Kenneth Rexroth at Large in San Francisco

January-September 1966


The Subculture Facing Armageddon
Environmental Blitzkrieg
Urban Alienation Renewal
Lively Arts versus TV Culture
Marxism and the Persistence of Alienation
The International Cultural Revolution
What Is Immoral?
Camouflaging the Rape of the Environment


The Subculture Facing Armageddon

[...] Living as I do in the Haight-Ashbury, which seems to have become the headquarters for the New Youth, the New Left, the New Student, the New Bohemia, the New Negro, and several other New Categories, I am constantly reminded of “what’s happening,” and though Mr. Smith may not know what it is, I think I have a pretty fair idea.

The other evening I read with great interest a new book, All Things Common: The Hutterian Way of Life by Victor Peters, published by the University of Minnesota Press. The Hutterians are a German-speaking pietist, communal and pacifist sect whose origins date back to the very beginnings of the Reformation.

They are now mostly settled in Canada, but some of their colonies are again in the Dakotas and Montana. They fled the United States during the persecutions of War I. Today they are meeting a certain amount of persecution from other Canadians, not because of their communism or their pacifism, but because they are so much more successful farmers than most of their neighbors.

The next day I was in a supermarket buying New Year’s dinner. Ahead of me was a young couple, more or less typical of Haight-Ashbury. I suddenly realized that the girl had on a characteristic Hutterian jumper or overall apron. The only difference was the length of the skirt. Then it dawned on me that there was no essential difference at all — the husband was not in a Beat uniform, but “dressed plain” in work clothes, with a beard and long hair. The girl wore no makeup and her hair was unaltered.

They were very young, yet obviously, from the pile of groceries, they had several children. They were extraordinarily polite to others and to one another. Their voices were low and gentle. They were discussing with great interest serious general ideas. It might have been a supermarket in an Alberta market town.

Think of the little girls that show up at your door on Sunday morning with a record player and ask, “Are you ready for Armageddon? Armageddon’s coming.” Are they wrong? Are you ready? Always before it has been necessary to have strong supernatural sanctions to sustain a subculture which chose to cut loose from the dominant society, to opt out of the immorality of Things As They Are.

Today thousands and thousands are doing so on a largely secular and uninstitutionalized basis. In the words of Dostoevsky, they are respectfully handing back their tickets. As they strive for a new community, honest morality, sane goals in life, and their passing fads and follies drop away, the youth who are seceding from our crazy, lethal social order are converging with those predecessors — Mennonites, Brethren, Amish, Hutterites, Quakers — who withdrew from the madness and horror of the Wars of Religion and the collapse of the society of the Middle Ages.

The record of 400 years of persecution suffered by these pious, inoffensive groups passes belief — pogroms, burnings alive, looting, rape, total destruction of most of the communities, wanderings over the face of the earth.

I wonder if that is what the future has in store for their modern successors? It is a needless worry. This time there won’t be a future. “Are you ready for Armageddon?” [...]

[9 January 1966]

NOTE: Rexroth later wrote a whole book on the history of the Hutterites and other communalist and utopian movements. The book is out of print, but is online at this website: Communalism: From Its Origins to the Twentieth Century.


Environmental Blitzkrieg

[...] With ever-increasing frequency, for the past few years, in San Francisco, in the Bay Area, in California, and all over the country, the small and embattled forces trying to stave off the destruction of a decently habitable environment have been faced with the technique of the massive, irreversible accomplished fact, with blitzkrieg, schrecklichkeit and efficient and plausible third column takeover.

Ecology, the relations of living species to one another and their environment, is precisely the field that lends itself best to irreversible processes — except maybe chemistry. The redwood forests of coast and sierra can no more be restored, for instance, than can the firecrackers of Chinatown’s New Year celebration be uncracked.

The rapidity with which we are creating an environment in which the human species as we know it can no longer thrive is astonishing. We have passed, in California, a critical point. The resilience of the environment is exhausted, it can no longer recuperate from large-scale destruction in less than many centuries.

The forces that stand to profit from destruction now know this and they have learned to move quickly, on the largest possible scale, and if it can be managed, with an elaborate public relations camouflage which disguises them as “conservationists.”

