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Tomgram: Ira Chernus, The Summer of Love and the Winter of National Insecurity

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.

If you want to know just what kind of mental space Washington's still-growing cult of "national security" would like to take us into, consider a recent comment by retired general and Department of Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly. In late May on Fox and Friends, he claimed that "the American public would 'never leave the house' if they knew what he knew about terrorist threats."

That seems like a reasonable summary of the national security state's goal in the post-9/11 era: keep Americans in a fear-filled psychic-lockdown mode when it comes to supposed threats to our safety. Or put another way, the U.S. is a country in which the growing power of that shadow state and its staggering funding over the last decade and a half has been based largely on the promotion of the dangers of a single relatively small peril to Americans: "terrorism." And as commonly used, that term doesn't even encompass all the acts of political harm, hatred, and intimidation on the landscape, just those caused by a disparate group of Islamic extremists, who employ the tactics by which such terrorism is now defined. Let's start with the irony that, despite the trillions of dollars that have poured into the country's 17 intelligence agencies, its post-9/11 Department of Homeland Security, and the Pentagon in these years, the damage such terrorists have been able to inflict from Boston to San Bernardino to Orlando, while modest in a cumulative sense, has obviously by no means been stopped. That, in turn, makes the never-ending flow of American taxpayer dollars into what we like to call "national security" seem a poor investment indeed.

To deal with so many of the other perils in American life, it would occur to no one to build a massive and secretive government machinery of prevention. I'm thinking, for instance, of tots who pick up guns left lying around and kill others or themselves, or of men who pick up guns or other weapons and kill their wives or girlfriends. Both those phenomena have been deadlier to citizens of the United States in these years than the danger against which the national security state supposedly defends us. And I'm not even mentioning here the neo-Nazi and other white terrorists who seem to have been given a kind of green light in the Trump era (or even the disturbed Bernie Sanders supporter who just went after congressional Republicans on a ball field in Virginia). Despite their rising acts of mayhem, there is no suggestion that you need to shelter in place from them. And I'm certainly not going to dwell on the obvious: if you really wanted to protect yourself from one of the most devastating killers this society faces, you might leave your house with alacrity, but you'd never get into your car or any other vehicle. (In 2015, 38,300 people died on American roads and yet constant fear about cars is not a characteristic of this country.)

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It's true that when Islamic terrorists strike, as in two grim incidents in England recently, the media and the security state ramp up our fears to remarkable heights, making Americans increasingly anxious about something that's unlikely to harm them. Looked at from a different angle, the version of national security on which that shadow state funds itself has some of the obvious hallmarks of both an elaborate sham and scam and yet it is seldom challenged here. It's become so much a part of the landscape that few even think to question it.

In his latest post, Ira Chernus, TomDispatch regular and professor of religious studies, reminds us that it hasn't always been so, that there was a moment just a half-century ago when the very idea of American national security was confronted at such a basic level that, ironically, the challenge wasn't even understood as such. In this particular lockdown moment, however, perhaps it's worth staying in your house and following Chernus, who's visited the 1960s before for this website, on a long, strange trip back to 1967 and the famed Summer of Love. Tom

A Psychedelic Spin on "National Security"
The Summer of Surprisingly Political Love
By Ira Chernus

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It's the 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love. What better place to celebrate than that fabled era's epicenter, San Francisco's Golden Gate Park, where the DeYoung Museum has mounted a dazzling exhibition, chock full of rock music, light shows, posters, and fashions from the mind-bending summer of 1967?

If you tour the exhibit, you might come away thinking that the political concerns of the time were no more than parenthetical bookends to that summer's real action, its psychedelic counterculture. Only the first and last rooms of the large show are explicitly devoted to political memorabilia. The main body of the exhibit seems devoid of them, which fits well with the story told in so many history books. The hippies of that era, so it's often claimed, paid scant attention to political matters.

Take another moment in the presence of all the artifacts of that psychedelic summer, though, and a powerful (if implicit) political message actually comes through, one that couldn't be more unexpected. The counterculture of that era, it turns out, offered a radical challenge to a basic premise of the Washington worldview, then and now, a premise accepted -- and spoken almost ritualistically -- by every president since Franklin Delano Roosevelt: nothing is more important than our "national security."

And believe me, "national security" should go in those scare quotes as a reminder that it's not a given of our world like Mount Whitney or the buffalo. Think of it as an invented idea, an ideological construct something like "the invisible hand of capitalism" or even "liberty and justice for all." Those other two concepts still remain influences in our public life, but like so much else they have become secondary matters since the early days of World War II, when President Roosevelt declared "national security" the nation's number one concern.

However unintentionally, he planted a seed that has never stopped growing. It's increasingly the political equivalent of the kudzu vine that overruns everything in its path. Since Roosevelt's day, our political life, federal budget, news media, even popular culture have all become obsessively focused on the supposed safety of Americans, no matter what the actual dangers in our world, and so much else has been subordinated to that. The national security state has become a de facto fourth branch of the federal government (though it's nowhere mentioned in the Constitution), a shadow government increasingly looming over the other three.

It says much about the road we've traveled since World War II that such developments now appear so sensible, so necessary. After all, our safety is at stake, right? So the politicians and the media tell us. Who wouldn't be worried in a world where the constant "threats to our national security" are given such attention, even if at the highest levels of government no one seems quite sure just which enemies -- ISIS, Iran, Qatar, the Taliban, al-Qaeda, Russia, North Korea -- we should fear most. Who suspected, for example, that Qatar, for so long apparently a U.S. ally in the war against ISIS, would suddenly be cast as that enemy's ally and so a menace to us?

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To judge from the increasingly dire warnings of politicians and pundits, the only certainty is that, whoever may be out to get us, we need to be constantly on our guard against new threats. That's where our taxpayer money should go. That's why secrecy rules the day in Washington and normal Americans know ever less about what exactly their government is doing in their name to protect them. It's "a matter of safety," of course. Better safe than sorry, as the saying goes, and even in a democracy better ignorant than sorry, too.

The most frightening part of living in a national security state is that the world is transformed into little else but a vast reservoir of potential enemies, all bent on our destruction. Immersed in and engulfed by such a culture, it may be hard to remember, or even (for those under 65) to believe, that half a century ago a mass social movement arose that challenged not only our warped notion of security, but the very idea of building national life on the quest for security. Yet that's just what the counterculture of the 1960s did.

The challenge reveals itself most clearly in that culture's psychedelic light shows with their "densely packed, fluid patterning of shapes and fragmented images... [which] literally absorbed audience members into the show," as the DeYoung's website explains. They were events meant to break down all boundaries, even between audience and performers. Posters advertising rock music and lightshows displayed the same features and added "distorted forms and unreadable, meandering lettering," all meant to "create an intense visual effect similar to that experienced by the shows' attendees."

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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