The Magazine

The Graying of the "Greening of America"

Charles Reich's famous book turns 35, but seems as juvenile as ever.

Dec 19, 2005, Vol. 11, No. 14 • By DAVID SKINNER
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Reich's most original and catchy contribution was his invention of three levels of consciousness. ConsciousnessI, formed in the 19th century, was "the traditional outlook of the American farmer, small businessman, and worker . . . trying to get ahead." By the second half of the 20th century, this survived as the heartless, pre-New Deal, free-market individualism of the right. Consciousness II, formed in the first half of the 20th century, represented "the values of an organizational society,"--institutions, logic, meritocracy, conformity--which covered over the alienation of the individual with a phony, Kennedyesque, Great Society reform spirit exemplified by East Coast liberalism. Consciousness III, "just emerging," was the spirit of the student movement, which epitomized the most free, the most authentic, the most egalitarian, and the most evolved generation America had ever seen.

A beneficent shift in consciousness was under way, Reich announced, and it came to America courtesy of the kids, the hippies and radical students, the dropouts and rock 'n' rollers. They were showing the way forward not only with their refusal to join the power structure, but also with their music, clothing, drugs, and V-signs (the index and middle finger, signaling "peace"). The Greening of America lavished careful attention on blue jeans, organic peanut butter, the drug scene, the new music, even the sport of Frisbee, and all the other stand-bys of the Consciousness III lifestyle. Indeed, Reich's book announced the triumph of the liberated "lifestyle" (a word newly in vogue at the time) over any "pre-existing system," institution, or technology. It was not merely that the revolutionaries happened to prefer informal clothes, loud music, and food grown in communal plots. Rather, these were essential expressions of what was going to replace the rigid and repressive American system of government and the unnatural and deadening American way of life.

Reich's claims for the new lifestyle were, to put it mildly, grandiose. "The present transformation," he wrote in the book's climactic chapter,

goes beyond anything in modern history. Beside it, a mere revolution, such as the French or the Russian, seems inconsequential--a shift in the base of power. Moreover, almost none of the [standard radical] views . . . recognizes the crucial importance of choosing a new lifestyle. This has been passed over as if it were no more than an indulgent product of affluence, a more tolerant form of 'administered happiness.' But choice of a lifestyle is not peripheral, it is the heart of the new awakening. What is coming is nothing less than a new way of life and a new man. [Italics in the original.]

For all the serious attention Reich received on the left, the reaction from moderate Democrats and almost everyone right of center was emphatic. The sociologist Nathan Glazer, writing in the New Leader, said his main difficulty with the book was that "the author's view of existing reality is so different from mine." Where Reich had pronounced the First Amendment moribund, for example, Glazer asserted that "the Bill of Rights has never been stronger," noting that "appeals to revolution and violence and pornography flourish [in the press] as never before." In Commentary, Roger Starr, longtime executive director of the Citizens Housing and Planning Council in New York City, challenged Reich's grasp of ordinary facts, from details of American history to housing policy.

Sparring over particulars did not interest some of Reich's antagonists, who went straight for the knockout punch. "I feel as Dr. Johnson did about the plot of Cymbeline," wrote the English essayist Malcolm Muggeridge, "that [The Greening of America] is beyond criticism because one cannot criticize unresisting imbecility." R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr., writing a few years later in his American Spectator, thought Reich a perfect symbol for all that was wrong with the left in the '70s. The Greening of America was "not just moronic." It was "pristine ritualistic liberalism."

CHARLES REICH lives in the Russian Hill neighborhood of San Francisco. More Mister Rogers than Angry Old Radical, he was wearing a big red sweater and Converse sneakers the day I saw him. His curly hair was white and mussy, much shorter than in his publicity shots from the '70s. We sat in a front room of the townhouse where he lives--he rents the first floor--with an old-looking computer, a day bed, and walls hung with personal memorabilia and simple pieces of art. It was an unstylish interior reminiscent of countless apartments occupied by older, bookish people who have long stopped redecorating.

The protocol was simple: He talked, I listened.