Grand Illusions

US Airforce/Wikicommons

WAVES OF HISTORY, as they subside, leave behind a detritus of facts—“stupid things,” as Ronald Reagan memorably misspoke, since the little darlings never speak for themselves. They require legions of interpreters and translators before they make sense—and even then, they make sense only as the sense-maker pleases (though not in conditions of his or her own making). However, facts (or what journalists like to call “the facts,” as if there were a hard-and-fast finitude of them) do have the literary virtue of lending themselves to narrative—not just any narrative, but the sort of narrative that a reader judges intelligible. Such facts transcend their distinctness and become the components of plot, as in E. M. Forster’s indelible distinction between story (“The king died, and then the queen died”) and plot (“The king died, and then the queen died of grief”). The aesthetic that typically governs chronological history permits the narrator to compose facts in an order that makes it irresistible to conclude that one set not only gave way to a second set but produced them. There are plots that are more or less plain and those that are more or less complicated. Plain plot appears transparent. It begs to speak for itself.

In The Eve of Destruction (named for P. F. Sloan’s unseasonably dark song of 1965), James T. Patterson, who won the Bancroft Prize for Grand Expectations: The United States, 1945–1974, a volume in the Oxford History of the United States, puts together skeins of facts in such a way as to lend an appearance of transparency to a plain plot. This is a high order of textbook history, sprinkled with topic sentences like these two, from the same page: “King’s decision to lead demonstrations in Selma was one of many signs of the intensifying militancy of American civil rights advocates in early 1965” and “Increasingly impatient with the slow pace of change, many black leaders were setting forth wide-ranging demands in early 1965.” Patterson affects the artlessness of a book-length Newsweek piece, and his characters, too, tend to be one-dimensional, but the payoff is that the plot rings with the aura of inevitability.

Patterson also proves shrewd in using this single year as his canvas. Nineteen sixty-five was surely a hinge year when the zeitgeist went into convulsions and the calendar cooperated. To start with, there was the tremendous escalation of the Vietnam War. Lyndon Johnson authorized the dropping of incendiary bombs, including napalm, and defoliants, including Agent Orange. Within twelve months of LBJ’s order, American planes had dropped more than forty-three thousand tons of bombs on North Vietnam. American troops in Vietnam had multiplied eightfold. (Lagging behind, the membership of Students for a Democratic Society, the largest group in the New Left, increased fourfold, still leaving it a fraction of the size of the right-wing Young Americans for Freedom.)

The year was a domestic hinge as well. Within a matter of weeks, the civil rights theater rotated rapidly from the Selma-to-Montgomery march to Lyndon Johnson’s “We shall overcome” speech announcing the signing of the Voting Rights Act. Anti-poverty legislation, Medicare and Medicaid, and immigration reform together established a high-water mark for postwar American liberalism. Indeed, the litany of domestic reforms that took place within Johnson’s first two years in office beggars today’s impoverished imagination. Such measures responded to, and generated, expectations that were indeed grand, though soon enough it became clear that Johnson’s Great Society was actually the last gasp of the New Deal.

“Grand expectations,” indeed. Grand was the word. It was a year of grandeur; it was a year of grandiosity. Here enters what I take to be one central element of Patterson’s plain plot: Johnson overreached, if not with programs, at least with rhetoric. LBJ was a big man with big designs and a big mouth. So far as he was concerned, it wasn’t enough to diminish poverty; he had to make “war” on it. He promised Ho Chi Minh a Mekong Delta project to dwarf the New Deal’s Tennessee Valley Authority, and couldn’t for the life of him understand how Ho could turn his back on such generosity. Voting rights, Johnson said, were the “most powerful instrument ever devised by men for breaking down injustice.” Johnson was going to lift every boat—even Ho Chi Minh’s, if only he’d sign up with Johnson’s idea of conflict-free history—and launch it on a merry cruise. As the columnist William Shannon wrote, Johnson was the “master of the America-is-a-great-wonderful-barbecue school of politics. His programs are designed to evade rather than confront the hard issues. He believes in consensus, not conflict. The barbecue school of politics is not based on any belief in redistributing wealth or disturbing anyone’s existing privileges; rather, it presupposes that there is enough meat, and gravy, too, for everyone at the tables.”

