizing the gap between daily life and wildest dreams.” They took what they were seeing and learning and made strides to speak up and do something.
Professor Leigh Raiford addressed the audience in Wednesday’s February 15 class (2 days later) with a question that complements the earlier question of who is a revolutionary of change: “Where does leadership come from?” In the Berkeley Student Movements, the leaders seem to be not necessarily those with perceived power or influence such as administrators or even professors, but rather students such as Mario Savio. The shift to the new left changed the definition of who could be agents of change or revolutionary and expanded it to include groups such as students.
2. Ask for Everything and You Shall Have It
I think Danny Lyon’s photograph turned poster Come Let us Build a New World Together, created for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) perfectly encapsulates the notion that anybody can be an agent of change, young or old, male or female..The SNCC chose to organize around a “beloved community,” where everyone was encouraged to come and lived and worked side by side.I think the California Counterculture course, in particular through the Wednesday public lectures, honors this notion of bringing together a diverse group of people, a “beloved community” to engage in thoughtful discourse dancing around the fundamental question of “What kind of culture does a counter culture counter?”
Any one of the heads sitting in front of me belongs to someone with the power to truely make a difference. I feel that Diane Di Prima alludes to the importance of taking it upon yourself to get started “creating the conditions you describe” in the final lines of her poem
REVOLUTIONARY LETTER #19 (for The Poor People’s Campaign)
degrees from universities which are nothing
more than slum landlords, festering sinks
of lies, so you too can go forth
and lie to others on some greeny campus
THEN YOU ARE STILL
THE ENEMY, you are selling
yourself short, remember
you can have what you ask for, ask for
(Source: The Anarchist Library)
Where does leadership come from? Maybe lead a ership in change can come from someone (and anyone) who remembers and believes that “you can have what you ask for, ask for everything,” and that ultimately acting on what you believe is more important than any degree from college.
3. Realize your Personal Utopia
Reading Peter Coyote’s short story, ”Carla’s Story,” altered my idea of what an utopia is. The story reads as a conversation between Peter Coyote and the reader, where the reader is lead through the life of a woman named Carla. The first paragraph made me think it would be like any other biography or autobiography assigned in a Berkeley class — a slightly romanticized reflection on the past by an author who skirts over the painful moments and embellishes the good times. After all, communes are supposed to be a utopia for those seeking refuge from the commercialized, politicized world right? In my head, utopias are idyllic spaces where nothing “bad” happens, a place free from the crimes and sufferings of everyday life, such as drug addictions and murders. The beautiful Marin hills and sun drenched figure of Peter Coyote at Olema in 1969 below supports my idea of what utopia might look like.
The second sentence of paragraph two quickly changed my expectations: “We went back to her room to share a bag of dope and catch up” (Coyote).
Coyote seamlessly weaves in incidences of drug use, violence, crime, prostitution, domestic abuse, and many other extremely difficult and distressing moments into the story. His writing is unapologetically blunt, profanities peppering the narrative, lacking any euphemism or other sugar-coating I expected to get from someone that is such a public figure. I read sentences, pornographic or graphic phrases, that I couldn’t believe were written, to my best friend sitting beside me, as if maybe saying them out-loud would help me better grasp the somewhat dizzying projectile of the story, as Carla moves from one home to another, one man to another, one job to another. I was mostly confused, because to me seemed highly dystopic. In Wednesday’s public lecture, Coyote explained that the mission of the Diggers was to help everyone, because taking care of yourself and looking out for yourself was too easy. But nobody in the story seems to be able to help themselves, let alone other people. Carla’s first husband is murdered, she becomes a prostitute, is in several domestically abusive relationships, loses herself in drugs for a while, and has her children basically stolen from her among many other hardships. To me, it seemed like she was trapped in her life and in a cycle of abuse, mentally and physically. Many of the characters end up being murdered, imprisoned
In fact, the sentiment that utopia and the commune was a free place as described by Coyote in an interview, “It was commonly agreed by all who lived there that Olema was “free turf”; one could do and be whatever one chose to be there,” seems to me to be an unattainable ideal (SF Gate). People were in fact not on free turf and were forced to leave when the owners reclaimed their space — they were reliant on the goodwill of the law enforcement and neighbors for where they could live. Neither were people free to do whatever, they were still bound by American law and also those they lived with — Carla had to constantly move at some point over fear of getting murdered by the same people that murdered her husband. And at the end, Carla returns to the society that she originally seeked escape from to work various jobs. As Peter Coyote admits at the end of his interview: “There were too many internal contradictions, not the least of which was the fact that we didn’t have a very good vocabulary for dealing with social issues, and inter-personal issues” (SF Gate).
