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The “Me” Decade and the Third Great Awakening

We are now—in the Me Decade—seeing the upward roll (and not yet the crest, by any means) of the third great religious wave in American history, one that historians will very likely term the Third Great Awakening. Like the others it has begun in a flood of ecstasy, achieved through LSD and other psychedelics, orgy, dancing (the New Sufi and the Hare Krishna), meditation, and psychic frenzy (the marathon encounter). This third wave has built up from more diverse and exotic sources than the first two, from therapeutic movements as well as overtly religious movements, from hippies and students of “psi phenomena” and Flying Saucerites as well as charismatic Christians. But other than that, what will historians say about it?

The historian Perry Miller credited the First Great Awakening with helping to pave the way for the American Revolution through its assault on the colonies’ religious establishment and, thereby, on British colonial authority generally. The sociologist Thomas O’Dea credited the Second Great Awakening with creating the atmosphere of Christian asceticism (known as “bleak” on the East Coast) that swept through the Midwest and the West during the nineteenth century and helped make it possible to build communities in the face of great hardship. And the Third Great Awakening? Journalists (historians have not yet tackled the subject) have shown a morbid tendency to regard the various movements in this wave as “fascist.” The hippie movement was often attacked as “fascist” in the late 1960s. Over the past several years a barrage of articles has attacked Scientology, the est movement, and “the Moonies” (followers of the Reverend Sun Myung Moon) along the same lines.

Frankly, this tells us nothing except that journalists bring the same conventional Grim Slide concepts to every subject. The word fascism derives from the old Roman symbol of power and authority, the fasces, a bundle of sticks bound together by thongs (with an ax head protruding from one end). One by one the sticks would be easy to break. Bound together they are invincible Fascist ideology called for binding all classes, all levels, all elements of an entire nation together into a single organization with a single will.

The various movements of the current religious wave attempt very nearly the opposite. They begin with . . . “Let’s talk about Me.” They begin with the most delicious look inward; with considerable narcissism, in short. When the believers bind together into religions, it is always with a sense of splitting off from the rest of society. We, the enlightened (lit by the sparks at the apexes of our souls), hereby separate ourselves from the lost souls around us. Like all religions before them, they proselytize—but always on promising the opposite of nationalism: a City of Light that is above it all. There is no ecumenical spirit within this Third Great Awakening. If anything, there is a spirit of schism. The contempt the various seers have for one another is breathtaking. One has only to ask, say, Oscar Ichazo of Arica about Carlos Castaneda or Werner Erhard of est to learn that Castaneda is a fake and Erhard is a shallow sloganeer. It’s exhilarating!—to watch the faithful split off from one another to seek ever more perfect and refined crucibles in which to fan the Divine spark . . . and to talk about Me.

Whatever the Third Great Awakening amounts to, for better or for worse, will have to do with this unprecedented post-World War II American development: the luxury, enjoyed by so many millions of middling folk, of dwelling upon the self. At first glance, Shirley Polykoff’s slogan—“If I’ve only one life, let me live it as a blonde!”—seems like merely another example of a superficial and irritating rhetorical trope (antanaclasis) that now happens to be fashionable among advertising copywriters. But in fact the notion of “If I’ve only one life” challenges one of those assumptions of society that are so deep-rooted and ancient, they have no name—they are simply lived by. In this case: man’s age-old belief in serial immortality.

The husband and wife who sacrifice their own ambitions and their material assets in order to provide “a better future” for their children . . . the soldier who risks his life, or perhaps consciously sacrifices it, in battle . . . the man who devotes his life to some struggle for “his people” that cannot possibly be won in his lifetime . . . people (or most of them) who buy life insurance or leave wills . . . and, for that matter, most women upon becoming pregnant for the first time . . . are people who conceive of themselves, however unconsciously, as part of a great biological stream. Just as something of their ancestors lives on in them, so will something of them live on in their children . . . or in their people, their race, their community—for childless people, too, conduct their lives and try to arrange their postmortem affairs with concern for how the great stream is going to flow on. Most people, historically, have not lived their lives as if thinking, “I have only one life to live.” Instead they have lived as if they are living their ancestors’ lives and their offspring’s lives and perhaps their neighbors' lives as well. They have seen themselves as inseparable from the great tide of chromosomes of which they are created and which they pass on. The mere fact that you were only going to be here a short time and would be dead soon enough did not give you the license to try to climb out of the stream and change the natural order of things. The Chinese, in ancestor worship, have literally worshiped the great tide itself, and not any god or gods. For anyone to renounce the notion of serial immortality, in the West or the East, has been to defy what seems like a law of Nature. Hence the wicked feeling—the excitement!—of “If I’ve only one life, let me live it as a ———!” Fill in the blank, if you dare.

And now many dare it! In Democracy in America, Tocqueville (the inevitable and ubiquitous Tocqueville) saw the American sense of equality itself as disrupting the stream, which he called “time’s pattern”: “Not only does democracy make each man forget his ancestors, it hides his descendants from him, and divides him from his contemporaries; it continually turns him back into himself, and threatens, at last, to enclose him entirely in the solitude of his own heart.” A grim prospect to the good Alexis de T.—but what did he know about . . . Let’s talk about Me!

Tocqueville’s idea of modern man lost “in the solitude of his own heart” has been brought forward into our time in such terminology as alienation (Marx), anomie (Durkheim), the mass man (Ortega y Gasset), and the lonely crowd (Riesman). The picture is always of a creature uprooted by industrialism, packed together in cities with people he doesn’t know, helpless against massive economic and political shifts—in short, a creature like Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times, a helpless, bewildered, and dispirited slave to the machinery. This victim of modern times has always been a most appealing figure to intellectuals, artists, and architects. The poor devil so obviously needs us to be his Engineers of the Soul, to use a term popular in the Soviet Union in the 1920s. We will pygmalionize this sad lump of clay into a homo novus, a New Man, with a new philosophy, a new aesthetics, not to mention new Bauhaus housing and furniture.

But once the dreary little bastards started getting money in the 1940s, they did an astonishing thing—they took their money and ran. They did something only aristocrats (and intellectuals and artists) were supposed to do—they discovered and started doting on Me! They’ve created the greatest age of individualism in American history! All rules are broken! The prophets are out of business! Where the Third Great Awakening will lead—who can presume to say? One only knows that the great religious waves have a momentum all their own. Neither arguments nor policies nor acts of the legislature have been any match for them in the past. And this one has the mightiest, holiest roll of all, the beat that goes . . . Me . . . Me . . . . Me . . . Me . . .


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