I was a late onset hippy. Whereas the summer of love was in the late sixties, in the rest of the world, our far-flung town on the other side of the world really only embraced the values and ideals of hippydom some time in the early seventies, when I was entering my teen years. The Vietnam war was a recent scar, if not an open, festering wound, on youth culture, with boys only slightly older than me already broken, maimed, traumatised and suffering with undiagnosed and untreated stress disorders, assuming they were not already dead. Observing those destroyed, shocked, young men with our own eyes, my age group was acutely aware that if hostilities had continued, as they may well have, we’d have been the next crop of pointless canon fodder.
Those older youths that had escaped the compulsory draft considered themselves mighty lucky, but their rage and sense of betrayal was fierce. We knew then that the only people enthusiastic about war were those that could conduct it safely at a distance, playing with other people’s lives, while they accumulated prestige, power and war profits as great, patriotic statesmen. They took no personal risks. The blood spilled was not their own. They didn’t care about the shattered lives and limbs their words caused, or that their hawkish rhetoric was the volatile accelerant, which fanned the flames of destruction and death. We reviled those old men.
I lived in a very regulated, rigid, authoritarian, conservative society, so our forms of civil disobedience were mild. For all the talk of egalitarianism and giving a battler a fair go, it was a society organised around an inflexible, British-derived class system, with the working classes at the bottom, just above the European Second World War refugees/immigrants and the indigenous people they had displaced and treated abysmally, ever since they first colonised the continent. Obedience and conformity were assumed, enforced and insisted upon, as if they were the very foundations of a decent, patriotic society. Being different was forbidden. In fact, it seemed as if everything that wasn’t forbidden was compulsory.
Those with uniforms, charged with maintaining public order and the existing imperial power structures, thought nothing of cracking a few protester heads, leaving those that dared to disobey or refuse to conform with permanent, life-changing injuries. They were convinced they were doing good, in their closed-minded, chauvinistic bigotry. Their thought-programming had been so comprehensive and complete that the idea there were people who couldn’t see the point of war, let alone dying somewhere in Asia for a theoretical cause, was, to them, a totally unthinkable idea. They couldn’t have comprehended it, even if they had attempted to. Why would any young man refuse to serve his Queen and country, unless he was a low-life scum? That was the prevailing orthodoxy.
And scum we were. In the eyes of the conventional and older citizens of my home town, pacifists wearing outlandish flares, platform shoes and tie-dyed shirts, with long, effeminate hair, playing loud guitar music, were little more than common criminals in the making. In adopting the manners of what were then condescendingly called “gypsies”, the prejudiced assumed we were no good, thieving, promiscuous troublemakers. They felt it their solemn duty to correct us, or if that failed, to punish us for thinking differently to them and for holding values that opposed their casual resort to violence, their conflation of warfare with loyal, patriotic, national identity, their refusal to think for themselves and their willing abandonment of morals, when it suited them. Rules and adherence to them was what mattered most. They were hell bent on upholding authority at a time when submitting to the will of the authorities would get you killed, one way or another.
The prime minister, Gough Whitlam, was the hippy’s saviour. The message that brought him to power was that it was time for change (sloganised to the memorable “Its Time”). This resonated strongly with those of us that had seen for ourselves the unmitigated disaster conservative thinkers were prepared to blithely preside over. Ultimately, though, the establishment would have its revenge, ousting him and his progressive policies from power, in what can only be accurately described as a UK/US-sponsored political coup.
The democratic will of the people had been subverted and overturned by dark, unseen forces. From that moment onward, my generation, if they were awake and aware at all, realised that our democracy was a sham, that moneyed interests held all the power and called the shots, that our nation was little more than a client state of the US empire and that there were millions of ordinary willing accomplices living among us, propping up the whole stinking, festering shit heap.
What Kind of Hippy?
Bands like The Beatles deeply influenced us, with their overt preaching of peace and love. While their songs were presented as anodyne, disposable pop songs, safely ignored by the powers in charge, to us the messages in those song lyrics were a creed – something resembling a philosophy and a code to live by. We took peace and love seriously – at least as seriously as the war mongers took their military manoeuvres and shuttle diplomacy. I believed then and still believe today that peace is both desirable and possible and that the route toward it is to learn to love humanity, with all it’s flaws, learn to love the living world, rather than raping and abusing it and learn to love learning, to improve the general quality of how and what we think. Much of our current human insanity is born of hatred, dominance, violence and pig-headed adherence to terrible ideas. It was abundantly true then and it remains true still.
