Rather than celebrating or excoriating the hippies, I think I can at least make a few excuses for them. I’m a very late Boomer, b. 1963. The older brothers of kids on my street, a few of them, were hippies. I remember a van across the street with a lot of psychedelic paint on it.
The rebellion was mostly against “the system”, which at that time was basically big government liberalism allied with big business, it was managerialism, not conservatism, which was being rebelled against. This dread of a gray, boring, managed, planned system gave rise to all kinds of rebelliousness. I think the basic impetus to rebel against this Orwellian vision was healthy at its base. Hunter Thompson and Abbie Hoffman, Timothy Leary, and certainly Jimi Hendrix and many other iconic figures of that age were much more anarchical individualists than coherent socialists of any kind. They didn’t have policy proposals, they had an attitude. I can’t really hate such people, or not much.
Don’t forget that the Conservative movement got its start as a mass movement at the same time, and was pretty much rebelling against the same thing, though based on a different understanding of freedom. Barry Goldwater’s movement was in large measure a youth movement, too, after all. In those days, the middle was to the left, and the rebellion came from the right and the far left. Ayn Rand was ragingly popular around this time for similar reasons. People felt their freedom was in danger, in one way or another. And not just their freedom, their lives.
The war was decisive in demolishing old-line liberalism and opening things up to the nutty people. The liberals with short hair and skinny ties who came in with Kennedy “managed” us into a crappy war they had no idea how to win. They were getting hundreds of drafted kids killed each week with no rationale or plan or theory of what we were doing or how to win. Blank, staring madness. Hundreds, thousands, draftees — we would not stand for it now, and it is right and good that we would not. Millions of people found this all rather alienating, not surprisingly, as well as life-threatening. Here were these supposedly super-competent guys who were going to “manage” the world, and they botched up a foreign war so badly they just threw up their hand and walked away from it. If I was draft age, I’d have been my parents’ son and I’d have gone, and I’d have been a chump for going, and died or had my legs blown off for ABSOLUTELY NOTHING, betrayed by LBJ and Westmoreland and all those blowhards in uniform or in suits who ran the thing as a pointless corpse factory for years. Franklin Roosevelt or Abraham Lincoln would have fired Westmoreland early, they would have demanded a workable strategy and held the generals to it, or broken them like sticks and thrown them aside and found better generals. Vietnam would not have been the same with decent leadership. But we had LBJ.
And let us not forget “technology”. Birth control pills combined with a huge and affluent population of late teenagers with their own cars with radios playing great music, not surprisingly led to a rampage of, um, activity. Not surprising that this, combined with a naive and intense use of various interesting new drugs, gave a lot of people a feeling that all the old rules were gone and the world had entered a new age. This delusion lasted only a few years, circa 1965 it got going, peaked around 1967, and it had crashed by 1969. By the time some bogus intellectual like Charles Reich came along to describe what was going on, in 1970, it was already over.
But people who live through revolutionary times in any country and in any century always talk for the rest of their lives about how exciting it was to be there, how anything seemed possible, how the world itself seemed young and full of energy. Probably so.
It must have been one Hell of a party, since we still have the hangover more than thirty years after it ended.
So, I don’t hate the Hippies or the boomers, much. I yield to no one in my love of the music of the 60s and of the popular culture of the era, even though I was a little kid at the time and “missed” being part of the action. Just as well.
And to circle back to Hunter S. Thompson, he is a significant figure in American culture, and is way beyond political ideology. (Tom Wolfe says so, too.) His late ravings were not worth reading, but that doesn’t take away from his achievement. His first book, and my favorite one, Hells Angels, is at least as much a warning about violent anarchy as it is a celebration, and HST’s ruthless accuracy in depicting it, including his own foolhardiness getting involved with them, is the key to the book. He loves the Angels because they don’t give a damn and they do whatever they want, and live lives of total licentious individualism, and they drive their bikes at death-defying and death-inducing speed because they want to, man, you got a problem with that? And, but for pure luck, one of them would have literally bashed his brains out with a rock. And he rightly says that they need to be exterminated. He doesn’t bother to resolve all this. He just gets on his motorcycle, and goes 100.
There is a pathologically extreme version of American individualism and freedom, and HST personified that, and this is captured especially in his Fear and Loathing books. That was a subcurrent in hippiedom which I cannot entirely detest since I feel its appeal. Most people outgrew it. HST never did.
(Incidentally, it is not the least bit surprising that he blew his own brains out. Hemingway did it with a shotgun, too, or so the initial reports said. Thompson was clearly influenced by Hemingway. Does anyone know if he ever wrote about Hemingway?)
So, with Thomson dead, we take another step toward the day when “The Sixties” becomes part of the historical record and not an idea and an ideal in our political and cultural life. On politics and economics and public policy, we all need to say that the party really is long over. And we can look at it like grownups now, and decide what to do next in America without all the nostalgia for a dream which really was only a dream, and one which quickly became tainted with a lot of mendacity and opportunism and bad and destructive ideas.
Rest in Peace, Dr. Thompson. It was a fun ride. But I really can’t have another hit off that flask, and absolutely no way will I take one of those little pills. I have to work tomorrow and I can’t have a hangover, or worse. There is stuff to do, including cleaning up the mess after the party.