American Hippie Counterculture
The decade of the1960s was one of the pivotal era in modern American history, defining American cultural norms, values, beliefs, and goals as much as, if not more, than any other popular movement since World War II. It shaped the attitudes and expectations of a very significant portion of Americans born during the , and therefore, played a large role in political movements in the last three decades of the twentieth century, including, especially, Civil Rights. It foreshadowed contemporary social issues such as the ecological Green Living gaining momentum today and may have been the primary source of opposition to the war in Vietnam, eventually leading to the full U.S. pullout from that conflict by 1975.
In many respects, the hippie movement of the 1960s still contributes to American society today, because the post-war Baby Boom generation that dominated the social culture of American youth throughout the 1960s and 1970s are now the fastest growing age group in this country, representing more newly-retired Americans every year. A comparison between Hippie culture and main-stream American society reveals profound differences in many areas of societal perspective, including some of the most fundamental values of American society.
Civil Rights, Social Consciousness, and the Western Work Ethic:
The postwar era immediately following World War II presented something of a philosophical contradiction in the United States. On one hand, Americans had just endured significant hardships at home while leading a bitter, hard-won, four-year conflict, losing more than half a million dead to foes whose racist political ideologies played a major role in precipitating the global conflict. On the other hand, racial segregation was still the law of the land throughout much of the United States herself in the first two decades of the postwar period (Friedman, pp.525-6).
The fact that so many black Americans fought side-by-side with white Americans during the war came home to local laws prohibiting sharing many municipal facilities highlighted the obvious discrepancy in American values, leading to a gradual increase in demands for civil rights and racial equality, particularly among black Americans. While the Hippie generation began too late to inspire the initial Civil Rights movement that began with the line of Brown v. Board of Ed Supreme Court decisions on racial equality in American education (Friedman, p.527), the Hippies took up its cause by virtue of its philosophical consistency with one of the core components of Hippie counterculture, social consciousness, greatly increasing its intensity and sharpening its focus on civil rights in general.
Whereas the predominant American social culture seemed to value racial separatism and the Protestant Work Ethic, the communal element of the Hippie movement emphasized the philosophy of the fundamental equality of all human beings and a communal approach to social culture that opposed any arbitrary distinctions based on superficial differences like race and the complexion of one’s skin. The Hippie generation introduced the concept of communal living without distinctions like social class, which further challenged so-called “traditional” main-stream attitudes about race and social culture that prevailed in the United States at the time. Likewise, the Hippie culture questioned the American attitude toward work, which originally derived from the Protestant Work Ethic that had dominated much of Western industrialized society since the previous century.
The G.I. Bill helped millions of former American armed services members who served in World War II to further their education and purchase their first homes, which contributed to the very strong growth of the middle class shortly before the beginning of the Hippie counterculture in the 1960s. Disillusioned by many of the social norms and values of the American middle class of their parents’ generation, the Hippies immediately challenged the fundamental assumptions at the core of American society, such as the so- called “American dream” of professional achievement and financial success.
Instead, the Hippie culture strongly de-emphasized the value of material goals, adopting a humanistic approach to life that incorporated, in principle if not by specific religious affiliation with, ancient Eastern philosophies like Buddhism and Hinduism.
Likewise, the Hippie counterculture pioneered the critical attitude to human economic activity at the expense of the ecological health of the planet, which it viewed as another manifestation of human greed without regard to its global effects. In many ways, the concern with racial equality, civil rights, anti-materialism, and both global and environmental consciousness was, therefore, a very natural aspects of the Hippie philosophy and its rejection of the views on these fundamental issues then prevailing in American society.
Sexual Revolution, Psychedelic Experimentation, and Music of the Hippie Generation:
The same philosophical criticisms levied by the Hippie generation against mainstream American social norms with respect to race, social consciousness, and traditional middle-class values also inspired a very different approach to sexuality that challenged fundamental elements of American society in the 1960s. Whereas traditional
American values still emphasized monogamous marriage, sexual fidelity, and chastity preached by the dominant religious influences in Western society, the Hippie counterculture introduced what was termed “free love” as another offshoot of its general humanistic lifestyle unconstrained by what it considered “square” view of sexual relations and modern family life.
If female suffrage and the invention of oral contraception first introduced female autonomy and sexual liberation, the subsequent sexual revolution component of the Hippie counterculture of the 1960s led to its widespread adoption throughout American society in ways that have lasted long beyond the Hippie movement itself. Many Hippies lived in communal societies without the lines commonly defining the American family, where polygamous sexual relationships and shared social responsibility for common interests, including providing care for children, replaced the traditional American family with its working husband and a wife who cared for the children at home.
The Hippie generation rejected their parents’ generally accepted (originally religiously inspired) notion that sexual relations without marriage were “sinful” while at the same time promoting self-exploration without shame in many ways, including sexual expression. Combined with the communal living aspect of the Hippie movement and the widespread availability of oral contraception for women, this lead very naturally to a complete breakdown of traditional American social norms about human sexuality, especially in the pre-AIDS era where medical safety was not yet a critical element of responsible sexual behavior. The shift from sexually monogamous social norms to free sexual expression (Baker & Elliston, p.203) was only further facilitated by two other concurrent elements of the Hippie counterculture: drug use and music.
