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Tune In, Age Out

Four decades after Baba Ram Dass told a generation to “Be here now,” the message is the same but “here” is a very different place.


The Here and Now: Richard Alpert, a.k.a. Baba Ram Dass, today.  

Return with public television now to the thrilling days of yesteryear, with bells, tambourines, yellow flowers, and dancing feet: India in 1967. When Ram Dass, the acid-tripping former Harvard professor who still called himself Richard Alpert, first met Neem Karoli Baba, the guru who was affectionately known to his disciples as Maharaj ji, West offered East a hit of LSD. According to Ram Dass Fierce Grace (April 20; 10 to 11:30 p.m.; Channel 13), East swallowed the whole stash, under “the Van Gogh stars,” to no effect whatsoever. The guru seemed to be saying to the son of the president of the New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad that goodness, radiance, purity, and love are already inside us, without the help of Sandoz Laboratories.

Good for the guru, whose sage advice was also hard to beat: “Serve people and feed people.” But look at the photos of Maharaj ji in this reverent episode of the “Independent Lens” series. Doesn’t he have in his eyes a Desmond Tutu sort of twinkle? Would we rather it were a mad gleam? Surely Alpert, after several years of better living through chemistry at Millbrook, had seen one or two bad trips. (In a forthcoming biography of the science-fiction novelist Philip K. Dick, I Am Alive and You Are Dead, we learn that his single experience of LSD in the sixties so scared him that he stuck ever after to amphetamines.) Nor should it have been possible to graduate from Wesleyan, earn a Ph.D. in psychology from Stanford, and teach at Harvard while remaining so ignorant of neurophysiology that you’d risk the sanity of a good man, a cherished yogi, by handing out acid as if it were aspirin.

But in my checkered experience, anyone who has taken more than a little LSD not only winds up arrogant but also measurably dumber than he or she was before such tripping commenced. And this isn’t even to mention a new problematical relationship with your native language, nor a tendency to confuse pop tunes and TV shows with Jung’s collective unconscious. At least Ram Dass, into whom Richard metamorphosed himself upon returning from India to Boston, bearded, barefoot, in a sheet, would do less damage than his pal Timothy Leary. Of course, he also wrote a best-selling book, Be Here Now, that is today almost as unreadable as Charles Reich’s The Greening of America.

“At least Ram Dass, bearded, barefoot, in a sheet, would do less damage than his pal Timothy Leary.”

Mickey Lemle’s Ram Dass Fierce Grace fills us in on the early years—mushrooms, Mexico, Millbrook, Wavy Gravy, and a marketing niche as the baby boomers’ personal spiritual physician—but the focus is on the years of physical therapy and intellectual activity since his 1997 stroke. Or, as he describes it, his “being stroked.” Although expressive aphasia and partial paralysis may have slowed down his locomotion and his speech, as well as killing his plans for a radio show, he has reinvented himself yet again as an example of the “seasoned” survivor and an expert witness on the aging process. His advice for most varieties of grief apparently boils down to “settling into the moment,” which doesn’t sound like much of a change from “be here now,” but seems to satisfy the buyers of his brand-new book, who also get an autograph and a hug.

If I ran the world, or even public television, I would have mentioned somewhere in these 90 minutes that while war raged and cities burned, Ram Dass led thousands of young people away from the rigors of politics into the self-aggrandizement of spiritual grooming. On the other hand, I am an only child because my younger brother turned on and dropped out permanently. I still hold a grudge against the Merry Prankster bus that conveyed Ken Kesey, Neal Cassady, Stark Naked, Zonker, and the Slime Queen from Berkeley to Millbrook, where Leary, Alpert, and Allen Ginsberg were waiting with their pharmaceuticals. Along the way, of course, one Prankster flipped out, ran naked into the goatherds, raving in thorny despair, and got dumped in a Houston loony bin by her very own tribe of groovy pilgrims lacking the common sense or the common decency that God gave a tractor. At least Ram Dass seems to have signed his own version of the Hippocratic Oath; we could do a lot worse than requiring all citizens to pledge: First, do no harm.

Lothar Machtan, the German historian and gossip who does most of the heavy breathing in The Hidden Führer: Debating the Enigma of Hitler’s Sexuality (April 20; 7 to 8:30 p.m.; Cinemax), would have us believe that Adolf was gay and perpetrated what is described here as “the worst anti-gay persecutions in history” only to cover up his guilty secret. All the evidence—his close boyhood friends; his intense interest in art and opera; his bohemian neighborhood in Vienna; rumors of paying men for sex; the “homoerotic life in the trenches” of World War I; “heroic male bonding” in the Wandervogel movement; Ernst Rohm and the S.A.; Nazi uniforms; Nazi architecture; and the leather-fetish films of Leni Riefenstahl—supports the thesis of a fire in the closet.

Nobody’s saying that just because you’re gay, you can’t be a bad person. After all, there was Roy Cohn. On the other hand, almost nobody else interviewed on camera agrees with Machtan either, certainly not Michael Bronski or Rudiger Lautman (although it’s hard to tell from brief remarks by Martin Duberman and Michelangelo Signorile what they think about the larger issue). The evidence cited is often risible. If there’s nothing damning in the police files, it proves they must have been purged! Liking Wagner means you’re gay! Monumental master-building is manifestly swishy! And Machtan is so in love with his smarmy self, as well as his accusation of what he obviously feels is something perverse, I wouldn’t trust him in the same room with G.I. Joe or Barbie. As much accuse Hitler of being secretly Jewish, and the Holocaust a cover-up. Or blame genocide on vegetarianism.

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