How important is LSD to the cultural history of post-war America?

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5 December
15:02
December
2016

In a surprisingly quiet way, given LSD's reputation, I think it's extremely important to the cultural history of most of the English-speaking world. 

In the same way that you can see the world change with the introduction of a specific technology, acid had that kind of impact across a pretty wide scope of cultural and spiritual practices. One huge example is a reader survey from 1996, from Tricycle, the Buddhist journal, where something like three-quarters of the correspondents reported arriving at Buddhism via exploration with psychedelics. 

"It was about overthrowing the post-war years, which not coincidentally are the same era in American history that so many conservative politicians use to build their nostalgic platforms, the implied America of "Make America Great Again.”

Psychedelics get really attached to the '60s because of the music and the vibrant culture, but it was also an ongoing sort of religious awakening. You can trace back all sorts of stuff – the popularity of yoga, or what's now called "conscious living" – to continued presence of psychedelics through the '60s and '70s and '80s, in the States as well as England. I think understanding the ongoing importance of psychedelics since the mid-'60s is pretty critical to understanding some aspects of the culture war that's obviously still dividing America. 

Psychedelics were very connected to the gay liberation movement in the United States, and the notion of the counterculture itself was an attempt to revolutionise the repressive culture the United States. It was about overthrowing the post-war years, which not coincidentally are the same era in American history that so many conservative politicians use to build their nostalgic platforms, the implied America of "Make America Great Again.” But, really, fuck that version of America. Acid was, and still is, a linkage across generations of this real and continuous social network, often an explicit counterculture. 

Unlike mushrooms and ayahuasca, LSD doesn't have thousands of years of traditional practices. It was invented in the twentieth century with no fixed purpose, which gave it a fill-in-the-blank quality that I think was perfectly suited for post-War American culture.

That includes the dreaded post-war Baby Boomers but also – given that successive generations have kept finding liberations in psychedelics – it transcends the Boomers. Even with the gradual arrival of ayahuasca ceremonies in the States, really peaking over the past few years, acid is still the cornerstone of the modern DIY drug religions, both as idea and an actual substance. I think roll-your-own do-it-yourself make-it-up-as-you-go spirituality can be easy to scoff at, because it looks so informal and ad-hoc. Unlike mushrooms and ayahuasca, LSD doesn't have thousands of years of traditional practices. It was invented in the twentieth century with no fixed purpose, which gave it a fill-in-the-blank quality that I think was perfectly suited for post-war American culture. 

Jesse Jarnow (@bourgwick) is the author of Heads: A Biography of Psychedelic America and Big Day Coming: Yo La Tengo and the Rise of Indie Rock. He maintains @HeadsNews and a regular Heads News email bulletin. Since 2008, he has hosted The Frow Show on WFMU, the long-running freeform New Jersey radio station. He lives in Brooklyn.

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