Don’t Diss the Drum Circles: Why Hippie Culture Is Still Important to Our Protests
Progressives and mainstream Democratic pundits disagree with each other about many issues at the heart of the Occupy Wall Street protests, but with few exceptions they are joined in their contempt for drum circles, free hugs, and other behavior in Zuccotti Park that smacks of hippie culture.
In a post for the Daily Beast Michelle Goldberg lamented, “Drum circles and clusters of earnest incense-burning meditators ensure that stereotypes about the hippie left remain alive.” AtEsquire, Charles Pierce worried that few could “see past all the dreadlocks and hear…over the drum circles.” Michael Smerconish asked on the MSNBC show Hardball if middle Americans “in their Barcalounger” could relate to drum circles. The New Republic’s Alex Klein chimed in, “In the course of my Friday afternoon occupation, I saw two drum circles, four dogs, two saxophones, three babies….Wall Street survived.” And the host of MSNBC’s Up, Chris Hayes (editor at large of the Nation), recently reassured his guests Naomi Klein and Van Jones that although he supported the political agenda of the protest he wasn’t going to “beat the drum” or “give you a free hug,” to knowing laughter.
Yet it is precisely the mystical utopian energy that most professional progressives so smugly dismiss that has aroused a salient, mass political consciousness on economic issues—something that had eluded even the most lucid progressives in the Obama era.
Since the mythology of the 1960s hangs over so much of the analysis of the Wall Street protests, it’s worth reviewing what actually happened then. Media legend lumps sixties radicals and hippies together, but from the very beginning most leaders on the left looked at the hippie culture as, at best, a distraction and, at worst, a saboteur of pragmatic progressive politics. Hippies saw most radicals as delusional and often dangerously angry control freaks. Bad vibes.
Not that there is anything magic about the word “hippie.” Over the years it has been distorted by parody, propaganda, self-hatred, and, from its earliest stirrings, commercialism. In some contemporary contexts it is used merely to refer to people living in the past and/or those who are very stoned.
The hippie idea, as used here, does not refer to colloquialisms like “far out” or products sold by dope dealers. At their core, the counterculture types who briefly called themselves hippies were a spiritual movement. In part they offered an alternative to organized religions that too often seemed preoccupied with rules and conformity, especially on sexual matters. (One reason Eastern religious traditions such as Buddhism and Hinduism resonated with hippies was because they carried no American or family baggage.) But most powerfully, the hippie idea was an uprising against the secular religion of America in the 1950s, morbid “Mad Men” materialism, and Ayn Rand’s social Darwinism.
The hippies were heirs to a long line of bohemians that includes William Blake, Walt Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Herman Hesse, Arthur Rimbaud, Oscar Wilde, Aldous Huxley, utopian movements like the Rosicrucians and the Theosophists, and most directly the Beatniks. Hippies emerged from a society that had produced birth-control pills, a counterproductive war in Vietnam, the liberation and idealism of the civil rights movement, feminism, gay rights, FM radio, mass-produced LSD, a strong economy, and a huge quantity of baby-boom teenagers. These elements allowed the hippies to have a mainstream impact that dwarfed that of the Beats and earlier avant-garde cultures.
In the mid-sixties rock and roll’s mass appeal fused with certain elements of hip culture, especially in San Francisco bands like the Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead, and Big Brother and the Holding Company (as well as Seattle’s Jimi Hendrix). That mood was absorbed and expanded by much of the popular music world, including the already popular Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, and the Beatles. John Lennon’s songs “Instant Karma,” “Give Peace A Chance,” “Across The Universe,” “Revolution” (“But when you talk about destruction / Don’t you know that you can count me out”), and “Imagine” are probably as close to a hippie manifesto as existed, and the Woodstock festival as close to a mass manifestation of the idea as would survive the hype.
It is easy to cherry pick a few idiotic phrases from stoners in the 1970 documentary Woodstock, but what made the event and its legacy meaningful to its fans—aside from the music—was the example of people in the hip community taking care of each other, as shown in the Wavy Gravy documentary Saint Misbehavin’. No two hippies had the same notion of what the movement was all about, but there were some values they all shared. As Time put it in 1967, “Hippies preach altruism and mysticism, honesty, joy and nonviolence.”
Like any spiritual movement (or religion) hippies attracted pretenders, ranging from undercover cops to predators such as Charles Manson, who used their external trappings for very different agendas. By October of 1967, following the so-called “Summer of Love” (during which more than a hundred thousand long-haired teenagers overloaded and permanently changed the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood of San Francisco), exploitation of the word “hippie” had become sufficiently prevalent that a group of counterculture pioneers in the Bay Area held a “Death of the Hippie” mock funeral. A flier announcing the ceremony warned young seekers against the existential perils of hype.
