I’ve been teaching about the history of the Hippies for about fifteen years. Hippies and Bohemians were at the heart of my dissertation and I continue to try to help my students puzzle out “the counterculture” each spring in US History. Last week, I gave an updated version of my spiel on the Hippies to Petteri Granat’s class at Vaskivuoren lukio in Vantaa, just outside Helsinki.
Like every class I talk to about the counterculture, I asked them if there was a countercultural youth movement in Finland right now. Nobody could think of one. I asked what they were rebelling against or what they thought needed some rebellion…
Of course, as a person who was taken to anti-war demonstrations at Cal Berkeley as a young child, whose parents were active in the Berkeley CO-OP , and so on, all of this has a personal meaning as well. At fifty, I am of the generation that became aware of the possibilities of youth culture just as things were starting to change. Or maybe that’s silly: culture never stays still.
I remember just before my 13th birthday, talking with friends about the hundreds dead in Guyana, mostly from the Bay Area. Paperboys for the Oakland Tribune, we folded our papers under the freeway, quickly skimming front-page articles as we always did. One friend’s parents knew people at the People’s Temple–he wasn’t sure if they were still alive. We talked in hushed tones. Ten days later, I sat with friends on the grey mats in the dim room of the main gym, where I waited my turn to struggle with bar dips and pull-ups. A grim-faced teacher interrupted class to tell us that San Francisco Mayor Moscone and Supervisor Milk had been shot and killed.
Still, I had a general sense that things were getting better, opening up. There was a Black principal at my elementary school and later at my junior high. Oakland’s mayor was black. The principal at my high school was gay. My neighborhood had a lesbian bookstore (ICI: A Woman’s Place, which I entered only on a dare). A lot of girls at school didn’t wear bras: one of them, a friend, gave me The Women’s Room to read. It scared the hell out of 16-year-old me and I didn’t finish it.
I suppose our coming-of-age was tangled up in this, but within a few years, my friends and I knew something was over. At fourteen and fifteen, we weren’t sophisticated enough to see things historically, but we understood that the election of Reagan wouldn’t be good for us. Styles changed. The “pretty boys,” as we called them, still wore their hair long, sure, but it was neat and feathered. Other haircuts got shorter–except for the stoners. Still, in my imagination, Reagan and the other old, white men who surrounded him remained far away.
Then and now, it seemed to happen suddenly. Soon after Reagan was sworn in , reports of a”gay cancer.” And a new drug–crack–that was rumored to make you crazy like Angel’s Dust and hook you the first time. There was more talk of cocaine in general; Melle Mel, rapped against it and we were persuaded. Mayor Feinstein closed the bath houses and punks sang sneeringly of Hippies. (My Lord, it is so far from those bath houses to Tinder.)
I suppose then, that despite my practiced teenage cynicism about patchouli oil, crystals, and the Dead’s “Truckin’,” I always had the feeling I had just missed something important. Using countryjoe.com, today I can learn which day I saw Country Joe McDonald (who played Woodstock), play to a handful of folks at People’s Park. August 18, 1985. At 19, I wasn’t sure, but I could sense that what I was seeing was sad. The student body at Cal had gone for Reagan the year before, the Park was a mess, the (wonderful) songs seemed to come from a foreign land. The past.
But this convinced me even more that there was something to fight against–conformity, boringness, the pursuit of money and status. There was a pantheon of heroes, just over the horizon: Kerouac, Lennon, Vonnegut, Brautigan, and many, many others. And there were
the Dead Kennedys, Black Flag and all the other bands assuring us we were right to major in art or music or philosophy. We loved “Harold and Maude,” “Quadrophenia,” and “Blazing Saddles” and had no idea what we wanted to do. We weren’t Hippies–that door had closed. We liked punk but we were too sweet to be punks.
What Bohemians, Beatniks, and Hippies (and Punks for that matter) all shared was a sense that modern, capitalist life was dehumanizing, inauthentic, and empty of spiritual experience. Hence their search for authentic experience, for true individuality, for religious or spiritual experience. Judging them now as inauthentic dupes or privileged romantics is easy but it misses the point. They were sincere and willing to take risks.
Since 2000, as I noted above, I have asked my students what they are rebelling against. Often there comes no answer. Sometimes nobody can think of anything to rebel against.
On the train to my guest shot in Vantaa, I asked my 13-year old son if there was a group like the Hippies now. Could he think of a subculture that offered young people an alternate identity, a group that was searching for “real life?” “No, I can’t think of anything,” he said. “What about the Hipsters?” “No, they are more about cool hats and clothes.”
Later, I asked Petteri of there was a “1968” here like there was in the US or France or Germany. Not that he knew of. Finland was in a different place in its history, just urbanizing, still in many ways a developing country. And, he pointed out, there were many restrictions on buying beer then, let alone LSD. There was political turmoil but students tended to side with labor unions. A different lens.
