Age of Aquarius
On August 15, 1969, a half million. long-haired. freaky people gathered in the mud for the Woodstock Music Festival in upstate New York. For some, the event symbolized the worst of American youth – dirty, drug-crazed dropouts, listening to the devil’s music, obsessed with free love, unwilling to take personal responsibility, spitting in the faces of hardworking law-abiding citizens who made this country great. And yet, if you look beyond the psychedelic veneer, if you listen to the slogans and lyrics of the day, if you consider what these idealistic young folks and millions like them actually did to further world peace and dismantle discrimination, you’ll see something different, something in short supply today – hope.
Who could believe preposterous ideas like love is all you need, we are everyday people, make love not war, open the doors of perception, and get back to the land? Who could be naïve enough to believe that flower power could overcome tanks and bombers? Or that nonviolence could overcome racism? Or that character is more important than money? Who could be idealistic enough to believe in Dr. King’s dream or America’s commitment to liberty and justice for all?
Today, both Left and Right seem to think that America is dying. The signs are everywhere, I’m told: racist police, the Deep State, the one-percent, Godless socialism, the Alt Right, and, of course, a deadly virus. But compared to the 1960’s and early 70’s, with the exception of the pandemic that has no precedent in the last 100 years, today’s problems don’t seem so bad.
War, hatred, injustice, poverty, riots, assassinations …we had it all in the 1960’s and early 70’s. Fifty-eight thousand Americans died in a senseless immoral war. Millions of protesters filled the streets. Racial segregation ruled the land, and those who challenged it were beaten, jailed, and murdered. Birth control was immoral, abortion was illegal, and women were denied equal opportunity in education, employment, and finance. Homosexuality was illegal; gay marriage, an impossible dream. The Russians put missiles in Cuba and threatened to nuke us. Maniacs killed the President and his brother.
And yet, for those kids celebrating on that rainy August weekend, it was a joyous time to live. They believed then, as many of us do today, that a new age is dawning, an Aquarian Age of “mystic revelation and the mind’s true liberation,” an unprecedented epoch in which “peace will guide the planets and love will steer the stars.”
Personally, I missed Woodstock; but I got the message. When I saw my peers celebrating life and challenging the moral evils back in the day, I wanted to belong. I wanted to be part of something honest and true, something morally good and spiritually fulfilling. Like those at the Festival, I wanted to be an authentic pioneer of a new world built on love and understanding, a world where the generous outnumber the greedy, where opportunities belong to all, and people resolve their differences without killing each other. Folks who felt that way were called “hippies.” I got on the hippie bus in 1970 and never got off.
Of course, no one really knows what being a “hippie” means. It’s not a label that we called ourselves but one that straighter folks commonly used to insult us. No one’s sure where the word originated. My favorite story is that Malcolm X invented the term to describe White dudes trying to act “hip,” but never quite making it. There’s no hippie bible; no pledge to recite; no membership card to sign. You don’t have to dress, talk, or act in any particular way. That’s the beauty of it! It is what you think it is. You’re in when you say you are. And yet, in my opinion, hippies were – and still are - united by a set of common values. We believe that love is the most powerful force in the universe, that peace is our highest purpose, that freedom of thought and action belongs to all, and that the accumulation of money is a dead-end.
Looking back, perhaps the hippies knew something worth remembering. Perhaps humanity is getting better, not worse. Worldwide, people are healthier, wealthier, and better educated today than ever before. In America, women have entered all professions, narrowed the pay gap, become half of all law and medical students, and attained positions of corporate and political leadership. People of color endure far less discrimination today than they did decades ago, and we’ve finally elected Black folks to our highest offices. Same-sex marriage is legal, and the LGBTQ community is freer, safer, and more accepted than any time in history.
Have we achieved that nirvana that hippies envisioned years ago? Obviously not, but we’re heading in the right direction. Aquarius is not a place but a star that guides our journey. Hope is the fuel that sustains us. Call me naïve. Call me a delusional. In Lennon’s words, “Call me a dreamer” But the hippie in me believes that the Age of Aquarius is unfolding as we speak and that the power of love is slowly and inextricably transforming the world into the happy family we were meant to be.