Media created the hippie with your hungry consent. Careers are to be had for the enterprising hippie. The media casts nets, create bags for the identity-hungry to climb in. Your face on TV. Your style immortalized without soul in the captions of the [San Francisco] Chronicle. NBC says you exist, ergo I am. Narcissism, plebian vanity.
The pure of heart were exhorted to “Exorcize Haight-Ashbury. Do not be bought by a picture or phrase. Do not be captured in words. You are free, we are free. Believe only in your own incarnate spirit.” Woodstock shows that by 1969 even the long-haired masses had taken to calling themselves “freaks.”
A YEAR ago, shortly before the 2010 mid-year election, a left-wing blogger on a conference call with President Obama’s adviser David Axelrod complained that dismissive comments by the administration about its left-wing base amounted to “hippie punching.” The phrase was used to emphasize the contempt that the administration had shown for the progressive base, but it was also a reminder of the disdain that most of the Left has for the word “hippie,” as if to complain, “You think that we are as irrelevant as hippies!” Like those who ostentatiously distanced themselves from the Wall Street drum circles, the bloggers wanted to distinguish the modern Left from actual hippies (or who they thought hippies were).
The anti-hippie ethos on the left runs deep. Many 1960s radicals claimed that the hippies had squandered a chance to mainstream left-wing political ideas. In Black Panther leader Bobby Seale’s book Seize the Time he quotes white radical Jerry Rubin as saying that he and others had formed the “Yippies” because hippies had not “necessarily become political yet. They mostly prefer to be stoned.” In the real world, the Yippies never got a mass following, but the Grateful Dead did.
Early in 1967 writers for the Haight-Asbury psychedelic paper the Oracle, along with local poets, musicians, and mystics, organized the first Human Be-In in Golden Gate Park. They were chastised by a group of Berkley radicals, including Rubin, for rejecting their proposal that the gathering should have “demands,” a suggestion that the amused hippie conveners saw as a contradiction of the whole idea. (There are echoes of this argument in criticisms of the Occupy Wall Street protesters as insufficiently specific in their demands—as if the interests of 99 percent are not a clear enough litmus test for any proposed laws or regulations.)
Bill Zimmerman, an antiwar activist of the Vietnam era, summarized the radical attitude toward hippies in his excellent memoir Troublemaker:
Not believing they could alter the juggernaut of American capitalism through politics, the hippies tried culture instead—starting with [Timothy] Leary’s slogan, “Turn on, tune in, drop out”….While we [“the political people in the antiwar movement”] all accepted a subsistence lifestyle without expensive clothes, cars or other luxuries, they were about enjoyment, friendship, shared experiences, and whatever transcendence could be achieved through mind-altering drugs, music, and sex.
This both exaggerates the political viability of the non-hippie radicals of the day and underestimates the social conscience and commitment of many of those who chose to develop communes and new age spiritual communities. One example is the SEVA Foundation, founded by Wavy Gravy and Ram Dass in the early 1970s. Over the course of thirty years, the nonprofit organization has raised enough money from rock benefits to pay for over three million eye operations in third-world countries to rescue people from blindness. And of course the modern environmental movement owes as much to a mystical belief in the sanctity of the earth as it does to science.
Some on the left maintained that hippies scared off socially conservative liberals who otherwise would have been more sympathetic to the antiwar movement. In There but for Fortune, a wonderful documentary about radical singer-songwriter Phil Ochs, the artist can be heard complaining that freakish looking protesters undermined the credibility of antiwar demonstrations with middle Americans. In a piece for the Nationin 1967, Ochs’s friend Jack Newfield complained, “Bananas, incense, and pointing love rays to the Pentagon have nothing to do with redeeming America.”
Republicans leaders including Richard Nixon, Spiro Agnew, and Ronald Reagan eagerly used cartoon versions of hippies as part of their successful attempt to break up the New Deal coalition. “A hippie is someone who looks like Tarzan, walks like Jane, and smells like Cheetah,” quipped then California Governor Reagan in 1969. Jefferson R. Cowie’s Stayin’ Alive theorizes that America’s rightward trend began when Nixon lured working-class whites into Republican arms by contrasting the hippie myth of Woodstock with country singer Merle Haggard’s anti-hippie anthem “Okie from Muskogee.”
One was southern, gritty, masculine, working class, white, and soaked in the reality of putting food on the table; the other was northern, eastern, radical, effete, leisurely, affluent, multi-cultural, and full of pipe dreams. One was real, the other surreal; one worked, the other played; one did the labor, the other did the criticism; one drank whiskey, the other smoked dope; one built, the other destroyed; one was for survival, the other was for revolution; one died in wars, the other protested wars; and one was for Richard Nixon, the other for George McGovern.
