A few months ago, in this space, this writer offered some musings on the 65th anniversary of Queen Elizabeth II’s accession to the throne. But this summer marks the Golden Jubilee of an event that has had far more impact upon Western (and to some degree, Eastern) culture than that august event: 1967’s “Summer of Love” in San Francisco’s Haight Ashbury District. For many across the globe, this was the apogee of the Counterculture of the 1960s. Preceded as it was by the “Human Be — in” in Golden Gate Park in January of that year, and spurred by June’s Monterey Pop Festival (which featured amongst many other musicians the Mamas and the Papas, the Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, and the quintessential troubadour of that summer, Scott McKenzie), it has lived on — alongside Woodstock and Altamont two years later — in song and story as a sort of creation myth for the boomer generation and their latter day survivors and admirers. Haight Ashbury became the centre of Hippiedom’s cultural vision, as Berkeley was of its politics.
But of course that enchanted realm was far from restricted to the Bay Area of Northern California! Here in Los Angeles we had love-ins at Griffith Park (which this writer — six and seven years old at the time — well remembers), New York’s Greenwich Village morphed from Bohemia to the birthplace of the East Village Other, in London’s Chelsea Gandalf’s Garden bloomed, and Europe’s “Generation of ‘68” ultimately drove de Gaulle from power and ended German universities’ academic rituals. Across the United States and the globe, “communes” blossomed with any number of animating philosophies. Latterly, more or less sympathetic attempts to understand what was going on were written, such as The Greening of America and The Making of a Counter Culture. As the Boomers themselves went from being the subjects of such studies to their creators, these efforts became ever more laudatory; one such documentary, Berkeley in the Sixties, being characterised by the late political expert, Jim Thomas, thusly: “The Left takes a good hard look at itself — and likes what it sees!”
But that was then, this is now. What is a believing Catholic to make of the Summer of Love and its Counter Culture — a Counter Culture whose values are now enshrined as the orthodoxy of Western Society’s elites? It is, after all, an orthodoxy far more exacting than those it replaced — and to which some of us still remain attached. For those with an appetite for irony, it will be immediately noticed that the 21st century version of an institutionalised Counter Culture is even more materialistic and conformist than the society of the 1950s which its current leaders denounced when young. But irony aside, let us look first at the movement’s roots.
In America, since at least the Revolution, every group of youthful idealists that has ever emerged has denounced our national life for its perceived materialism, hyper-individualism, conformity, and commercialism. This was true of the Romantics and Transcendentalists, of the Regionalists, of the Expressionists, of the Arts-and-Craftsmen, of the Gothic and Colonial Revivalists, of the Bright Young Things and the Lost Generation, of the Bohemians and of the Beats. For each of these at different times and in different ways, American society as then-currently constituted seemed like a straight-jacket that needed instant breaking. In time, the members of each of these either broke themselves or conformed — and all eventually died, leaving behind a more or less notable body of literary and artistic work. Within each of these groups, a certain number discovered Catholicism — the original good against which the things said folk loathed in American life were in rebellion. Most who made this discovery went no further than a certain creative sympathy for the Church; but a few in every wave actually converted.
Yet — and despite the Counter Culture’s affection for the work of arch-Catholic J.R.R. Tolkien and Medievalesque fantasy — the movement, while spawning such as the Mythopoeic Society, the Society for Creative Anachronism and the Renaissance Faires, produced few noted converts to the Church (New Oxford Review’s Dale Vree being an exception). Moreover, as noted, instead of dissolving back into the American matrix, Hippiedom’s sexual and to some degree aesthetic mores have become the norm — and this is true not just here, but throughout the formerly Christian West, Catholic OR Protestant. Ironically, the former Soviet Bloc has escaped some of the contagion, though by no means all of it.
