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Hippies and Proto-Hippies, A Note

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I still don’t have the olives pitted, so this is going to have to be short, but I’d like to point out a number of things.

First, I’m sticking to “in this country” because I am in the middle of a summer of reading through a great deal of American material, almost all of it from before the Civil War, and I can therefore comment on the contents of that material, and the intellectual history of the United States, without having to make a special effort to research it outside of what I’m already doing.  To comment on the situation in England, I would have to go look it up in some detail.  Maybe I’ll get to that next summer.

Second, I was using”New England Transcendalists” as a stand-in for an entire point of view, which I did outline in the post.  The point of view existed before the NETs arose in New England, and among people you would not tend to think of as belonging to the NET. 

But you know, that’s a kind of curious thing.  

The ideas certainly start with Rousseau, but the phenomenon–this cluster of ideas, in whole or in part, as the basis for a social identity–begins with the Romantic movement.   And of course the NETs knew about it, and copied, it, quite deliberately. 

That doesn’t change the fact that they and the other people who bought into this cluser of ideas are the ones who signed on to abolition, women’s rights, and later civil rights before anybody else did in any numbers.

No, of course, the people who think like this are not leaders, and never could be, because they’re far too squishy in too many ways, and far too extreme for the vast bulk of their fellow citizens to stomach. 

But without their extremism–and their persistance–no such movements would ever have gotten off the ground.

Yes, the Northern states abolished slavery early–and the hippies and the proto-hippies pressed for its total abolition, and for the equality of the races right there at their own dinner tables, while the rest of the population decided that what went on in Mississippi was none of their concern.

The Northern states also insisted on enforcing the fugitive slave laws at the same time the NETs and their spiritual cousins were demanding it be resisted.

Quakers are not an exception to this, but an early example of it–they’re proto-hippies in embryo, so to speak, and by now they’re the institutional framework of this entire point of view, along with the Unitarian-Universalists.  

And I don’t know enough about Henry Ward Beecher to comment, but I know enough about Harriet Beecher Stowe to make a guess, because she was quite definitely an example of what I’m talking about, as was Julia Ward Howe.  Scratch their public Christianity and you find the fuzzy universalism that is the defining mark of the hippie in religion–God is just too good to send anybody to Hell for eternity.

Every leader of the women’s rights movement in the United States fit the paradigm, too, and bought into nearly the entire cluster of ideas I mentioned.  And, for that matter, so did Mary Wollstonecraft in England, her husband, William Godwin,.and her daughter, later Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, the patron saint of British Romanticism.  

So, for that matter, did Harriet Taylor Mill, who dragged her husband into unconventionality while he kicked and screamed all the way. 

When textbooks write about people like Harriet  Beecher Stowe or Susan B. Anthony, they tend to leave out the stuff that might make them sound odd to students–the forays into spiritualism, the flirting tease in and out of vegetarianism, the anti-traditionalism in religion and custom.  Elizabeth Cady Stanton rewrote the Bible to make it compatible with the equality of women.   Lucy Stone not only refused to change her maiden name, but was convinced that war would cease to exist once women held the reins of government.

The more you start looking into the people in these movements, the more it becomes clear that most of them did in fact share huge hunks of the paradigm I outlined.  It shows up in the oddest places in the histories of people one does not expect to see it in. 

Maybe the reality is this–what is required to embrace and champion truly radical ideas (the equality of the races, the equality of the sexes, whatever) is a habit of mind that leaves one open to certain specific modes of thought.  If you can successfully resist such modes of thought, you’re less capable of conceiving and embracing even the one or two ood ideas those modes give rise to.

Okay, I’m writing sentences that should be shot, again. 

I’d better go do those olives.   Or get Matt to do them.

Written by janeh

July 12th, 2009 at 9:08 am

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses to 'Hippies and Proto-Hippies, A Note'

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  1. Even sticking to the US, I don’t think you’ve proven your point. You say at one place ‘they’re not leaders and never could be’ and then say that these ‘proto-hippies’ are the only people who did or could ’embrace and champion’ truly radical ideas’! They can’t simultaneously be too radical for leadership and spearheading successful campaigns to radically change society!

