In Praise of Hippies and the Counter-Culture
These thoughts are provoked by Gerald de Groot’s Reflections on The Sixties Unplugged, an arrogant volume by an ignorant historian which argues that the ’60s counterculture achieved nothing of lasting importance.
There are two kinds of hypocrisy about sexual and political matters in our generation: the left hypocrisy and the right hypocrisy. Between the two, one ought to prefer the traditional approach of the right — mis-, mal- and nonfeasance in office and in bed. The left invented the dialectics of "relationship," and while no less promiscuous than Republicans, they have proved themselves far more self-righteous about it. The left, in general, also runs the American bureaucracy and has invented an entire alternative form of English to explain what they are doing to individuals and why. Only the well-to-do escape this aberrant form of our language.
One of the great achievements of the hippies is that they have never been a part of either faction in terms of ideology, sexual or otherwise. Although they are capable of a social cohesion at times, under certain specific circumstances (from a good party to a political action), hippies are firm believers in the individual’s right to private property and will fight any timber corporation to prevent encroachment on it. I didn’t even understand Peter Coyote’s statement, quoted reverently by De Groot, "Any structure is mutable, but once you’ve chosen it, you have to accept it — if you’re ever going to get any depth. Because depth only comes in the struggle with limits." But, I have no doubt whatsover that Ringolevio, by Diggers founder Emmett Grogan and Coyote’s leader, was the best book ever written on the Haight Ashbury, generally considered to be the fountainhead of lamentable "anarchist excesses." A second take always worth rereading, is the series of articles written by Nick Von Hoffman and illustrated by the great photography of Elaine Mayes, on the anarchic market in marijuana in the Haight. It could not be organized even by organized crime, which tried.
What de Groot, no doubt irrigated by the rouge corncob placed somewhere on his person where the sun never shines, fails to see is that the hippies were and remain the only genuine working-class movement that came out of the Sixties. The other thing he fails to notice is that the hippies, as opposed to their "leaders," transcended hippydom, in fact and later fiction on the period. At Berkeley, a friend who would definitely be classed as a former hippie, told me years ago, "You watched the anti-war speakers. When they left the podium, you left the crowd because the cops were coming." Basic working-class wisdom as old as the Haymarket Massacre.
My finest tidbit of revolutionary romanticism from the era comes not from the hippies but from the new left, a friend announcing in a frenzy of ambition that Cesar Chavez was starting a revolution. He meant one that would bring down the state. Any movement based on people not gringos was grasped fervently by the new left to be used as a club against the hippies, those messy Americans (white, black, brown, red or yellow — whatever) having fun. And for those of us who had actually done farm work in the San Joaquin Valley, oh well, how could our opinion count? It is essential to the misappropriation of the complexities of Marx’s critique that anyone with any empirical experience with any memory of actual hard farm labor should be silenced by the terribly articulate suburban pink diaper set.
Although the hippies preferred to make love, not war, when attacked by police they exhibited excellent abilities to defend themselves. My favorite scene from the chaos of late 1968 was, during yet another SWAT invasion of the neighborhood, a fellow with a molotov cocktail alight in his hand, who streaked through several cops, threw it under a squad car and escaped as the car blew up. In the context of that and other riots of that time, it was not fundamentally an attack on the federal, state or local government; it was a statement: Get the fuck out of my neighborhood, quit beating my neighbors and scaring our women and kids. One did not have to be an admirer of either Dylan or Marx to appreciate the magnificently courageous gesture of our neighbor with the flaming cocktail that night.
As for the hippies’ contribution to the election of Nixon in 1968 and the general breakdown of the Roosevelt coalition in the Democratic Party, oh well, whatever, as the hippies would say. De Groot revises the history of the Sixties anti-war movement from the standpoint of the anti-Iraq War movement? Our academic neo-Reds are on the prowl again. The latest credit crisis provides the excuse and once again we get secondary causes as reasons to do what? Man which barricade, where? These clowns haven’t learned anything since the last depression. Socialism is the answer, right? And the question is: what government produces the happiness of its people? The three anti-war demonstrations in which I marched down Market Street, San Francisco, were as far as I could tell, organized by Palestinians. Willie controlled the cops, the Palestinians controlled the peaceful crowd, and it all worked except for the inevitable bullshit provocateurs. The press called them "anarchists," yet an Asian hippie woman I know and met in the crowd on one march handed me a broadside of a beautiful poem written by a real anarchist postman from Mendocino County. Your basic theoretical anarchist ain’t got no experience in what he preaches.
At least from the vantage point of having worked that summer of 1968 for the US Senate candidate with the most unambiguous stand against the war, while living in the Haight, I have another analysis for the Nixon election: Larry O’Brien was the only Irishman in America who did not indulge himself in a four-month wake after the assassination of Bobby. When the Kennedy faction woke up from the hangover, it was too late. If they had been able to really mourn the man instead of the power they lost that night, they might have realized more important things were at stake than their collective self pity. One need not even mention Lyndon Johnson’s incredible legislative achievements on behalf of the American working class, the huge backlash among racists, or the totalitarian excesses of the Chicago convention to indicate that it remains a bit difficult to blame Nixon on the hippies, who took the brunt of the Daley Machine beating. By that year, out on the west coast, they were already leaving San Francisco in droves to make their amusing, profitable contributions to rural life on the north coast of California.