A big part of the difference between the 60’s and past eruptions is the state of the Catholic Church at the time. From 1815 until Vatican II, the Church abroad — militant as it faced attack in many places — strove for the Salvation of Souls, and in pursuit of this mission often made a particular attempt to evangelise artists and writers; St. Clement Mary Hofbauer’s circles in Warsaw and Vienna were good examples of such efforts. By the post World War II era, Catholic converts from the ranks of Bohemia like Dorothy Day, Catherine de Hueck, the founders of Ramparts, Integrity, and Jubilee magazines, and the Ladies of the Grail were wonderful latter-day manifestations of this phenomenon. But it all collapsed quite quickly in the wake of Vatican II: even ten years before poets and painters seeking meaning to life would encounter a Church that seemed to know what it was doing; but by the Summer of Love the Church hierarchy seemed as consumed with self-doubt as any Ivy League University administration. In addition to reducing the numbers of converts, this woolly-headedness also ensured that the Catholic Church could not assist effectively in the defence of the national moral consensus. When the mainstream Protestant denominations reversed themselves on moral issues in deference to the country’s elites, that consensus, as expressed through the American Delphic oracle of the Supreme Court, collapsed. Contraception, abortion, and in recent years, same sex marriage were enshrined in the Constitution; little did the gentlemen meeting in Philadelphia in 1787 realise what they had secretly placed in their magnum opus!
But the vacuum left by the Church was to be left unfilled! All sorts of new varieties of religious experience — some psychedelically transformed — were to be explored by the Hippies. There were UFO cults like the Aetherius Society, there were Subud and Eckankar, Da Free John, Gurdjieff, Esalen, Wicca, and EST to name a few, while the Ganges flowed west, delivering Zen, the Hare Krishnas and the Maharishi Maharesh. There was also a renewed interest in such esoteric standbys as Theosophy, Edgar Cayce, and Col. Churchward’s writings on the Lost Continent of Mu — nothing seemed too far-fetched in this brave new spiritual world the hippies inhabited. A basically synchronistic outlook led to the publication of such books as The Aquarian Guide to London and the Pilgrim’s Guide to Planet Earth. Not too surprisingly, this outlook contributed heavily to the birth of the New Age Movement.
But there was more, so much more, to the Counter Culture victory. This writer’s late father, a decorated World War II veteran (RIP 1996), predicted government-sanctioned homosexual unions — and enforced tolerance of them — as early as the 1960s, as well as sundry other things that have come to pass. He placed the blame for the gender confusion to a great degree on World War II, which he pointed out separated a whole generation from their fathers at a critical time in their personality development, and sent their mothers out to work. Whether or not this is precisely true may be debated; but I do notice that Dad saw it coming when no one else seemed to.
Another area of concern is that of race relations. Part of the impulse to the Counter Culture came from the successful struggle to dismantle Jim Crow and end segregation. During the roughly 70 years of Jim Crow’s existence, the black community in this country built up a network of institutions — educational and business — of which they could be proud. Such luminaries as George Washington Carver, Booker T. Washington, and Zora Neale Hurston showed that even on an uneven playing field, blacks could shine. Black family life was on an upswing, and the curse of illegitimacy, one of slavery’s unsavoury legacies, was slowly diminishing; a black middle class — and even an aristocracy, with clubs, cotillions, and the like, of their own — had developed. Although a small minority, Catholic blacks had much to be proud of — figures like Ven. Henriette Delille, the Servants of God Fr. Augustus Tolton, Mother Mary Lange, and Julia Greeley, and activists such as Bishop James Healy, Rodolphe Desdunes, Daniel Rudd, and the founders of the Knights of Peter Claver (to which order this writer has the honour to belong); Xavier University; and a network of black parishes across the country — many of which were renowned for their liturgical and musical excellence, in the day when Latin and Gregorian Chant prevailed. It was this strength and determination that made the victory of the Civil Rights Movement possible. Surely, if the legal chains the black community laboured under could be broken, this energy would be released for the benefit not only of the blacks, but of the nation as a whole! Alas, it was not; although blacks have won the right to vote and use white facilities, so much of the real progress made before hand has dissipated. As far as illegitimacy goes, According to Walter Williams: “Today’s black illegitimacy rate of nearly 75 percent is also entirely new. In 1940, black illegitimacy stood at 14 percent. It had risen to 25 percent by 1965, when Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote ‘The Negro Family: The Case for National Action’ and was widely condemned as a racist. By 1980, the black illegitimacy rate had more than doubled, to 56 percent, and it has been growing since. Both during slavery and as late as 1920, a teenage girl raising a child without a man present was rare among blacks.” Of course, whites have — since the sexual revolution of the 1960s — followed the same path, and to-day 40% of all births are out of wedlock. Worse still, none of the political or media classes see this as a problem: quite the contrary.