Maybe utopia isn’t something that is supposed to work on a mass scale, someone’s utopia can very much be someone else’s dystopia- just as life on a commune seems like a dystopia for me. Rather than attempting to enforce an idea of utopia with a group of people in hope to escape a perceived dystopic world, whether that be a patriarchal culture or consumerist culture, I think finding that space you call utopia is creating a life for yourself that you are happy in and do not feel like you need to escape, through surrounding ourselves with people, places, and activities that bring us a sense of fulfillment.
As Professor Cohen, said in lecture on April 10, dystopias and utopias are the same story, where utopia is salvation for the few and countercultural by design while dystopia is mass cultural with control and destruction for all. Taking form the commune spirit of experimental styles of living, we owe it to ourselves to discover what our utopia is and rather than to try to inflict that utopia onto others, Your eutopia will always be someone else’s dystopia.
4.Commit to Your Work
These final two steps are shorter and more abstract, based on quotes or ideas from the invited speakers I found particularly inspiring.
Throughout the course, we were exposed to artists that exemplified incredible dedication to their work and values. I was blown away by the above piece by Fred Tomaselli for example when it was shown in class I thought its intricate patterns and integration of chemical compounds into the piece itself, display a high level of attention to detail and dedication to the work.
The idea for the title of this step comes from the words of another incredibly committed and passionate artist Kal Spelletich, speaking on his artistic journey and work with intentional machines. Website link: https://kaltek.wordpress.com/ He shared his journey as a jock turned artist, and how he creates art pieces, or machines, that pushes the boundaries of people’s comfort zones. He offered the following two pieces of advice:
- Find a job with your heart, soul, and that fits in with the idea of what you want the planet to be
- The things that will break you are the things you care most about, and they will break you in the strongest way
5. Continue Thinking and Engaging
Another remark that was made by Kal was that college was a special time when he could sit down and just learn new material. While I agree that my four years of undergraduate studies have given me the unique opportunity to focus primarily on learning new information and skills without having to worry about too many real life issues, I think that there is so much to learn from engaging with the real world. As Kal also said, you cannot change the world without engaging with it.
Mark Pauline’s (http://www.srl.org/) words that help soothe some of my worries that I am not quite sure yet how to change the world. He said something along the lines of that we our opinions about the world formed yet, but we are still doing a lot of thinking. College was a time where I got to learn a lot about the world, but it was mostly passive learning, sitting at desks absorbing information my teachers imparted to us. I learned not just about how neurons work and what ion pumps do for my major, but also what I’m interested in, what’s important to me, and what kind of person I want to be. I am privileged I may be young and have had a lot of experience, but I also have a chance to do something with the vastamount of time I have left on this planet.
The Anarchist Library, Revolutionary Letters: May 1968-December 1971 Diane di Prima (1971).
Anonymous reprint (2014) of Third Edition, March 1974, City Lights Books, San Francisco
Peter Coyote. “Carla’s Story” (1992) http://www.petercoyote.com/carlasstory.html
SF GATE. “Summer of Love: 40 Years Later /Peter Coyote” (2007) http://www.sfgate.com/news/article/Summer-of-Love-40-Years-Later-Peter-Coyote-2559612.php