Fifty years ago I lived for a while in California, and spent as much time as possible hanging around in San Francisco. This was not because of any special devotion to picturesque cable cars or overpriced fish restaurants. At that time San Francisco was ground zero for the hippie phenomenon. Young people had flocked there from all over America, and the world, to create what they called a counterculture, and 1967 was the Summer of Love. What could be more counter to our regular culture than love?
My interest was purely professional. I was already too old and too cynical to be accepted as a hippie. The slogan of the times was “Don’t trust anyone over 30,” and I was just at that untrustworthy crossroads. My hair and beard were not long enough, my taste in music was all wrong, and my drug of choice was more conventional and more legal than theirs.
But I envied the young rebels of the counterculture, and hoped they might make an impact on a country that was being roiled by the Vietnam War and the aftermath of the Civil Rights Movement. In fact I was engaged on a research project studying that very question: could a large group of non-violent people driven by passionate ideals actually change a whole culture? It was a naïve question, and I’ll save you the suspense: the answer was no.
I liked the hippies I met, and spent time in hot tubs with them. They were gentle and humorous, and they meant well. Part of their mellowness was due to a huge consumption of marijuana, of course. Their ideology, if you can call it that, was deeply un-American. They despised money and material possessions, and thought that libertarianism meant freedom to live as you liked (“Do Your Own Thing”) rather than freedom to make unlimited profits through deregulation. They were doomed from the start. What kind of political program is it to say: “We should love one another.”
I like the idea of love, I’m all in favor of it.. But a whole summer of love demanded too much of human nature. The entire wistful movement dissolved into bad drug experiences, crime, and conflict with the police over petty issues like housing conditions and public nudity. On October 6th in 1967 a mock funeral for “The Hippie” was held in the Haight-Ashbury District, and that was almost the end of it.
The fiftieth anniversary of the Summer of Love has not brought much love with it. Perhaps we should try again, but on a more modest scale. The French have a National Day of Kindness once a year. Local newspapers run surveys to identify people in the area who are known for their kindness to others, and publish their names and their stories. It is a very positive and appealing campaign, and it would be nice to see more like it. But kindness is no more fashionable than love these days. Too many things conspire to make us wary of it as a form of weakness: sports, war, video games, business, and of course politics.
So I fear that a whole Day of Kindness might be too much for us. Perhaps this fall we could manage an afternoon of tolerance. Would that be too much to ask?
Copyright: David Bouchier