Once the forest cover of the Northern California streams is destroyed, flood, fire and erosion quickly create an irreversible situation. The top soil is out in the Pacific Ocean or clogging the larger streams and we are not all that technologically advanced that we can put it back.

The Walt Disney development of Mineral King — far in excess of the Forest Service specifications — will be like a nuclear explosion in the heart of the finest mountain wilderness in California. Disney anticipates two and a half million visitors by 1976.

It was possible to put Nagasaki and Hiroshima back together again — give or take a few dead humans. Once gone, the wilderness is gone forever. Once polluted by the Highway Commission, San Francisco’s water supply, once famous for its purity, will stay polluted.

For years now I have advocated an act of the Legislature or an initiative measure to abolish the Highway Commission and constitute a new authority governed by human considerations and not by parabolas, gradients and slide rules.

Since the present fellows have become such experts at modern strategy and tactics against a diffused body of opponents, I suggest they be retired to the General Staff in Vietnam where their expertise should perk things up considerably.

[24 January 1966]


Urban Alienation Renewal

Three weeks or so ago Bob Commanday did a piece on Lincoln Center. Immediately people started asking me why I didn’t answer it. Fact is, though I have considerable respect for Bob’s taste in music, I didn’t read it.

I consider Lincoln Center a shocking failure to achieve an end which was bad in the first place. Then Alexander Fried came up with a column on the necessity for rebuilding the Civic Center “culture complex” which made many of the same points. He disapproved of Arnold Gingrich’s remarks at the recent culture pow-wow, and on the same page I approved of them. Controversy is the life of critical journalism, so here and now I speak my piece.

First things first. American society is sinking deeper and deeper into a cultural crisis, true, but this means “culture” in the deepest sense of the word. Where once there was a class war over wages, hours, working conditions, profits — basic economic conflict that resulted in disastrous and bloody strikes, either bloodily established and made permanent, or bloodily suppressed, today in America social conflict revolves around issues which ultimately boil down to questions of the meaning of life.

An ever growing sector of our society finds no meaning in life; and when the conventional goals are made available to them, looks on them not as goals at all, but as frustrations.

One of the main reasons for the objections to urban renewal by almost all qualified “urbanists” is that it builds hopelessness, namelessness. High-rise subsidized housing means ready-made moral and spiritual slums.

Nowadays with the fantastic increase in building costs, it means physical slums as well. The reason for the struggle going on in every city of any size in the country to preserve the older residential districts and encourage deslummification is that these neighborhoods have still the potential, if rehabilitated, of being natural communities.

Civic and federal money has been spent in the millions to try to achieve community in high-rise housing projects, both rich and poor. The result has been total failure.

The leading urbanists today have come to the conclusion that our ancestors knew best. When urban population density exceeds three or four families to a single lot, community begins to break down and the humane values of city life decay.

Furthermore, the older sections of our cities were built in a time of abundant natural resources, cheap labor, architectural exuberance, and, most important, strong emphasis on family life.

San Francisco’s bay window flats, duplexes and single-family homes, built around the end of the last century, are better built, of better materials, than even the best condominiums, and in addition, they are far more functional than the fraudulently named “functionalist” modern domestic architecture.

And, built into them is not namelessness, but family life. They do not look like any suite in any here-today-and-gone-tomorrow motel — as do all but the most expensive new homes today.

By building what are really big city imitations of Indian reservations we are building social disaster. The demoralization of the American Indian by the reservation system could be swept under the rug. There aren’t all that many Indians and the reservations are, by definition, places nobody else wants, and a long way away.

How many millions now live in low rent, high-rise, brand new slums, in the heart of our cities? How many of these people are entering the third generation on relief? The pseudo jet set in the almost identical apartments that rent for $600 to $1200 a month or are sold as expensive condominiums are no better off. The “anomie,” the namelessness, the lovelessness, the loneliness, the frustration, are just the same — to an observer from another civilization, the ways of life differ only in expense and perhaps cleanliness.

