by Theodore Roszak
Copyright 2000 by Theodore Roszak. All rights reserved.
In these days of instant nostalgia, current events pass from journalism into folklore before they have had a decent chance to become history. This is certainly true of the period we call "the sixties." The American counter culture that flourished during that period -- from the late fifties to the mid-seventies -- has already been assigned a canonical image in television dramatizations and the history texts now being used in our high schools and colleges. It surfaces there in the latter chapters, where the narrative, having swept like a stormy surf across the story of Vietnam and Watergate, begins to ebb sullenly away toward the Carter and Reagan years. The usual depiction is that of high-spirited young people, ungroomed, unkempt, and uncouth, disporting themselves in the open air -- a park, a field, a forest. Their straggly hair streams free or is banded back Indian style. Their clothes are patched, befringed, and beaded -- a motley of backwoods dishevelment and barbaric splendor. Often they are loaded with backpacks, bedrolls, stash bags that lend the aura of transiency: people on the road far from home, ready to crash anywhere for the night -- in the woods, under the stairs, in the back of the van. Mendicant citizens of the world, pausing to sing or play as they make their way to Berkeley or Boulder, Cambridge or Katmandu, North Beach or the North Woods. Sometimes, more soberly, they flourish signs: "Make Love not War," "End the Bombing Now," "Give Peace a Chance."
Were there ever such people -- really? Yes and no. Every social movement leaves behind recollections at once insightful and misleading. The study of history would be lost without them. The stereotypic Abolitionist, Robber Baron, Progressive Reformer, New Dealer is as good a place as any to begin understanding the past, but each of these inherited images needs critical adjusting. Also remember that stereotypes in their own right tell us much about social hopes, fantasies, and fears. And each has its history.
For some years now (since about half way through the seventies) I have had the oppressive sense of an embarrassed reluctance on all sides to recall the role that was once played in our society by the people whom the media named beatniks, hippies, flower children. When their period in history is mentioned, many hasten to attach a snide disclaimer, a wised-up dismissal. We peer back in time through decades of fickle journalism, national self-doubt, and social backlash, wondering if the dissenting politics of the sixties might simply have been another media fiction. Certainly in recent years, the only flesh and blood examples of the countercultural image I have come across have been the barely surviving casualties of the era that still haunt downtown Berkeley, panhandling for spare change. Their sad squalor is evidence of nothing braver or more inspiring than being bummed out and overaged.
Yet, with a little effort and some candor, I can remember the happier originals of these faded caricatures as they once enlivened the streets of the Haight-Ashbury and Telegraph Avenue. In its time, their persona of ragged independence -- or some reasonable facsimile thereof -- was a proud and prominent emblem of cultural disaffiliation blossoming in the streets of every major city, on the campus of every minor college and high school. It was a stance that claimed to have broken irrevocably with the urban-industrial culture that ruled the world then, and more so now. The style purported to be "natural," "organic," a principled rejection of well-behaved, antiseptic, upwardly mobile middle-class habits in favor of a return to folk origins and lost traditions. A bit of the Bohemian rebel, a bit of the noble savage. Those who assumed the full dissenting identity of the time spoke of themselves as "freaks" and assembled in hastily improvised and ephemeral "tribes" where simple and funky living was the rule. At the Morning Star Ranch in Marin, the residents called their way of life "voluntary primitivism," a design for living that transcended both excessive affluence and minimal hygiene.
For some, the search for a postindustrial alternative led out of the cities to rural communes, few of which were destined to survive. But even in the cities, one could find "collectives" where the ethos was that of urban cave-dwellers, camping out indoors. In Berkeley in the late sixties, when my wife and I were looking for a house to rent, we had occasion to inspect a number of these domestic experiments -- or what was left in their wake after the resident tribe had decamped without paying the rent. Musty houses in a state of advanced disrepair where the inhabitants had once pitched tents in the living room or spent the night in sleeping bags. In the kitchens, pantries were filled with stale brown rice and active vermin; in the refrigerators, one might find several months' supply of spoiled groceries and well-sprouted soy cakes. In these quarters, one sensed that organic foods were a sort of talisman, sufficiently potent in their very presence to repeal the germ theory of disease. Also there were the signs of many animals once in residence and still haunting the premises -- unleashed, unhousebroken, very likely unfed. In the Haight-Ashbury and the East Bay, there was a cult of the "organic dog" -- the larger, the less washed and tamed, the better. For a period, there were neighborhoods in Berkeley and San Francisco that took on the look and the fragrance of barnyards or hunting camps.
The people who lived through these episodes, once at war with the parental generation of their day, have themselves become the parents of the students I now teach. They did not vanish in a puff of smoke but have lived on as part of the eighty-million strong baby boom generation to find jobs, raise families, run for office, play the market. Some of them, mainly women, now show up in my classes as "older students," often returning to take up the education they dropped out of twenty-some years ago. Now in their forties or fifties with easily another thirty years of longevity ahead of them, these aging boomers sometimes seek me out during office hours to lament how difficult it is for them to raise their kids in this era of crack cocaine and AIDS. Dare they be as permissive as their parents once were when Dr. Spock was the domestic gospel? Looking back, they, like me, are left with many questions, not least of all how we got from the heady idealism of the counter culture to Reaganomics and the Moral Majority, Nine Inch Nails and the dot.com feeding frenzy.
I'm not sure I know. But I have these thoughts about the line of descent that led from satori to Silicon Valley.
Some Afterthoughts in the Year 2000
From Satori to Silicon Valley by Theodore Roszak
Copyright 2000 by Theodore Roszak. All rights reserved.