Wave that Flag: The not-so-hidden nationalism of sixties psychedelia
by Nadav Neuman
This article by the writer and poet Nadav Neuman first appeared in the Psychedelic Press journal, issue XXXVIII.
For years, psychedelics have been associated with progressive attitudes. Public opinion was that the type of people who took psychedelics were already progressives or if not, they would be afterwards. It has been often said, ‘If all world leaders took LSD together there would be world peace’.
However, more recently, and particularly since the outbreak of the so-called ‘conspiritual’ movements, researchers and writers in the fields of psychedelia have pointed to the connection between psychedelia and attitudes associated with the political right, including a tendency towards authoritarianism, nationalism, and white supremacy.
Examples for this can be seen in the contemporary American alt-right community, many of whose members use psychedelic substances, including Jake Angeli, AKA Q Shaman; the right-wing German philosopher Ernst Junger; and well-known personalities including podcaster Joe Rogan and psychologist Jordan Peterson. In a 2021 study, Pace and Devenot claimed unequivocally that psychedelics are non-specific amplifiers of the political set and setting, whether right-wing or left-wing, and gave illustrations of many cases of psychedelic use among right-wing individuals and communities.
However, there is an important element to this thread of current thought which is rarely discussed: even in the innocent and original version of Western psychedelic culture of the late 1960s, psychedelia and national pride were bound by strong ties. Despite this, cultural memory has ignored this connection. In collective memory, the psychedelic 1960s are seen as a time of universality, not nationalism or patriotism; a time when boundaries were metaphorically and literally broken. But to a certain extent, it is a selective memory. The 1960s were also a time of cocooning and cloistering within one’s national identity.
It is customary to read psychedelic experiences through the lens of set and setting, ‘which refer to the psychological, social, and cultural parameters which shape the response to psychedelic drugs’. As Hartogsohn points out, ‘individual (immediate) set and setting conditions never exist in a vacuum [...] individual set and setting is always nestled within a greater collective set and setting, which is shaped by the society and culture in which a person lives and develops’. This means that the set and setting lens must also include a political and broader national setting. National ethos and history are rooted in the individual in a way that shapes their perception of reality, including their psychedelic experience. The assumption, founded in the 1960s, that psychedelia necessarily erases boundaries and patterns such as nationality is not only naive but perhaps even a little unrealistic.
If we look at the two most significant psychedelic movements of the 1960s, those of the United States and Britain, we find that not only did psychedelia not erase American and British nationalism, it amplified aspects of them: American psychedelic culture took freedom and liberty, which are core Americanist values, to the extreme; and British psychonauts took refuge in childhood dreams of Victorian England, hoping to ‘make Albion great again’ after losing an empire.
The Land of the Free Acid
To establish the connection between American nationalism and psychedelia, one might ask what underlies American nationalism and see how it is embodied in American psychedelia. However, a better approach would be to take the opposite route and ask what stands at the foundation of American psychedelia. To find the roots of American psychedelic culture, one has to go back to a specific place and time; San Francisco Bay, late 1965.
Ken Kesey, who became renowned for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1962) and was determined to spread the gospel of LSD that was revealed to him in government experiments for which he volunteered, had set out with the Merry Pranksters, a pioneering psychedelic commune, on a coast to coast American trip in a colourful bus in the summer of 1964. While on this tour the bus proudly sported American flags, and it has been stated that Kesey himself always remained a patriot and libertarian. When this strange trip came to an end, Kesey returned to California once more and began producing parties that attracted an ever-growing crowd which expanded the Pranksters’ limited circle.
These parties, dubbed ‘The Acid Tests’, sought to be a place for free experimentation with psychedelic substances and their effects. Unlike the clinical setting where experimenters took LSD in a well-controlled environment, the Merry Pranksters encouraged free and open use of substances. Freak Freely was their motto. The Acid Tests were an event where people could be free from restrictions and were free to behave in any manner they desired.