The girl Fridays who haunt the financial district cocktail bars looking for love, and the junior executives who haunt them looking for a quick one differ very little from the lost people in the pool halls and shoeshine parlors or hustling the streets in the Fillmore District. They are just lonelier.

A series of feature stories on “How to be a Chippie” and “How to Take Dope” may, or may not, sell papers, but it doesn’t illuminate the dark and threatening center of the problem.

The upwardly mobile, technical, professional and employee classes are coming to adopt precisely the same patterns of behavior as those at the very bottom of the social ant heap. Why? What has gone wrong? I’ll have more to say about this next week.

[5 June 1966]



I have been getting a lot of mail lately asking my opinion about LSD and the current craze for pharmaceutical religion. Off and on since I have been doing this column I have stated my position, but time passes and I have to do it again.

First marijuana. The scientific work, both medical and sociological, as well as criminological, on the use of the milder, New World, species or subspecies of Cannabis Indica, or Mexicana has long been done.

There is no evidence that smoking it is physiologically any more harmful than smoking any other weed. It is certainly much less harmful physiologically than tobacco. It is not addictive in the strict sense. That is, it does not set up a biochemical condition in the body that results in physical craving and sickness if it is withdrawn, as do the opiates like morphine and heroin, or, to a lesser degree, and in a different way, tobacco.

It does not turn people into killers or sex maniacs. On the contrary, it lessens all physical activity, quiets aggressive behavior, and reduces sexual drive and potency. However, it does make the subject highly suggestible and autosuggestible, subject to strong and easy influence by others and by his own imagination.

It also usually greatly lowers all inhibitions unless there is definite suggestion to the contrary. It usually produces a state of mild euphoria, elation and carefreeness.

The intoxication can be turned off by eating a big meal, taking a nap, drinking large quantities of water, taking a hot bath, or by autosuggestion — “effort of will.”

The principal objection to marijuana always has been that it is illegal, sold through underworld channels, tied into organized crime, and is therefore used as a “high school” to introduce young customers to the idea of narcotics, and then to turn them on to “hard” — that is, heroin.

A heroin habit, of course, is a true addiction. Withdrawal results in at least three days of agony and sickness of a sort few people will endure unless restrained. It is frightfully expensive so that only the very rich person can support a well-developed habit without becoming a criminal. Also, it wears out, the addict needs more and more as time goes on, until at last he has to submit himself to withdrawal with all its horrors and start over afresh to obtain the effects of the drug.

Heroin, like opium, but unlike morphine which is now a rare drug amongst addicts, does seem to have slowly accumulating deleterious effects.

Marijuana also, in the “drug taking culture” in which it flourishes, is usually accompanied with habitual overdosage with a variety of pep pills and hallucinogens and hypnotics which do have bad physiological effects and which are often addicting in the true sense.

If marijuana could be legalized and lifted out of the context of criminal activity and made a social drug like alcohol, it probably would do a great deal less harm both to individuals and society than either alcohol or nicotine.

However, three things stand in the way. One, both the underworld and the agents of the law have built up a vested interest in things as they are in the field of narcotics control. Two, billions of dollars, which course through the life veins of both business and politics, flow like corpuscles in a plasma of alcohol. Liquor is one of the biggest businesses. What cheap marijuana, which you can grow in a window box, would do to this torrent of gold beggars imagination. Government, of course, at all levels, obtains a big share of its revenue from alcohol.

This is the strongest and conclusive argument against legalizing marijuana as far as the state is concerned. Nobody can figure out how to tax it.

Meanwhile, people who do not use it have no conception of how widespread and ever growing its use is. I doubt if there is a reputable criminologist who believes it can be stopped. Given the prevailing attitudes of the majority, I simply do not know the answer.

[28 June 1966]


Lively Arts versus TV Culture

To continue the discussion of San Francisco’s cultural problems I’ve been busy with the last few Sundays in this column: The major problem facing the big cities of the world for the rest of this century is the improvement of the quality and meaning of life for the general population, but especially for the previously deprived sectors at the bottom of the social ladder, or off the ladder altogether. If we do not do this, our society will inevitably sink deeper and deeper into demoralization and finally destroy itself.

