Did the Sixties counterculture achieve anything?

through_a_bong_darkly-360x307In Salon, Gary Kamiya reviews “The Sixties Unplugged” by Gerard DeGroot:

His book is broken into 67 shortish sections, most of them dealing directly or indirectly with the counterculture, but a number covering extraneous subjects: the Sharpeville massacre in South Africa, the Vatican’s “Humanae Vitae” encyclical, the Arab-Israeli Six-Day War, the Watts riots, the Vietnam War and so on. By placing the decade’s cultural convulsions in a global perspective, DeGroot makes them look considerably less monumental, and a lot more irresponsible, than they did when examined through the glass of a bong, darkly.

This may make DeGroot sound like a finger-wagging moralist. He is, a little, but he doesn’t get carried away — and his critique comes from the left, not the right. Unlike Bloom or many conservative critics, DeGroot doesn’t see the ’60s as the decade when everything went wrong. He regards the counterculture as a sometimes innovative, often fun but essentially superficial phenomenon, one that achieved very little and may have actually backfired.

Other than increased polarization and rampant consumerism, what did the hippies really accomplish? This is a question that we’ve asked before, but it has yet to be resolved. I would suggest that the two leading candidates for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination point to some kind of significance… But then again, even that won’t mean shit if they get their asses handed to them by a half-dead white dude whose great-great grandfather owned Mississippi John Hurt‘s mom.

Keep in mind that Brown v. Board of Education was decided in 1954, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed before the Beatles had even tried marijuana, so the hippies can’t take credit for that.

13 thoughts on “Did the Sixties counterculture achieve anything?”

  1. Does a counter culture really have to achieve something to have achieved something?

    There was never true Anarchy in the U.K but the punk scene still made its mark.

  2. Dammit! I’ve started, then erased, about five different posts in response to this. I now realize what a ridiculous topic this is. Where to even begin?

    Who were the “hippies” really? How many were people who genuinely rejected the values of mainstream American society and how many were just kids with a lot of time and money on their hands? How do you positively identify any individual as a hippie anyway?

    What was the counterculture? Was it those who Turned On, Tuned In, and Dropped Out? Or was it farm workers who participated in the Grape Strike? Both groups countered the cultural status quo, but for very different reasons. One group valued getting high, the other an honest wage for a day’s work.

    There have always been countercultures. Perhaps the 60’s in Amrerica marked the first time that major media outlets realized that there was a ton of money to be made promoting a sort of counterculture mythic image of the hippie movement. Woodstock wasn’t about peace and love, it was about dollars and cents. Hell, it’s still a cash cow. Kind of the way that Rupert Murdoch figured out that there was a ton of money to be made via Fox News telling ignorant Amreicans things that they want to hear.


    I don’t follow your suggestion that, “the two leading candidates for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination point to some kind of significance…” Nobody is running for President of the 60’s, although some of today’s conservatives might want everybody to think otherwise. I hope the candidates focus instead on taking the unique problems of our time.

  3. The significance is in the fact that neither a woman nor a black man would’ve ever gotten this far in the process without the struggles in the 60s. The fact that it took until 2008 is shameful.

  4. I dunno, Jake. While I wholeheartedly agree that the long-standing barriers to success for women and minorities in virtually every field can’t fall fast enough, Clinton and Obama might not want to make too much of that at this point – it might play right into the Republican playbook by allowing themselves to be painted as 60’s influenced “radicals.” That said, I think Clinton’s and Obama’s candidacies, however they play out, have made tremendous statements in and of themselves. Also, for what it’s worth, I think America might have elected Powell in 2000 had he run.

  5. Jake’s point isn’t so much on WHO the Dem candidates are, but WHAT they are, as the question relates to the cultural imapct of the 60s counter culture.

    I think it’s difficult for us today who were not around or too young at the time to understand what the counter culture meant. Yes, it’s been marketed to deatnb since, but back themn it was perceived to be enough of a threat that Richard Nixon spied on the counter culture icons of the time, including John Lennon, Abbie Hoffman, John Sinclair, Booby Seale, et al. Some of these folks were imprisoned and even killed. The Weathermen infiltrated the Pentagon, for Christ’s sake. There WAS a real counter culture and while I think most of the ideals of that generation have been tainted by the run-on profits and massive national debt accumulated since, there are real social changes that can be directly related to the struggles of that time.

    This can be a fascinating argument though and I hope everyone joins in.

  6. I think we’re in agreement, Jude. I’m not suggesting that Clinton and Obama are 60s-influenced radicals (not radical enough, as far as I’m concerned, ha ha), but rather that the Democratic primary voters have (finally) been influenced by the ideals put forth in the 60s. Not radically so, but then again, I think the whole point of DeGroot’s book is that none of the hippies were truly radical. And that their superficial flirtations with progressive politics backfired by enabling the right-wing to demonize all progressive policy under a cloud stinky pot smoke…

    Perhaps this should’ve been cross-posted to POLJUNK.

