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  • The Fifth FreedomThe Politics of Psychedelic Patriotism
  • Chrise ELcock

LSD and psychedelics, Timothy Leary, Ken Kesey, Psychedelic movement, Patriotism, Sixties counter-culture

I’m very proud to be an American. No country in the world would be so tolerant of my advocating a threatening and revolutionary way of life.

—Timothy Leary1

The drug LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide) was first synthesized in 1938, tested on a human subject in 1943, and subsequently enjoyed a remarkably rich career.2 In the 1950s, LSD became a source of interest for psychiatrists exploring the biochemical paradigm of mental illness,3 and it gained the attention of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in the search for a truth serum or a mass-incapacitating agent.4 But the influence of LSD extended far beyond the realm of science, and its power to induce altered states of consciousness led some of its users to reconceptualize it: whereas doctors understood it as having the potential of causing a model psychosis, others were seduced by its ability to provoke a deep revelatory experience.5 Toward the end of the 1950s, a few writers, intellectuals, and artists had experimented with the drug and formed a discrete psychedelic subculture. Only in the 1960s did LSD begin attracting widespread attention and gradually become equated with controversy.

Timothy Leary, once the rising star of Harvard’s psychology department, was one of many who underwent several life-changing experiences through [End Page 17] psychedelic drug experimentation. Leary later dedicated his life to the study and promotion of psychedelics in an almost messianic way, until the hammer of American justice put an end to his “High Priest” career.6 The dominating discourse of Leary, and the psychedelic movement of the 1960s he came to embody, was one that advocated chemical experimentation to radically shatter ontological certainties and from then on revamp the social and political structures of American society.7 While the sixties might be remembered for their counterculture and liberal drug use, a loose coalition of American intellectuals, spiritual leaders, academics, artists, and bohemians felt there was more to psychedelic drugs than mere hedonistic satisfaction.

Leary, eager to promote the psychedelic experience, courted American youth by encouraging them to “turn on, tune in, drop out,” a slogan that became notoriously associated with drug-induced hedonism and idleness. This popular view that dismisses psychedelic utopianism as irrational has been incorporated into a large part of the scholarship.8 Other historians, however, have understood this interpretation as reductive and given drug users more agency. David Farber has focused on “LSD use as an agent in the production of cultural reorientation,”9 and he suggested that Leary or the best-selling author Ken Kesey promoted these drugs as a means of challenging established cultural values—to explore inner space, to foster spiritual revelations, or to dissolve social boundaries.10 Similarly, Peter Braunstein has argued that the LSD experience had the power of questioning one’s subjective experience of reality to a point where cultural references became meaningless. What he calls the “culture of rejuvenation” that took place in the sixties was partly the result of psychedelic experimentation: “Given that this nonjudgmental openness to phenomena replicated the perceptual vista of the infant or small child, many LSD users tended to describe their trips as rebirths.” Thus, several LSD users, including figures of the psychedelic movement, “utilized the insights gained from their LSD-enabled neo-childhoods in the service of erasing adult, middle-class programming.”11

Yet, for all the talk of deconditioning or of cultural revolution, the psychedelic movement’s agenda for cultural change did not advocate such a radical break away from American culture and values. Indeed, upon closer inspection, all the proselytizing was also intended for a much larger [End Page 18] audience that required an appealing discourse. To that effect, they needed to present LSD as a genuine part of the American experience to legitimize the drug and ultimately prevent or challenge prohibition.12 In 1964, for instance, two Food and Drug Administration agents visited Leary in his communal setting in Millbrook, New York and claimed that LSD was just another (dangerous) trend. To which Leary answered: “Drugs are going to become...