Saturday, June 14, 2008

The sixties: those famous hippies

I've been quoting several of the essays from a special issue of The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science (382) Mar 1969, devoted to Protest in the Sixties. John Robert Howard contributed a piece on "The Flowering of the Hippie Movement". I suppose we can't blame him for the corny title.

Howard bases his discussion of the hippies on his encounters with them in the San Francisco area. Which is appropriate, since San Francisco was a major center for the hippies and their cultural predecessors, the Beats, aka, beatniks. Howard first heard the term "hippie" at a concert in the Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco in 1966, and notes that the term probably derived from "hipster". Elsewhere, I've seen writer Norman Mailer credited with inventing the term from that source, but sometimes these concepts are just in the air.

The hippie image is remembered with relative fondness today, it seems to me, though it still horrifies some "culture warriors". Most people could reel off a definition of what they think hippies were. Most of them would include some combination of rock music, the Beatles in the Sgt. Pepper phase, colorful clothing, long hair for men, simple straight hairstyles for women, pot and LSD, psychedelic art and, of course, promiscuous sex. Howard makes a useful distinction in defining four types of people in "the hippie scene": (1)visionaries; (2) freaks and heads; (3) midnight hippies; and, (4) plastic hippies.

The visionaries were those who had a more serious, we might even say more mature, vision of creating alternative lifestyles. They made serious and sometimes thoughtful criticisms of the prevailing materialism and waste, of social conformity in general from grade school to employment, and of hypocrisy and superficiality about everything from sex to music. In a catchy formulation, Howard writes, "The hippies, in a sense, invert traditional values. Rather than making 'good' use of their time, they 'waste' it; rather than striving for upward mobility, they live in voluntary poverty."

But this was by no means just some kind of low-budget self-indulgence. Howard points out that the first "hippies" to attract wider public attention were part of a group calling themselves Diggers, who organized free food programs for the homeless.

"Freaks and heads," as one might guess, were the dopers. They wanted to get high and often did. While marijuana was the most popular stimulant, LSD was widely used. Thanks to LSD guru Timothy Leary there was sort of a philosophy around LSD, which argued that it gave the user access to higher, hidden levels of reality and that it gave one "a certain sense of fusion with all living things" (Howard). A chemical door to mystical experience. Howard notes that speed (methamphetamines) had become widely used by 1967 in the Haight-Ashbury scene. He also notes that hippies as a group had a sense of discrimination as to which drugs were more risky than others, illustrated by the saying, "Speed kills".

Howard's categories of "midnight" and "plastic" hippies provide a way of talking about the cultural diffusion of some hippie styles, practices and attitudes. The business system always seeks ways to make money. And the hippie movement made love beads and leather shirts commodities with decent profit margins. Despite the exaggerated reactions from many of their elders, hippie styles could be adapted by people who had no ambition or desire to "tune in, turn on, drop out", as a popular saying had it. Thus, the "plastic" hippies.

The "midnight" hippies, on the other hand, are those who don't adopt hippie styles but do share some aspects of the more thoughtful hippie criticisms of the broader society.

It's always tempting with something like this to try to draw some kind of "lessons" or talk about current influences of the hippies. But because it was a diffuse movement, it's hard to make very definite judgments about that. The druggy aspects of the movement helped make marijuana into a profitable crop in various parts of the country with a congenial climate for it. There were some serious efforts to form communes and a back-to-the-land ethos among some of Howard's "visionaries". Surely we see some effect of that in Whole Earth food stores, the general popularity of organic products, and in the present-day environmental consciousness. How much? Probably impossible to say. Is the common practice of young singles in urban areas sharing housing a product of the hippie movement? Or is it more a function of real estate prices?

The hippies also helped challenge public hypocrisy about heterosexual sex and love practices. And Howard notes how the hippies may have contributed to the gay rights movement. The openly-gay libertarian-anarchist writer Paul Goodman was popular among the alternative-lifestyle hippies. Howard notes that in the Haight-Asbury neighborhood in San Francisco, Ground Zero for the Summer of Love in 1967, even before 1967 the Haight had become home to a community including blacks, white beatniks and "a small homosexual colony". And since I have a soft spot for utopian experiments like Brooks Farm in the 1800s, I have to think there was some positive and constructive effects of the hippie ethos. Writing specifically about the communes, Howard says:

There are rural communes throughout California. In at least some of them, allocation of task and responsibility is fairly specific. There is the attempt within the framework of their core values - freedom from hang-ups about property, status, sex, race, and the other furies which pursue the normal American - to establish the degree of order necessary to ensure the persistence of the system within which these values are expressed.
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