| by Christopher Kiely |
I grew up Left. My father was a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War. He and my pregnant mother fled St. Louis Missouri in 1969 in their VW bus packed with their belongings and headed for the Canadian border. They eventually settled in a small city in southern Ontario and my father became a journalist for the local newspaper.
Many people over the years assumed my parents were hippies but my father was influenced by the Beat Generation. The Beat Generation or “Beatniks,” as they were coined, were the intellectual genesis of the mid 1950s to early 1960s counterculture. Hippies were the romanticized mass media fueled movement of the late 1960s. Larger in size but stripped of much of its intellectual counterculture firepower.
Allen Ginsberg one of the founding fathers of the Beat Generation credits the “influence” of the beat generation with the following “effects” on American society:
· Spiritual liberation, sexual “revolution” or “liberation,” …
· Liberation of the world from censorship.
· Demystification and/or decriminalization of cannabis and other drugs.
· The evolution of rhythm and blues into rock and roll as a high art form…
· The spread of ecological consciousness…
· Opposition to the military-industrial machine civilization…
· Attention to… a “second religiousness” developing within an advanced civilization.
· Return to an appreciation of idiosyncrasy as against state regimentation.
· Respect for land and indigenous peoples and creatures…
— Allen Ginsberg, A Definition of Beat Generation, Friction vol. 1, no. 2/3
Perhaps Allen is giving the effect of the influence of his movement a little bit too much credit here, but it does clarify the ideology of the Beats. They formulated and fermented the counterculture of America that was absorbed into the hippie movement and merged with elements of the civil rights movement and others to become the “left wing” of modern America.
So, as a kid where I grew up, a draft dodging beatnik dad was about as far-Left as parents could get. I saw some of the differences in lifestyle quite clearly. My friend’s houses didn’t seem to have as much jazz music and whiskey drinking as mine. There were no political discussions at the dinner table, if at all. Dinner tables were for dinner where ours was periodically used to draw nudes. And my father loved parties, good parties with lively booze soaked discussion, music, and a diversity of people. Allen Ginsberg’s proclaimed influence of the Beat Generation certainly affected my family.
Many of the effects were apparent. Spiritual Liberation was declared by breaking from a strict Catholic upbringing and freely developing ideas of god and purpose. Organized religion was soundly derided. Music was regarded by my father as not just high art but the highest of art form. Ecological consciousness, respect for land and indigenous people, the belief in liberation from censorship and opposition to the military-industrial machine were expressed and demonstrated.
At a young age, I heard politics and ideologies discussed openly. Support for the left-wing NDP was known. My father had the habit of talking to radios and televisions. I often heard entire arguments expressed towards some guest of CBC’s As it Happens while being shuttled about in the family station wagon. He would occasionally stop his diatribe to explain to me why the person in question was clearly mistaken. It was sort of like “Dad lectures by proxy.”
In my teens, my father became a featured writer at the local paper and was regarded as a “lefty” voice. At first, I didn’t take much of an interest in my father’s column. Before writing this new column, he wrote for the entertainment section: movie, concert, book reviews that sort of thing. He was prolific. He could be very witty and sharp or machine like and formulaic depending on circumstance.
He would on occasion fall asleep during a kids’ movie matinée after a late night. I decided to read a review to see what the hell he would write after sleeping for an hour and a half. It was a perfectly well written “kids will love it” family movie review. I just assumed this new column would be more of the same for my dad. No offense, Pops. His movie reviews could elicit some strong reactions, sure, but as my teachers and even some fellow students began coming up to me and commenting on what my dad wrote in his new column I began to realise this was something different.
The dad lectures continued, on any given day I would hear his soliloquized rebuttals towards politicians, TV hosts, random idiots, you name it. If my father saw something he disagreed with he let it be known, even when he was only talking to himself. I also had the benefit of reading his thoughts in his articles. Thoughts a kid doesn’t often think to ask their parent. As is normal for teens, my awareness of the outside world was expanding alongside my awareness of my parent’s lived examples of left ideology.
Food, wine, booze, art, books, movies and music were staples in our household. There was an appreciation for the bohemian that could be traced to the Beat Generation. My parents volunteered in the community, my father especially. He gave his time to our community freely, willingly and for multiple causes. He spoke at the local universities and appeared on local TV and radio discussing social and political issues. There was not a local politician or pundit my father did not know and that did not know my father.
He was not one to partake in group protest and he did not seek to silence disagreement. He rolled up his sleeves and strode into the fray. With his mind, voice, and pen he took on all identified targets. He understood and forgave many human foibles but he was a “line in the sand” type of guy. He had a consistent set of moral values and when people conflicted with them, he took aim.
He used intellect, sharp wit, humour, story telling, knowledge of history and facts to change people’s opinions. If you were just an idiot that did not respond to those things, or worse, had an ulterior motive, he would call you out on that too. This was the ethos of my father’s Left.
The Beat Generation counterculture did not seek to reform people through the state, by force, or dogmatic collectivism. It was “against state regimentation” and declared the tool to fight it to be “idiosyncrasy.” In simpler terms, fight state control by doing whatever the heck you want. Individual freedom, sexual and spiritual liberation, liberation from prohibition, the questioning of authority, these were tenets of the 1950 counterculture genesis in America. This is what I was brought up believing the Left to be and for the most part I had no reason to doubt that my views could be expressed within the Left, until about a decade ago.
I first noticed them on a website for local civic issues — these dogma spewing, ultra biased, baseless accusers. They seemed to run in packs and were turning the comment section of this website into an echo chamber. It was the regressive-Left, a list of fallacious arguments to stifle conversation in one hand and plenty of ad hominem to spew in the other! Since then, I have seen them take increasing control over the broader Left movement.