This has absolutely nothing to do with 19th-century notions like capitalism or socialism, it is a universal problem. Communist Moscow, Social Democratic Stockholm, capitalist New York all have the same troubles, and Peking will, too, as soon as the people are permitted to take a breath and relax ever so little. Probably behind the current Chinese purges is the inability of the bureaucracy even now to cope with the very small measure of “postmodern” society they have already created.

This has absolutely nothing to do with 19th-century notions like capitalism or socialism, it is a universal problem. Communist Moscow, Social Democratic Stockholm, capitalist New York all have the same troubles, and Peking will, too, as soon as the people are permitted to take a breath and relax ever so little. Probably behind the current Chinese purges is the inability of the bureaucracy even now to cope with the very small measure of “postmodern” society they have already created.

Last week we had an excellent opera, The Turn of the Screw, several top jazz musicians in town, a fine comic opera at Music At The Vineyards, all sorts of other goodies, but the most important single event, sociologically speaking, was the show of the Performing Arts Workshop, under the direction of Gloria Unti, at the Buchanan Street YMCA.

The next most important was the extraordinary mare’s nest of rules and regulations the Recreation and Park Commission cooked up to keep the Mime Troupe out of the parks. Don’t tell me that’s a mixed metaphor. Ever try to digest a cooked mare’s nest?

I find it not worth the expenditure of heart to cope with Ronnie Davis myself. His truculence and disregard for other people defeat his own purposes, which, at least as he announces them, are mine as well. Worse still, he plays, objectively, the role of a provocateur, whatever his intentions. What is important at this juncture is not the Mime Troupe, but the final result of its quarrel with the commission.

We need, as a first step, to open up to the widest, most varied, most intensive use the public facilities we now have which can enable us to stimulate and foster cultural activities at the grass roots, or rather, pavement and street corner level.

Those parks which the commission closed to public performances are the ones where such things are needed most. All the parks paralleling Fillmore street, from Pacific Heights to Buena Vista Park, should be used for something every weekend. It is self-evident that the Mission, Hunters Point and Potrero Hill districts are precisely the areas where we should encourage neighborhood cultural activities.

Furthermore, the stipulation that all public performances should take out expensive insurance and hire a private policeman automatically rules out all but commercial exploitation. The mobsters can stage publicity stunts with their topless girls from the North Beach dives, but a local teenage rock group can’t possibly perform.

Both as to membership personnel and function, all our city commissions dealing with cultural questions are obsolete. The committee members are all living in a bygone age and the only power they have is to make mischief, to halt and hamper creative action.

We should have art exhibitions in all our schools, all the time. We should have something going on evenings in our school auditoriums. We should have, not one art fair or festival in a central location, but neighborhood fairs in every district in the city. Groups not dependent on private facilities should be not just petted, but sought out and encouraged to perform in the parks and schools.

Let the Park Commission face up honestly to the problem of the content of the Mime Troupe’s plays and either censor or not censor. Meanwhile, what about the Aldridge Players? The Performing Arts Workshop? Dozens of dance groups and little theaters? Why not the Opera Ring? Dozens of amateur music groups, folk, rock, jazz, and classical? Why not the Poetry Center every week in the little outdoor meeting hall in the redwood grove in Golden Gate Park? Is this ever used? Hardly anyone even knows it exists.

If Jack Shelley or the Board of Supervisors, or both, wanted to be remembered gratefully in history, they’d appoint a working committee, not to “study” (which is modern political jargon for “waste time and money”) but to put in operation just such a program, right now. Eleven dedicated people could start so much action right this summer that they’d make history.

There is another problem, maybe the biggest, in “bringing culture to the people.” Most of the American people are not out in the parks on sunny weekends nor are they going to walk a few blocks to a school or recreation center of an evening. They are home watching television.

Some way or other we are going to have to overcome all the obstacles of expense, union rules, time, sponsorship, and open up the air waves to the same kind of popular, noncommercialized, locally originated cultural activity. And we are going to have to figure out how we can use such programs to encourage the spectators to turn off the television set and turn themselves on to live participation.

