In Defense of Hippies

November 6, 2011


Progressives and mainstream Democratic pundits disagree with each other about many issues at the heart of the Occupy Wall Street protests, but with few exceptions they are joined in their contempt for drum circles, free hugs, and other behavior in Zuccotti Park that smacks of hippie culture.

In a post for the Daily Beast Michelle Goldberg lamented, “Drum circles and clusters of earnest incense-burning meditators ensure that stereotypes about the hippie left remain alive.” At Esquire, Charles Pierce worried that few could “see past all the dreadlocks and hear…over the drum circles.” Michael Smerconish asked on the MSNBC show Hardball if middle Americans “in their Barcalounger” could relate to drum circles. The New Republic’s Alex Klein chimed in, “In the course of my Friday afternoon occupation, I saw two drum circles, four dogs, two saxophones, three babies….Wall Street survived.” And the host of MSNBC’s Up, Chris Hayes (editor at large of the Nation), recently reassured his guests Naomi Klein and Van Jones that although he supported the political agenda of the protest he wasn’t going to “beat the drum” or “give you a free hug,” to knowing laughter.

Yet it is precisely the mystical utopian energy that most professional progressives so smugly dismiss that has aroused a salient, mass political consciousness on economic issues—something that had eluded even the most lucid progressives in the Obama era.

Since the mythology of the 1960s hangs over so much of the analysis of the Wall Street protests, it’s worth reviewing what actually happened then. Media legend lumps sixties radicals and hippies together, but from the very beginning most leaders on the left looked at the hippie culture as, at best, a distraction and, at worst, a saboteur of pragmatic progressive politics. Hippies saw most radicals as delusional and often dangerously angry control freaks. Bad vibes.

Not that there is anything magic about the word “hippie.” Over the years it has been distorted by parody, propaganda, self-hatred, and, from its earliest stirrings, commercialism. In some contemporary contexts it is used merely to refer to people living in the past and/or those who are very stoned.

The hippie idea, as used here, does not refer to colloquialisms like “far out” or products sold by dope dealers. At their core, the counterculture types who briefly called themselves hippies were a spiritual movement. In part they offered an alternative to organized religions that too often seemed preoccupied with rules and conformity, especially on sexual matters. (One reason Eastern religious traditions such as Buddhism and Hinduism resonated with hippies was because they carried no American or family baggage.) But most powerfully, the hippie idea was an uprising against the secular religion of America in the 1950s, morbid “Mad Men” materialism, and Ayn Rand’s social Darwinism.

The hippies were heirs to a long line of bohemians that includes William Blake, Walt Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Herman Hesse, Arthur Rimbaud, Oscar Wilde, Aldous Huxley, utopian movements like the Rosicrucians and the Theosophists, and most directly the Beatniks. Hippies emerged from a society that had produced birth-control pills, a counterproductive war in Vietnam, the liberation and idealism of the civil rights movement, feminism, gay rights, FM radio, mass-produced LSD, a strong economy, and a huge quantity of baby-boom teenagers. These elements allowed the hippies to have a mainstream impact that dwarfed that of the Beats and earlier avant-garde cultures.

In the mid-sixties rock and roll’s mass appeal fused with certain elements of hip culture, especially in San Francisco bands like the Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead, and Big Brother and the Holding Company (as well as Seattle’s Jimi Hendrix). That mood was absorbed and expanded by much of the popular music world, including the already popular Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, and the Beatles. John Lennon’s songs “Instant Karma,” “Give Peace A Chance,” “Across The Universe,” “Revolution” (“But when you talk about destruction / Don’t you know that you can count me out”), and “Imagine” are probably as close to a hippie manifesto as existed, and the Woodstock festival as close to a mass manifestation of the idea as would survive the hype.

It is easy to cherry pick a few idiotic phrases from stoners in the 1970 documentaryWoodstock, but what made the event and its legacy meaningful to its fans—aside from the music—was the example of people in the hip community taking care of each other, as shown in the Wavy Gravy documentary Saint Misbehavin’. No two hippies had the same notion of what the movement was all about, but there were some values they all shared. As Time put it in 1967, “Hippies preach altruism and mysticism, honesty, joy and nonviolence.”

Like any spiritual movement (or religion) hippies attracted pretenders, ranging from undercover cops to predators such as Charles Manson, who used their external trappings for very different agendas. By October of 1967, following the so-called “Summer of Love” (during which more than a hundred thousand long-haired teenagers overloaded and permanently changed the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood of San Francisco), exploitation of the word “hippie” had become sufficiently prevalent that a group of counterculture pioneers in the Bay Area held a “Death of the Hippie” mock funeral. A flier announcing the ceremony warned young seekers against the existential perils of hype.

 Media created the hippie with your hungry consent. Careers are to be had for the enterprising hippie. The media casts nets, create bags for the identity-hungry to climb in. Your face on TV. Your style immortalized without soul in the captions of the [San Francisco] Chronicle. NBC says you exist, ergo I am. Narcissism, plebian vanity.

The pure of heart were exhorted to “Exorcize Haight-Ashbury. Do not be bought by a picture or phrase. Do not be captured in words. You are free, we are free. Believe only in your own incarnate spirit.” Woodstock shows that by 1969 even the long-haired masses had taken to calling themselves “freaks.”…

Read it all.

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