The title is a bit clickbaity, I’ll admit, maybe even misleading. The word “hippie” has been so broadly used and misused as to become almost meaningless. Not many of the original 1960s hippies are still with us, and of those that are, not all are fully compos mentis. Their second and third-generation imitators aren’t necessarily in much better shape.
What’s more, while some members of the Woodstock Generation grew up, cut their hair, and shifted their allegiance to supply-side fascism, it’s hard to believe those who still sing the praises of peace, love, and organic vegetables could find anything to like about the patently unnatural ogre currently occupying the White House.
But then it’s hard to believe anything about America in the year 2020. The long self-proclaimed “greatest country in the history of the world” looks to be in freefall, staggering under the weight of its own helplessness in the face of multiple challenges, of which the current coronavirus epidemic may not even be the worst.
An unfortunate fact of human nature is that when we find ourselves in impossible situations, our first response is to look for someone to blame. It may do nothing to address the problem, but offers a rueful balm for the soul. And when looking for someone or something to hold responsible for everything that’s gone wrong this past half century, the hippies are always a good place to start.
I’m being somewhat flippant, of course, not least because I was one of those hippies. Marching against the war, wallowing in the mud at rock festivals, singing the praises of magical herbs, I still managed to come through those mind-altering experiences without turning into a Trumpist. So how dare I accuse my contemporaries of it?
Let me clarify that when I say “for Trump,” I’m using the term loosely. I don’t think most literal hippies campaigned or cast a ballot for the Orange Coronamonster. Other subcultures, punks, rappers, and metalheads among them, are more likely to have done that.
But voting is only one way of helping Trump become and remain president. Not voting, or voting for a no-hope third party can be just as effective. And if we agree that Trump is merely a symptom of a greater illness, those who promote the pathologies of Trumpism may be doing even greater and longer-lasting harm.
One of Trumpism’s most salient features is its war against reality, and this is an area where hippies have always excelled. Science, history, philosophy, religion, even words and numbers themselves, are reduced to gibberish, retaining only the meaning given – or taken away – by The Leader. Long before Trump barged onto the political scene, we had chemtrails, faked moon landings, homeopathy, marijuana as a cure for everything from constipation to cancer, and let’s not forget John and Yoko’s “War Is Over If You Want It” blather (apparently nobody wanted it, because at least 20,000,000 have perished in warfare since then).
It’s come to a head in the Pandemic Age. Trump stands in front of the nation telling preposterous lies (“Everything is great, tests for everyone, the economy will be better than ever, it’s all China’s fault”) while presiding over world’s most widespread and deadliest outbreak. Yet his mindbending falsehoods aren’t much more remarkable than those perpetrated by millions of “freethinking” Americans.
Once again, I can’t absolve myself from responsibility. I sang along to “Nothing is real, nothing to get hung about” as enthusiastically as my fellow hippies. But I eventually managed to understand that while there is always an element of uncertainty (thanks, Heisenberg!) underpinning reality, it remains real enough to get us unmistakably and irrevocably hung if we misjudge or ignore it.
“Think for yourself” may have been a centerpiece of the hippie revolution, but somehow it degenerated into “Don’t think of anything else.” Never before have personal opinions and feelings reigned so supreme. Ask an aging rebel why they’re not wearing a mask or maintaining social distance, and you’ll get some version of “I don’t feel like the government has the right to tell me what to do” or “This so-called pandemic is just an excuse to impose total state control” or “I don’t think this virus is as serious as they’re making it out to be.”
You don’t think, do you? And you’re a doctor? An epidemiologist? You have a background in public health?
“No, but I’ve done my research.”
In other words, you scrolled through Youtube videos or read some stoner’s diatribe against the deep state.
“That’s just your opinion, man. I respect your right to wear a mask if you believe in masks; why can’t you respect my right not to wear one?”
It’s the same sort of stable genius thinking that allows our president to muse about “opening up” the country – and for his minions to cluster in armed groups demanding it – while bodies of the plague victims are still being hauled off in the hundreds and thousands daily. While I can’t picture Trump in love beads at the be-in, his cynical attempts to magic the virus away aren’t so different from the superannuated flower children promising that their vegan diet, holistic lifestyle, and positive attitude will keep them safe.
