We Won: Get Used to It
What happens when the counterculture becomes mainstream? Hint: the mainstream becomes the counterculture.

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in Medium on 4 October 2018

Back in 2000, I was invited to appear at Richard Metzger’s famous counterculture festival, DisinfoCon, along with luminaries of the alternative scene like Joe Coleman, Robert Anton Wilson, The Girls of Karen Black, Marilyn Manson, Grant Morrison, Kembra Pfahler, and more. It was a crazy, boisterous, artsy, psychedelic, and rebellious celebration of the weird, the occult, and the odd, all presented under the tagline, “everything you know is wrong.”

It felt like such a bounty of counterculture riches, such a turning point, that I challenged the assembled renegades to accept victory. “The counterculture has won,” I told them. “It’s time we realize that we are not the counterculture at all. We are not against culture. George Bush is the counterculture.”

My argument was that the ideals of the 1960s counterculture had become mainstream, and we should stop trying to run from that fact. Just as the aesthetics of the counterculture were available online and at the mall, so, too, had the values of the counterculture become mainstream. The core counterculture values of environmentalism, women’s rights, racial justice, and international peace were now simply accepted values. “They’re looking to us for what’s going to happen, and how to be,” I explained. “We are not counterculture, anymore. We are pro-culture.”

Now the counterculture would be those who resist the values of universal justice.

“We won,” I told them. “Get used to it.”

But the most important idea I meant to stress was that we can’t treat the so-called other side as losers anymore. We can’t reject their pleas for help, or cries of fear. Some of them want to understand the emerging value set. They need to be embraced, not shunned for their previous sins. And even more important: We have to engage with those who are afraid; afraid of women, other non-white races, gender fluidity, personal autonomy, cultural intimacy, and all the other components of an integrated civilization.

As I tried to advise back in 2000, we can’t just embrace our like-minded allies; we must engage with those who are being left behind or we’re not really being true to our universal values.

Today, we’re suffering the consequences of having sequestered ourselves with our cohort while assuming those who had different values would simply disappear. Although our leading government, media, and cultural institutions have already incorporated progressive, countercultural values as established truths, many people are still reaching back toward more primitive understandings of our world.

The amazing thing — especially in light of controversies such as the Kavanaugh hearings or Russian election interference — is that it’s the progressives who are now looking to the FBI and judicial system for support against a rising tide of countercultural — yes, countercultural — players. Sexism and racism are countercultural urges. Feminism and interracial harmony are mainstream.

But as the establishment — and I believe that’s what we truly are — it is our obligation to reach out to the other side. Hear their fears and concerns. No matter that the counterculture occupies the White House and enjoys a majority in pretty much every branch of government; they are still a minority, just more politically motivated. And part of what motivates them is that they’ve been shunned and ignored by those of us who came to dominate the cultural conversation.

I first used the term “find the others” back at the DisinfoCon in 2000, quoting counterculture hero Timothy Leary and his advice for people who get “turned on” to find other people who have had that same experience. It made sense for a world in which these were fringe ideas, shared only by hippies. Now that the counterculture had achieved critical mass, I was trying to update the slogan to stand for something else: find the others, those who don’t think like us, those who are now feeling as unacknowledged and angry as we did when we were a patronized, fringe phenomenon.

I think we were sore winners, and now we’re paying the price. But it’s not too late to turn back, find the genuine others, and create common ground.