Dispatches from the Suburbs of Hell

Heaven is for the obedient. Hell is for the wrathful. What of the ones in between? We wind up in the Suburbs. Our sin is individuality. Our punishment is boredom. But at least we're in good company.

Location: New England, United States

Monday, November 13, 2006

Ruminations Upon a Failed Revolution

...or, Why I Hate Hippies.

Last night I had the honor and the privilege of attending a concert given by the Ragged King Himself, Mister Bob Dylan. 65 years old and he still rocks. Rocks harder than his opening act, The Raconteurs, who probably weren't even twinkles in their fathers' eyes when Dylan had his first hit. Standing behind a keyboard, thin and weather-beaten, looking fragile but still commanding attention, Bob Dylan still evokes the image of a troubadour. He still sings songs of the human condition, of love and war and pain and power. Now, with four decades of making music behind him, his is the avatar of the immortal poet, a grizzled modern-day Homer, who has seen it all and will couch his stories in rhyme that you will better remember them. To listen to a Dylan lyric is to get an inkling of a divinity's thought process; to hear him sing them himself is to sit before the feet of Apollo.

And yet...I can't help but wonder. Dylan is very much a child of the 1960's. His songs were a reflection of that culture, a time and place where morality was fluid. There was revolution in the air, after all. Traditions were challenged. Beliefs were questioned. Social taboos were loosened. It must have been an exciting time, a time when a generation rose up against the Establishment, and sought to change the world.

Or so they would have us believe. Here I sit, on a cold rainy November night in the year 2006, pondering how far American society has come since 1967 or so. The answer comes back to me: not as far as we all like to think. The Establishment is not gone, is it? The Hippies didn't defeat the Establishment. The Establishment retreated, regrouped, rebuilt its power, and rebounded. For all the great political change that may have happened back then - civil rights legislation, women's lib, etc - real genuine social change was slower to come. It hasn't happened yet, in fact; in some places it's even going backwards. Activists like to call this the "Hearts and Minds" phase: all the civil rights legislation in the world won't make racists stop being racist. They have to change their minds on their own. And the Hearts and Minds phase isn't going all that well. In South Dakota, a draconian anti-abortion bill was just narrowly defeated. In several states, including Virginia and Colorado, measures to ban same-sex marriages were approved. In Kansas, proponents of "Intelligent Design" still press to give their pseudo-scientific notions equal standing with respectable scientific theory. The Hearts and Minds of Middle America don't belong to the Hippies. I don't think they ever did, frankly. For the ugly truth is that most people who called themselves "Hippies" were not political activists by trade or inclination; they were children of privilege rebelling against their parents. Baby Boomers, born at what was possibly the height of American civilization, with greater wealth and stability than perhaps any generation before or since. For these Hippies, the revolution was little more than the tantrums of spoiled children, disaffected with their home life. This is nothing new; we've seen it throughout history. It's often at the point when a society reaches a state of equilibrium it turns inward and starts to devour itself out of sheer boredom. Oh, there may have been people within the counterculture that may have genuinely believed in it, but they far outnumbered the people who were just along for the ride.

One of the worst side-effects of this cultural revolution was an emphasis on emotional and spiritual well-being. It's important to be happy, the Hippies would have us believe. And one must follow one's own path to happiness, no matter what the Establishment tells you to think. That's the essence of the revolution: to follow your heart to truth. Whether that means converting to Buddhism, partaking in hallucinogenic drugs, or going to live on a commune - whatever you need to do, man. It's all good. That was the idea, of course. We were all going to be part of one big free-love drug-addled shindig, where everyone did what they wanted to do free of persecution and everyone was happy. Groovy.

