Lessons from a Counter-Culturalist
What a strange and un-nerving presence Timothy Leary’s writings have in this post-psychedelic era. The remnants of a highly charged socio-political and quasi-religious philosophy, which not only erupted against the established norms of external power structures but which also celebrated the right to our internal freedom, is today, a spectre-like memory.
Many of the important themes in Leary’s work, like mystical experience and sensual exploration, are now widely regarded as irrational and untestable. There remains, however, many external, political parallels between Leary’s and the 21st century’s social struggle for freedom.
When Leary wrote, in the 1960’s, that ‘the number of pot smokers worldwide is larger than the population of the United States of America’ and that they out-number the moral middle-class to the measure that there is, practically speaking, a dictatorship of the minority, I think we can all agree that nothing much has changed.
Our fight has become an increasingly political battle over the last thirty years. The idealist values of personal exploration, religious rite and the morality of ‘one love’ are the tools of a forgotten ‘tuned in’ and ‘dropped out’ generation. They’re defunct methods as we pursue our freedom politically. But by losing the ‘hippy’ the game is played out on the ground of the moral minority, in their comfort zone, by their rules, from their dominant perspective.
Playing the political game in Britain has created a nightmare cannabis culture. The bartering for inches of law, the mis-analysis of barely related-statistics, the bad science and an acute institutional ambivalence have plunged Britain into a post-psychedelic depression. Marijuana is being concreted into a criminal framework at the expense of the once peaceful psychonaut.
The ‘holy sacrament’ is now provided by criminal gangs, poisoning us with money-laundering additives and we are ‘turned on’, not by our trusted friends but by the twin educational paranoia’s of ASBO degenerates and pier-pressure. The middle-aged, once safe growing and smoking in the privacy of their own homes are now potential terrorists who have the right to be watched, searched and defiled.
Worst of all? That inner sanctum, the internal freedom that Leary fought so hard to protect, is now the reason for our subjugation. We are ‘unstable, mentally deficient and potential criminals’ because we use Cannabis.
There was always two sides of the same coin in Leary’s psychedelic revolution. On the one hand, the necessary change in our socio-political culture that would come, according to Leary, from our new, growing psychedelic perspective. On the other, there was the knowledge that one needed to protect and harness the personal, the internal and our spiritual morality as the necessary centre of strength in our external lives.
Take for example Leary’s essay ‘The magical mystery trip’ in which he extols the virtues of the British, not only as the leading cultural light in the internal psychedelic movement but also, surprisingly, in the external attitudes of our politicians. He transcribes a Commons debate from the 1960’s in which questions are raised about the disillusionment of the youth and the prevailing alienation within British society. But what’s happened?
Today, there is no public debate, there is no public vote and the advice of experts is disregarded out-of-hand; regardless of the fact that tokers now use medical and socio-political arguments. But then, the post-psychedelic fight has lost one half of it’s strength. It’s no longer about our internal freedom, it is solely driven by the rights of our external freedom and is thus alienating us from our personal experience, our high. After all, the experience of smoking of pot is not a political game. It’s not about finance and the categorical control of external power.
Leary was always eager to understand the possible socio-political ramifications of his research and he acutely recognized the dangers of the pre-existing external systems, and this is why he remained mystic. He remained, in all his speculation, true to the internal experience. Fighting the cause from his own ground, his own centre of knowledge and his own, personal, belief.
It is now, in the current climate, where some of the so called crack-pot ideas of Leary are finding new premise. We may not be quite starting our own religion, as Leary asked us to, but we are getting together in small tribes in order to grow and smoke cannabis in safety and peace. Just look at the underground medical marijuana scene.
We’ve been driven into the old ideas because the external world won’t have us and because we reject the criminal world that we are labelled with. We grow and share in a safe circle of trusted friends. It is not, as many politicians would have you believe, a degenerate sub-culture of Britain. It is a counter-culture and it breaths the morality of internal freedom.
Leary was responsible enough to recognize the need for safe guidance in using more powerful psychedelics. Skunk is a prime example; it has the potency to elevate you to a very different experience of life (a right we each have to explore within ourselves) yet today, ‘the guide’ is a dealer; and the dealer is defined by a long prison sentence. Once again, the space that was frequented by the spiritual and which has been ignored, is now the realm of the criminal.
Tokers come from all walks of life – this is the division given to us by society. To be heard as this sub-culture is to be drowned in empty rhetoric, funnelled through media and dogmatic concepts and to be lost in a cacophony of bureaucracy. But to be heard as a clear single voice, a fresh perspective that slices through pre-conceptions; this is to be counter-culture. Tokers all enjoy exploring their consciousness – this is what unifies us. Our strength, Leary makes clear, is in our internal unification – not the external division that is defined by those who wish us silenced.
The seeds of change, for culture and society, lie in natural growth and evolution; not in discourse and game-playing – these are merely masks of power. If we restrict ourselves to politics then we deny ourselves our culture. Leary showed us, above all, that change is fed internally. To change the current dogmatic discourse, which is leading to a further recession of our external rights, there needs to be a re-opening of the old front – the internal battle. As Leary might have said; playing politics is copping out, not dropping out.