The thing about the hippy counter culture was that, even without psychedelic, mind-altering drugs, it raised your consciousness and encouraged you to think differently and imaginatively, for the better. You could absorb that mind set from the art that was made alone. Chemicals weren’t necessary to young, plastic brains, which are still open to surprising, novel and unexpected ideas. Maybe older hippies needed the drugs because their imaginations had already been disciplined out of them at school and had atrophied, but my age group was just coming out of childhood – a time in your life where your thinking habits are still being formed and are open to being shaped by whatever stimuli you encounter. You’re less prejudicial, when you’re a child and still eager to learn everything there is, as if it always was. You didn’t know some ideas were new, because they had always been there, during your short life. There was no hard boundary separating traditional and innovative ideas. The hippy ambience made an indelible impression on our developing brains.
The images and sounds, the fashions and the writings of the so-called counter-culture all encouraged you to take a look at things from an alternative point of view, to exercise your empathy and to speculatively conjure better options in your head. We dressed comparatively flamboyantly, relative to our childhood fashions and experimented with ideas, philosophies, spirituality, music and art. From a musical point of view, Pink Floyd and various progressive rock artists had a big influence on me. I especially liked their random, improvised jams, where new sounds were explored and the musicians were free to create experimentally without constraints, as it happened, without a plan. It was a very pure way of playing music. So many musicians lose the ability to play playfully, but this music was all about experimentation, exploration, experiencing music holistically and delightful joy. Playing, in the truest sense of the word. The hippy mind set definitely fostered a willingness to be open to new ways of thinking – something that the society I grew up in was pointedly lacking, with its obsession for traditional, conservative ideas.
The Vietnam war was relentlessly televised, with daily body count updates every evening at six o’clock. It was presented by solemn, conservative news readers, as a great national endeavour, but it came across as plain old butchery and factory-farmed murder at scale, to young pre-teenagers watching. It was obvious that violence was no solution, because the application of violence seemed to drag on for months, with no resolution to the situation. It didn’t seem to matter how much violence was applied, which we saw for ourselves on the nightly news, for what seemed like an eternity. No amount of violence ever seemed to be enough to make a decisive difference. You could cover terrified, naked children in flaming napalm, until their skin sloughed off their frames, as they ran away screaming in agony and still the other side kept on fighting back. It gave you the impression that violence was highly ineffectual. Given its lack of efficacy, then it becomes an exercise in wanton, sick cruelty and sheer futility. It wasn’t hard to conclude that eschewing violence was a very simple and obvious choice to make. It didn’t work. Violence just didn’t accomplish anything worthwhile. It still doesn’t. For all my life, wars have been waged somewhere and I never see a conclusion. If violence worked, it would end the moment it had accomplished what it set out to do. It never does.
War does not make a nation great. It makes it impoverished, shabby, tawdry, tainted and ashamed; turning bright, hopeful, obedient young men into savage murderers, for profit and conquest.
My countryman, a girl only my mothers age (or thereabouts), got people to start thinking about feminism and equality of the sexes. She pointed out something obvious, but never acknowledged. In the context of the times, it was courageous and refreshing. Bra-burning must have felt like genuine progress, but sadly women are still not liberated and there is an awfully long way still to go. At least the ideas moved society along a little. Every beachhead is important. Now that I am the father of a teenage daughter, the injustices and inequalities that remain, based on nothing more substantial than her sex, are something I think about even more than when the girls concerned were my peers. Is that reprehensible? I hope not. I had a view that the women who were my peers ought to experience equality in their lives and I believe it even more, now that I see the societal boundaries that attempt to constrain my daughter. Inequality of the sexes is unconscionable and always was. People simply refused to believe it.
When it comes down to it, equality is simply justice and fairness by another name. You don’t get to claim privilege because you belong to an in-group. In-groups are fluid and form only when similar people throw their weight around and treat others beyond their group as lesser humans. There is no meritocracy, in reality, and if you were born lucky, then your privilege is illegitimate and indefensible. The privileged try to defend it to the death, though. Violently. This is another of those mind set influences that hippies brought into my life. Tolerance and respect for diversity are values we adopted and held. The idea that you should help those that need help is axiomatic. Strangely, these things are not valued or evident in modern capitalistic societies. The mythical fiction they adhere to states that if you’re not winning, it’s because you’re a loser by nature and helping you is both wrong and won’t work anyway. It’s a pity they don’t try. The evidence would demolish their bad idea. They don’t try because they don’t want to risk having to rethink ideas they hold to be self-evident. They’d rather believe in being predatory.