Of course, this idea backfired, as many well-intentioned ideas often did. Between 1967 and 1970, many progressive leaders - Martin Luther King Jr., Robert Kennedy - were struck down, and their movements died with them. King's passing in particular was hard; race relations turned ugly and radical without his tempering wisdom and charismatic leadership. Had he lived, perhaps things might be better today. And since most Hippies were just trying to rebel and have fun, and things stopped being fun once the leaders started being killed, the revolution was abandoned. What started as a valid cultural force devolved into sex and drug parties. By the 1970s, peace and love were shelved in favor of getting high and screwing whoever was handy. But they left the door open. By introducing the idea that no one's ideas were "improper," and by placing emphasis on emotion rather than reason, they left the way clear for a conservative counter-revolution. Seizing upon the perceived immorality of the Hippies, and bouyed up by their tacit support of the importance of spiritual well-being, a new Establishment, the Religious Right, took power. Casting the Hippie generation as "elitists" with no regard for tradition, and themselves as the salt of the earth, they set out to "reclaim" America. Due to the weak foundations and short life of the revolution, they largely succeeded. That was the problem with the Hippies: they were so busy tearing down the walls, they never bothered to put up new ones. So when they abandoned their revolution, the walls went back up. New boss, same as the old boss, blah blah blah.

So here we are, four decades later. I can go to a Bob Dylan concert, hear him sing "Masters of War," and still find it as relevant today as it was when it was first written. The same Masters who were in charge in Dylan's time are in charge today. Only the names have changed. The Establishment is still in charge, and perhaps stronger than ever now, because it learned to play the game by the new rules. The revolution may have won legally, but it didn't win ideologically - and ideas are what truly matter, because an idea can change a law. So, what remains? What hope is there? SOME hope, at least; the recent midterm elections proved that the Establishment's grip is not absolute. But there is still much work to be done. And we can't keep looking to the Hippies for advice as to how to do it. We need new troubadours, new activists, new ideas. And it will not be groovy. Not by a long sight.


Anonymous Portrait in Flesh said...

For a good chunk of the 90s, I lived in Hippie Territory. Part of the time was in a co-op in Berkeley (the dorms didn't want me anymore >:( ) and part of the time was a 15 minute bus ride from Haight Ashbury. This is where the Peace & Love Generation got most of its positive P.R. and, yes, there was still a vibe that tried to make part of it feel like the 60s rather than the 90s. But it always ended up giving me a kind of hollow feeling, like the feeling I'd get from those mostly-clean, mostly fresh-faced teens you'd see panhandling in the Haight because it was a cool thing to do, "just like the hippies did." It's kind of the same feeling I get from that old "Star Trek" episode, "Way to Eden" (you know, the one with the space hippies).

A semi-running joke my cousins and uncle beat mercilessly into the ground was, any time I'd return back to SoCal for a visit (particularly during my college years), they'd ask me where my bong was. Because, you know, I lived where the hippies were. Considering that *I* am the straightest, soberest one in the family, it got pretty tiring after a while.

But even before this, I can remember hitting puberty (ewwww) just around the time AIDS started lurching out of the shadows (notwithstanding the government's insistance that you could only get it if you had The Gay). So why was it so widespread? The Man said it was because of the hippies, with their free love and questionable morality and disco music. (Although I guess by this time they were probably being referred to more as New Age rather than hippie, but follow that reeking patchouli trail and you'll see where it ends up.) And if The Man said it, then it must be true.

But at the same time, in my own fickle way, I probably would have been a hippie, had I been of an earlier generation. I introspect enough as it is, so it's entirely plausible. Or at least a half-assed hippie, since I never seem to see anything through anyway. Sure, all you need is love, so long as it doesn't make me late for work in the morning.

And, dude, stop bogarting that joint.

10:22 AM, November 14, 2006  
Blogger James said...

We're never going to not have and "establishment", Anarq. And I'm not so sure that's a bad thing.
What the hippies did succeed in doing is to break down the system that makes us a part of that establishment. To give us an option other than being part of the monolith.
Idealism will always fail, that doesn't make it any less valuable.

6:58 PM, November 14, 2006  
Blogger Anarquistador said...

I wouldn't have a problem if there was a new Establishment after the whole thing. But it's the SAME Establishment. It's not even as if the Hippies took over and became the very thing they fought against; they fought for a little bit and then they packed it in. They failed. They weren't strong enough. That's why we need to stop singing their praises and create a new way of doing things. Their way didn't work.

10:35 AM, December 04, 2006  

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