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LOOKING FOR BALANCE; Social historian Theodore Roszak

By Stewart McBride / June 25, 1980



Theodore Roszak is a maverick historian capable of distinguishing running tides from the froth that rides the waves. For the last two decades he has astutely monitored American popular culture, from war protests to the women's movement, from CB radios to punk rock, and managed to separate the hucksters and hokum from genuine trends and seeds of new social orders.

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Roszak first made his reputation reading the pulse of America in the '60s through his books "The Making of a Counter Culture" and "Where the Wasteland Ends" -- both of which were nominated for the National Book Award. He argued that student rebellion was not a historical aberration or momentary catharsis, but part of the constant undertow of the human spirit's resistance to technological excesses and bigness. Roszak believes the counterculture has now moved off campus, taken on new forms, and graduated into the culture at large. He interprests the general unrest of the '70s over Watergate, corporate scandals , inflation, energy, the deterioration of the cities, as the troubled birth of a major cultural transformation, a spiritual awakening in this country.Roszak is neither starry-eyed futurist nor bemoaner of contemporary society. Rather he attempts to offer alternatives and values to break the cultural momentum he denigrates. His most recent book, "Person/Planet," explores the interplay between global ecology and the individual's search for identity.

Roszak, raised in Chicago and educated at UCLA and Princeton University, is a professor of history and chairman of General Studies at California State University, Hayward. He lives in Berkeley, California, where he recently spoke with Stewart McBride.

As we enter the '80s, what sorts of excess baggage would you like to see us discard? I'm thinking of cherished assumptions, myths, and wants.

Some things are being discarded very widely -- the myth of endless material progress and unlimited economic growth, for example. We've got to get beyond the intoxication of industrial production and begin to think about other values in life.

The poet Rilke said that we will not have the answers to our questions until we're able to live the answers. And until then we shouldn't be afraid to live the questions. I wonder if this period of uncertainty is really us living the questions?

Two sets of needs are imposing themselves upon us at the same time. One from within, one from without. The needs that speak from within us for personal autonomy and fulfillment are simply a different expression of the same needs of the environment around us for respect and moderation.

Some people think this has a nebulous, mystic sound. It doesn't seem that way to me at all. The needs of the planet demand the same prescription to scale things down, slow them, democratize and decentralize them.

You're talking about a new definition of power?

In some respects, yes. We're used to power being grounded in masses or in classes. All the politics of reform and revolution of the last two centuries have taken the form of mass actions in which classifications were assigned. The trouble with such politics is that it has no deep respect for people as persons. It treats them as a power base. I'm talking about a politics that is committed to dealing with the genuine personal uniqueness of human beings in all their variety. We live in a society which is committed on all fronts to the massification of people -- as nations, markets. But there is a spontaneous rebellion growing up in Western society, people determined to express their uniqueness.

What do you say to the social critics, like Christopher Lasch, who look at the same symptoms and say the search for self-discovery is really "pathological narcissism," "self-indulgence," the "Me decade"?