It’s the 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love. What better place to celebrate than that fabled era’s epicenter, San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, where the DeYoung Museum has mounted a dazzling exhibition, chock full of rock music, light shows, posters, and fashions from the mind-bending summer of 1967?
If you tour the exhibit, you might come away thinking that the political concerns of the time were no more than parenthetical bookends to that summer’s real action, its psychedelic counterculture. Only the first and last rooms of the large show are explicitly devoted to political memorabilia. The main body of the exhibit seems devoid of them, which fits well with the story told in so many history books. The hippies of that era, so it’s often claimed, paid scant attention to political matters.
Take another moment in the presence of all the artifacts of that psychedelic summer, though, and a powerful (if implicit) political message actually comes through, one that couldn’t be more unexpected. The counterculture of that era, it turns out, offered a radical challenge to a basic premise of the Washington worldview, then and now, a premise accepted—and spoken almost ritualistically—by every president since Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Nothing is more important than our “national security.”
And believe me, “national security” should go in those scare quotes as a reminder that it’s not a given of our world like Mount Whitney or the buffalo. Think of it as an invented idea, an ideological construct something like “the invisible hand of capitalism” or even “liberty and justice for all.” Those other two concepts still remain influences in our public life, but like so much else they have become secondary matters since the early days of World War II, when President Roosevelt declared “national security” the nation’s number one concern.
However unintentionally, he planted a seed that has never stopped growing. It’s increasingly the political equivalent of the kudzu vine that overruns everything in its path. Since Roosevelt’s day, our political life, federal budget, news media, even popular culture have all become obsessively focused on the supposed safety of Americans, no matter what the actual dangers in our world, and so much else has been subordinated to that. The national security state has become a de facto fourth branch of the federal government (though it’s nowhere mentioned in the Constitution), a shadow government increasingly looming over the other three.