Patterson is right that Johnson was frequently prone to oversell his promises. Richard Nixon agreed, too, seizing the opportunity, in his first inaugural address, to blast “inflated rhetoric that promises more than it can deliver.” Of course, Johnson was not always blowing smoke. When he said that Medicare and Medicaid would advance “the healing miracle of modern medicine”—one of Patterson’s examples of Johnson’s egregious excess—was he mistaken? But this is a small objection. The question is, which presidents (besides Lincoln, as usual the rule-proving exception) do not oversell their wares? “Because the people of the world want peace,” said the aforementioned Nixon in 1969, “and the leaders of the world are afraid of war, the times are on the side of peace”—this at a time when at least a million Vietnamese, hundreds of thousands of Laotians and Cambodians, and about fifteen thousand Americans still breathed who would cease to do so by the time Nixon left office four and a half years later. How about “Government is the problem”? How about “We will widen the ownership of homes and businesses, retirement savings, and health insurance”? (George W. Bush in 2005, if you’re wondering.)

LBJ’s claim that he could deliver guns and butter simultaneously, the more common metaphorical formula for “the barbecue school of politics,” was a hallucination. Like David Halberstam before him (in The Best and the Brightest), Patterson argues that Johnson’s insistence on having his guns and buttering them too led to a specifically bad consequence. Most of the inflationary pressures that built up through the decade, Patterson writes, “stemmed from the rise in government spending, especially for the war.” Especially for the war. Refusing to raise taxes to pay for the carnage in Vietnam (sound familiar?), for fear of undermining the policy his paranoia led him to, Johnson started down a road that would be fully paved over by OPEC in the ’70s—toward ruinous and Democrat-destroying inflation.

Patterson offers much evidence of the compound paranoia that Johnson kept behind closed doors. Johnson saw subversion everywhere—he was convinced that Morley Safer was a Communist because Safer had had the temerity to show marines setting a Vietnamese hut afire on the CBS news—and at the same time LBJ was afraid that if he weren’t sufficiently bellicose, the domestic Right would have him for breakfast. Patterson does not hazard psychological theories, but a less timid reader might put together Johnson’s grandiose promises and his grand fears of Communists (and vigilant rightists) and see, well, a grand pattern. The evidence is there, but Patterson misses a chance to underscore the affinity between LBJ’s grandiose promises and his equally exaggerated fear of Communist plots, both abroad and at home. When Johnson sent marines to depose a democratically elected leftist, Juan Bosch, in the Dominican Republic, he thought Bosch was “controlled by the Castroites.” (Even Johnson’s own defense secretary, Robert McNamara, said that he didn’t believe it.)

The other element of the plot, as Patterson reads it, is that grand expectations not only generated diminishing returns but unslakable thirsts. Here he follows Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who declared in 1968 that “the great liberal failing of this time” was “constantly to overpromise and to overstate, and thereby constantly to appear to underperform.” Johnson’s social programs, Patterson writes, “stimulating ever grander popular expectations, had the unintended consequence of intensifying the demands of a host of rights-conscious pressure groups in America.” Blacks, other minorities, women, the young: Give “them” inches and “they” took miles. In this scenario, the Watts riots followed from the civil rights movement’s successes. Lasting six days and nights, “only five days after LBJ had signed the Voting Right Act . . . the destruction and its political aftershocks demoralized Johnson and left the once proud and luminously effective civil rights movement in a state of disarray from which it never recovered.” But this is to grant too much power to overt promises. Expectations would very likely have risen even if liberals had muttered. Rhetoric aside, underperformance by reformers was well-nigh guaranteed after centuries of white supremacy.

Patterson makes good use of the prevailing scholarship (I confess he cites me several times) and pop-culture bellwethers. He avails himself usefully of the transcripts of White House tapes that reveal Johnson and King kibitzing closely on strategy in Selma. Especially at a time when states-rights Republicans itch to roll back the Voting Rights Act, it’s useful to remind readers that white supremacists in Alabama used “literacy tests” that were administered by voter-registration offices open two days a month, wherein you might be disqualified for failing to cross a t or to reproduce verbatim a long passage from the Constitution. Patterson makes clear how astute it was for King to choose Selma’s Sheriff Jim Clark as poster-boy antagonist. He zooms up to LBJ seating George Wallace “in a low, squishy sofa where he had to lean back and look up, while LBJ, sitting very close by, loomed above him in a rocking chair.” Here is Johnson: “Don’t shit me. . . . George . . . do you want a Great . . . Big . . . Marble monument that reads, ‘George Wallace—He Built’? . . . Or do you want a little piece of scrawny pine board lying across that harsh, caliche soil, that reads, ‘George Wallace—He Hated’?” (Fine detail, that “caliche.”) Another nice touch: ABC broke into its broadcast of Judgment at Nuremberg to show fifteen minutes of footage from Selma. Hubert Humphrey wrote a memo warning against untoward consequences of escalation in Vietnam—before heaving himself back onto LBJ’s lap for the duration.

