This is my original (unedited by the editors) letter to the editor, in response to “1968 and all that” (Maurice Isserman), Reed Magazine, Winter 2007
I take issue with some of Maurice’s perspective on the hippies/politicos dichotomy in his fascinating article “1968 and all that.”
As a preface, I address this to issues at Reed as reflected in the World Outside.
Maurice states: “…we discovered to our dismay that most of our fellow Reedies failed to show much interest in joining us at the barricades in a replay of the 1968 Columbia Strike. Reed SDS neither enrolled nor spoke for most students. One problem (sic) was that the campus harbored many more hippies than it did politicos. To the outside world, the two groups may have been indistinguishable, but at Reed each knew how they differed from the other camp (…) for the hippies it was a revolution in consciousness and spirit, as in “you’d better free your mind instead.”
If, as he says, many in the “youth movement” of that time looked indistinguishable to earlier generations, it was not just that they (we) dressed similarly and wore long hair, beards and so on, it’s that there was a significant gray zone between what it was to be a “hippy” vs. “politico.” Was Arlo Guthrie a political or a hippy? Alan Ginsberg? And don’t throw Tim Leary at me, OK? That’s not fair.
Just because one did not join SDS or PRYM did not make one not political (sorry about the triple negative). If you wore the hippy/left drag of the day, it could be safely taken as rather reliable a priori statement about one’s political convictions. At that time and place, you were pretty much on target in believing that most most of us who were called “hippies,” whether members of the above or related political organizations or not, were indeed actively against the war. The marches and day to day protests were fueled by many more people than the relatively small faction of “activists” that Maurice refers to.
Many years back, Marlena Smith (political commentator on radio free KBOO, 90.7 on your FM dial), did a broadcast where she read an article about the world’s debt to hippies (not SDS, hippies). I found it to be a very moving, concise and articulate statement. Maybe someone can Google it or ask Marlena, but I just want to step up to the plate and say that the politico-social matrix was more complex than what he describes.
Whether one was more on the “hippy” or “political” side of things was the result of a complex of social phenomena. Social background, class and education affected which end of the spectrum people settled into (then as now). But one thing is sure, self-identified “hippies” like myself didn’t just sit around smoking banana leaves and worshiping George Harrison.
The SDS did not stop the war on their own, hundreds of thousands of frustrated, angry, peace-loving, militant, druggy, non-druggy, long haired, short haired, outraged, GI Joe’s Clothes wearing, paisley-clothed wearing young people, plus many from earlier generations, marched, fought and went to jail stopped the war. These same people promoted and advanced every other progressive issue that we still deal with today.
Furthermore, if more people did not identify with the politics of SDS and related organizations, it may be because some of those who did not join certain organizations did not have to wait 30 years to be disaffected by a lot of the attitudes, beliefs and narrow-mindedness of “The Left.”
If The Left traditionally factionalizes over “nothing,” this perception that Maurice espouses that many were called but few were chosen (ie. politically correct and not hippies) is an example of why Leftish politicos were and are so ineffective so often: they preach to the converted, unlike say, the Black Panthers.
(A side note: I worked on the successor “underground paper” to the “Willamette Bridge” alluded to in the article, called the “Portland Scribe” for which Maurice wrote many excellent articles. I believe that both these underground papers were published by Michael and Mary Wells. I’m not sure whether they were SDS members, I rather doubt it. Just a thought).
Frank Poliat, ’70