Cowie’s book is terrific, but this is nonsense. The lion’s share of the decline in Democratic votes for President occurred between 1964 (61 percent) and 1968 (43 percent), when Hubert Humphrey was the nominee. Most of those formerly Democratic votes went to the racist Alabama Governor George Wallace, who garnered 13 percent of the vote on a third-party ticket—an explicit reaction against civil rights legislation. The demonstrations outside of the Democratic Convention in 1968 in which many Americans sympathized with cops more than protesters had nothing to do with hippies; they were orchestrated by radical non-hippies like Rubin. (Hippie icon Allen Ginsberg argued in vain against the Chicago protests, because he presciently feared violence).
Four years later, there were no hippies involved with the McGovern campaign’s mistakes, like the ill-advised selection of Thomas Eagleton as the vice-presidential nominee and the breakdown of the relationship between the campaign and organized labor. Those mistakes were made by well-intentioned but inept liberal political consultants, many of whom would self-righteously characterize themselves as “pragmatists” in future years.
It is possible that some non-racist, older, white Democrats switched sides because they were offended by aspects of hippie culture, but it seems likely that more of their children and grandchildren rejected conservative orthodoxy because of their attraction to that very culture. The Allman Brothers and other southern rock bands developed a following that dwarfed that of Haggard, and ended up being a source of funding for Jimmy Carter’s primary campaign in 1976.
Modern heirs to the hippie idea include millions of “New Age” believers, inspired by the likes of Baba Ram Dass, Joseph Campbell, Deepak Chopra, and in some cases Oprah Winfrey, whose non-hierarchal spirituality exists outside the confines of traditional churches and synagogues. Although very few neo-hippie groups have explicit political agendas, many in the progressive public interest world benefit from their largess.
WHAT POSSIBLE relevance does any of this have to American politics in 2011? For one thing, many of those young people who like to beat on drums and who devised some of the subtle infrastructure of Occupy Wall Street are clearly tuned into an energy that exists outside of the parameters of political science.
Spiritual movements do not adhere to “party lines,” which is one reason why conventional political activists find them so maddening. Martin Scorsese’s recent documentary on the life of George Harrison reminded us not only of the Beatle’s passionate embrace of Hinduism and the funds he raised for Bangladesh but also of his perverse anger at paying his taxes. Nonetheless, it doesn’t take a poll or a focus group to know that people who identify with the hippie idea are unlikely to vote Republican. (Ron Paul’s people are trying. They give out fliers at Occupy Wall Street while, as of this writing, Democrats still fear to do so.)
Conservatives have effectively peddled the notion that all politics are corrupt. The resulting apathy, and opposition to government, conveniently leaves big business more in charge than ever. The price that Democrats and progressives pay for belittling or ignoring contemporary devotees of the hippie idea, who share the opinion that politics are corrupt, is to reinforce the impulse to “drop out” in a cohort that would otherwise be, for the most part, natural allies.
Spiritual values can expand the reach of political action, especially at a time when progressives struggle to connect to mass consciousness. Their causes have been mired in phrases like “single-payer” and “cap-and-trade.” For all of their virtues, policy wonks didn’t come up with “We are the 99 percent.” People with drum circles did.
The Right understands the subtle connections between ideology and practical politics. Few Republican leaders distance themselves from right-wing Christians or demagogues like Glenn Beck. And Ayn Rand’s doctrine of selfishness, despite elements that conservative politicians would be afraid to avow, is celebrated by right-wing oligarchs and wanna-bes. Alan Greenspan, the long-time head of the Federal Reserve, was a personal disciple of Rand, and Congressman Paul Ryan, who drafted the Republican budget that would’ve eliminated Medicare, cites Rand as his intellectual hero.
Any bohemian movement will attract goofballs. Drum circles may inspire and unify a crowd in one situation, but simply drown out conversation in another. It is one thing for a polite protester to offer “free hugs,” and quite another for a sweaty inebriate to impose them. The way to deal with this is to rebuke individual jerks, not to dismiss a vibrant section of mass culture.
As Martin Luther King pursued his strategy of nonviolent protest, the NAACP leader Roy Wilkins, who oversaw most of the legal strategy for the civil rights movement, mocked him by asking, “How many laws have you changed?” King replied, “I don’t know, but we’ve changed a lot of hearts.” Obviously, the civil rights movement needed both spiritual and legal efforts to achieve its goals. So do modern progressives. As Nick Lowe asked in the song made famous by Elvis Costello, “What’s so funny about peace, love, and understanding?”
Danny Goldberg is the author of the books How the Left Lost Teen Spirit and Bumping into Geniuses.
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