In the end, Patterson thinks the clumsiness and overreach of government—a neoconservative theme in the latter part of the decade—doomed the Great Society. I’m not so sure. Even granting Johnson’s limits as a domestic reformer, another scenario was possible—one that Patterson’s plot is too neat to permit. Perform the thought experiment of imagining that Johnson had had the wisdom and courage to phase out of Vietnam. Suppose that he had saved not only the lives, not only the money, but also at least some of the credibility of government. Can one not imagine an America groping its way toward a second Reconstruction? Can one not imagine a soft landing for the ’60s instead of a rightward veer? Such a scenario would have been far from inevitable, but the possibility may well have been there, dangling, unrealized, obliterated by paranoia and napalm.

OF COURSE, WE ALL KNOW that the '60s revolutionized America’s more intimate, interior lives—indeed, recasting them sometimes as transformed ways of life and sometimes as “lifestyles”—in addition to upending the postwar political order. The “human-potential movement,” aka “humanistic psychology,” is a more elusive subject than either Lyndon Johnson or the New Left, so it is not surprising that Jessica Grogan, in her account of the happiness industry of the ’60s and ’70s, has some trouble wrestling with a will-o’-the-wisp.

Texts help, but the texts in question are often enough mushy. Grogan walks her way through the writings of Abraham Maslow, with his self-actualization and his “hierarchy of needs”; Carl Rogers, with his client-centered, nondirective therapy; and Rollo May, with his Americanized existentialism—pioneers of “humanistic psychology” and “human potential” who bridled at behaviorism, psychoanalysis, and academic psychology alike, and whose work proved useful, empowering, to unhappy Americans whose longings for both community and escape from community were left unassuaged by the consumer joys of postwar suburbia. Maslow, Rogers, and May, among others, picked up trails left untaken in the wake of William James’s late-nineteenth-century failure to formulate a synthetic psychology of the whole person.

Despite James’s promising beginnings, Grogan argues that American psychology was born atomistic, “isolating variables through experimental methods . . . focusing on behavior and expression without studying etiology.” Psychology in America was a kit for tinkering with the sick while denying the hungers of whole human beings for meaning and growth. Life magazine had, in 1957, certified in a five-part series that the country was living in an “Age of Psychology,” that “Less than a Century Old, the Science of Human Behavior Permeates our Whole Way of Life—At Work, in Love, in Sickness and in Health.” That all-permeating “Science of Human Behavior” was evident in the successes of industrial psychology and the manipulations of advertising.

The pioneers of humanistic psychology were not all on the same track, though they crisscrossed. Maslow might have seemed the Emersonian epiphany merchant, drifting toward a positive psychology of “peak experiences.” However, he comes across as a more anxious and melancholy figure here, confiding at one point to his journal that “Rogers doesn’t have enough sin, evil, & psychopathology in his system. He speaks of the only drive as self-actualization, which is to imply there is only a tendency to health.” Likewise, May, a connoisseur of anxiety—which Kierkegaard properly identified as “the dizziness of freedom”—thought the other two naive in their refusal to recognize the darkness bred in the human bone. Grogan does better with Maslow and Rogers than the more elusive, more sobersided May. All in all, it is hard to resist the conclusion of the psychologist Henry Murray, an early sympathizer with the movement, that it was joined together by the thrill of defiance, not by passion or rigor; that it was “at once strident and confused.” Like the acolytes of experiential therapy she writes about, Grogan is not content to read texts. She visits the open-air institutions of “human potential,” notably the Esalen Institute of Big Sur, with its coastal baths, dope, and marriage-dissolving encounter groups, featuring “shouting, touching, shoving, and curling up on the ground.” At Esalen, the disciplined Thoreau of Walden Pond was less influential than the let-it-all-hang-out theatrics of Fritz Perls, a hedonist satrap in new Gestalt clothes. Often decked out in “long white robes or flowing multicolor shirts and sandals,” he was called by his wife “a mixture of a prophet and a bum.” “Lose your mind and come to your senses,” he liked to say. Perls’s “Gestalt prayer” adorned many a California wall in the 1970s: “I do my thing and you do your thing. I am not in this world to live up to your expectations and you are not in this world to live up to mine. You are you, and I am I, and if by chance we find each other, it’s beautiful. If not, it can’t be helped.” “He told me I should fuck around,” one of his female patients later said. “I’m ‘supposed’ to fuck around because my therapist tells me that.” Maslow’s diary entries concurred with this growing disillusion: “Too many shits at Esalen,” he confided there. “Too many selfish, narcissistic, noncaring types.” Tales of confidence men presiding over the “free-for-all fucking epidemic” that the once-brilliant Wilhelm Reich warned against are hardy perennials.

