Our “Truth in Strange Places” award this month is a bit of a golden oldie, as it was uttered as part of a college commencement address in 1969. According to my source, the speaker
repudiated an “acquisitive and competitive corporate life” in her class address at Wellesley College. She called for “a more immediate, ecstatic and penetrating mode of living.”
The speaker was Wellesley’s valedictorian that year, Hillary Rodham, our future first lady. Damn it, woman, you should have inhaled and ingested a whole lot more than whatever you did! Maybe it would have helped…not that it seems to have helped our current President all that much, but… How far we have fallen!
We, not just she, not just Hillary Rodham-Clinton. We, the children of “The Greatest Generation,” the Americans who overcame the Great Depression AND the Nazi-Japanese attempt at world domination, we saw our calling as we came out of the starting gate with a clear, acid-etched understanding of our parents’ failings and a strong determination to take America and the world to the next level.
At first it all seemed to go so well. We stopped the war on Vietnam, toppled a corrupt President and replaced him with a guy who cheerfully posed for pictures with Jimmy Buffet and the Coral Reefer Band. (I’m sorry, that photo seems to have vanished from the archives!) We started a nationwide network of radical newspapers, alternative radio stations, food co-ops, head shops, communes, ashrams for dozens of Eastern spiritual teachers. We delivered our own babies and nursed each others’ babies, shared childcare among husbands, wives, and family friends, started our own schools based on the philosophies of A.S. Neill or Rudolf Steiner or Maria Montessori. We blew the lid off the idea that marriage meant one man, one woman, their children, forever, by experimenting with open marriages and multiple marriages, and by accepting same-sex relationships, which ought to be marriages, already!. We lived simply, sharing cars, homes, gardens, tools and televisions. We produced shelves of books touting our way of life–Small is Beautiful, Diet for a Small Planet, Foxfire, Voluntary Simplicity, the Whole Earth Catalogues, just to name a few. We started “Earth Day,” and got Martin Luther King’s birthday recognized as a national holiday.
That’s the tip of another of the icebergs of my generation’s early accomplishments. We declined to accept the tacit segregation of our parents’ generation. Not only did we date and marry across racial lines, many of us ignored ghetto lines in cities and created racially mixed inner city neighborhoods.
We raised hell about nuclear energy and nuclear weapons and the cold war and Israeli repression of the Palestinians, white repression of native South Africans and Native Americans. We pushed Richard Nixon, one of our creepiest Presidents, to create an Environmental Protection Agency, a Council on Environmental Quality, an Occupational Safety and Health Administration and a Federal Products Safety Commission, and to pass a Clean Air Act, a National Environmental Policy Act, and a Water Pollution Control Act.
We were on a roll…then, somehow, it all started falling apart. Perhaps blackmailed by Henry Kissinger, Jimmy Carter granted asylum to the newly deposed Shah of Iran, the enraged Iranians took over the US embassy, our secret rescue mission failed. The President who had called energy conservation and independence “the moral equivalent of war” lost his bully pulpit in a reactionary landslide and Ronald Reagan, the great miscommunicator, steered America into a trance. Our movement melted away, as former radicals sought the apparent safety of professional careers, suburban homes, and safe investments for retirement. Many of us traded bulk foods for fast foods, community engagement for televised distraction, political passion for sports fandom, LSD for CGI, and pot for prozac.
How did this happen? As far as I can tell, there was a lot of pressure from a lot of directions. Early on, the record companies whose ads were a major source of finance for the “underground press,” withdrew their support and started the papers’ slide into “entertainment weeklies.” Somewhere in her voluminous output, Barbara Ehrenreich reports that a cabal of network executives and advertising agencies determined that hippiedom and communal living would never be shown in a positive light on national television, because the ideal of sharing was bad for business.
There was financial pressure. In 1974, median income peaked; although the average has gone up since, this has been due to the rich getting richer while the poor and middle class get poorer. This has resulted in people having less time for leisure and non-income producing pursuits like social change. College education became much more expensive, saddling students with debt and giving them a strong disincentive to rock the boat. Did the barons of finance put the squeeze on us because they didn’t like what we were doing with our leisure time, or was our loss of leisure, AKA time to think and dream. just an unintended consequence of being wrung dry? We may never know
I believe there were internal pressures, as well. The ideals that we held and shared were, for many of us, largely intellectual constructs that were not deeply anchored in our psyches. What lurked in the depths of all too many of us was the unreconstructed insecure materialist conditioning our parents had burned into us, and all it took was stress–whether from financial pressure, interpersonal turmoil, or the shocks that came as our cute little kids turned into sexual, independent-minded teenagers–to unleash that conservative parental programming and turn legions of once airy hippies into mainstream American zombies who would just die if their kids ever found out what they had done in their foolish youth–and who would completely go postal if those kids ever dared try any such stunts themselves.
That’s what I saw going on around me, anyway. I’m not sure what I (and the mother who raised me) did right, but somehow I seemed immune to the pressure that was causing people all around me to cave in. Not that I (and my kids) didn’t have some baggage to deal with–but somehow I seem to have ended up one of the last hippies standing.
I’m tooting my own horn way too much here. I may be alive and more or less well and idealistically intact, still pumping for local food, local industry, and local control, but the Hillary Clinton I once saw eye to eye with about the dangers of, as she put it ,”acquisitive and competitive corporate life” is now one of the lead spokespeople for corporate life. I’m not picking on Hillary personally–she’s just a symbol for millions of members of my generation who sold out for what I’m sure they thought were all the right reasons.
Meanwhile, the promises of corporate America ring hollower and hollower to more and more people, and we’re not just talking furriners here. As George Carlin famously said, “They call it ‘the American dream’ because you have to be asleep to believe it.” Formerly middle-class Americans are falling out of their cocoons and waking up with a bang on the sidewalk in front of what used to be their homes, their dream derailed by job losses, medical bills, and sucker mortgages among other things. Maybe it’s not too late for a national reawakening.