The Unkindest Kind
For all their supposed enlightenment, there were things about the hippy counterculture that definitely grated on me. While I self-identify as a species of old hippy, I didn’t buy into the whole ethos and still don’t. I’m not that kind of hippy. Some of what the hippies held as values to live by are, to my way of thinking, very unkind. Some of their principles were mired in wilful ignorance and belief in preposterous propositions. Critical thinking seemed to be jettisoned along with conformity and obedience. Consequently, a toxic variety of group-think emerged, much of which was, to me, repellent.
Hippies, as a group, believed themselves to be very spiritual, even though they had long since ceased believing in organised religion. I shared their scepticism about large organisations, divorced from the experience of living ordinary lives, telling the populace what they ought to do morally and ethically, while themselves behaving in reprehensible ways, as the revelations about predatory child paedophilia and abuse have subsequently shown. Many of the clergy preached charity and mercy, while never offering practical help to those in most need and acting in thoroughly merciless ways. My grandfather was a valued member of his congregation while he was able to donate to their charitable causes, but rapidly ghosted when he lost his leg to diabetes and was struggling to survive. Organised religion left a lot to be desired.
However, the spirituality that many hippies filled their religious voids with was riddled with utter nonsense. It was no more authentic or reality-based than what they had rejected. In many cases, it relied on even more preposterous stories than those they had been indoctrinated with since their childhoods. To me, replacing one set of mystical superstitions with another doesn’t advance the human condition very far. Sure, there might be some just and beneficent ideas in all of these new spiritual belief systems, but a hell of a lot of woo as well.
I came from a more rationalist tradition. In my mental model, there are causes and effects that can be repeated. I like things like evidence and demonstrable proof. I dislike dogma – especially dogma that is selective about which evidence and demonstrable proof it will accept and which it will reject. It’s OK to entertain plausible possibilities, until you have good data, but not so after the evidence is in. Even then, I feel you should make sure you have all the evidence and are interpreting it the right way. We often make the mistake of considering causes and effects in isolation, ignoring the interconnectedness of most things. In the end, when you consider the interactions, the mystery is explicable.
Every hippy musician I knew, almost to a man (and it was more often than not, men), thought the holy grail of their music career was to land a record contract with a major record label. By the seventies, it was patently obvious that the record companies had been writing onerous contracts of enslavement, to the considerable disadvantage of the musicians that signed them, for several decades, yet everybody still wanted one (and arguably, still do). The one thing that was conveniently glossed over about the music business was the extraordinary death toll. Consider the body count of young (usually) men that met early, glibly dismissed demises. Basically, people were getting killed in the music business, one way or another. Why would you want to join an industry that was so uncaring about the welfare of its participants?
The answer to why the industry is so cavalier about its golden geese turned out to be simple. Researching the origins of the management of most major record companies reveals nefarious links to the CIA and/or the military industrial complex and a premeditated programme of cultural control of youth, to ensure that their rising insolence was snuffed out at the wick. The music industry was purpose-built to denigrate youth culture, to degrade and to humiliate, while appearing as a wholesome promoter and supporter of hippy values. In truth, it existed mainly to denigrate the peaceful ideals of young people, not to edify them. Acts were selected on the basis of their perceived and potential debauchery, destruction and nihilism, rather than for their positive influence on the culture. Musicians with integrity overcame this institutional bias anyway, but many paid a high price for going against the intelligence-led narrative. The whole industry was really a huge propaganda and thought control exercise, with catchy tunes used as the vehicle for delivering a consistent message. I guess this is one of the reasons that independent music production became a goal.
Another article of faith purposefully injected into the hippy counterculture, by people allied to command and control ideals, was that psychedelic drugs were necessary to create imaginative art. To believe in this nonsense, you have to be intellectually lazy in the first place. How can a magic pill change your thoughts to the degree that there are no ill effects, only a fruitful bounty of artistic originality and without limiting your agency, to act on those new creative insights? What could possibly make a chemical that smart and that precisely discriminating? As many outlandish ideas as the drugs might have induced, they also removed the physical desire and ability for those that had the ideas to actually bring them to fruition, unless they had an army of unintoxicated technicians to try to interpret their mad ravings and do the hard, boring work of manifesting the visions. Even then, there was an inevitable loss of fidelity, as the drug-induced idea was interpreted by those unimpaired, who were still able to create, make and do with real world tools and materials. Much of what a drug induced fugue informs you to do isn’t physically possible. It cannot be brought into real existence.
