03/21/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

The Specter Of The Counterculture III: The Land Of False Dreams

When did the American national bird become the ostrich? This was, after all, the take-away message from the megahit Matrix I, that we dwell in a world of painted veils and comforting delusions, utterly disconnected from reality and the desert caused by our willful blindness lying just behind.

Are people too asleep to notice? Consider the recent obsession with amnesia, from the Bourne trilogy, Ghost World, The Truman Show, Mulholland Drive, Momento, Family Man, almost anything with Drew Barrymore to Eternal Sunshine, Stepford Wives II and Groundhog Day (there are more!), and you conclude that self-deception is not a sporadic affliction but a plague.

What would we expect from a nation that worships Forrest Gump? Gump's ironclad defense to the charge of amnesia, you recall, was simply being too limited to know anything in the first place. But this celebration of ignorance goes back to Reagan's assault on clarity with his drivel about white picket fences and morning in America, as if all of history, that is reality, is a bad dream to be escaped. This way to the Matrix!

What so desperately needs forgetting? Drink the Kool-Aid like Chance the Gardener and the very question recedes. Americans want to live in Pleasantville, and every pill they take and ad they watch is their friend. They want to believe that whatever blows in from behind the veil is temporary, and they can hunker down till it passes.

Sometimes, however, reality - wars, financial meltdowns, unraveling hopes - simply will not agree to disappear, and a vacant look of "What, me worry?" is unconvincing. It is then, when the underlying frustration and impotent rage surfaces, that we sense things are deeply wrong.

The perfect example of this anger at the intrusion of reality, and a clue to our woe, is the response to the counterculture itself, clearest in the demeaning cartoon of the 60s in Gump. The counterculture's transgression was to pose one question to the American public: do you want, really want, the life relentlessly pushed on you that appears to drive your every waking moment? What happiness will come with the latest cell phone, Tommy Hilfiger, the next corporate promotion, and the move finally (till the next one) to Pleasant/Shaded/Rolling - Hills/Valley/Forest? all the new-in-box acquisitions of your in-box life?

The dangerous question lurking beneath, of course, was "what is it - all the noise, ad campaigns, and neighbors aside - that you actually want?" Well, that's when panic set in, and it's been panic mode ever since. Americans, it turns out, didn't have the faintest clue what they wanted, and so, in the time-honored tradition of shooting the messenger, they took off on the counterculture.

It didn't help that many young people freed from the conformity and status demands of mainstream society also seemed to be a lot more fulfilled, engaged, purposeful. Finding happiness by being different was not to be tolerated, and society in the Reagan years declared war on those refusing to prostrate themselves before competitive pressures, status anxieties and materialist distractions. There would be no insulation from false dreams in America, no way to find out what was real.

Lost in their own false pleasures and doubts, Americans refused to consider that society had sold them a lifetime full of illusions. Nor would they hear that the amnesia was no accident, that being clueless about what they really wanted was built into the very design of their "free society."

But just what if liberal society - the land of the individual - had never believed in the individual? What if it was built upon strategies to deflect us from discovering what we really want to be, to know, and to have? At its very beginning liberal theorist Thomas Hobbes warned that individuals allowed to pursue their true desires would ever be at war with each other. Only if you scare them sufficiently, Hobbes advised - no social safety net, no psychological security, the omnipresent threat of violence, relentless pressures to conform - will they behave. And if you terrify them about the Mad Max world that their own dreams will unleash, they will grasp for the pseudo-paradise of order and compliance as their own.

It is clear how fear-mongering was used against the counterculture, and more broadly how the specter of Communism and now terrorism has turned ordinary citizens into obedient children. But sowing hysteria and panic unsettles people. Long ago, Hobbes was replaced in the national myth by the founder of capitalism Adam Smith. Almost twenty years before he wrote his classic defense of the free market 'The Wealth of Nations," Smith asked what could (less contentiously than fear) induce individuals to pursue lives they don't really want.

Everywhere with the growing wealth of English life, individuals were racing to acquire what Smith called "mere trinkets of frivolous utility," the frivolous items of a frivolous life. They would "stuff" their "pockets" with these trinkets, then outfit themselves with new pockets so they would not have to break stride. More importantly, they were enthusiastically subjecting themselves to endless toil, recurrent anxiety and lifelong insecurity, all to further this accumulation.

For such individuals, Smith concluded, the happiness they believed they were seeking would never come. This was good news indeed. Whatever prevented individuals from being content, satisfied, willing to say "enough," whatever "deception" kept them building boxes to inhabit - predictable, quiescent, and without worrisome dreams of their own - was the secret of a stable individualistic society. Only in old age, their race now run, would they realize they had sacrificed their life to "contemptible and trifling" illusions, pursuing substitutes for the real thing. By then it would be too late, and Smith had no intention of warning them.

By directing individuals toward the wish to look happy and successful in the eyes of others, promoting those "vain and empty distinctions" involved in keeping up with the Joneses, even being the Joneses, consumer society had replaced the search for personal fulfillment with something unwanted, that would bring no happiness. As we now know only too well, there are always more Joneses, always more keeping up to keep up, bigger and better substitutes.

Inundated by the advertising and marketing tsunami hammering away at what we are missing, we would rather drown in stuff than cry "uncle," because somewhere there is a Jones drowning in more stuff. And now, tragically, to make sure no child is left unafflicted, we have according to sociologist Juliet Schor made them our primary marketing target, shaping their psychological lives around "consumer desires," by "tether[ing]" them early on to "products, brands, and the latest trends."

Where does the story end? In real pleasures that have "fled for ever," Smith admitted, in workaholism, manic consumption, and finally regret? The counterculture proclaimed 'no more substitution,' the emperor has no clothes. Where are those among us, childhood having been abolished, that will call us on our folly?

The counterculture in its naivete thought you simply ask people to embrace what is real, and they will come. But having been diverted for so long, lifting the veil was not easy. Yet, uncovering the dreams we have woven for ourselves (and placed safely out of reach) makes it worth trying to take our heads out of the sand. Let's try and think about how.