I stood at the intersection of Haight and Ashbury. An old man walked past wearing technicolor surf shorts, a Hendrix T-shirt, flip-flops, large yellow-rimmed sunglasses and a San Francisco baseball cap. It was a vision both appalling and hilarious, a walking spectre, as though a child had been artificially aged. But it made me smile to think that fifty years after The Summer of Love took over this part of the city in 1967 some of that spirit still endures.
During that period around 100,000 young people congregated in this San Francisco neighbourhood. Drawn by a shared suspicion of their government, a rejection of consumerist values and opposition to the ongoing war in Vietnam the hippies had arrived to party, to raise awareness and to dance, love and meditate a new type of consciousness into being. Most surprising of all for establishment stalwarts was that most of these kids were middle class Americans to the bone, young white girls and boys from the right side of the economy.
It must have been a lovely summer, encouraged as they were to “Tune in, turn on and drop out’. Musicians from Hendrix to Pink Floyd played for free at the Fillmore or in Golden Gate Park. Haight-Ashbury was a warren of ‘crash pads’ accommodating these beatifically idealistic flower children.
And where are they all now, those golden youth now turned senior citizens. How did their dream of a better world pan out? Lured to California by utopian ideals some succumbed to a life of sex, drugs and lethargy. Others, having dabbled in the counter-culture came to realise that their ‘soft revolution’ would involve a far longer and harder struggle against the entrenched plutocracy. They grew up and headed off for vocations in the ‘real’ world, perhaps running a weed farm in Humboldt County or becoming CEO of a Hi-Tech firm in Silicon Valley.
However, much of what the flower children set their sights on has failed to materialise. America’s addiction to war has only escalated. Watching Fox News later that day I was disgusted to see ‘talking senatorial heads’ gloating over the Clown-in-Chief’s dropping of the largest bomb in the Pentagon arsenal on Afghanistan. Watching the satellite reply of the blast they were positively priapic with delight. Cruise missiles and massive bombings (as long as they are on foreign soil) are like viagara to these people, the drone strike replays their snuff porn.
But whatever its multi-faceted agenda was, the hippie movement was first and foremost a political movement to free American – and European – society from suffocating conformity and legally enforced racism and sexism, and in that, it succeeded very well. It also set the ball rolling for the very powerful environmental movements that today are tackling some of mankind’s most urgent issues.
So as someone who was 5-years old when The Summer of Love was playing out in San Francisco I am grateful to those happy hippies. Thanks to them I have been able to wear jeans and a T-shirt to work, to invite girlfriends round for the night beneath the parental roof and to embrace a personal philosophy that places people above profits, kindness and compassion above material success and superficial achievement and a reliable moral compass above self-aggrandisement.
I recently read this comment by one of America’s former presidents, Woodrow Wilson, and it had a good ring to it.
“You are not here merely to make a living. You are here in order to enable the world to live more amply, with greater vision, with a finer spirit of hope and achievement. You are here to enrich the world, and you impoverish yourself if you forget the errand”.
Long Live the Hippies! (Both long and short haired)