The greatest achievement of the hippies was and remains humor — comedy asserted in the face of tragedies, including their own. Speaking personally, an unavoidably literate hippie will inevitably find his way to Don Quixote, even if led there as a result of writing articles for hippies about anti-NAFTA politics in Mexico. The only other source books that provides the necessary philosophical scope to understand hippies is Aristotle’s Politics and, of course, Leopold Kohr’s Breakdown of Nations.
Absurd drug laws and the whole mature, corrupt system of prohibition are a hippie comedic specialty, providing endless amusement around hippie winter fires to this day, along with the occasional tragedy of busts, murders, and other misfortunes common to the entire history of the American working class. Also, once out of the compression of the city, hippies turned out to make excellent parents. The happiness and intelligence of "hippie kids" alone gives the lie to almost everything De Groot is saying. Teachers on the north coast who do not suffer from authoritarian complexes prefer these fine children to all others. They exhibit independent thinking early and have shown themselves to be creative in a number of academic fields already, to my knowledge, from medicine to computers. Five hippie teenagers in the alternative high school of a town I once lived in, created a virtual reality machine on a few computers made of parts cobbled together by one father, an electrician. Their patron was a blameless horticulturalist who in his youth had been a denizen of Socialist youth camps.
So, yo, De Groot, don’t tell me that you know anything significant about hippies. I brought my son as often as possible to stay with me in what Thomas Pynchon called Vineland, because of the sweet, good people there, whom Pynchon neglected to describe. My first house, a converted chicken shack, was called "Heartbreak Hotel," because hippie men repaired there after they lost their loves, to smoke, drink and play poker. The poker games in that establishment of which I became the host, were the only poker games I have ever been in where a winning hand was applauded by losers. There was one rule: if you fall off your chair you lose it. This is the joy of life itself and we reinvented it right here in America out of pure hell, but the puritans of the left like De Groot absolutely cannot abide it. Nor can they abide that after the wounds healed, the old husband and the new husband collaborated with the wife to raise the children well, supported by the wisdom, love and affection of their community. Ex-husbands fell off those chairs in despair, and their poker-playing buddies picked them up, let them cry and put them back together to face the next day.
The De Groot tribe of academic hypocrites cannot abide the care of the elderly that hippies generously provide their parents and their friends’ parents. De Groot and his cannot abide the creation of real, organic communities that endure for love and affection. De Groot is totally ignorant of how love grows beyond the couple to the group, of how the "stupidity" of a man and woman in love can transcend themselves into the community. De Groot and his have no idea of friendship on their idiotic march to get us to their imagined barricade just in time to get mowed down by, really, quite overpowering police armament. De Groot and his hate happiness, period. They hate the gesture to the homeless or the alley cat or any gesture of human solidarity. They are all Commissars without an ounce of Wobbly in them. On the other side, we have the Republicans, many of them fascists. But, tell me the difference among the swine that would lead us now.
Historically literate? Not particularly, but the hippies have a good grasp of the history they’ve made for themselves, which is better than the books De Groot is reading and writing. And they don’t watch much TV but their villages contain the most interesting video rental shops in the state. They also have lively community radio and alternative press.
In the miniscule world of American poetry, starting about 30 years ago, the best nature poetry in the country in these environmentally conscious times has come out of the northwest coast, roughly equivalent to the redwood belt — from Santa Rosa CA to Seattle. You will hear the best American poetry about the natural world in places like Mendocino, Arcata, Portland, Walla Walla and Seattle.
De Groot’s preference for the Beats is as nostalgic as is the nostalgia of which he accuses America for its love of the Sixties. If you want Greenwich Village 1955, Anywhere USA, but specifically in North Beach in San Francisco, the Beats (the few still alive and not yet on walkers and oxygen) are good. If you dig heroin, even better. If you want to live in a neighborhood where no one who is anyone can speak for more than 10 minutes without mentioning New York City, that’s cool. It is also what Wallace Stegner spent his entire career resisting. Bierce, Miller, Norris, Sinclair, Steinbeck and Kesey were fine writers, ahead of the New York orthodoxy most of the time. The western US matters.
Finally, one imagines that the neo-Red set, aghast at those "anarchist excesses" of the hippies, obsessed in hierarchical fantasies on leaders of the "movement" that nobody in those days regarded as leaders anyway (not that hippies are not entertained by good rhetoric), is envious of the fun we had and still do have. A cultural sidebar to end this is that empirical observation indicates that people with rigid ideologies of either right or left, when under the influence of marijuana or LSD or even good red wine from north coast vineyards, develop symptoms of serious paranoia as their minds unwittingly wander to the authoritarian roots of their social existence. So, like dude, they can’t get stoned and play guitar and drums as the women boogaloo outside the cabin under a full moon in the woods. People like these are unable to imagine people who, in the midst of mourning a beloved neighbor lying dead in his bedroom, bring his corpse out from his cabin and prop him in a chair, because "he always liked a good party." They are unable to conceive of a conga drum and burial society. They got no friends worth the name.
In short, these tedious pedants don’t know shit about love or mourning, comedy or tragedy, or life. They reflect the sickness of our society and call it "criticism," and hate those who worked to heal it in their communities. "Un-fuck ‘em," said the sexy wife of a candidate for state Assembly from the deep San Joaquin Valley in 1966.
BILL HATCH lives in California. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org