Paradoxically, this rate of illegitimacy and fatherless children has arisen in tandem with the contraceptive mentality — which was supposedly intended to reduce it. Another paradox is that so much of the present black political leadership is committed to supporting Planned Parenthood, whose foundress saw the reduction or elimination of non-whites as one of her goals. Racial questions aside, Bl. Pope Paul VI showed a rare flash of prophetic insight when he wrote in 1968’s Humanae Vitae that “Responsible men can become more deeply convinced of the truth of the doctrine laid down by the Church on this issue if they reflect on the consequences of methods and plans for artificial birth control. Let them first consider how easily this course of action could open wide the way for marital infidelity and a general lowering of moral standards. Not much experience is needed to be fully aware of human weakness and to understand that human beings—and especially the young, who are so exposed to temptation—need incentives to keep the moral law, and it is an evil thing to make it easy for them to break that law. Another effect that gives cause for alarm is that a man who grows accustomed to the use of contraceptive methods may forget the reverence due to a woman, and, disregarding her physical and emotional equilibrium, reduce her to being a mere instrument for the satisfaction of his own desires, no longer considering her as his partner whom he should surround with care and affection.” This describes our current situation perfectly; and while many clerics and even whole national hierarchies rejected the encyclical at the time, and some in the highest positions in the Church to-day would like to simply forget it, Humanae Vitae has one advantage over its opponents. It was demonstrably right, and they are demonstrably wrong.
The anti-Vietnam war movement also constituted a large part of the impetus behind the Counter Culture, much of it centring on the draft. Quite apart from hippy street demonstrations, television brought the War into every home each night, and contributed tremendously to creating the national weariness with the conflict that destroyed LBJ. Of course the constitutionality of the peacetime draft was challenged by such surviving anti-New Deal stalwarts as John Flynn. In any case, one cannot help but wonder why the anti-war movement that revived under Bush vanished under Obama, and why the media have not intruded the graphic battles of Iraq and Afghanistan into our homes as they did during the Southeast Asian struggle.
There are a lot of areas that have been affected adversely by the flower children now gone to seed, but one near to this writer’s heart — if relatively unimportant in the scheme of things — is the rise of informality in dress and manners. I am just old enough to remember when Americans who aspired to gentility dined at one another’s homes in dinner jackets, and all the better restaurants demanded their patrons wear jackets and ties — to say nothing of church on Sunday! Emily Post and Amy Vanderbilt guided the American bourgeoisie in matters of civility: one held the door for ladies, and rose when they entered the room. That is all gone now, and most of us dress poorly and behave worse — not out of poverty, but laziness and willful ignorance. It must admitted that this writer is certainly happy that, in addition to all of that, the Counter Culture did bring us Tolkien and his ilk; certainly the afore-mentioned Mythopoeic Society, SCA, and Renfaires have brought me much pleasure, as has some of the music and the more whimsical fashions. As Tolkien himself said: “There are, of course, various elements in the present situation, which are confused, though in fact distinct (as indeed in the behaviour of modern youth, part of which is inspired by admirable motives such as anti-regimentation, and anti-drabness, a sort of lurking romantic longing for ‘cavaliers’, and is not necessarily allied to the drugs or the cults of fainéance and filth).” But for the rest, it is a sorry trade.
So here we are in 2017, and the mark of that summer half a century ago lies heavily on us still. It may be that younger generations unattached to the 60s will fish us out of the various dilemmas the West has been plunged into since 1967 — I certainly hope so. To be sure, there is far more to the young to-day than “safe spaces” and transgenderism. May their wiser heads prevail — for their good, and ours.