Saturday, May 10, 2008

Hippie communes and false innocence

Richard Armitage: was he channelling hippie communards?

Yes, there actually were some of them once upon a time. Hippie communes, that is. Not many of them worked out. Maybe there are some still existing somewhere that didn't degenerate into outright cults. But I can't say I know of any.

Psychologist Rollo May wrote contemporaneously about the hippie communes in his book Power and Innocence: A Search for the Sources of Violence (1972):

Many members of the new generation are discovering for themselves that "impulses of the spirit" are more precious than the worldly goods they inherit from their parents. Their discovery is of tremendous value indeed, and no one would argue with it. But here, again, a kind of trading on innocence comes in to confuse the picture. To a greater or lesser extent, youths of today, like the rest of us, use and enjoy the benefits of technology, no matter how simplified their lives may be. Our culture's affluence, often to be found in the life styles of parents of the more radical young people, is what makes it possible for them to indulge in their radicalism and, many times, form communes. Here they get into such absurd contradictions, as Peter Fonda, in Easy Rider, scattering wheat on unploughed, hard, dry ground, insisting: "It will grow." All he proves is that without some knowledge of agriculture, all the good intentions in the world cannot prevent the members of the commune from starving when winter comes. The fact, of course, that many of these communes fail and all have a difficult time does not lighten their moral value as a testimony to the voice of nature; and they are a sharp reminder to all our consciences of the divisive baggage of worldly possessions.

But "high purpose" is not enough. One observer of a number of communes says that those doomed to failure are the ones with no other purpose than the self-improvement of the group, whereas those that succeed have some goal or value - a special religious commitment, for example - that transcends the members themselves. This saves them from the innocence of believing that what they want will come out of their wanting it, that nature will renounce its age-old neutrality and fit their morality (as it was in the Garden of Eden), and that somehow one escapes the tragedies and complexities of life simply by being simple.
I'm not sure it was quite accurate to say that parental affluence "is what makes it possible for [their children] to indulge in their radicalism and, many times, form communes." That's one of those fuzzy generalizations that inspires approving nods because it's broad enough to be interpreted various ways but also touches on common assumptions they may or may not be well-founded.

The budding "culture war" narrative of the time included the bogeyman of long-haired hippies who made a big show of rejecting conventional values but were actually spoiled rich kids. And if you make the language fuzzy enough, you could squeeze facts into that framework.

Were "radicals" more likely from wealthy homes, which is the implication of the sentence? It depends on how you define "radical", not a small matter. If radical meant opposing segregation - that was widely labeled "radical" in the South - then that would be a hard case to make. If you considered it "radical" to have demonstrated against the Vietnam War, an action that by almost any reasonable criteria was just plain good sense, the idea that it was mainly spoiled rich kids is ridiculous. Vietnam veterans, most of whom were not from wealthy families, had a major role in leading the antiwar movement. And even on college campuses, antiwar protests were more popular at state universities than at Ivy League schools, state universities attracting many more students from working-class backgrounds.

In fairness to May, he may have been using "affluent" in a very broad sense. John Kenneth Galbraith's The Affluent Society had popularized the notion that in comparison to most of American history, a majority of the populations could be considered "affluent". And the awareness that America was an "affluent" country in comparison to most of the world was a topic very much discussed in 1972.

And while it's always easy to extract some principle so abstract that it has little relation to the concrete reality from which it is supposedly abstracted, I see no reason not to take May seriously which he says that the communes have "moral value as a testimony to the voice of nature" - by which he presumably meant the desire to live in harmony with nature as well as the nature of young hormones - and that "they are a sharp reminder to all our consciences of the divisive baggage of worldly possessions."

His observation about the failure of most communes of that time could also be applied to other utopian communities in American history, as well. And when he comments on the mistaken belief that "somehow one escapes the tragedies and complexities of life simply by being simple", he's emphasizing a major theme of his books, the problem of false innocence.

And most of us would not dispute his later comment:

Innocence is real and lovable in the child; but as we grow we are required by the fact of growth not to close ourselves off, either in awareness or experience, to the realities that confront us.
The tragedy is that, when it comes to attempts like the communes to address real deficiencies in our society, most of us are altogether too ready to agree with a statement like that, which can be used to dismiss the challenges such attempts raise without having to bother to think about them too much.

Ironically, a type of false innocence can also come out of the brand on Christianity promoted by many of today's Christianists, especially the "prosperity gospel" of characters like McCain radical cleric John Hagee. In a twisted but real sort of way, we've seen the problem of trying to wipe the slate clean, of trying to recreate a Garden of Eden where the burdensome requirements of the rules of civilization don't apply, in the Bush Gulag and the torture policy.

Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage told the Pakistani Ambassador Maleeha Lodhi on 9/11/2001, "History starts today." And that's the way Cheney and Bush and Rummy approached creating a gulag system outside the rule of law. They were going to start history anew. Now they find themselves recapitulating the ABC's of justice:

  • We don't have time to bother with legal procedures and such niceties, The Terrorists are out to get us and we're peeing our pants with fear.
  • We'll stick the people we consider suspects in a gulag and figure out what to do with them later.
  • Later comes around, and we start having to think about: do we release them? What if they're guilty? And what if they're so angry about being abused and tortured for years that they go out and commit terrorist acts?
  • Why, what we need is a procedure! So lets create a new one.
  • Dang, our new procedure is presenting the same kinds of problems as the old one. It's hard to convince any judge even pretending to apply the law to admit evidence derived from torture. So we may have to let them go. But what if they're guilty? And what if ... etc.
  • Gee, we could have saved ourselves a lot of trouble and had better results in our supposed aim of targeting The Terrorists if we hadn't started all this gulag-and-torture crap to begin with. Why didn't we think about that before?
History started a long time before 9/11/2001. And trying to erase it and hoping to start over from scratch, whether it's the too-easy assumptions of a hippie commune in 1968, or the "second virginity" promoted for teenagers by fundamentalist chastity advocates, or the grim, dictatorial-minded gulag-and-torture complex of Dick Cheney is a recipe for trouble. Or disaster.

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