Tune In, Age Out

The Here and Now: Richard Alpert, a.k.a. Baba Ram Dass, today.Photo: Hanuman Das/ITVS

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.

Immediately following The Hidden Führer is a more persuasive flashback, Blind Spot: Hitler’s Secretary (April 20; 8:30 to 10 p.m.; Cinemax), in which Traudl Junge, who was 22 years old when she went to work as the dictator’s private secretary in 1942, looks back and deplores her own naïveté: “I actually liked him.” This is the opposite of Hidden, which seeks to smear the blame around. Junge won’t forgive herself for ignoring signals she acknowledges having heard in passing. She took down Hitler’s last will and testament in shorthand; he was still blaming the Jews. “Blind spot” refers to many other things besides what she didn’t allow herself to see at the time and their situation underground in the bunker as the war was being lost (“life outside”). “It’s no excuse to be young,” she says. She complicates our understanding, instead of insulting it.

Nevertheless, maybe it’s time to give the swastika a rest. I used to think our prurient interest was somehow occulted. It is, instead, pornographic.

World in the Balance (April 20; 8 to 10 p.m.; Channel 13) looks at India, which is likely to overtake China in several decades as the globe’s most populous nation; Japan, where people over 60 outnumber people under 20; and sub-Saharan Africa, where far too many adults between the ages of 20 and 60 are dying of aids. A second hour zooms in on what the hyperactive Chinese economy is doing to the environment.

Dance in America (April 21; 8 to 9 p.m.; Channel 13) features a “Great Performance” by the American Ballet Theatre of what Frederick Ashton decided to do with the music Mendelssohn composed for Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with Ethan Stiefel as Oberon, Herman Cornejo as Puck, and Alessandra Ferri as Titania.

Love & Diane (April 21; 10 p.m. to midnight; Channel 13) lets us spend an agonizing amount of time with filmmaker Jennifer Dworkin and P.O.V. watching Diane Hazzard lose her daughter, Love, to the child-welfare system because of a crack addiction and then reclaim her life only to see Love, who is HIV-positive, in her turn lose her baby boy, Donyaeh, to the same bureaucrats, as if the family were cursed.

Just the Facts (April 22 and 23; 10 to 11 p.m.; Court TV) has a very good time letting cops talk back to Hollywood about whether movies and television programs get the details right as they go about busting perps, from Joe Friday to Andy Sipowicz to CSI to The Shield, for our entertainment.

Stealing Sinatra (April 25; 8 to 9:35 p.m.; Showtime) wants to be slap-happy about a harebrained scheme back in 1963 to kidnap Frank Sinatra Jr. and hold him for $240,000 in ransom. There is nothing wrong with the performances of David Arquette, William H. Macy, James Russo, Ryan Browning, and Thomas Ian Nicholas, but with no women, no sex, and very little violence, this project just sort of ambles along between the ears, behind the eyes, to nowhere much.

Tune In, Age Out