Power to the People
“President Kennedy was killed today,” said the sad voice on the loudspeaker. I was sitting in my 7th grade chorus class on the afternoon of November 22, 1963; when the Principal’s surreal announcement exploded in the room. No one spoke. We were gasping for breath. I felt sick on my stomach. Some girls cried. I didn’t say it, but I was afraid. The Russians wanted to nuke us. Some maniac had killed the President. What was coming next?
Five years later, Dr. King was killed by another maniac. Two months after that, John’s brother Bobby was murdered by a third. For many of us, losing these bigger-than-life heroes marked the end of our optimism about the future. Without their majesty and force for good, we felt lost and more afraid than ever. Perhaps we’ve been looking, unsuccessfully, for a new hero ever since.
The 2020 Presidential election was no exception. Both sides argued that the survival of our country depends on who sits in the Oval Office. Joe called it a battle for “America’s soul.” While I’m relieved, to say the least, that Biden prevailed, I don’t think my soul, or that of America, was ever in danger. In fact, I believe the fate of humankind depends not on authority figures but on how we treat each other every day.
When our heroes were murdered in the 1960’s and early 70’s, those of us who were called “hippies” stopped hoping for top-down answers and began looking inside instead. We realized that leaders don’t change the world. Individuals do. We saw that changing laws doesn’t change hearts. Love does. We discovered that the path to peace and happiness lies within not without.
Notables of the era put it this way: “We have to talk about liberating minds as well as liberating society,” Angela Davis. Black power activist and educator. “Politics is how you live your life. Not whom you vote for,” Jerry Rubin, co-founder of the Yippie Party. “The world is ready for a mystic revolution, a discovery of the god in each of us,” George Harrison, the Beatles. “The task is to transform society; only the people can do that, not heroes, not celebrities, not stars.” Huey Newton, Co-Founder, Black Panther Party.
Much has been said about hippies being selfish and self-absorbed while, in reality, we were following Gandhi’s admonition to “be the change you want to see in the world.” That journey naturally began with self-discovery. We stopped trying to change the Constitution and changed our minds instead. (“Revolution” by the Beatles) We read books like The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, On the Road, and The Autobiography of Malcolm X. We meditated with wise ones like Ram Daas and Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. We learned from each other at Be-Ins, Love-Ins, and rock concerts.
As yes, we got high. We found that Bob Marley was right: “When you smoke herb, it reveals you to yourself.” We “opened the doors of perception” with psychedelics as Aldous Huxley suggested, discovering that tripping was never the end game. It was only the beginning, an open window revealing a view of the universe previously unimaginable. For most of us, getting high expanded our minds, not scrambled them.
With this new understanding, we became leaders of ourselves, no longer expecting some larger-than-life hero to save us, even one as remarkable as Bobby or Dr. King. Instead of organizing ourselves into a structured organization with officers, bylaws, and membership cards like so many countercultural groups back in the day, we hippies forged our own paths as individuals and in small groups. In our own quiet imperfect ways, we reinvented family, work, sex, and our connection to Mother Earth. We got off the treadmill of money, power, and fame. We found peace in our own ways.
“Power to the people” was a frequent chant back in the day, based on the premise that oppressed people had to wrestle power away from those in authority. Historically, that’s always been true. Voting for good people and demanding change in public ways will always be important. But perhaps in our struggle against “The Establishment,” we’ve overlooked the obvious. As it turns out, each of us has the power to change the world. How we treat our family, our friends, our neighbors, and all the strangers we encounter during every second of every day has a more profound and immediate effect on the behavior of these people, and those around them, and those around them, than any government, corporation, or religion can ever have.
As Trumpism fades from center stage and we reassess our relationship with government, perhaps the hippie approach is worthy of reconsideration. Maybe we don’t need leaders to make us happy. Maybe small acts of kindness are more powerful in the long run than historic legislation or well-intended executive orders. Maybe we’re more powerful than we think.
Summer of Love
They called it “The Summer of Love,” those three months in 1967 when thousands of freedom-loving countercultural pioneers, aka hippies, gathered in the Haight-Ashbury section of San Francisco to commune with each other, party, and, yes, have sex. As Peter Coyote (a member of an anarchist troop called The Diggers at the time, better known as a mainstream actor today) put it this way: “I was interested in two things: overthrowing the government and f*cking. They went together seamlessly.”
