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Don't Diss The Drum Circles: Why Hippie Culture Is Still Important to Our Protests

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.

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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.)

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