The difficulties in this whole field stagger the imagination. But there are no real difficulties in developing the use of the city’s present recreational and educational facilities. There are only bureaucratic ones, and the always abiding human ones of sloth, greed and vulgarity.

[3 July 1966]


Marxism and the Persistence of Alienation

Last week, giving the Bolshoi Ballet a going over I mentioned that its tastelessness raised questions of very deep social import, the questions being raised by radical Marxist criticism on both sides of the Iron Curtain today.

It would have looked silly to introduce such heavy considerations into the review of the Bolshoi. I decided however to devote a column to them, because these are the questions with which, fundamentally, I have been dealing in several recent columns on San Francisco’s culture, on the problems of the quality of life in modern society.

The question worrying the present generation of young Marxists, and the more astute of the surviving older generation as well, is phrased by them: “Does state ownership of the means of production and distribution do away with what Marx called ‘alienation’? Does it have any necessary connection at all?” What do they mean by this? Is it just Bolshevik jargon, ideology, designed to obliterate real ideas? Indeed it is not. It is the sixty-four thousand ruble question and threatens to hang all the law and the prophets of Marxism.

As a young man Marx shared with most other intellectuals of the period, most intelligent and sensitive people of all political persuasions, the realization that something was going very wrong with life. The Liberty, Equality, Fraternity of the French Revolution had turned into a sterile system of contract relationships which governed all society. Men were bound together by abstractions.

The products of their industry were more powerful than themselves and conspired behind their backs to defeat the human ends of production. The worker produced an empty product, a commodity in which he had no personal interest. The capitalist struggled with his peers for profit and reinvestment as ends in themselves, regardless of the social effects of his activity, and with no personal satisfaction except the satisfaction of greed.

The resulting dehumanization Marx, following Hegel, called “alienation.” Man was divorced from his humanness. In his early philosophical manuscripts Marx’s criticism of society is essentially moral and his remedy is abstract.

He believed that the ending of the “exploitation of man by man,” an abstraction, would result in the liberation of Man (an abstraction) into perfect Freedom (an abstraction) and the universalization and democratization of human creative potentiality, a whole congeries of abstractions.

When he and Engels wrote the Communist Manifesto on the eve of the 1848 wave of revolutions in Europe he had come to identify “alienation” with the destructive effects of the “cash nexus,” wages, prices, profits, sterile money relationships which obliterated all humane connections between man and man. He had spent three years studying economics, and he believed that he had discovered contradictions within the capitalist system which would infallibly destroy it, and that within a very short time. Then the most alienated of all classes, the proletarians who have nothing to lose but their chains, would take over and banish alienation forever by socializing the processes of production and distribution.

The rest of Marx’s life was devoted to finding ever more certain guarantees of the doom of the economic system and to ensuring the control of himself and his followers over the most radical section of the revolutionary movement.

By the time he had come to the third volume of Capital — which he never finished — he believed he had found a built-in, entirely automatic flaw in the necessary production relationship of wage labor, profit and reinvestment which would bring the whole system down. As capital investment increased and investment in labor declined in proportion, the rate of profit fell to the vanishing point, and the system became unworkable — whatever the degree of impoverishment of the working class, whatever the market, or distribution, relationships.

There are two flaws in this dramatic vision. The first, historical. Things simply did not work out that way. The second, an initial unprovable assumption.

There is no necessary reason why socialism would make the slightest difference, why social ownership would solve the contradictions of production, or why human self-alienation should vanish just because men were workers in State industries or heads of State Trusts.

Next year the Russian Revolution will be 50 years old and the Peoples’ Democracies will, most of them, be 21, and the Chinese Revolution will be the same age — or 40 years old if you count from the first bid for power.

Even “African Socialism” has now matured enough to be a recognizable social form. Some of these systems have worked well enough, after the initial great social costs had been paid, others are still foundering.

But the astonishing thing is that the human problem that first came to the attention of thoughtful men 150 years ago is still the same problem and it is still not solved on either side of the Iron Curtain.

Men still feel themselves dehumanized by the society in which they live, in Moscow or New York. The creative potential of each man is far from being realized.

