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When America Got High and Never Came Down (Sep. 17, 1997)

Heard from any Army colonel stationed in Washington, as follows: “At last when my children ask ‘What did YOU do in the Vietnam War, Daddy?’ I will be able to reply proudly, ‘I defended the south parking lot against the hippies!’”

— Herb Caen, San Francisco Chronicle, 10/26/97

The sports network ESPN made use of the anniversary in some of its promos, but for the most part the media and social science professoriate have chosen to skip the 30th anniversary of the Summer of Love. There’s a paucity of retrospective documentaries, a dearth of seminars on C-SPAN. This happening, which dominated every form of communications in America that year, is largely unremembered, although it shouldn’t be.

Our history books, written more often than not by men and women who were New Leftist zealots 30 years ago, put their emphasis on the following year. For them, 1968 was the hinge of time. That year, there were the assassinations, the hell week of the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, the rioting, looting and killing breaking out in almost every section of the country. In Europe, New Leftism took to the streets and tipped over Charles DeGaulle’s France. Even West Germany rocked back and forth for a few weeks that year, when grown-ups who knew no other line of verse shook their heads and quoted William Butler Yeats’ insistence that the center cannot hold.

Yet it was the Summer of Love, not the tempestuous year which followed it, that left this nation and much of western Europe irrevocably altered. That was the summer of sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll — the moment when life unzipped and quivering nudity made the nation swallow empty air.

The legacy of the New Left politicos is next to nonexistent. Without the analytical scaffolding afforded by Marxism, New Left political theory was a vapid, high-flown intellectuosity. If the power has flowed to the people, the people are making scant use of it. The Summer of Love, however — attached no doctrine, no school of thought, no theory worthy of the name — is with us to this hour.

The summer, which drew multitudinous numbers of youth to San Francisco, ended with several hundred thousand hippies surrounding the Pentagon, where they smoked dope and occasionally fucked for the cameras. The summer of 1967 was the year that the baby boomers first graduated from high school in epic numbers. It was a time for turning hippie, at least for a few months, a time of communes, Zen and sitars, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.

Some of the most salient figures who orchestrated the festivities of that summer are dead now. Timothy Leary, Abbie Hoffman, Aldous Huxley and the lesser-known artists, musicians and counterculturists who got boys to grow their hair long and girls to cut theirs off, who put rings through their ears and a ringing in them as the rock beat assumed the throbbing dominance it has never relinquished.

It was in this period that terms like “youth culture” began to be used. The concept of adolescence fell into desuetude as the word “kid” came to be applied to anyone between 14 and 26. Madison Avenue took this gigantic slice of the population and turned it into a demographic market segment; the courts weakened the power of adults to supervise youth and made them citizens of a land of their own. Social class was superseded as they became inhabitants of a vast, floating continent, independent, separate and answerable to its own norms. Easily recognized by its uniforms (bell-bottoms then, shaggy-bagies now), their norms are largely determined by advertising and the companies that pay for it.

The lines and shapes of the youth culture, like a photograph materializing in a tank of developer, began to come clear in the Summer of Love. In those months drug-taking, heretofore regarded as depravity, was introduced to the middle classes, and the social controls that once might have made such behavior impossible were too weak to prevent the first wave of middle-class drug addiction.

Before 1967, drug-taking was an activity carried on only in small subsets of the population, none of them middle-class; afterward, drugs made their way into millions of respectable homes in every state and community. In a matter of months, what had been an unthinkable act for the children raised in what used to be called decent families became commonplace.

The vehicle by which drugs penetrated the permeable wall of middle-class rectitude was opposition to the Vietnam War.

American youth never did and doesn’t now concern itself with politics. But in the late 60s and early 70s, young men who couldn’t care less if the United States fought an imperialist war knew that Vietnam was too far away and smudgy for them to get their asses shot off fighting there.

The boys who didn’t want to go to war, along with their families and girlfriends, weren’t material for a serious political movement. Although some were collegians, they were not as well schooled as the generation that had gone to school on the GI Bill. Politically illiterate, more interested in feeling than in thoughts, they were not able to sustain organized political effort. Their emergence into public life marks the beginning of the politics of affect, which, to this day, makes them such easy marks for whoever comes along to tell them he or she feels their pain.

It was the political genius of men such as Abbie Hoffman to make dope, sex and dance symbolic acts of opposition to the establishment, the word universally employed for the pro-war faction. “Do It in the Road,” the Beatles said, and you can stop the war. The antiwar come-all-ias of music, dope and sexuality in that summer were aptly named be-ins. Derived from the civil rights sit-ins, the be-in, the coming together of a throng in chaotically ecstatic opposition to the world of those over 30, masked the fact that these unsophisticated sybarites, flashing on their happy lusts, were not up to anything past the politics of pleasure.

The drug message was enhanced by an advertising campaign, carried on through what the politicians now call free media. From every TV, the new dispensation was broadcast: Drugs not only make you feel good, but they give drug-takers insight, self-awareness, self-liberation and self-knowledge. It was eyewash, but millions believed the advertising claims of the Summer of Love.

Today, few denizens in the Subcontinent of Youth believe that drugs are a religious experience or a door to a higher consciousness. They take more drugs and more potent forms of drugs like marijuana than their parents did 30 years ago, but it has no special meaning. It is “recreational.”

After Richard Nixon ended conscription, the antiwar movement evaporated, but the drugs didn’t. The social topography post-1967 was never the same. The politics of affect infuse every public discussion. Sexual practices took their contemporary shape. The Subcontinent of Youth would have been formed whether or not there was a Summer of Love. But not the drugs. That took a special set of circumstances. There was only a short moment when that bottle could have been uncorked, and 1967 was the year.

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