In Vantaa, I talked about to the 18-year-old Finns, arguing that the Hippie movement was essentially spiritual or religious. I focused a bit on Ken Kesey: he’s such an interesting character to consider because he not only introduced acid to his generation and helped popularize the Dead and Jefferson Airplane, but he also spoke, of moving “beyond acid,” even before 1967’s Summer of Love brought the Hippies to national attention.
The failure of the movement is, to me now, the failure to ask that question: what do we do once we’ve dropped out and turned on? Any answer besides “go home” or “get high again” was going to be a hard pill to swallow.
I talked about the risks of teens taking to the road. I showed clips of the Chicago Convention police riot and, yes, Country Joe at Woodstock. Now, group discussion with a room full of Finns I’ve just met isn’t easy, but Petteri has a talkative, thoughtful group. Thanks Petteri! At one point, I asked them, what their generation had to rebel against. What was their suburban conformity, their Vietnam War?
In the US, I sometimes have to remind students that the answer really isn’t their parents. That power wanes swiftly at 18. At both Minnesota State and my progressive Oregon private school, sometimes I have had to offer a list of more significant things they might consider rebelling against. I find this easy! We can begin with the tyranny of self-fashioning (rather than self-discovery). For so many young people, living with Periscope, Instagram, Snapchat, etc., is like living in a hall of mirrors. Could we begin there? No. There probably won’t be a youth movement away from social media. They’ve swallowed the hook.
This week, I picked up two new books, Infinite Distraction, by Dominic Pettman, and Neoliberal Culture, by Jim McGuigan. The world Pettman sketches of the glazed-eye social media surfer is one of unending therapeutic data. He quotes Pascal: “Being unable to cure death, wretchedness and ignorance, we have decided, in order to be happy, not to think about such things.” Facebook is the opium for this century’s masses. Ok. I get it. I don’t like it and I have a little more faith than he perhaps that SOME young people will actually engage in movements about policy or authentic rebellion, even if they don’t give up social media. How many Boomers were real Hippies, after all, percentage-wise, anyway?
McGuigan’s critique is more complex, rooting contemporary youth culture in what he calls “the neoliberal self.” In an uncharted economic world, a gig economy with little safety net, young people find refuge in a “cool-capitalist presentation of the self,” where “there is apparently little insistence on conformity.” In fact, “a limited measure of bohemian posturing is …, in fact, expected.” Young people are “free” to travel the world, bringing their skills to the company that best recognizes them. “Such a personal situation may be frightening, but it also might be exhilarating.”
Does this align with what I see back at Catlin Gabel School? They certainly don’t look to the future with confidence that hard work will bring comfort or ease. They understand the power of “personal branding” as part of the college application process. A number have begun companies or non-profits while still in high school.
This paragraph caught my eye and brought me back to my afternoon at Vaskivuoren lukio:
“In fact, a generational tension is a distinct feature of the neoliberal imaginary, including rejection of ‘dinosaur’ attitudes concerning all sorts of matters cherished by an older generation. The universalising and collectivist principals that were established by the welfare state after the Second World War are called into question incessantly today by neoliberal politics in a manner that makes sense to particularly individualised young people.”
For Petteri’s students, at least, McGuigan seems to have it completely wrong.
When I asked my question about what they felt they have to rebel against, the answer surprised me. One student suggested that their generation was going to be betrayed by older Finns. The students would work hard and follow the rules, but the social welfare system that has so dramatically lifted up this country since WWII will soon be gone. Older Finns would liquidate it to pay for their own care as their generation aged. This is how they, the young, are getting screwed. They would have to pay for college; they would have to pay for health care.
Other students nodded their head in agreement. One stayed after to talk about Neoliberalism–which is the heart of the trouble. Another student lagged behind to talk about his life as a transgender teen. Both felt the path ahead for them will be harder than it has to be and harder than for their parents’ generation.
Young Finns love their phones. This has been true since the Nokia days before today’s teens were born. They love Snapchat and Instagram. But I fear less for this generation of Finns than I do for my American students because they also love biking and skiing, skating, football, floorball, and hiking in the woods. And they understand the social contract. Yes, they constantly stare at their phones on the bus, on the sidewalk, but they also seem to get it–that happiness will be found outside. With friends. I have faith that they will keep having saunas, going to summer houses, having picnics when weather permits. In this way, they will resist the commodification of everything. At least I hope so.
Sources: http://claycord.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/05/coop.jpg; https://c1.staticflickr.com/9/8597/16044762214_eecb62e006_b.jpg; https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/0/01/Helsinki_demonstration_against_the_invasion_of_Czechoslovakia_in_1968.jpg; https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/d/da/Myyrm%C3%A4ki-Myyrm%C3%A4enraittia-lukio_ja_urheilutalo.jpg.