Last week my Vietnam War class cornered me during a discussion of the 1960s counter culture and forced me, in the interest of honesty, to admit that I had experimented with marijuana in my youth. Had I been completely honest I would have pointed out that I carried out a very thorough series of experiments, running approximately 3,000 tests over a period of fifteen years beginning in 1967. My experimenting tapered off and ended shortly after 1982 when I married my beloved wife who does not share my scientific curiosity on these matters.
At any rate, at the end of the test series I was able to conclude that the lyrics of the Band’s Music from Big Pink are much easier to hear and understand when you are stoned, but it is not a good idea to attempt to balance your checkbook in this condition. Science marches on.
Music from Big Pink - Worth listening to even for squares
The counterculture of ca. 1965-74 is of continuing interest to me. Of course it occurred during my college “coming of age” years, and it seems to me that whatever is going on in an individual’s life during their late adolescence and young adulthood winds up permanently coloring their worldview. For one thing, people seem never to tire of the music they learned in their youth, and are less likely to go for new musical trends that emerge when they are 30 or so.
But the counterculture was significant even for people who did not live through it. I think of the beginning of this movement as the "swell-cool divide" because it was at this time that the slang term “swell,” which had become wildly popular during the 1920s youth rebellion, was phased out and replaced by the new, all-purpose slang term of approval, “cool.”
Some other dimensions of change marking this divide stemmed from the Civil Rights movements. First there was the African-American movement led by people like Martin Luther King, and this was quickly followed by a resurgent women’s movement, and movements demanding equality for Hispanic Americans, Native Americans and gay Americans. The counterculture aligned itself with these movements, while conservative institutions opposed them. These battles are not over, but the trend continues to favor counterculture pro-Civil Rights values.
Anti-Vietnam War protests were also crucial for the counterculture, and, in fact, the peak counterculture years of 1965 to 74 are particularly marked by this ongoing war.
And let’s not forget the sexual revolution. Before 1965 premarital sex was considered naughty for males and disgraceful for females. Post-counterculture rules have changed. When Mary Richards (of the 1970s' Mary Tyler Moore Show) and Lou Grant mused about how many affairs a woman was allowed to have and still maintain her reputation, Mary came up with the answer: six.
See how things have changed?
And then of course there were haircuts and clothing styles. It was possible, in 1968 for example, to know something about a young man’s political ideals and attitude toward pot smoking simply by his haircut. Women of the counterculture also had favorite hairstyles, typically long and “natural.” However, nothing females did was quite so striking and, for conservatives, so obnoxious as was long hair on males. From the conservative "establishment" point of view, any guy with a beard or long hair was in need of a bath and was probably a dangerous criminal.
A short and entirely true story will illustrate this. In the summer of 1968 our family was staying at a vacation resort on Longboat Key. I, with my beard and appropriately long locks was in the swimming pool with my brother and sisters. My Mom sat poolside and was soon joined by a friendly lady from another family. That lady nodded toward me and remarked to my mother, “You have to wonder about some of the creepy characters staying at this place.”
“Before you say anything more,” my mother replied, “I should warn you that he’s my son. And yes, I do think he looks creepy.”
The counterculture also completely overturned student dress codes. Pre-1965 college students dressed as though they were going to church; post-counterculture students dress as though they’re headed for the beach.
Finally there is the environmental movement. The counterculture embraced the ideals that promoted limitations on consumption and waste, and protection of the environment generally. On the first Earth Day in April 1970 students on my campus in California buried a V-8 engine as a hopeful symbolic gesture highlighting the dead end that our oil-based economy was leading us down.
In a way the counterculture may be said to have won almost every fight it had with the conservative establishment except two of the most important ones: peace and economic justice. George W. Bush proved it was just as easy to drag the country into a dreadful war through deceit as it had been in 1965, and Ronald Reagan showed that the tax code could be rewritten to favor the rich over the middle class and saddle the country with a humongous debt while doing so.
The Tea Party, with its preponderance of white males, seems like a rearguard action by those who wish there had never been a 1960s counterculture. President Obama, in some ways, represents the counterculture, which is perhaps why so many Tea Partiers hate him. He has admitted to smoking marijuana in his youth, and he built his reputation by his outspoken opposition to the Iraq War. Then he broadened his support during the primaries with an extremely eloquent speech on the issue of race relations.
But perhaps his most unforgivable sin was his rejection of the high paying positions at prestigious law firms that were offered to him right out of law school. Instead of taking these jobs, he dedicated himself to community organizing in impoverished areas of Chicago. This is just the sort of choice made by thousands of counterculture youth who joined the Peace Corps or VISTA. But it is not the sort of choice likely to impress Sarah Palin or Glenn Beck.
Which is to say, the dramatic clash of cultures that began circa 1965 continues. Interestingly there are a lot of issues that the counterculture succeeded in getting the country to accept and as a result we are in many ways much more liberal than we were in 1964, even though we may not realize it. At least according to recent polls, those Americans who describe themselves as conservative far outnumber those who call themselves liberal. But do we really know our own hearts?
A few years ago, as a selfless public service, I composed a quiz that was designed to reveal our misperceptions about our unconscious liberal tendencies. The quiz may be a little dated now, but I think it might be worth reviving for my next posting. Stay tuned.