To hear some folks tell it, hippies invented “free love,” a term actually coined by a Christian socialist in the mid-1800’s and a concept as old as humanity. Perhaps more than any other factor, “The Summer of Love” created the myth that hippies personified lots of sex all the time. As a long-haired countercultural convert living 2000 miles away at the time. I liked the fantasy, but I missed the love boat. I was lucky to have sex at all.
While hippies get the credit (and the blame) for liberating sex, free love was quietly seeping into millions of traditional bedrooms long before the sex-fest in Haight-Asbury. Introduced in 1960, “The Pill” made sex freer than ever. For the first time, women could enjoy sex without the fear of unwanted pregnancy, giving them unprecedented power over their bodies, their families, and their incomes. Given that birth control was illegal in 30 states during the 1950’s, this step toward sexual freedom was particularly important. It took a Supreme Court decision in 1965 and another in 1972 to make birth control legal for both married and unmarried women in every state. Roe vs. Wade in 1973 legalized abortion.
But The Pill was only the first step in the sexual revolution of the 1960’s and early 70’s. At the dawn of the 60’s, consenting adults couldn’t legally engage in same-sex sex, sex with person of a different race, oral sex, or anal sex. Though not outlawed, sex before marriage, sex for pleasure, non-missionary sex, masturbation, and multiple sex partners were widely considered immoral.
Hippies opposed all of that. We simply believed that consenting adults should be able to have sex with anyone they wanted in any way they wanted without fear, guilt, or regulation. To us, free love had nothing to do with the quantity of sex but with the freedom of its expression, the freedom to explore and enjoy all kinds of erotic acts and, more importantly, to accept our naked bodies without shame.
The fulfillment of this ideal has been slow in coming. Oral and anal sex was still illegal in 14 states until a 2003 Supreme Court ruling. In 2005, the Court struck down a Virginia law making sex between unmarried people a crime. Laws prohibiting sex (and marriage) between persons of different races were legal until 1967. Despite these ruling, 15 states still have laws regulating consensual adult sex on their books.
Free love has historically been more of a moral dilemma than a legal one. Premarital sex, for example, remains a cultural and religious taboo in many countries. In America, sex and sin have been linked since the Pilgrims. Intercourse for procreation is good; doing it for pleasure, bad. Homosexually is an unholy aberration to be cured or punished; oral and anal sex, something dirty and perverted. Females with multiple sex partners are slutty; males, just sowing wild oats.
In my mind, the hippie attitude about sex was simple: Sex should be free of fear, free of moralistic laws, free of religious doctrine, free of gender expectations, free of emotional coercion, free of physical abuse. We believed that sex and love belong together, not necessarily in the traditional sense of long-term commitment, but in the expression of kindness and joy between two human beings during life’s most intimate connection.
Love It or Leave It
When I saw Trump and his minions squawking about NFL players who refused to stand for the playing of the National Anthem, I remembered Tommi Smith and John Carlos, African-American sprinters on the U.S. Olympic team who protested racism in America by raising a black-gloved fist in the air during their medal awards ceremony on October 16, 1968.
You would have thought that these guys had bombed the Olympic village. Within a few hours after their silent gestures, both men were dismissed from the team and sent home to face bitter criticism from the American press. Sportswriter Brent Musburger, now announcer for the Las Vegas Raiders, wrote that the two looked like “black-skinned storm troopers” who caused “maximum embarrassment for the country that is picking up the tab for their room and board.” Ironically, Smith and Carlos were eventually inducted into the International Olympic Hall of Fame after playing professional football.
Meanwhile, other challenges to traditional patriotism were everywhere in the 1960’s and early 70’s. Flag burnings, draft dodging, antiwar demonstrations, and disillusioned Vietnam veterans trashing their service medals enraged the general public. Anarchists like The Diggers wanted the Government to disappear peacefully, while Weather Underground and the Symbionese Liberation Army wanted to blow it up. As the cry of “Burn baby, burn” threatened to incinerate our cities, student strikes, premarital sex, pot, acid, and an unprecedented rebellion of children against their parents heralded a revolution against everything American.
Too many close-minded folks, then as now, believed that the only true Americans were White Christians dedicated to capitalism, military might, and their superiority over everyone else. Blacks, Hispanics, gays, feminists, socialists, peace seekers, and anyone else who mistrusted government and sought fundamental change in the country’s laws and culture must, therefore, be unpatriotic. The old school made its position clear: “America: Love it or leave it!”
