Thursday, July 12, 2007

Why the Summer of Love Remains Relevant

It has become commonplace to laugh about the Summer of Love. Conservatives, particularly, like to make fun of the excesses of that period, and some, like Ronald Reagan, built political careers by campaigning against the tenets of the counter-culture that built a movement around the notion of love.

The fact of the matter is that 1967 was anything but a peaceful, carefree period in history. The Vietnam War was heating up, with U.S. casualties mounting up to more than 11,000 that year alone, which was more than in the previous ten years combined. Race relations were deteriorating, despite (or perhaps as a consequence of) the progress of the civil rights movement, and destructive riots occurred in cities throughout the country. Anti-war forces got bigger and bolder, holding marches of previously unseen numbers, and the country found itself in a political divide unlike anything that preceded it.

Among this chaos and upheaval, people who believed in peace and understanding found a way to flourish. To some whose adherence to traditional political dogma was ingrained, it seemed a selfish, indulgent exercise, and a silly one at that. What were the hippies really accomplishing, other than "dropping out" of society, as Timothy Leary suggested? But to those with a more intellectual and open mind, the Summer of Love was an exercise in defiance, an entire way of thinking that evolved from the peaceful disobedience of the civil rights movement, and a way of being that wasn't dictated by government or corporate influence. After all, if all you need is love, how can Madison Avenue sell you things you don't really need? If you were to "get together and smile on your brother" (as the Youngbloods' song suggested), how can the government convince you to join the military and kill those they deem your enemies?

As historian Sean Wilentz points out in a recent article, the cultural divide that came to the fore in 1967 is still separating Americans today, and hasn't ever gone away. Reagan and his eventual running mate George H.W. Bush supported Barry Goldwater for president in 1964, and carried on the conservative cause in the decades that followed. Current president George W. Bush has been most damning to the peaceful side of the cultural divide. The country has another war with no end in sight, and another president who places himself and his administration above the law. Forty years ago, the U.S. had a Supreme Court that protected the rights of the powerless and strengthened individual liberties. Now, a Court packed with conservatives serves big business and gives government more power and individuals less of a voice.

Even if the Summer of Love couldn't hold sway over politics, it did permanently alter the nature of art, music, film and other creative endeavors. The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, released June 1, 1967, has been considered a cultural landmark for 40 years, and remains one of the most important works of art ever created. Music and art have always reflected the philosophy of the artists, but this period introduced the widespread acceptance of philosophical ideas in commercial, popular entertainment that could reach a vast audience. It changed the way we communicated, and now, it would be hard to imagine reaching any audience - commercial, political, artistic, even religious - without some sway from popular culture.

The lessons in the Summer of Love are there for all to see. You don't have to endorse drug use or promiscuity to appreciate the idea that human beings can live in a peaceful setting if they work at it instead of working for the purpose of war or material accumulation. It seems a far more radical idea to suggest that working for a peaceful society is not a desirable goal. Yet that's exactly what Vice President Dick Cheney said when he declared that he thought the nature of man was war, not peace. There's been little in the administrations of the last five Republican presidents to suggest that they care at all for peace, and the idea of love or understanding seems lost on them -- unless it's understanding the love of avarice.

This point is well illustrated in Mike Myers' comedy Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, when the title character confronts his nemesis, Dr. Evil:

Dr. Evil:
Isn't it ironic, Mr. Powers, that the very things you stand for -- swinging, free love, parties, distrust of authority- are all now... considered to be... evil? Maybe we have more in common than you care to admit.

No, man, what we swingers were rebelling against were uptight squares like you, whose bag was money and world domination. We were innocent, man. If we'd known the consequences of our sexual liberation, we would have done things differently, but the spirit would have remained the same. It's freedom, man.
Pictures of young people in colorful clothes with flowers in their hair, meditating in a park somewhere, needn't be dismissed as silly anachronisms. Look at them as a portal to a different way of living, and an alternative solution to a culture of greed and war.