This coming Sunday there will be a huge “Summer of Love” 40th anniversary concert in Golden Gate Park, featuring everybody from Moby Grape to Jesse Colin Young (“C’mon people, now smile on your brother, everybody get together, try to love one another right now”).
I was there for the first summer of love, although I was part of the politico faction focused on opposing the evolving Vietnam War and the draft. We thought the hippies were a little too frivolous, though sex, drugs and rock’n’roll united both groups. Some part of me would like to be there this weekend too, although I have a strong allergic reaction to crowds of this type. The way I acquired it fairly reeks of street cred: I was cured of musical crowds at the Rolling Stones’ 1969 concert at Altamont Speedway, where one person was killed by Hells Angels’ aggressive crowd-control tactics and many others were harmed by lesser acts of violence.
Most people said Altamont was the end of an era: speed and downers, jug wine and casual violence had thrust their ugly heads through the scrim of peace, love and understanding some of my generation had lovingly pasted over the face of our nation. Nevertheless, a great many of us deeply internalized the liberatory values of the period, and as time passes, we see some of them reflected in society.
The Age of Aquarius hasn’t dawned, of course. (Indeed, my current view of Utopia is that it may be a nice place to dream of, but I wouldn’t want to live there, nor in the typically bloody historical space that opens when people decide to remake their own place and time along utopian lines.) But slowly, slowly, some things have changed. An understanding of all life as interdependent has emerged, for instance: it certainly couldn’t have been predicted 40 years ago that a former U.S. Vice President would carry that message to cineplexes across the country via a blockbuster film.
Slowly, slowly (and despite stubborn opposition) the value of human diversity has emerged; it is only a matter of time before same-sex marriage is normalized, and an hour in most urban classrooms tells a tale of cultural bricolage that is about as different from the classrooms of my childhood as can be imagined. Slowly, slowly, the search for meaningful spiritual values has spread, changing the face of belief: there are more Buddhists than Jews in the U.S., untold numbers of practitioners of every form of meditation from yoga to Jewish mysticism. Would I have predicted the day after Altamont that we would become a nation of seekers? I don’t think so.
When I look back on this progression, I notice how the sixties ideas that have persisted are those that resonate with many different lines of argument and focal points of attention. The stuff that was all moral outrage and emotional coloration has more or less faded, like those long, serious discussions I had with fellow anarchists about the assertion that “property is theft,” or the notion that in the great voluntary society to come, all of us would gladly do our personal shares of sewage treatment and grave-digging. Also faded is the wildly amoral form of optimism that had Timothy Leary predict in 1967 that, “Deer will be grazing in Times Square in forty years.”
But the ideas that have stuck are at the convergence of diverse forms of understanding. For example, Al Gore’s argument in An Inconvenient Truth succeeded because it braided emotion, spiritual values, scientific proof, logic and humor—something for everyone. Indeed, the most powerful ideas appeal equally and simultaneously to feelings, moral principles and plain old self-interest. Take equal pay for women: although it isn’t a fait accompli, the progress that has been made since the sixties (the wage gap has declined, with women earning 77 cents on the dollar in 2002 compared to 59 in 1970) is owing to the convergence of a deeply encoded sense of fairness; an awareness of arbitrariness, of the impact of random luck (nothing more than a coin-flip separates the fortune of being born female from being born male); and the reality that most males’ economic status is entwined with one or more females, whether their mother, partner or child, so deprivation based on gender deprives their own households.
I want to remember this. My generation easily succumbs to a type of sixties hangover where moral outrage and passionate feelings seem so sufficient that many of us don’t try to make other arguments grounded in data, logic, self-interest and so on, that are strong enough to carry equal force. People should just be able to hear the ring of truth, we think, they should just get it, just accept what’s right. Having to appeal to other reasons is repugnant.
But one thing I’ve learned these past four decades is that in the long run, certainty of one’s own rightness is not all that powerful a persuader. It’s a fact of life: we are very different in the way our minds work, in the types of argument or story that reach us most convincingly. Lately, I’ve been trying not to rest on my first argument, but to reach for ways of saying something that might interest a person with very different habits of mind.
For example, yesterday I was involved in a discussion about the “social safety net.” Mostly, the people I know cite morality and compassion in arguing for society’s duty to care for the weak or disadvantaged. I agree. But I also see how the same conclusion can be reached through a simple calculation from self-interest: no one knows what fate holds in store; everyone is susceptible to some form of personal or societal tragedy that can radically change the course of a life; therefore, as insurance for myself, I endorse a social safety net.
You can even reach that conclusion via an argument from aesthetics, as grotesque as that may sound: people living on the streets, creating disharmony in the urban environment, proliferating eyesores such as shantytowns, encounters with public resentment and anger—for the sake of one’s own aesthetic standards and desire for harmonious surroundings, a social safety net is necessary.
What may feel like virtuous charity, looking after those in need, may also be understood as looking after oneself: as the philosopher John Rawls is famous for saying, the test of a good society is whether we would want to live in it not knowing what hand we would be dealt in terms of privilege and power.
I’m not as choosy (nor perhaps as self-righteous) as I was in the sixties. I don’t care so much why people adopt a course of action I consider just and merciful. Even if it’s for the reasons you or I might think worst, I just want them to do it.
Still, it was sweet beyond describing to believe it was all a matter of time before our feelings transformed the world. In honor of this 40th anniversary, I remember the holy hope that arose listening to Bob Dylan’s words for the first time, back when they were brand-new:
Starry-eyed an’ laughing as I recall when we were caught
Trapped by no track of hours for they hanged suspended
As we listened one last time an’ we watched with one last look
Spellbound an’ swallowed ’til the tolling ended
Tolling for the aching ones whose wounds cannot be nursed
For the countless confused, accused, misused, strung-out ones an’ worse
An’ for every hung-up person in the whole wide universe
An’ we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing.