Were the hippies right?
It is tempting to think so in this age of ecocide and terror. “Remember when we used to hang out and talk to each other”, said a barely remembered friend as our paths merged at airport security. In Bali in ’71 she had been Queen of Kuta beach. Both of us are time bankrupts now, like thousands of others who once scoffed at ‘the system’ and tweaked their lifestyles to the phases of the moon, contemplating Herman Hesse and organic fruit, trailing clouds of pot. We stretched to excess the concept of a misspent youth.
The world moved on and so did we, eventually. Parenthood, credit cards, mortgages, the whole shebang. The despised shopping mall was suddenly convenient. Disposable nappies a godsend. The CD/cupholder equipped Subaru never broke down. Our rage against the consumer society softened to a lullaby. Sure, we still supported Adbusters, Greenpeace and the right to strike, but the society of the spectacle seeped into everyday life and the dream of getting rich quick no longer seemed crass. Anyway, you needed the bread to pay the fares to fly to the conferences to learn how the world was endangered by toxic emissions, made worse by flights to conferences.
Our kitchen equipment got shinier and blood pressures rose, along with the intake of drugs. Boring drugs. Cholesterol reducing statins have zero capacity to intensify music or orgasms. We try to run groovy little businesses and get excited about Office Works, letting the latest novels lie by the bed as we cope with the mountain of paperwork thrust on our desks from the Government, who’ve turned us into a nation of tax collectors, much to the satisfaction of politicians who spend the loot on lavish TV ads to push their agendas. Numbing us with platitudes and workaholia. Which is probably why my email has lately been bombarded with links to a splendid column in the San Francisco Chronicle, Why the Hippies were Right.
From where comes “all this hot enthusiasm for healing the planet”, asks Mark Morford, and “eating whole foods and avoiding chemicals and working with nature and developing the self? Came from the hippies. Alternative health? Hippies. Green cotton? Hippies.
Reclaimed wood? Recycling? Humane treatment of animals? Medical pot? Alternative energy? Natural childbirth? Non-GMA seeds? It came from the granola types (who, of course, absorbed much of it from ancient cultures), from the alternative worldviews, from the underground and the sidelines and from far off the goddamn grid and it’s about time the media, the politicians, the culture as a whole sent out a big, wet, hemp-covered apology.” Not a chance Mark, not in Australia, where the Government still hasn’t apologised to the aboriginals for colonising their land in1788 and later acquiring their children by force.
Anyway, the hippies have no need of an apology, as the belated adoption of their ideas is sufficient reward. Also, the legacy of hippiedom is not unblemished. Take another look at celluloid fantasies, like Easy Rider, or Hair: the sexism & self indulgence will make you cringe. Hippies helped loosen up of sexuality, but this too has been pushed by pornographers to a level of brutality unforseen by mellow peaceniks.
Still, in the face of climate fears, unlikely figures are emerging from the closet of hippiedom. At an ideas summit, the father of artificial intelligence, Ray Kurzweil, unburdened himself of his flower power past. Rupert Murdoch is carrying the tie dyed banner into the future, with his embrace of yoga and carbon neutrality. Both the Australian Prime Minister and the leader of the opposition are in a race to sit at the feet of his Holiness, the Dalai Lama. Watch for more hippie re-birthings as the 40th anniversary of 1967’s Summer of Love looms into view.
The counter culture evolved through three stages: student power, flower power and peoples power. The Free Speech Movement sprang from of the university campus at Berkeley, California in the early sixties, as a result of attempts to stifle political discourse, and it set helped off a spirit protest that re-shaped the West. The Berkeley uprising mysteriously coincided with “anti establishment” protests in London, and again in far away Sydney, where students and academics rose up to eradicate censorship. By the end of the decade, the protest agenda had widened and the 30,000 demonstrators in Berkeley who marched to rescue a community-created park from the jaws of developers, were armed with peace signs, 30,000 daisies and a huge banner: LET A THOUSAND PARKS BLOOM.
In 1973, a sarong-wearing delegate at a huge lifestyle festival in the rural town of Nimbin, Australia, reported he was “on full alert to avoid committing such eco atrocities as soaping myself in the creek or driving a car to the campsite.
Each of us took our rubbish to the depot, sorting it as: glass, metal, compost, or paper. After accidentally tossing an apple-core into the bin marked ‘metal’, I spent ten minutes feeling guilty, then rummaged within. That’s how Nimbin got to you.” But not to everyone. It took another 35 years, a thousand scientists and Al Gore to ram home the message of sustainability. Why? Because the hippies had no power and the politicians had no wisdom.
By the mid seventies it was time for counter culturalists to leave the playpen. The flares and beads went into the attic, babies were raised, jobs conquered. Despite the outlandish episodes of the past, not all the insights fell into disrepute. If anything, ecological passions deepened over the years as the coral turned white and shopping became a religion. Hippies who ascended the corporate ladder often retained their formative inclinations; voting green, eating organic and reducing emissions, even as the Dark Ages dawned. And what Dark Ages they have become, especially in nations that put a match to Iraq: Britain, America and Australia. To steal their oil fields, we created the killing fields.
While our complicity in this tragedy is an open book, its impact on the soul of conspirator nations is still unfolding. Blair has fled, Bush is sinking and John Howard remains indifferent to the enormity of his crime – both against Iraq, and against nature. In these final months of his power, it is like living in the land of the dead. Australia still has its literary festivals, fine wine and some spirited dissent but, do I need to spell it out? Howard puts nuclear before renewables and prayer before climate science. We turn a blind eye to torture. We mistreat asylum seekers. We withdraw funds from aid and welfare groups which criticise the Government. We stack our cultural boards with toadies, we deport pacifist radicals, we prosecute whistle blowers and so on, fostering a culture of dull compliance. When I phoned the literary editor of the Sydney Morning Herald, she seemed delighted when I offered to review a book, until I mentioned the author’s name. “Our policy is not to review John Pilger”, came the reply. A little thing to be sure, but as Kitty Kallen so sweetly sang, Little Things Mean a Lot. And now the leader of the opposition, Kevin Rudd, is turning himself into Howard’s doppelganger, in the tragic belief it will appeal to the TV addled heartland.
Yet on the whole, Australians are starting to wake up. In the next election there is a fighting chance the Government will be overthrown. The impact of this is hard to predict, but it is unlikely to lead to a Summer of Love.
RICHARD NEVILLE has been around a while. He lives in Australia, the land that formed him. In the Sixties he raised hell in London and published Oz. He can be reached through his very bracing website, http://www.richardneville.com.au/