Hippies then and now

The fastidiously bearded and discerning Brooklyn barista/graphic designer who plays ring modulator and comb filter in a Greenpoint noise collective called “Egg,” or “Germany,” or “Greenpoint Noise Collective” never refers to himself as a “hipster” and probably never will. Even in his dotage, when the fluid, red imperative of urban self-definition has cooled to a gray suburban pumice, this hipster is unlikely to ever own that dubious moniker and enjoy a laugh at the expense of his own youthful pretense.

The terms of cool he accepted with high solemnity forbid it. His burden is to remain in the curatorial know, to stay synched to the reaping edge of the transgressive and the cool as it advances in all temporal and cultural directions until he can no longer keep up with its changing demands, at which point his duty is simply to go home and curate his favorite piles, in readiness for such unlikely time as hip inquires after them once again. Hip is a fickle and pitiless master who in all of its judgments favors the attractive ones. Forsake it now and be done, children. Your older you will thank me.

More and more frequently, however, I hear people owning the identity “hippie,” weathering the laughs and the light mockery that come with the brand and standing by the value. Sometimes, the avowed hippies surprise me with their youth, and theirs are the most courageous declarations. More often, the word issues from people my age or older (50s and beyond), often accompanied by a pre-emptory self-effacing gesture of some kind–“oh, what do I know? I’m just an old hippie”—that turns out, upon closer inspection, to be a defiant, contrarian flourish.

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It has been a very long time since it was cool to be a hippie. To own the identity at any age is in effect is to say: “I stand by a path and a set of values that I chose for myself (or that appeared as if by vision) when I was young and stoned. Perhaps hippie is a poor fashion choice and a medley of questionable smells to you. Perhaps, as your hipper, younger intellectuals contend, ‘hippie’ is ideologically quaint and naive at best; fraught with unexamined privilege and hypocrisy at worst. Still, of all the single-word identity camps available to me, this one, ‘hippie,’ remains closest to the way I see it.”
There was a time when the distinct (and presently adversarial) phenomena of the “hipster” and the “hippie” aligned and were one, when, in other words, hippies were hip. The original Woodstock concert might have been its apotheosis. But these are fundamentally, categorically different terms. “Hip” is a curatorial discernment with no implied evangelical imperative. Hip is always in flux, defined by a contrarian yet advisory relationship to mass taste. Hip is a moving target, a dynamic cultural allotment algorithm; flip flopping valuations of hip are commonplace as cultural pressure points change.

“Hippie” refers to a relatively stable and consistent set of social values and philosophical perceptions that has gone by various names throughout history, a numinous, ecstatic, earth-loving humanistic tradition that has endured peaks and troughs of acceptance and prestige, ridicule and even persecution without much change in its essence. The platform may be tweaked and amended (for example to rout out its stubbornly persistent paternalism and misogyny) but the core hippie insight is timeless. They are only called hippies because the moment of their naming happened to coincide with a short run of hip prestige and the lurid attention of Look and Time, long gone now. They really need another a name, and if they had one, more people would be drawn to the values.

To understand the present state of the hippie identity and how it has evolved since the high ‘60s, consider the possibility that the fall from hip, the decline in the perceived relevance and stylishness of the movement, has done much to refine, clarify, and prove the hippie platform. The posers have all moved on to other poses, leaving a high concentration of genuine conviction and commitment in this fold. Today’s young hippies, as I got to know them in the mid-Hudson valley of the aughts, are on the whole more sober, serious, politically savvy, scientifically and intellectually grounded, can-do, critical, organic and effective than their forebears, whom they have energized and challenged to engage.

Those forebears of course are often their actual forebears—parents, teachers, and professional mentors. This helps explains why today’s hippies are less insistent on narratives of transgression. It is not entirely unfair to call today’s hippies institutional. If they have lost anything in that bargain, it might be the grandiose revolutionary imagination of youth run amok, the sheer foolhardiness to believe in the big-game goals of the stoned originals: to save the goddamned world!