Grogan does not speculate much about why the human-potential movement thrived, how it enabled Emersonian individualism to fuse with the groupiness of the herd, why (as Rollo May said) the Association for Humanistic Psychology was “formed by scholars” but “taken over by hippies,” or what the movement’s trajectory had to do with—or against—other social trends. She mentions in passing government support for group therapy and encounter training and research, but might have explained its implications more fully. She has more to say about corporate backing for Maslow’s smiley-face stratagems, but there are no doubt rich business archives to be explored further. Were the best-selling self-help manuals, sensitivity training, and expressive, antinomian therapies—the tour books and package tours that a time of more-or-less prosperity summoned forth—indulgences for a larger, more restless leisure class than had ever before existed? Since she has recourse to the trendmongers of our day as legitimate sources of expertise, it is peculiar that Grogan has no time for social theorists of recent decades who worried about what her subjects implied for the culture. Did the humanistic psychologists crank out the ideology that, in Habits of the Heart, Robert N. Bellah and his coauthors called “expressive individualism,” which dissolved morality and social bonds into fragmentary efforts at self-serving? Did they expedite Richard Sennett’s “fall of public man”? Those names do not appear in Encountering America. The censorious Christopher Lasch comes in for a single mention. There’s plenty of reason to skip over much of academic sociology and social theory, but Grogan’s account suffers from a pronounced baby-bathwater problem.

Where did the human-potential movement leave the hungers of deracinated America once the drugs had been banalized; once the influential Synanon had been exposed as a brutal cult and the fabulously successful “est” impresario Werner Erhard (denounced by May as “anti-humanistic”) had moved on to quieter pastures? How can we soberly assess its legacy now that “distortions of humanistic psychology” in “talk shows and self-help books . . . tout the importance of being true to our inner selves, even when it’s at the expense of our families or our community”? When “cultural voices may be so committed to affirming the individual that they ignore moral questions and encourage selfishness”?

Grogan doesn’t say, beyond reminding us that the movement has burrowed its way into most of our daily interactions. “The language of humanistic psychology is everywhere: humanistic ideas of self, growth, health, individual potential, and relation are now woven into the very fabric of our thoughts and perceptions. The fundamentals of ‘humanistic’ communication, encounter, and expression populate our interactions with our spouses, our employees and bosses, our friends and children.” But these sweeping exercises in trend spotting cry out for deeper scrutiny. Grogan might have explored further how nondirectiveness and emotiveness affected not only various therapies but pastoral counseling and social-work practice. (She could also have said more about the impact of feminism as such, to which she devotes only a skimpy chapter.) They resurface in today’s “positive psychology.” Management continues to love sensitivity training as once it loved to paint company lunchrooms green, on the theory that the serene hue would boost worker productivity. Meditation thrives, as do yoga, treadmills, and running shoes. Meanwhile, as Grogan notes, scientism rides higher than ever. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual is king. Esalen remains open, but its imitators closed down by the ’80s. Who needs self-actualization when there’s Prozac?

Just as the liberalism of LBJ’s Great Society succumbed to the Vietnam War, white backlash, and bad policy, so, too, did the liberationist promise of the counterculture collapse into personalized marketing and mechanically tie-dyed T-shirts. As Marx might have put it: first time Aquarius, second time antidepressants. But even this is too pat a formula. In the end, these two books give us externals, not the tangle of self-contradictory human experience that spurred the hunger for liberation and then thwarted it. Grogan gives us more of the programs than the grain of experience or the inner life where liberation ran into walls. Patterson gives us a plot about hubris but not the tragedy.

Todd Gitlin is a professor of journalism at Columbia University. He is the author of The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage (Bantam, 1987) and Occupy Nation: The Roots, the Spirit, and the Promise of Occupy Wall Street (It Books, 2012), among many other books.