  7. One of my problems is that when we describe something as “counterculture” we’re painting with a very broad brush. I don’t think there’s any question that the social movements of the 60’s laid the groundwork for the possibilies of Clinton and Obama’s candidacies, not to mention myriad job opportunities that women and minorities could only have dreamed of back then.

    Did the hippies “accomplish” this or was this a product of a large enough portion of society in general collectively deciding to change its own culture? For that matter, was it the changing attitudes of 60’s society in general that allowed the hippie movement to flourish in the first place? Who made who?

    Let’s also not forget that much of America still resents and rejects the results of these social movements. Have you ever been south of I-80? – Oh boy…

    While much of America has moved lightyears down the path of enlightened social justice/awareness, the other half is stuck in the 19th Century. A lot of white America honestly believes that this country was a gift to them from god and the rest of us are trespassers on their soil. For these people, the legacy of the 60’s is one big insult.

    My big fear, of course, is that should Obama actually win in November, he won’t live to see inauguration. Then race relations in this country will tumble back decades.

  8. Did the hippies “accomplish” this or was this a product of a large enough portion of society in general collectively deciding to change its own culture?

    Good question. That’s the whole debate. The Baby Boomers like to call themselves the “Woodstock Generation” and take credit for everything positive that’s happened in American in their lifetimes. The antiwar movement, for example, was a total failure:

    DeGroot argues, accurately in my view, that student and radical protests against the Vietnam War did not end the war or even change the minds of most Americans, who began turning against the war for their own reasons. The fact that Nixon narrowly beat Humphrey in 1968 is the strongest evidence that the antiwar movement did not achieve its goals. DeGroot praises the antiwar movement insofar as it was serious, dedicated and willing to do the hard, unglamorous work of organizing and winning over Middle Americans. But as he documents, the crazy self-indulgence of the counterculture and the limitations of its leaders prevented it from doing that necessary work.

    It’s a bummer, and it harshes everyone’s “All you need is love” mellow to think about it, but the Vietnam War didn’t end until 1975.

    And yeah, I realize that this only applies to half of America (at best). Half of the country feels the same way as these dimwits in Pennsylvania:

    “I don’t want to be a Muslim!” She looks dubious when told Obama is Christian. “Then why did he go see what’s-his-name over in Iraq, that Lama?”

    She isn’t clear about whom she means. She may have seen a photo of Obama wearing traditional clothing during a visit to Africa. “I don’t care what color he is, I don’t care if he’s pink,” she said. “I don’t think he’s got the same education Hillary has, and he’s so young. He’s arrogant, too.”

    And these people are Democrats? We’re doomed.

  9. The likes of Hoffman, Leary, et al. were actually bastards with nothing to offer but chaos and heartbreak, even if they’re fun to read about. The counter culture? I like Jude’s idea of several “counter-cultures:” some moral, righteous, insightful, effective, creative; others decadent, self-important, vacuous, pseudo-leftist, destructive, good-for-nothing. Many fell somewhere in between.

    Post-World War elation, boom economy, peace and prosperity: commerce and culture came together in a very fruitful way. You had more kids in college with the freedom to question status quo assumptions. Nostalgia for the era is easily forgiven; it was such a tumultuous, eventful, colorful period. But this binary notion it was “Us” vs. “Them” is the myth-turned-cliche. I’m not sure it was really like that–even if it seemed like it.

  10. “Us” vs. “Them” was very real. At least in the minds of Richard Nixon and J. Edgar Hoover. And Richard J. Daley. And George Wallace. And…

  11. “Us” vs. “Them” was very real. At least in the minds of Richard Nixon and J. Edgar Hoover. And Richard J. Daley. And George Wallace. And…

    Yep, that was my point…but put more concisely.

  12. Jake and Derek,

    Hence my assertion that a considerable portion of White America regards America as beloning to them specifically. This is at the heart of things like English-language-only movements. There is a fear among some whites that if a hispanic family moves into the neighborhood, everyone will be forced to speak Spanish and forfeit thier own lifestyles. This is similar to that moron in Pennsyvania that Jake pointed out who seemed to think the if Obama is elected, she will have to become a Muslim. Idiots like her deserved a president like Bush.

  13. “Us” vs. “Them” was very real. At least in the minds of Richard Nixon and J. Edgar Hoover. And Richard J. Daley. And George Wallace. And…”

    Yep, that was my point…but put more concisely.

    Mine too guys! Mine too! Wait…I mean:

    Pffft! 4 bald-ass old white guys is all you could come up with?

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