Saturday, June 07, 2008

Hippie Hill

Yesterday this unremarkable but nevertheless famous grass-covered slope in Golden Gate Park lay quiet and all but abandoned in the late morning sun. But on the same sort of rare June morning as yesterday's, at the same time of day forty years ago, it was seething with activity. There were drummers (as many as 20) drumming, guitarists guitarring, pot-smokers smoking, and devotees of the stronger grades of psychedelics rolling on the grass in ecstatic transports, watching the luminous and diaphanous angels of Jehovah descending from heaven with their hair aflame and their loins quivering.

And while all that is true as well as in keeping with the current historical view of San Francisco in the sixties, it only conveys one aspect of a multifaceted phenomenon. Beneath the frivolity and Bacchantism, behind its celebratory face, there was a serious and analytic side to the hippie revolt as well, and the same drugs that lent themselves to flights of ecstasy also enabled their users to see history and the society which had nurtured them in a new and profoundly disturbing light.

"Growing up," I heard lots of people saying at the time, "watching 'Leave it to Beaver,' I knew something was really wrong, but I didn't know what it was."

The hippies were among the first to recognize that the American way of life, by the latter half of the twentieth century, had evolved into a way of death, and that besides making war on innocent people half a world away, our very manner of living entailed violence against the earth herself. These were the days when gasoline was still fortified with lead, when the eight-cylinder seven-m.p.g. behemoth ruled the roads and streets of our incrasingly polluted and ravaged country, and the U.S. still led the world in oil production as well as consumption, and in the uses pesticide and the profligate generation of waste, toxic and otherwise. It was one of the most important reasons members of my generation dropped out of the mainstream of American society, as Henry Miller wrote, "as naturally as a twig falling into the Mississippi."

At the time, such a reaction to the materialist and consumerist cult of living death, that now-discredited way of life increasingly rejected by that very society from which it sprang, was seen as wild-eyed radicalism, and its proponents as dangerous, drug-addled subversives who needed to be dealt with harshly. It was the serious and analytical side of the sixties which gave rise to the forty years counter-revolution that has now given us Nixon, Reagan, the two Bushes, a host of right-wing think tanks founded in the wake of the sixties, the Neocon wing of the Republican Party, and the daily toxic waste generator of right-wing hate radio.

With the collapse of the second Bush administration and dissolution of the Iraq occupation, the counter-revolution appears to have finally run out of steam, and the second phase of the revolution may be set to begin. But as Robert S. McElvaine (see link above) points out, "Of course no peace will be achieved before those who have been the main political beneficiaries of the Forty Years War launch their final offensive--and we can be sure that it will be offensive."

For my part, I'm ready to see life return to Hippie Hill.

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