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What the Hippies Have To Teach Us . . .

Most people who self-identify as conservative, libertarian, or even just those who are right-leaning and watch Tucker Carlson or read websites like American Greatness, can talk a good game about smaller government, securing our borders, the importance of family values, and the like. But when it comes to walking the walk, they are often a step short. “Self-identify” is the operative term here. We see a lot of that going on these days. 

I was talking with a fellow not long ago who, in passing, mentioned C. S. Lewis for a third time. So I asked him which of the Lewis books he liked best. A blank stare was followed with a feeble, “I like ’em all.” As a longtime bookseller, I know this is the way of such things. At least his heart is in the right place. 

Another reference of this kind in similar circumstances is the frequent call for individual liberty. This is always in order, of course, but, as an excellent article here by Kevin Portteus points out, for many of us it is an idea honored more often in the breach. Most of us today are actually “institutionalized.” In one way or another, we are dependent on our various safety nets and too ready to accept the role of government in our lives, from healthcare to auto care. Speaking more than just figuratively, when the power goes out, few of us have generators to get us by, even while we demand our rights. 

Back in the day we had “hippies.” This was a manufactured name tag for a very visible but scattered population that was not well understood. You don’t see them so much anymore, but they are still there. Most of them don’t like to be called “hippies” now but they walk the walk, right down to the hand-made sandals. Still others have simply latched onto the identity rather than have no identity at all. The long hair and beard was an easy disguise. 

Hippies were thought to be countercultural, but that is part of the cliché. They had their own culture—albeit a new and roughly patched together one. The use of drugs without the imprimatur of the pharmaceutical manufacturers; food directly from the earth, or as close as possible; clothing of individual design and made to purpose; love without the trappings of law; sex without ownership; families unfettered by traditional limits; toleration and peace to all; do your own thing and let your neighbor do his, were all standard. Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land was an early inspirational text. 

Essentially, it was a lifestyle only practical in a Western culture already rich enough to support such eccentricities. But whatever their “bag” was, and it was always mixed, very few “hippies” matched the TV caricature. Nor, at least, did they spend their waking hours zoned out on television or obsessing over the latest fads. 

There were some common things that usually set hippies apart, but often there was also something unique in them. I knew one fellow who loved classical music and used to travel from place to place with a KLH portable record player-receiver and about 40 pounds of records he would give away to anyone who liked what he played. He was a vegan with a passion for nuts, apples, carrots, bread, and fruit juices, worked menial jobs in kitchens, wore clothes from the Salvation Army, and, as a hawker, sold the local weekly tabloids on the streets of Boston. 

One woman used to write poetry, hand-letter it, illustrate it to suit herself, xerox it, and stapled it into booklets which she brought into the shop for me to sell. These sold pretty well but I don’t think it could have been enough to live on even though, as I recall, she had 30 or 40 outlets in Cambridge and Boston. I believe she was also a seamstress and cut and sewed her own clothing. At least she looked as though she had. 

I was recently reminded of all this when considering the case of Jacob Chansley, also known as the “QAnon Shaman.” Actually, he reminds me more of several people I used to know during my college days, but Chansley was born in 1988, went to Moon Valley High School in Phoenix, Arizona and Glendale Community College where he studied psychology, religion, philosophy, and ceramics. The “ceramics” is the give-away. He enlisted in the Navy but was forced out when he refused to take a mandatory anthrax vaccine. 

The sense of individual liberty is another tell. If Chansley were free now to speak, which he is not, he might say he was a latter-day hippie; not a saint, but he is clearly a brave fellow with a good sense of what is upside down in our society. His buffalo horn headdress, face paint, and bare-chested costume was fantastic! The old t-shirt and jeans just doesn’t cut it anymore with the national press. You’ve got to dress like Darth Vader or RuPaul to get any attention at all these days. Chansley is now an icon.

From what I understand of him, as well as the many others I have known through the years, the key element of a “hippie” is independence. Just that sense of liberty. It is not such a bad instinct. Their rebellion of spirit is not against rules so much as it is at having to conform to standards they do not hold themselves. That, they feel, is hypocrisy. And I am sympathetic. 

Back in the day, for hippies, the antiwar movement was not just a student rebellion fueled by daddy’s money and regular meals from the school cafeteria. It was a sincere, if sophistic, rejection of the very idea of having to kill anyone. I remember some pretty heated arguments on that point. But I never knew a hippie who had anything to do with guns or explosives. Politics was not a religion. “Peace,” for them, was a realizable dream fostered one person at a time. 

Perhaps bathing was not as popular as it should have been with hippies, but then hot water was not as plentiful if you didn’t have a good account with the gas company. I remember a great big old curvy porcelain tub in the Victorian mansion at my school which was used by a parade of “friends” at all hours of the day and night for a period of time. 

