Of Flower Power And The War With The Newts

The Speaker has said that he wants to undo the effects of the 1960’s hip counterculture on American civilization and no one he’s talked to lately knows enough about the era to laugh in his face. Believe me, the stone-cold hippie of old would have found the notion hysterical—yet more proof that the cosmos really does have a sense of humor. Apparently, Newt Gingrich and a lot of other “Mr. Jones” types just weren’t in on the joke.

I guess you’d have to have been there.

To appreciate the absurdity of the situation you need to understand that most of what passes for sober analysis of the sixties is based on things acid-freaks told credulous reporters as a practical joke. If you were hip, you knew it was all jive; if you weren’t hip you got jived.

By and large, the American public wasn’t hip—they ate it up, in the form of lurid magazine and newspaper articles and in gaudy “psychedelic” wares peddled by head shop hucksters. People were eager to grasp at anything that seemed to make sense of what was happening and “sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll” not only appealed to nearly everyone’s secret fantasies but sold a lot of tacky merchandise as well. Besides, the truth wasn’t believable or marketable, to editors or to the public.

It was all great sly fun at the time. The wilder the stories got, the happier everyone was. Reporters got spicy copy; the public got titillation; hippies got a good laugh; hip and not-so-hip entrepreneurs made piles of money. A few uptight people were outraged over what they heard was going on but never actually experienced—but for the most part it was all very innocent and juvenile, as innocent and juvenile as the hippies themselves were.

The Flower Children were, despite the official line at the time and since, highly moral people. Improbable as it seems, walking around buck-naked on some backwoods commune was not a terribly prurient activity—the average beach-party beer commercial of today comes closer to pornography. Shedding your clothes was just a way of shedding the tawdry odor of Elks Club stag-film night cigar smoke by saying “You’re not Barbie and I’m not Ken so let’s stop pretending that we are.”

Of course, most people didn’t grasp the difference between casting off bogus stereotypes and licentiousness. To be hip meant, in part, to know the difference and those who didn’t know were more to be pitied than scorned. What Newt, Rush Limbaugh, Cal Thomas and other proponents of an anti-sixties counter-revolution have declared war on is a myth they bought into–of an explosion of immorality–because they never understood what was actually happening.

What really happened was both more startling and more prosaic than anyone could have imagined. It was a private spiritual event, an epiphany that took place over and over again, at different times and in different situations for everyone who went through it. This simple change of perception had profound moral, political and social implications, but, despite its overwhelming nature, it was inexpressible, except through laughter.

What confused things was the attempt, sometimes quite earnestly and sometimes as the grossest put-on, to explain the inexplicable. “Are you experienced? Have you ever been experienced?” asked Jimi. Those who were couldn’t hide it. Those who weren’t couldn’t fake it well enough to fool those who were, though they often fooled themselves and others who weren’t.

There were, in the decade or more leading up to the Summer of Love, an enormous number of lonely people–nerds, fairies, dykes, poets, fat people, poor people and other losers–who just didn’t fit into the rigid roles that our society officially approved of. It was a time when appearances–of success, of normalcy, of morality and patriotism–were more important than realities. They, the lonely, believed deeply in the illusion of who a modern American was supposed to be and blamed themselves for failing to meet that impossible standard. The sense of shame kept them isolated from each other.

There are many theories as to why the American Dream suddenly lost its hold but the fact remains that an inevitable miracle occurred repeatedly–all across the land the children saw that the emperor had no clothes. The resulting outburst of laughter left pundits scratching their heads and “Better Dead than Red” politicians scurrying for subpoenas, looking for an explanation for the sudden appearance of all these giggling weirdoes. But the joke was on them and they never did figure it out. Groucho Marx was closer to being the counterculture movement’s philosophical grandfather than Karl.

It was the revolt of the misfits. One by one these lonely outcasts realized that it was the world itself that was weird–not themselves. The spontaneous outburst of individual laughter at this discovery lead to a second, even more joyous discovery: they were not alone. There were other misfits out there, perhaps millions, who’d seen the utter absurdity of trying to live as round pegs in a world of square holes. A shared compassion and delight brought them to love each other. Then it was too late, the change had already come and they were no longer afraid. Everything since has been side effects.

Of course, there were many who never let go of their fear, who rejected the chance to trust the power of love. Now, almost thirty years later, you still find nearly every member of my generation living out the effects of those years. Those who were truly hip remain so, quietly following the lessons which came out of moments of bliss; those who never were hip are still bitterly denouncing the joke they never caught on to.

Perhaps the greatest irony of this anti-sixties jihad is its irrelevance. “Stuck in the sixties” has been a pejorative phrase for quite a while in conservative circles, a way to dismiss those years as a very sour bunch of grapes. Yet those who deride and those who defend the counterculture of thirty years ago are equally stuck in the past. By engaging in the debate my generation has finally become useless old fossils whose opinions don’t matter.

It’s the nineties, folks. There’s a whole new smirking generation out there who see quite clearly that we’re morally and intellectually bankrupt. I wish for them, one and all, peace and much love.

History: The Central Valley Times, Grants Pass OR, 1995

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