Once again, a little research after the fact reveals that psychedelic drugs were largely an offensive CIA psychological-operation, with the aim of suppressing, emasculating, eviscerating, disabling, impairing and incapacitating political and cultural dissent. It was meant to shut the protests and revolutions down before they started. If everybody was sufficiently stoned, to the point of irrationality, collective unity would be disrupted and nothing effective could be organised to oppose the powers that be from doing whatever the hell they wanted. And so it proved.
A related unfortunate consequence of this engineered mind-altering drugs epidemic, promoted by its infamous high priests, is that we, even today, underestimate the power and value of being able to think straight and use those thoughts with our physical agency to get things done. When you lose both, you’re eminently more easily farmed and corralled.
Hippies were into what they called “free love”. The problem is that free love never is. You cannot use other human beings for your own sexual gratification without considering their rights and needs. You can’t discard people like a used condom. They have feelings and dignity, which you shouldn’t harm. Hearts get badly broken. Children are often unintentionally created and bear the cost of having an errant, absent parent for their whole lives. The way hippy men tended to treat their women was, in my view, reprehensible. It bordered on being abusive. Actually, it often was abusive. For their part, hippy girls had been conditioned to accept male domination. The way they behaved around men was often equally appalling. They were still surprised to encounter sweet, gentle, considerate, peaceful guys and often didn’t know how to react to that. There was still a marked preference for bad boys, macho men and bullies. Many gravitated toward men that threw their weight around, as their fathers had to their mothers, or who used the threat of casual violence to maintain their dominant position in their personal relationships. It was very messed up. Feminism wasn’t embraced nearly as quickly as free love was.
The hippy musicians that I knew of, back in the seventies, were invariably subscribers to the maxims: “love ’em and leave ’em” and “treat ’em mean; keep ’em keen”. I thought then and still think today that this is an abusive attitude, lacking in commitment to another human being. Some of these musicians, it was widely understood, had a proclivity for underage girls. They were certainly unconcerned about accidental progeny or disease. Had any of these girls produced an offspring, the musicians would have treated those children abominably. That, too, was evidence of an abusive mindset. Yet, many of the girls that were attracted to these unreconstructed cavemen were so jaded and expecting to be treated badly, it confused and disturbed them if a man wasn’t like this toward them, such was their upbringing. Whenever they encountered a man who wasn’t quite as abusive, they tended to distrust and suspect them, rather than feel attracted to them. It was like a version of Stockholm Syndrome, except they were being held captive only by their own assumptions.
The saddest thing about hippy culture, to me, is that many of these hippies became complacent, wasteful, self-indulgent, narcissistic baby boomers of the worst kind, that took everything for themselves and left nothing for anybody younger. They’re currently consuming the earth with their gargantuan, insatiable appetites. As much as they declared war on the older generation, they have done the same to the generations that followed them. Today, they exist as a fat, dumb, contented population that rejects book learning in favour of gut opinion. They’re as conservative in their thoughts and habits as their parents and grandparents were, but they express their conservatism in different ways. This is the generation who, when all is said and done, embraced the Thatcher/Reagan neoliberal economic theory, with its bogus trickle down wealth lies, it’s manufactured austerity, extreme inequality and its predatory, self-serving, surveillance capitalism. They stopped giving a toss about anybody else. This is one of the effects of being indulged in their rebellion, without assuming the mantle of responsibility for improving things. They knew what they were against, but not what they were for.
Tragically, I and my hippy peers never found a way to be a genuine threat to power. We didn’t figure out how to seize power non-violently. Inequality is out of control and our opposition has been largely ineffectual. In truth, we didn’t want to let go of our own privilege, as a group, I suspect. Authoritarianism is again on the rise, as is intolerance, racism and sexism. We wound up with a deep democratic deficit, as a consequence of our refusal to engage and no viable, working anarchy.
This is not the kind of hippy I wanted to be and I hope I’m not one of them.
So much for sticking it to the man, man.