But the hippies as a subculture were not unique. There is an American tradition of individuals advocating simple living who had made a life of it, from Benjamin Lay to Henry David Thoreau, John Muir to Louise Dickinson Rich, as well as groups, from the Shakers and the Amish to the communes of Fruitlands and New Harmony. Long hair and beards were common then, too. 

Other than the various varieties of grass, hard drugs were not a main feature of the hippie life of which I was aware. LSD was considered a rich boy’s toy. Most of the hippies I knew were not rich. Many of the males first dropped out because they were not interested in being used as draft fodder in the wars dreamt up by Harvard professors. That alone was the spur to a lot of independent thinking that then had unintentional consequences. Drugs were more of a psychological escape, and many of the hippies were deeply into enjoying life. Most of them were quite philosophical about their choices—existentially speaking. Albert Camus was always popular in that regard, and Buddhism as a religion caught on. 

Music was important—but more often in the form of individual instruments. I knew a pretty excellent guitar player back in Vermont who was good enough to impress the great cellist Pablo Casals but he had no interest in the corruption of the music industry he had found in New York and became a goat farmer instead. Most rock and roll was not as popular as folk music, though the Beatles fared pretty well. And as far as sexual freedom went, I remember one woman who said she got more satisfaction from baking a good loaf of bread. The bread was very good indeed, and her husband looked like he was pretty satisfied with that. 

My bookshop was across the street from an early organic food store, Erewhon, and this was a constant draw for years. I learned a great deal from the hippies who frequented that shop, just by dint of my own effort to survive on a wing and a prayer. Don’t buy anything you don’t need. Do your own or do without. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. And as a consequence, I ended up with a nice collection of handmade cards, more idiosyncratic books and magazines than I could reasonably sell, some enlightening conversation, and a lot of advice, good and bad. 

The “hippie” name had somehow evolved from “hipster, a tag for the beatniks of the 1950s. The clichés aside, hippies were one of the first identifiable social groups rejecting the postwar homogenization of American culture. Sure, it would seem that a lot of good babies were thrown out with that bathwater, but they were onto something, and that something even spread to Western Europe. Hippies were the cause of the revived back-to-nature movements of the 1960s and 1970s, and that went mainstream. 

Though they tended toward a naïve socialism, the closest thing to political campaigns that I remember concerned specific issues of the time such as believing  coffee and chocolate are great but shouldn’t be harvested by child labor just to keep the price down; migrant workers should not be exploited to bring us a head of cheap lettuce; farmers should not be using antibiotics that remain in the meat, or pesticides that remained in the produce; the price of healthy food must reflect the real cost of making it that way. As Heinlein said, “There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.” 

Hippies deserve a lot of credit for being among the first to break with the corporate hegemony that has so much power over our lives. Their attempts to live an alternative lifestyle often failed, but the need was there and the reality of our daily grind to feed the corporations was exposed. They drew attention to the fact we were a Christian nation not living up to Christian virtues. Sure, their attraction to Buddhism and other eastern faiths might have been guided by hucksters, but many of the leaders of Christian churches were hucksters as well, which was one cause for their disillusionment in the first place. 

Living apart from the many creature comforts of late 20th century life in order to live your principles required more guts than most of us have. But fully 200 years before, Benjamin Lay was perhaps the first hippie. A Quaker, and friend to Benjamin Franklin (who printed some of Lay’s first tracts), he lived his principles to the fullest. He spun and loomed the cloth from flax and sewed his own clothes because he was a vegan and would not eat animals nor wear their wool or leather. He was anti-slavery and forced his fellow Quakers to recognize the evil in their midst. He was a believer in the equal rights of women, and did all the same farm work his wife did. And too, he was what was known then as a dwarf, and a hunchback, and a cripple, being lame in one leg. 

A century later, another proto hippie and a frequent topic of conversation for his rejection of establishment ways, the self-described “hermit,” Henry Thoreau, had only made it through two years at his little cabin in the woods, and even then (despite his protestations to the contrary) not without some help from his friends. But he tried, and failed, and tried again, never losing sight of the better path, and always urging others to do the same. His salvation was in his writing and that was to serve the newly christened “hippies” well in their own time. 

Most hippies came from middle-class families and had no prior experience in fashioning a new lifestyle beyond the walls of suburbia, but like Thoreau, they knew it had to be done. Their mistakes were the subject of derision and ridicule, but they persisted. Their communes failed. Their loosely knit families disintegrated. Many ended up taking welfare from the very authorities they had rebelled against. But they changed their world measurably for the good, and for their example, I am grateful.

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About Vincent McCaffrey

Vincent McCaffrey is a novelist and bookseller. Visit his website at www.vincentmccaffrey.com.

Photo: Robert Blomfield Photography/Getty Images