The parties were full of audio-visual stimuli, including liquid light shows and the first performances of the young Grateful Dead, where they developed their trademark: playing in a free way that is not limited to a defined set list, breaking the boundaries of the traditional song, and improvising freely based on a group reading of the state of affairs between the band and the audience.
This underground scene was the basis from which the psychedelic scene of San Francisco and the West Coast—a hallmark of the American Sixties—grew and developed. What stood at its foundation was the freedom to create and to be, free from the establishment’s interference, and to give free rein to the mind and the human spirit.
Indeed, American psychedelia shared some of the core values of civic or cultural American nationalism, or plainly Americanism: freedom and liberty, as stated in the Declaration of Independence. Despite its wide range of definitions and its ability to be applied to both sides of the political spectrum, Americanism is primarily asserted by those on the right and regarded with suspicion by those on the left. Kazin and McCartin define Americanism as an ideology which ‘signifies both what is distinctive about the United States (and the colonies and territories that formed it) and loyalty to that nation, rooted in a defense of its political ideals’. Thompson states that ‘Americanism insisted that men have a right to be free—free to pursue their individual happiness without the interference of others’.
In a sense, the American psychedelic movement did not seek to break away from the American values they rebelled against, but to return to the basic values of the American nation and stretch them further—as in the name of the Merry Pranksters’ famous bus. In this sense American psychedelia is very national, regardless of which presidential candidate won the most votes in San Francisco in the 1968 national elections. Paradoxically, the artists, musicians and intellectuals of the American psychedelic movement sought to liberate and free the American nation from its complexes through psychedelics, but reached the same conclusion that Americans of all generations had: more freedom is needed.
Surely, many people in the psychedelic counterculture were of leftist, even radical tendencies, ranging from socialism to anarchism, and some of the social movements for equality were influenced by psychedelics (The San Francisco Diggers, for example). The majority of individuals who identified with the psychedelic cultural movement vehemently opposed American political leadership. However, alongside the fight for equality, the cry for freedom from ‘the man’ was ubiquitous in most psychedelic circles.
This tendency towards more freedom can also be seen in the American psychedelic movement’s forefathers: The beat generation, who sought to be free from the tyranny of the classic poetic form, used psychoactive substances, travelled the country, and pointed their finger at the capitalist militarist society—but whose most famous author, Jack Kerouac, remained patriotic and even opposed the Sixties counterculture. The same can be said of the ecstatic poet Walt Whitman, who celebrated individual freedom and wrote affectionately about the USA.
The American dream of life, liberty and the narcotic pursuit of happiness is something clearly stated by another key figure in the psychedelic revolution of the American Sixties: Timothy Leary. Leary, the Harvard Professor turned ‘most dangerous man in America’ after calling on American youth to ‘turn on, tune in, drop out’, saw his psychedelic life’s work as a manifestation of Americanism.
While advocating for a revamping of American social and political structure, Leary was very well aware he was playing in the same field as the American founding fathers, utilizing the core value of freedom as an integral part of his psychedelic political philosophy. Leary and his research partner Richard Alpert (Ram Dass) dubbed the psychedelic experience ‘the fifth freedom’—The freedom to expand one’s consciousness.
Leary and his colleagues used the Americanist language and symbols to try to convince the American public that the use of psychedelics is a fundamental right, ‘a basic constitutional right of every American citizen: psychedelics, they argued, were part of the American way of life’ (Ibid, p. 19). They even used ‘red scare’ tactics, said LSD can be effective against the Soviet threat and declared it to be instrumental for building the army of the future.
This militaristic notion wasn’t Leary’s alone. As Hartogsohn points out, some militant groups such as the Motherfuckers and the Weather Underground used psychedelics as a means to raise revolutionary consciousness and radicalization, which ‘bespeaks the striking transmutations of the political set and setting that surrounded their use. It underscores how diverse environments of socio-political climates were able to turn psychedelics into deeply political agents that seemed to support wholly dissimilar ideological programs’.