We of hippie persuasion weren’t inclined to do either. We had our own ideas about patriotism. To begin, many of us would have preferred a world without borders, a nationless world without outsiders where resources are shared and conflicts resolved peacefully on a local level. We believed that people everywhere share the same hopes and dreams and that the vast majority of those in every country seek to do good as they understand it. We saw America as neither better nor worse than any other country. We refused to take the blame for every immoral act taken by its government. We supported our soldiers without supporting their leaders. We despaired that so many human beings died in unnecessary wars fought for ignoble purposes in the name of patriotism.
We believed that loving America means loving its people, starting with family, friends, neighbors, and strangers you meet every day. We maintained that America becomes stronger by helping people everywhere to become healthier, happier, and more financially secure, not by maintaining the largest military in the world. We knew that saluting a flag and singing a national song are meaningless unless we act on our ideals. We said it: Racism isn’t patriotic. Sexism isn’t patriotic. Homophobia isn’t patriotic. Denying justice isn’t patriotic. Fighting wars all over the globe isn’t patriotic. It’s simply wrong.
Perhaps, more than any other factor, hippies hated the hypocrisy of the older generation who told us not to get high but wallowed in alcohol, who told us not to have sex but cheated on their spouses. We couldn’t tolerate those who recited “liberty and justice for all” while suppressing the rights of minorities, women, and the LGBTQ community. We screamed when they quoted the Golden Rule while ignoring the poor, sick, and simply different. In the end, we sought to redefine the “American Dream” as a state of peace, justice, and freedom, not as the accumulation of money. In the end, we chose not to love it or leave it. We chose to change it. As Trump the Divider leaves office, perhaps this is a good time to redefine patriotism.
On December 1, 1938, the ever-helpful FBI released a movie called “Reefer Madness” that “exposed” the dangers of marijuana. Bill and Mary get stoned with some friends, leading to hallucinations, sex, and murder. The real craziness started in 1915 when California (of all places) made pot possession a felony punishable by up to ten years imprisonment. Dozens of State and Federal laws soon followed. California weed arrests climbed from 5,000 in 1960 to 37,000 in 1967. The FBI reports that over 10 million Americans have been arrested for pot possession since 1996. Now that is madness!
As Dylan would say, “Everybody must get stoned!” And we did, starting in the 60’s and, for many, continuing to this day. After all, we were hippies. To hear some folks tell it, you couldn’t be a hippie unless you smoked pot, as though we belonged to a secret society with decoder rings, a hippie hand shake, and a flag with five leaves. I guess you could say that getting stoned was our patriotic duty.
If you’re like millions of Americans, you’ve smoked marijuana at least once and don’t need my explanation of the experience. If you haven’t tried it yet, you’re missing something extraordinary. Imagine feeling mellow and dreamy, yet insightful and aware, while connecting with other folks in happier, more accepting ways. Everything is funny. Music is awesome. You can dance and sing and laugh for hours or sit quietly in a corner contemplating the wonderfulness of an ordinary object suddenly revealing itself to you for the first time.
Many of us came from middle class families ruined by alcohol. To paraphrase Neil Young, we’d seen the bottle and the damage done. We wanted no part of it. So, as we had done with other facets of the culture we inherited, we looked for a better way, a safer saner way to escape reality, a way that didn’t transform ordinary people into raging abusers and lifelong addicts. Pot was the answer, and we loved her from the start. Like a giggling little girl in a cotton dress on a Spring day, she taught us to play, to laugh, to dance, and to sing. She opened a hidden door into a brighter world filled with adventure and pleasure. She showed us how to party without becoming our parents.
You would have thought that ordinary folks would have applauded our discovery. After all, weed is, without doubt, the safest of recreational drugs. Cigarettes, alcohol, cocaine, heroin, and opiates are proven killers. To my knowledge, no one has ever overdosed on THC or randomly murdered anyone under its influence. Within a few hours of getting high, stoners are much more likely to be making love than making trouble.