Human relations are still abstract and destructive and masked by hypocrisy and rhetoric. Most labor is unsatisfying to the laborer. Leisure has increased enormously but leisure activities are, most of them, as alienating as labor. The quality of life does not satisfy the instinctive demand. Something is still going wrong.

Nineteenth-century thinkers believed that most, perhaps all, problems, in mathematics, physics, astronomy, or in human affairs, were soluble. Is it true that none of them are, in any final sense, and human problems least of all? Is alienation as characteristic of man as trunks are of elephants? Can we improve the quality of life only within very narrow limits?

[17 July 1966]

NOTE: Rexroth discusses Marx in more detail in Classics Revisited.


The International Cultural Revolution

San Francisco may be in a permanent tizzy about its culture crisis, but we needn’t feel lonesome. They’ve got one in Peking, too. In Russia, Komsomolska Pravda, the organ of Official Youth, pleads for more “youth recreation caf├ęs” in one issue and raves about the hooliganism, blue jeans, sandals and miniskirts that prevail in the ones that already exist, for three issues thereafter.

A couple weeks ago they had a fit about the adolescent custom of wearing Maltese or German Iron crosses which has managed to cross the barbed wire no-man’s-land of the borders of the Workers’ Fatherland in a matter of just a few months.

Leading Polish, Hungarian, Yugoslav writers visit me and plaintively ask me for a good sound theoretical explanation of what to them is the incomprehensible behavior of their sons.

The San Francisco establishment fails the Actor’s Workshop for the same reason. They find it incomprehensible. They suspect it of being subversive, maybe even anti-free enterprise, just as their like numbers in the People’s Democracies suspect the same plays, produced in the same fashion, of being subversive, that is, anti-Communist.

The more obstreperous exponents of disaffiliated art, like the Mime Troupe, the Black Arts Repertory, the psychedelic hard rock boys and girls, fill the nice people with terror. Over there on the other side of the electrified barbed wire fence such types exist only in a private underground culture, but they do exist.

Both establishments are perfectly right in their judgment. There is a cultural revolution, and it is subversive.

On the more superficial level, there is a drastic, wholesale change of the forms of expression. The revolution in the arts that took place during the past hundred years was an elitist movement. Each new change was at first accepted only by a small circle of artists themselves, then spread to the few patrons with whom they were personally associated, and then to the small international community of “advanced” intellectuals, and then, very slowly indeed, to the better educated sections of the general public.

The revolution in the sensibility which we call modernism still has a long way to go. I would doubt very much if 30 percent of the patrons, the more cultivated members of the Power Structure, the highly civilized Forty Families of San Francisco, like Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Picasso, James Joyce, T.S. Eliot, attend concerts where their music is played, or buy their books or even reproductions of their paintings. Yet this is a generation which came to maturity around the First War or earlier — 50 to 60 years ago.

What is happening today is a different thing altogether. It is a mass movement, confined largely to people under 35, recruited from all levels of education and economic class. It is self-sustaining where it is not persecuted out of existence, and its creative expression is diffused — democratized. It is not a change in style of painting like cubism, or composing, like 12-tone music, or writing, like Joyce’s stream of consciousness or Eliot’s dissociation and recombination of the elements of a poem. It is a fundamental change in life attitude.

All you have to do is look at them — these people live differently. Art is a kind of life. True, the quality of junk sculpture, coffee shop poetry readings, found music seems to the previous generation to represent a drastic deterioration in quality, and there is certainly a sameness about it all.

But that is just the point. If you are going to democratize art, you have got to reduce it technically to a level where anybody can do it. The point about the street poets’ movement in San Francisco (now spreading to the high schools) is not that it is modernistic — that is, technically unconventional — but that it is recited in innumerable pads and coffee shops, peddled on the streets, and mimeographed sheets of poems by poets who live around the corner are given away free in the corner grocery. “Take a free poem. It’s better than bingo.”

To return to last Sunday’s column. This is a mass demand, devoid of ideology or political program in the old sense, to do something about that alienation Marx’s revolution was supposed to do away with. What Marx did not realize, writing in 1844, was that the divorce of man from his work and of man from man had become the outstanding issue of the European intellectuals after the Napoleonic Wars because they were not oppressed, but comparatively free and able to afford fundamental moral judgments of the society about them.