Sure, they might, but if they’re mistaken and dozens or hundreds die as a result?
“Just doing my thing, man!”
What gets to me almost more than replacing science and expertise with mystical mumbo-jumbo is the “intellectuals,” usually but not always men, who love getting a rise out of people by saying things like “I’m not a Trump supporter, but…” (actually you are, but won’t straight-up admit it because you know it will make you a social leper), or “It’s not like Trump hasn’t done some good things…” ( challenge them to name one and watch how fast the subject changes), or the all-time favorite: “Okay, maybe Trump’s not that great, but the other side is just as bad. Or worse.”
If you ever attended SDS meetings or protest planning sessions back in the New Left days, you’ll have met these guys. They’re the ones who would turn every discussion into an endless angels-on-the-heads-of-pins debate and then, if it looked in danger of being resolved, switch sides with a “I’m just playing devil’s advocate here.”
It’s true that there are people who have both good and bad qualities, who promote both right and wrong ideologies. The Democrats always seem to find one to nominate for president. But Einstein notwithstanding, not all things are relative. Some people, and some ideologies, are just plain bad. To “keep an open mind” about them is to like holding your hands over your eyes and singing “La la la, I can’t see you!”
Why blame it all on the counterculturalists, though? They’re hardly the only ones to have made virtues out of being cantankerous and contrarian. As my friend “Dr.” Frank Portman illustrates in his song, “The Complicated History of the Concept of the Soul,” as well as in the Berkeley thesis on which it’s based, humanity has evolved from a collective, almost hive-like identity in ancient times toward an ever-greater exaltation of the individual, a trend which has reached its apotheosis in America.
Once it would have been unthinkable to refuse to take your assigned place in society. It didn’t matter whether you were “feeling it,” or if you might have other aspirations. That sort of dutiful citizen has been turned into today’s “sheeple.” God forbid anyone suggest there might be some sort of middle ground.
Look at the way many Asian countries have dealt with the pandemic. I’m not talking just about mainland China; non-communist bastions like Taiwan, Hong Kong, South Korea, and Singapore all managed to impose their own versions of a lockdown without people screaming about their “rights.” Asians don’t like staying in the house or having to wear facemasks any more than Americans, but they do it. Yes, partially because it’s the law, but even more so because they recognize it’s for the common good.
But it’s not a uniquely Asian trait. Those of a certain age or who are well-read in history will know that a similar spirit once existed in America – albeit with more complaining, but hey, that’s who we are.
Something has changed since then. Admittedly the government has lost the people’s trust, not least because of a series of corrupt, stupid, and pointless wars, but it cuts both ways: the government couldn’t have gone so far rogue if the people hadn’t abdicated their responsibility to oversee it and keep it in check.
The hippie ethos of “just doing my thing” sounded cheeky and cheerful when it emerged, but its less charming underbelly too often added up to “Every man for himself and to hell with the women and children.” Though not an American herself, Margaret Thatcher may have essentialized the American attitude when she declared, “There is no such thing as society.” She was singing from the same hymn sheet as Reagan and Trump, true, but the hippies and punks joined in on the chorus.
My favorite professor told us that the ancient Greeks saw people who refused to accept their role in society as not just bad citizens, but as mentally ill. Thinking that one could or should exist as a private person, disconnected from and neither relying on nor being relied on by others, was seen as a dangerous delusion. Those who persisted were rewarded with the harshest of punishments: exile. “You think you can exist outside of society? How about we toss you outside the city gates and let you try that theory?”
The Greek word for a “private person” is idiotes. Whether it’s fair to use it to describe those who deny the value or existence of society is still debated by scholars. But it’s not much of a stretch to apply its modern derivative to those who elevate their feelings, instincts, and internet browsing history above thousands of years of humankind’s collected knowledge and wisdom. Yes, it’s great to think for yourself, but it’s also great to harmonize with others. Anyone who’s ever played in a band will know that nothing kills the music faster than when everyone is trying to solo.