    And I’m a bit uncomfortable with two neat categories – the ones who can embrace radical ideas, and the ones who can’t. Aside from the fact that an awful lot of human characterisitics vary over a continuum instead of being dichotomous (quite at various with our instinctive tendency to put everyone in two neat piles, us and them), there wouldn’t *be* any social change if the larger more ‘square’ group were incapable of conceiving and embracing new ideas.

    Cheryl

    12 Jul 09 at 11:37 am

  2. I’ve been trying to get a freeware accounting program called GnuCash working to replace Quicken. The Gnu means it was written for UNIX and Linux and, in this case, has been ported to Windows. The documentation is out of date and has Unix like obscurities but I’m getting there!

    Now back to the topic of the NETs. Perhaps Jane tell us how they stood on the idea of “Let Justice be done though the sky falls!”

    That is a philosophical problem that comes up in discussions of rights vs utilitarianism. The people who say rights must always be trumps will say it can never be right to convict an innocent person. The utilitarian will say “What if acquiting the innocent person will cause a riot that kills 100’s of innocent people?” The rights based people will say “Let justice be done though the sky falls.”

    So imagine you are living in the northern US in 1850 and you consider slavery in Mississippi to be morally wrong. You also think that the only way to end it will be a Civil War which will cost 600,000 lives. What would the NETs say?

    jd

    12 Jul 09 at 3:57 pm

  3. Have to agree with Cheryl, but I’ll come down firmly on one side. They’re ants on the back of an elephant, thinking they’re steering while they’re only along for the ride. Washington tried and failed to abolish slavery by force of personal example. Washington was a lot of things, but not much of a hippie. Hamilton tried and failed–blame Jefferson–to restrict its growth. If you’re looking for the exact opposite of a hippie, Hamilton will do. Yes, the northern states enforced the Compromise of 1850. They postponed a war which in the end would kill better than half a million men–and they postponed it while the free states were outgrowing the South in population and industry. Does it occur to anyone else that hadthe Compromise not been made and the Civil War had been fought in 1850, the South might very well have won? Is the goal to be virtuous, or to abolish slavery?

    For me, the telling indicator is the very real affection of all the proto-hippies–and real hippies–for mass murderers and tyrants. John Brown was merely unsavory compared with the others, but he was all the NET had. Hippies don’t run the Lubiankas of the world. The technical charge is “aiding and abetting.” And they do it a lot.

    Apply the template to the rest of Rousseau’s children, and you get the English apologists for Robespierre and Napoleon. Napoleon has a sort of romantic glow in some circles today. For Bastille Day, please check the guest list on Bonaparte’s state prison at Vincennes, or contemplate his observation that “a man like me requires an income of ten or fifteen thousand men a month.” That’s how many Frenchmen he killed.)

    Later, of course, they’d be communists. Contemplate Priscilla Hiss–a Quaker, and as Jane says, very much part of the hippie nexus in the 20th Century–typing up her husband’s reports–not just classified military information, but whereabouts of individuals and families on the KGB shopping list. By handingn over nuclear secrets adn undermining diplomacy, they’d hand Eastern Europe over to the secret police for a generation, and China to the present day.

    The next wave would be Leonard Bernstein hosting the Black Panthers, Castro’s fan club and an unlimited supply of Che Guevara T-shirts. Read up on Che some time. At lesat conservatives don’t go around sporting Reinhard Heydrich T’s.

    They’d be followed by apologists for Mao and the Cultural Revolution. And now, with no suitable murderous tyrant above the level of Robert Mugabe and Kim Jong-Il to support, the great opponents of segregation are pushing segregated dormitories and promotion and hiring by race.

    It is, as Jane says, part of the gestalt, And to my mind, it undercuts the claim to sincerity so heavily, I’ve never been able to take any of them seriously–except in the words of the Holocaust survivor, who observed “when someone says he’s going to kill you, take him seriously.”

    robert_piepenbrink

    12 Jul 09 at 6:35 pm

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