What the Media Is Missing about the Summer of Love
On a dark Texas highway in November 1967, a fourteen-year-old boy rides beside his father in an old Chevy pickup. The radio's off; there's a mist on the road through which the headlamps cut tunnels of light. The boy and his father are headed south and west, to the border near Eagle Pass. They'll hunt deer the old way: walking, listening, looking, tracking. The boy's father grew up in the nineteen-teens on the Green River in Kentucky, just north of where John Prine tells us paradise lay. This is different country and a different time. Maybe the quiet old man is thinking about that. In his lap the boy holds a sketchbook. In his hand is a paint brush, dipped in orange day-glo. By the dim halo of the bulb in the open glove box, the boy paints the word, "Love."
Two years later, in the summer of 1969, the boy's a little older, and he's out waterskiing with his friend, Danny, on the Llano River. Lyndon Johnson, now the former president, has a place on the Llano, and the boy and his friend notice the door to LBJ's boat stall is open. The friend steers the boat just in front of LBJ's dock. The skiing boy, slaloming, cuts hard in front of the open door. He looks over his shoulder and sees people in the back of the boat. He's soaked the former President and his party with the spray and splash thrown up by the ski's quick turn. In a flash the little black boats of the U.S. Secret Service surround both boat and boy and force them to a halt.
Welcome to the Summers of Love.
The media are well into one of their self-referential celebrations of past media spectacles. In this case, it's the legendary summer of the '67 San Francisco human be-in that attracted hundreds of thousands of disaffected youth to the Bay Area. Thirteen-year-old runaway speed freaks and hippie prophets preaching peace and love. Vibrant music. Flowers. Hair. Flowers in your hair. Before the Summer of Love arrived, it had already become something other than the wistful celebration of the power of innocence. It was a media event, and as such could not be innocent. Media events are marriages of convenience between promoters seeking an audience for their truths and an audience seeking escape from theirs. No one wears white.
The media look to find lost keys wherever their cameras are already pointing. They seldom hunt in those places the keys are most likely to be found. What the media retrospective fails to convey, because they are not looking, is the impact of the Summer of Love, and of the broader 1960s counter-culture of which it was part, on the values of a generation of American children who weren't in San Francisco. These are children, who, at home in the heartland with their families, found tunnels of light shining through the mists of media coverage.
We skipped the spectacle, but we listened to the hopes. We learned that what happened yesterday doesn't absolutely determine what is possible tomorrow, that social and personal transformation can happen, that compassion trumps competition and alienation, that we have a responsibility to ourselves and to one another.
Too many commentators and historians of that era focus upon the excesses, the childishly irresponsible acts that sometimes punctuated what were courageous, responsible and insightful protests. The counter-culture fought against an unjust war and social conformity. It opposed environmental ignorance, racial prejudice, and claims to authority based upon a fear of the Other that had poisoned the minds of America's rulers. They became like Dr. Strangelove's General Jack D. Ripper, who went mad worrying over the corruption by Communists of our "precious bodily fluids." Maybe the generation before us was right to be paranoid. They just couldn't see it was their own paranoia that was after them.
To be sure, the counter-culture suffered from its own problems. We were cursed by our material wealth. There were two consequences. The first was immediately apparent. How, after all, was I able to buy day-glo oil paints in Houston, Texas before the paint was dry on the walls of San Francisco flats? Answer: marketers knew what I was seeing on television, how I might react to it, and how much money I had (even at 14) to act on that desire. A movement in the heart became the flashing hand of consumerist pick-pockets. Soon enough, cabaret comics on Johnny Carson were wearing love beads. The amateurish, halting, unpolished style of FM radio disc jockeys became the mark of cool. DJs studied how to do it.
This commodification of the counter-culture made the second and more sadly profound consequence seem inevitable. Turned into fad, the movement was easily marginalized. But not before it launched unprecedented numbers of Americans into lives of nurturance and responsibility, a fact often overlooked by conservatives and their media mimics who like to report that we all turned into hypocritical, thieving stockbrokers. Many, in fact, became health care professionals, social workers, school teachers, environmental scientists, writers, artists, and parents. It may, in the end, have been the less deserving among us who entered politics and public life. The even-less-deserving, of course, became stockbrokers.
We were imperfect then and we're imperfect now. We were so hip we wouldn't let the Karl Roves among us come to our party. I'd call that an error of some grand magnitude, because I believe our current dark cultural moment is, in a small way, a consequence of our exclusivity, condescension, and sanctimony. Rove now has the celebration to himself, and we're not invited.
The conservative counter-revolution leveraged the media's incomplete picture and the apparent chaos of the time into a half-century movement committed to everything we fought against. We believed (and most of us still believe) in the possibilities of social transformation, that we need not be enslaved to the economic, geographic and historical contexts of our lives, and that democracy is all about helping one another in that endeavor through the construction of just institutions.
I think the social thinker Roberto Mangabeira Unger gets it right. It was he I paraphrased earlier when I spoke of the open possibilities of the future. He's writing prescriptively, but I believe he caught exactly the vague feeling in my heart (the thought was far beyond my reach) as I drove through the Texas brush country with my father, painting the word "love" into my notebook. We must "take an interest in ways of organizing thought and society that diminish the influence of what happened before on what can happen next," said Unger. I loved hunting with my father. But I would have to do more than that.
Yes, a couple of years later that little flicker of social responsibility and human possibility was buried within my adolescent self-absorption. So what. It didn't go out. You know who helped me bring back the flame? Lyndon Johnson. As I floated there in the Llano River, surrounded by the Secret Service boats and ashamed of my antic soaking of the former President, all I could think about was how childish my behavior was. There was Johnson and his family, shadows in a boat house. And there was I, a vulnerable, bodiless head bobbing in the water. Johnson could have had me cleaned like a fish. He did not. He told his security detail to leave us be. Wet and no doubt angry, it was LBJ who had the dignity.
That moment brought home to me a lesson my father taught by example as well. The best kind of authority acts always with dignity and compassion. It is more interested in helping us learn that we can shape our futures than in teaching us conformity to the commands of the past. Johnson, too, had his tragic flaws. When I entered the military draft a couple of years later, I was an agonizing anti-war activist committed to serving if I must because both my brothers no doubt would and how could I let them fight and die in my place (in the end, none of us served in Vietnam). Still, it wasn't the war I thought of when I thought of President Johnson. It was mercy.
That points to what disturbs me most about the media's anniversary celebration of the Summer of Love. The media miss this: for every one unhappy teenager who took Timothy Leary seriously when he preached, "Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out," a hundred thousand of us opened our eyes to love, learned that social and personal transformation was possible if we could muster the courage, and then went on and had the time of our young lives hunting with our fathers or listening to the poetry of our mothers' songs.
Conservatives, aided by the superficial narratives of the media, tried to tell us for decades that we were simply spoiled, that we rebelled for the sake of rebellion, that we hated authority in all its guises, that we repudiated the past in an orgy of dangerous irresponsibility, that we believed in an endless, banal present with no tomorrow.
Bullshit. We didn't drop out, we parachuted in. And we're still fighting behind enemy lines for a vision of a world in which tomorrow comes, but it comes with unexpected glories and democratic possibilities. It wasn't an endless summer. It was the promise of multiple, pluralistic Summers of Love. It's proven goddamned hard to make it happen, and it will be no Age of Aquarius when it does arrive. No, utopia is not to be. But that's not really what we wanted in the first place.
Glenn W. Smith is a Senior Fellow at the Rockridge Institute.