The great moral issues that concern youth today — civil rights, war and peace, sexual honesty — have assumed such vast dimensions of mass action simply because today people can afford to concern themselves with the things that are wrong with our sick society, and most important, they can afford to act, to do something drastic.

In an economy of abundance everybody can afford his conscience — suppose you do get thrown out of college — so what? You won’t starve. The serf hoeing his field, the artist painting at the whim of a despot could so little afford a conscience that sometimes he didn’t even know he had one.

We can all be Voltaires today, or even Dantons, and cry, “Dare! Dare! And dare again!” and nobody will cut off our heads or even make us go hungry.

All over the world younger people, and some older ones, are saying, “I am going to simply start living a life in which man is no longer wolf to man. Mister, or Comrade, your economic system can afford it, and you’d better fix it so it can without a lot of fuss. I don’t like fuss. I just like to do nice things.”

This is essentially a religious movement, a demand that we, as humans, live up to our spiritual possibilities. Which is why, I suppose, that the people who seem to understand it best are a few Jesuit theologians.

[24 July 1966]


What Is Immoral?

The rumpus over Mike McClure’s The Beard reveals so clearly the schism which divides our society and divides it specially along the line of age.

Young people, and a lot of old ones, think the ancient words for the processes of elimination, procreation and recreation, what Aristotle called “coming to be and passing away,” are clean, and n—r applied commonly to black people, and w—p to Italians, and J—p to Japanese, and k—e to Jews are filthy words.

They believe that a great deal of modern advertising is pornography, hard core pornography in the strict sense of the word. They believe that the typical behavior of Southern deputies or Chicago mobs is actionable as an obscene public performance and an incitement to obscenity. They believe that innumerable TV shows glorifying brutality and murder are demonstrably contributing to the delinquency of minors.

They cannot understand the mind of authority that sends Ralph Ginsburg to jail for five years for putting out a handsome magazine (incidentally at a price only very affluent adults could afford) devoted to glorifying a joyous and eminently normal sexuality, and allows the most pernicious and perverse racist and rabble rousing reactionary publications to circulate unmolested, and even have articles from them mailed broadcast under Congressional frank.

The rest of the world is turning away from America, not because they think it is “capitalist” but because they feel it is immoral. The immorality they object to is not the publication of girlie magazines or the performance of shows of a sort that have been commonplace in Paris for a hundred or more years.

It is immoral to deliberately destroy a redwood forest to prevent it becoming a National Park — and don’t think for a minute that people aren’t reading about that in their papers from New Delhi to Montevideo to Hammerfest.

It is immoral to spend millions to corrupt politicians and to influence votes to keep automobiles unsafe, to preserve the God-given right to pollute the air and water, or the right to sell, at enormous prices, dubious drugs, still in the experimental state, to the unsuspecting public.

It is immoral to package commodities in lots of “7/9th of a pound and .09 ounces,” or other quantities that demand that the shopping housewife be an expert on the slide rule before she can tell what she’s buying.

It is immoral to hate people because they are younger than yourself, wear different clothes, have beards or black skins, and like music you can’t understand. It is, in fact, immoral to hate people who like plays like The Beard which you can’t understand, and lock up actors who think it is beautiful. After all — you don’t have to go nor is it being performed in the public parks where you might see it unwittingly.

Who is obscene? McClure and his actors and audiences think the play is art. The authorities think it is lewd. Honi soit qui mal y pense. What constitutes authority in this case?

[30 August 1966]


Camouflaging the Rape of the Environment

The Sierra Club certainly came up with a great advertising slogan: “Shall we also flood the Sistine Chapel so the tourists can get nearer the ceiling?” They put the finger on the spurious propaganda of the organized onslaught on all and every conservation force and tradition.

The proponents of the Grand Canyon dams say they will not injure the canyon in the least, but will improve it. They will improve it, open it up for recreational use for the common people, at the expense of only a few feet of out-of-date fossils.