The Hippie generation and its permissive approach to personal expression and experimentation included a renewed and much more intensified interest in psychedelic drugs than America experienced the first time that recreational drug use had been popularized by young people shortly after the First World War, when it was somewhat limited to the “Flapper” crowd and particularly to Jazz musicians in the period between the two world wars (Miller, p.9). Cultural icons like professor Timothy Leary promoted the idea of experimentation with psychedelic drugs like marijuana and LSD as a means of spiritual growth and the fact that main-stream American society strongly opposed such unrestricted re recreational use of drugs for only increased its appeal to the Hippie counterculture.
The music of the 1960s Hippie movement and the simultaneous resurgence of recreational drug use only further ensured the growth of “free love” within the Hippie community. Music probably played a more important role in the expansion of the drug culture the second time around, because the music of the 1960s enjoyed much greater popularity and was more important to the Hippie movement than was the music of earlier generations to its respective audiences.
In some ways, this was as likely as not simply a function of technological advancements that allowed music to be recorded and replayed in more portable formats;
in other ways, this was likely a function of the specific messages about love, social consciousness, and both psychological and sexual autonomy promoted by bands like the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin,
Jimi Hendrix, Crosby Stills & Nash, and the Grateful Dead.
Early popular hits of the 1960s specifically inspired sexual expression through explicit lyrics, while later hits did so in response to what had already become the dominant attitude of the Hippie movement toward sexuality, capitalizing on the growing link between social perspective and artistic expression. Likewise, both the lyrics and the living examples set by popular musicians with respect to the link between art and recreational drug use cemented them to each other and to the Hippie movement, despite the obvious dangers that resulted in several fatal overdoses among musical icons like Hendrix, Joplin, and Jim Morrison of the Doors (Miller, p.281), to name just a few.
Political Activism, Government Opposition, and the Anti-War Movement:
The increased focus among the Hippie generation on personal autonomy, self-expression, and civil rights lead to a strong distrust of governmental authority in general, and more specifically, to the political resistance movement that culminated in the civil rights activism and marches of the late 1960s and to the opposition demonstrations against the Vietnam War that, more than anything else, probably lead to the U.S.
A withdrawal from that conflict and the demise of the Johnson administration.
Several events in particular galvanized the Hippie generation against governmental authority in the 1960s, including the response of various Southern state governments to the growing Civil Rights movement, especially after the disappearance and murder of Civil Rights activists from the Northeast and the use of state troops to resist Supreme Court decisions on the matter of school desegregation. However, perhaps no political goal was more important to the Hippie generation than the opposition to the war in Vietnam and the compulsory draft system of all males of military age.
The Hippie movement embraced the anti-war and anti-draft cause, rallying in mass draft card burning demonstrations in Washington and in protest marches on college campuses throughout much of the country. Tragic events like the death of four college students shot by National Guard troops on the campus of Kent State University only reaffirmed the commitment to the cause against the war and the draft.
Music also played a major role in the anti-war movement with popular artists contributing to the cause with lyrics advocating opposition to governmental authority and to war in general, and to American participation in the war in Vietnam, in particular.
Several very , such as at Woodstock in upstate New York and at Altamont near San Francisco hosted hundreds of thousands of Hippies and featured the most popular musical talent of the era. Countless smaller venues hosted similar free get-togethers and “love ins” across the country, promoting the same political agenda against the government and the war.
Whereas peace and love characterized the dominant attitude of the Hippie counterculture, several more radical components advocated more aggressive tactics against the . The so-called “Chicago Seven” disrupted the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago along with an eighth member, Bobby Seale of the much more radical and less pacifist Black Panthers who were not opposed to violent governmental opposition. Another member of the Chicago Seven, Abby
Hoffman, promoted various forms of non-violent but criminal acts of anarchy that he detailed in his book, entitled Steal This Book (1971), in which he provided instructions on everything from eating cheaply and living freely to hitching free rides illegally on public transportation, circumventing the need for postage stamps on mail, hot-wiring cars and public telephones, and shoplifting (Hoffman, p.198). Its basic premise was that capitalism is immoral in the first place and that more evolved societies would eventually make monetary currency completely unnecessary anyway.
The Hippie phenomenon that began in the United States in the 1960s shaped much of American history of that era and contributed to long-term changes in the social fabric and political ideology of this country that are still apparent today. Like other countercultural social movements, the Hippie culture included superficial elements of convention and style, but many of the changes first associated with Hippies were decidedly beneficial, such as the Civil Rights movement and the increased freedom of expression and peaceful political opposition through public protest.
Whereas several elements of the Hippie counterculture like the were subsequently abandoned, (even by some of its most notable proponents at the time), other core components like political activism, racial and gender equality, and sexual autonomy remain part of contemporary American social culture. Still others, like global ecological consciousness and political opposition to U.S. involvement in foreign wars arising from questionable domestic concerns seem as relevant now as they were forty years ago when the Hippies introduced them as elements of a radical counterculture.
With respect to the war in Iraq and particularly the policies and justifications offered by the current U.S. administration, history seems poised very much to repeat itself in prompting the eventual pullout of U.S. troops from the region. In fact, one need only consider the topics of political debate in connection with the 2008 presidential election to realize how much the Hippie generation still influences American culture, even today.
Baker, R., Elliston, F. (2002) Philosophy and Sex. Buffalo: Prometheus
Friedman, L.M. (2005) a History of American Law. New York: Touchstone
Hoffman, a. (1971) Steal This Book. New York: Grove
Miller, J. (1992) the Rolling Stone History of Rock and Roll. New York: Random House