A critique that today’s super-smart hippies often level at themselves, in memes and on tee-shirts, is that their radicalism targets only reachable and generally social (read: lifestyle and identity) goals within the frame of late-stage capitalism and its densely consolidated power structure, seldom effectively targeting that protective frame itself—a revolution of pronouns. The argument reminds me of David Graber’s illuminating point about our diminished expectations of technology and the slowing pace of disruptive innovation. Why are we so excited about smartphones when we should be flying with jet packs to moon chateaus? Tempting, but I don’t think I buy this critique. What is more urgent and outside- the-frame than Bill McKibben’s 350.org and the environmentalist movement in general, which is a literal field of hippies? What can be fairly said is that that engineered stalemate that is our national debate has driven results-based hippies toward the local.

But what’s a goddamned hippie, anyway? Is anyone even raising their hand, or is the hippie always the other guy? My authority in the matter stems from two sources: first, a brazen willingness to try an opinion about anything; Second, my status as a child of the New Paltz of the ‘60s and the ‘70s, and then, later, the ‘80s and the ‘90s on in to the aughts, and, most recently, the ‘10s. Now, your east coast, state school hippie with whom I am conversant is a very different animal from your sexy Berkley subversive who will not explicitly condemn violence, and from your New England trustafarian, hedonistic, libertarian ultimate Frisbee hippie with his get-your-backhoes-off-my-scenic-vista-dude and right-to-grow environmentalist platform. So take this all with a freaking entire mine of salt, please. But here, to me, is what hippie means.

The essence of the hippie value is 19th century Romanticism, democratized by drugs, collectivized by Marxism and the American pinko tradition, and eroticized by the Beats, from whence also may come a dash of Eastern spiritual language and hip Buddhist cosmology. Via Albert Hoffman’s lab accident and a lot of other naturally occurring or synthesized chemicals, the hippie gets a sneak peek at the kind of visions that stormed in William Blake’s brain naturally, rendering him unfit for pretty much anything else. Hippies share the Romantic notion of invisible, fantastic worlds beyond the reach of language and logic, accessible via madness and art. The hippie posits that those worlds are now reachable, for all, via pharmacopeia. Hippies then and especially hippies now define that shamanistic chemical technology not as drugs alone but as any technique or catalyst by which brain chemistry can be manipulated with intention.

The populism of the hippie model might have revolted the great Romantic seers and poets, who were generally from the upper classes and perhaps not so keen on dissolving the social order with acid. Hippies combine a seer mythos with an inclusive socialism, an egalitarian order composed entirely of illuminated chosen ones. Philosophically, it was supposed to be resistant to the onset of hierarchy, but of course it wasn’t at all, and further, was acted like an especially congenial petri dish to messiah complexes and false prophets.

To understand the almost apologetic, rustic modesty of the modern hippie, we must consider how the grand counter-cultural narrative of the ‘60s was ultimately shot full of holes. In The Conquest of Cool (the published version of his doctoral thesis, I believe) the great social thinker and Baffler editor Thomas Frank shows in no uncertain way how early-in on the hippie revolution Madison Avenue really was, selling—engineering, even—the hippie brand long before its supposed commodification late in the period. For whatever else it might have been, Frank demonstrates that hippie was a profitable and plugged brand from the very beginning as well.

Meanwhile, as accounts and critiques of the era pile up (for the old hippies simply won’t let go of the reigns of cool and still want all children to be trained in Beatles and Hendrix), certain failures of the counter-cultural are noted over and over—most pointedly the aforementioned misogyny within the hippie hierarchy but also a privileged hedonism, an  “I’ve got mine” notion of enlightenment-as-product that really comes to the fore in the materialist ‘80s. The Rockist paradigm—a critical name given to the sentimental belief that (white) kids with Gibsons and Marshalls ended wars and liberated planets—has, needless to say, not worn well either.

But to re-validate the hippie core, all we need do is re-assert this: it wasn’t invented in the ‘60s. The green yearning and the perception of indivisible oneness is as old as perception itself, and the calling is evergreen. The vanities and selective vision of that first counter-cultural have helped the current generation of hippie types interrogate the belief system more fully, construct their social model more consciously, and probably get a high a little less.

The last thing a hipster wants is to make more hipsters. There is no evangelical calling and in fact quite the opposite; their calling is to repel the masses who want in and to keep it cool. With hippies, however there is and always has been an each-one-teach-one, spread-your-light, turn-on vocation that is no doubt a source of much of contempt, derision, mockery that hippies weather. But as Blake said, if the fool persists in her folly she will become wise. There’s a reason those hipsters eat organic and buy fair trade: hippies.

Read more installments of Village Voices by John Burdick.