During the recent “Milo Riots” at UC Berkeley many critics from both the Center and the Right commented at the irony of the “Left” protesting freedom of speech on the grounds of Berkeley, the battleground of the Left’s fight for free speech. I suppose there is irony in a body snatcher returning to the old haunt of the body it snatched and doing the opposite of what the original possessor of the body would do. But that is a stretch and a body snatcher is precisely what the regressive-Left is.
I am not totally surprised by the regressive-Left. I knew the counterculture that inspired my father had morphed, merged, broken, reformed. Culture and especially counterculture does not remain stagnant. The genesis counterculture of the Beat Generation peaked and dispersed and recollected with old and new members as the Hippies.
“From 1955 to about 1959 there were thousands of young people involved in a thriving bohemian subculture that was only an echo by the time the mass media picked it up in 1960. Jack Kerouac was the novelist of the Beat Generation in the same way that Ernest Hemingway was the novelist of the Lost Generation, and Kerouac’s classic “beat” novel, On the Road, was published in 1957. Yet by the time Kerouac began appearing on television shows to explain the “thrust” of his book, the characters it was based on had already drifted off into limbo, to await their reincarnation as hippies some five years later.”
— Hunter S Thompson, The Hippies
With Allen Ginsberg as the dominant thread between the Beat Generation and the Hippies this movement merged with other causes in Berkeley.
“There was actually a range of causes to become aligned with in Berkeley… While the antiwar movement, the civil rights movement, and the free speech movement each had its own focus, demonstrations, and leadership, there was a good deal of overlap. Each of the movements shared the same repertoire of folk songs and the singers to sing them. When you showed up at a demonstration in Berkeley, everybody knew the words to the songs and sang along — including the cops”
— Barry Melton, “Everything Seemed Beautiful, A Life in the Counterculture in Alexander Bloom’s Long Time Gone.”
The counterculture struggles of the 1960s were inclusive struggles. These movements did not look for differences of increasing complexity and subtlety as today’s regressive-Left does. They sought common ground to form an increased challenge to power and authority and many had no particular label. The labelling was for the media to do.
“Until 1964, in fact, the hippies were so much a part of the New Left that nobody knew the difference. ‘New Left,’ like ‘hippie’ and ‘beatnik,’ was a term coined by journalists and headline writers, who need quick definitions of any subject they deal with. The term came out of the student rebellion at the University of California’s Berkeley campus in 1964 and 1965. What began as a Free Speech Movement in Berkeley soon spread to other campuses in the East and Midwest…”
— Hunter S Thompson, The Hippies
This broad movement of movements was the real American Left, an inclusive, common ground finding, diaspora of people from small towns and cities across America converging on one place to participate in a mass struggle against authority. There were no purity tests of victimhood to belong. This movement, coined “hippies” by the media for consumer consumption and continually romanticized for the benefit of the political “Left” over the last 40+ years was in fact short lived.
“The real year of the hippie was 1966, despite the lack of publicity, which in 1967 gave way to a nationwide avalanche in Look, Life, Time, Newsweek, the Atlantic, the New York Times, the Saturday Evening Post… But 1967 was not really a good year to be a hippie. It was a good year for salesmen and exhibitionists who called themselves hippies and gave colorful interviews for the benefit of the mass media, but serious hippies, with nothing to sell, found that they had little to gain and a lot to lose by becoming public figures. Many were harassed and arrested for no other reason than their sudden identification with a so-called cult of sex and drugs. The publicity rumble, which seemed like a joke at first, turned into a menacing landslide. So quite a few people who might have been called the original hippies in 1965 had dropped out of sight by the time hippies became a national fad in 1967.”
— Hunter S Thompson, The Hippies
Just as with the Beat Generation, the media had got wind of the movement and watered it down, the true intellectuals and agents of change had backed away and the salesmen and exhibitionists walked in. The romanticizing of this movement through art, music, movies and books has helped the political “Left” in America to enthrall a large segment of baby boomers to their cause for decades. They ask few questions like a good “yellow dog democrat” does and they go on believing theirs is the party of struggling versus authority for the greater good. They didn’t see the salesmen and exhibitionists creep in.
My father died many years ago, but I still have what he wrote. I will always know what he was about and what his ideologies were and he would have plenty to say about the Political Correct movement he abhorred in the 1990s consuming the left-wing. The regressive-Left is the left of the new millennia, created again by salesmen and exhibitionists. It has nothing in common with the social justice countercultures of the glorified past. It is selfish, divisive, intellectually weak and at its worst may be a deliberate attempt to sow chaos.
The truth is there has been little to no opposition to authority in America for five decades and our world shows it. We have no time to rehabilitate the irredeemable. New alliances must be sought and made. The broad common ground of resistance to authority and illiberal thought needs to be populated with allies.
History proves when large groups of people band together to pursue a distinct common goal that wonders happen. Funny it never mentions how many of them all thought exactly the same. A renewal of “Classical Liberal” thinking is required. Some may say an entire “New Enlightenment” is required. It is possible though, the wave of change was witnessed once before. We just need to find that wave and ride it a little further this time.
“There was madness in any direction, at any hour. If not across the Bay, then up the Golden Gate or down 101 to Los Altos or La Honda. . . . You could strike sparks anywhere. There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning. . . .
And that, I think, was the handle — that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting — on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave. . . .
So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark — that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.”
— Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
Christopher Kiely is an independent writer, musician and newly minted “classical liberal.” After many years of watching the increased authoritarianism of both political extremes he is looking for allies ready to take on the influx of illiberal and post-modernist thinking invading our public discourse. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Header Photo: Fancy Crave