What are our National Parks for, a few Sierra Club kooks who enjoy climbing El Capitan and shooting Niagara Falls in a barrel, or for healthy happy families who can dash around the lakes that will appear on the floor of the Grand Canyon in power boats and get a close-up view of the wonders of its geology?

What is more important, petrified cuttle fish, or human beings? True conservation is conservation of people, not rocks.

There are arguments like this for every single attack on what remains of our wilderness and our natural beauties. The anti-conservation organizations pay good money to PR people to think them up. Soon the lumber companies will have logged off all the virgin stands of redwood except for the small state parks and a few roadside strip groves.

They will be left for automobile tourists to photograph. That’s all the tourists want anyway.

But, say “scientists” hired by the advocates of total logging, after the appallingly destructive floods of last year, “The redwood forest is not a true climax formation. It springs up best on burnt over land, gullied hillsides, and the sandbars left by massive floods. Redwood is a rapidly growing tree and the new forest will reach true maturity, which is the size sufficient to make it valuable once again as lumber, in less than 50 years.”

Or: “The lands being filled along the shores of San Francisco Bay are useless mudflats at present, many of which, at low tide, are unsightly swamps. The only people who get anything from them are the salt manufacturers and the duck hunters. The Bay will be greatly improved if it is lined with lovely housing developments for the small boat set, in imitation of Venice, California or Italy. It will be a far greater tourist attraction and recreational asset than it is at present. What are we conserving, ducks, shrimps or human beings?”

Or: “If we flood an area in Alaska larger than Lake Erie we will create a wonderful recreation area, open to easy access by ordinary people, in what is now a useless wilderness, and we will be giving the people of Alaska badly needed electric power, and besides, the land is mostly free. What are we conserving, wolverines or men?”

Or: “The Park Service admits that it cannot operate the National Parks efficiently. Their policy of limited use has broken down. What we need are more roads, opening up the country to the common people, who are not kooky foot-burners who like to hike, but good robust Americans in portable homes. We need more, not less, recreation facilities, dance halls, bars, restaurants, ski lifts, funiculars, camp grounds in easy walking distance of the beauty spots, bear feedings at the garbage pits to entertain the kiddies. People go to the National Parks for vacations — for relaxation, for a good time. If free enterprise is permitted to meet this demand, the National Parks can be put on a sound financial basis.”

We are of course conserving men, not chipmunks or glaciers. But we are trying to conserve them by preserving for future generations what little is left of the natural environment, in which the species man came into existence in the first place, and flourished for a million years.

Our radical destruction of that environment is, in the American West, a matter of only two generations. Two generations out of at least 350,000. Think of that line of people going back in a series of begats like the genealogies in the Bible to the Ice Age.

And yet we seldom think of that inheritance when we hear someone say, “When my grandfather came to California there were grizzly bears where Skyline Boulevard is now.”

Or: “I’ve seen the bunch grass go and the Spanish oat take over in that land since I was a boy. You can’t raise beef on it anymore unless you feed all year round.”

Or: “Let me show you a series of pictures. It took just 10 years for Williams Meadows to turn into a rocky gully a hundred feet wide.”

We have reached the tipover point. The man-made environment is so vast that nature survives only in small islands, threatened constantly by biological changes from outside even under ideal conditions of protection.

We hold this land in trust for the 350,000 generations still, D.V., to come, barring our own passion for self-destruction.

Contact with the environment from which he came is strong medicine for the preservation of the species of man, it recreates him in the true sense, and it may well be essential to his survival.

We may discover that once we are all living in Megalopolis under a Dymaxion roof, we simply will start to die off.

Certainly the urban civilizations of the past, far less artificial, have never replenished themselves except by immigration from the countryside.

A virgin redwood forest, an unpolluted Lake Baikal, may be like hormones, tiny particles of the face of the globe, without which we cannot go on living.

[11 September 1966]


Kenneth Rexroth at Large in San Francisco (selected columns from the San Francisco Examiner and San Francisco Magazine). Copyright 1960-1975 Kenneth Rexroth. Reproduced by permission of the Kenneth Rexroth Trust.