At last, straight folks are coming to their senses. The percentage of adults who support marijuana legalization has exploded from 12% in 1969 to 83% today. In recent surveys, 70% of the general public believe that marijuana use is less of a health risk than alcohol or cigarettes. In 1946, the American Medical Association defined marijuana as a dangerous drug. In 2018, they changed their minds and affirmed that pot has therapeutic benefits. Today, 15 states and the District of Columbia have legalized pot for all uses. Another 20 states have approved it for medical use only. According to recent surveys, 35 million Americans smoke herb on a regular basis. Another 20 million smoke occasionally. That’s more than the number of cigarettes smokers, placing it second behind alcohol as America’s favorite recreational drug.
Just think how many lives could have been saved if folks had simply listened to the hippies and made pot their drug of choice. The 70,000 a year killed by drunk driving and drug overdoses might still be with us. The untold number of families devastated by drugs and alcohol might have been preserved. The millions arrested for pot possession could have avoided prison if only the moralists had just minded their own business.
Mark Twain once said: “When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.” It’s astonishing how much saner America has become about marijuana since my hippie days 50+ years ago. Let’s hope for a full recovery soon.
Doors of Perception
On February 21, 1965, police in Berkley, CA, raided the homemade lab of Owsley Stanley, soundman for the Grateful Dead, thinking he was producing meth, illegal at the time; only to discover that he was making a relatively unknown substance called LSD, legal at the time. He beat the charges and went on to synthesize over 5 million LSD doses by 1967, even though the drug became illegal in October of 1966. Who knows? Maybe I sampled his wares back in the day.
As hippies, we didn’t pretend to have all the answers. We were content to simply ask the questions. Like wide-eyed adventurers on the open seas, we were comfortable with uncertainty and excited about exploring new lands just over the horizon. Tripping showed us that reality was wider, deeper, and more mysterious than we had imagined. Based on his own experiences with mescaline, English philosopher Aldus Huxley described this psychedelic journey as opening the doors of perception and seeing infinite possibilities.
I’m reminded of this life-changing insight when I look at American’s political divisions. Trump and friends have made lying an art form over the last four years. Whatever they say is true. What anyone else says is “fake news.” After years of this craziness, America’s divisions have morphed beyond political differences or even questions of right and wrong. Now we face the most fundamental question that any sane person must answer. What is true?
Should the definition be based solely on what we see, smell, taste, hear, or feel? Or can some things be true even when they’re invisible to the five senses? Do we define reality by what someone else tells us or by what seems right in our own minds? Is truth a constant over the ages or a fluid understanding that evolves over time?
All of this sounds like psycho-mumbo-jumbo unless we consider the role that open-mindedness plays in our survival as a species. Several years ago, I came across a bumper sticker that read: “Militant agnostic: I don’t know and you don’t either.” As creatures who crave certainty, our most difficult challenge is to admit that we might be wrong, that an assumption made about someone is off base, and that a fact we took as a fact isn’t, in fact, a fact. Even more importantly, if we ever hope to leave peacefully with our neighbors, we need to consider the possibility that two people with different perspectives can both be right at the same time.
Truth, like beauty, is in the eyes of the beholder. Just as two people dropping identical tabs of acid at the same time in the same place will see, hear, and feel their experiences in entirely different ways, each of us understands reality from our own point of view. One person sees a smile as a sign of kindness. Another sees the same smile as a sign of ridicule. A gesture seems peaceful to one person and threatening to another
It’s easy for someone of my liberal sensibilities to think of Trump supporters as “deplorables” as Hillary Clinton so crudely described them. It’s easy to imagine that they’re racist, gun-toting, half-wits who crawled out from under a rock to vote. It’s easy to conclude that Democrats are right and Republicans are wrong, that those on the left are good while those on the right are bad.
But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I don’t really know what’s in the hearts and minds of these folks. Maybe they have a good reason to be angry, a reason I would share in the same situation. Maybe they think I’m acting superior and elitist, even if I’m not. Maybe they believe I don’t care, even if I do. Maybe we’re all riding on the same bus, looking out the same windows, and seeing different things.
You can’t kill everyone who disagrees with you or convert them to your point of view. The road to peace is not a one-world government or a one-world religion but a one-world willingness to honor the perceptions of others.
Stewart Rogers is the Co-Author/Editor of What Happened to the Hippies? published by McFarland Press. He can be reached at Stewart@WhatHappenedtotheHippies.com.