The Beat Generation, Hippies, and Hunter S. Thompson: From Progressive to Regressive

| 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.

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Allen Ginsberg

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

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Hunter S. Thompson

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

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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 kiely.flashpoint@gmail.com

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Header Photo: Fancy Crave

13 Comments

  1. painedumonde

    Loved it. A political rib to the flesh of the art. One thing struck me though, that little fits and starts HAVE happened in the past fifty years, but as you say, nothing has blasted its ideas into culture like that merry band did. My favorite paroxysm was the short-lived punks.

    H.S. Thompson, as you say, saw the change as well: “There are times, however — and this is one of them — when even being right feels wrong. What do you say, for instance, about a generation that has been taught that rain is poison and sex is death? If making love might be fatal and if a cool spring rain on any summer afternoon can turn a crystal blue lake into a puddle of black poison scum right in front of your eyes, there is not much left except TV and relentless masturbation.”
    -HST, “Generation of Swine”

    Like

    1. Christopher Kiely

      Hi painedumonde, I am pleased you enjoyed it. I agree with you about Punk. Early punk is something I also wish to explore and might even do so in the context of the connection to the Beats with the Allen Ginsberg/Joe Strummer relationship and William Burroughs’ influence on Punk. Stay tuned!

      Like

  2. MO WOODS

    As an English Hippie….now in her 70s ….two phrases struck a chord with me….Classic Liberal and New Enlightenment….both well overdue. The word Liberal has been hi-jacked. It’s meaning totally altered.

    I call myself a Liberal. To me it means tolerance, understanding, accepting that others have the right to their points of view, even though I may think they are wrong….The word’s root is surely Liberty….which, when I was young meant freedom.

    How did this happen?

    And I agree that many voices can change things….as a 1960s Feminist, I and my fellow women got rid of many of the disgraceful inequities in our patriarchal society….being able to open a bank account without a male authorising it….getting a mortgage again without a male guarantor, which, as an orphan, kept me renting for years. Not allowed to walk on the floor of the Stock Exchange or Lloyd’s of London…let alone become brokers.

    Still work to be done….but of course, the movement has been hi-jacked by loony man-hating extremists.

    Yes….we do need a New Enlightenment….to sweep away all these false perceptions…..and start again.

    Once more…I must woman the barricades!

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    1. Christopher Kiely

      Thanks Mo! I am glad this struck a chord with someone of your experience and background. I also consider myself just a “liberal” but as you said, the meaning has been altered. I now feel the need to place the word “Classic” in front of it for clarity.

      Bring on the “New Enlightenment!”

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  3. Andrew Gripp (@AndrewGripp)

    As much as I understand the urge to find a “new center” and rally behind a new label like “classical liberalism,” I think it’s misguided.
    Classical liberalism is not the only ideology that values free speech. Steven Pinker has made this point well. Free speech and basic tolerance are prior to any political disagreement and are not the domain of left or right.
    I addressed this issue at some length in my article here on why those on the Left shouldn’t abandon it because of the rise of the regressives.
    https://areomagazine.com/2017/03/09/the-left-why-it-should-be-saved-not-abandoned/
    Perhaps the biggest problem I see with “classical liberalism” is its true meaning. Classical liberalism is almost synonymous with libertarianism. Yes, these nearly identical ideologies value free speech and liberty, but they’re at odds with what many on the Left value: the welfare state, the regulatory state, true equality of opportunity, etc. Branding one’s self a classical liberal implies that one has abandoned a belief in these things, or whatever left-wing values or beliefs one had prior to one’s “conversion.”
    Dave Rubin, for instance, who is leading the charge to “make classical liberal happen,” has said he favors a single-payer healthcare system. And I’m with him. But I think it’s fair to say that any true classical liberal would reject the idea that we ought to socialize healthcare costs. (This is the kind of confusion that I see arising when we try to re-invent the meanings of well-established terminology.) Classical liberalism, the tradition of Locke and Smith and (early?) Mill isn’t all that different from the ideologies of those like Nozick and Friedman. It’s hardly compatible with progressivism, which is what it seems many “classical liberals” really subscribe to.
    Anyway, I address these and related points in my essay linked above. I’d be curious to get your thoughts.

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    1. Christopher Kiely

      Hi Andrew

      Thanks for the feedback. I read your article when it came out and I had already submitted first draft of this. I found it interesting since mine is somewhat of a counter. I could see the beginnings of this conversation.

      I am not much of a flag waver when it comes to political parties, don’t mistake my call for “Classic Liberal” thinking to be a call for a “Classic Liberal” party. I also have concerns with the meaning of words that extend beyond the term “Classic Liberal.” I would prefer to just say liberal, but that has become a pejorative. What I am saying is we need a “Classic Liberal” discussion more than a “Classic Liberal” party.

      I hope more “Classic Liberal” thinking can bring about what I somewhat hyperbolically refer to as a “new enlightenment.” I use the two terms because they have a historic significance, they are not as easily manipulated. We need an open, honest and empathetic discussion about our current state of affairs, that neither the left or right currently wants to have, and it needs to facilitate significant change.

      During that discussion, we should be debating whether the left is salvageable. What our real political allegiances are. Is a political spectrum based on where people sat before a revolution still even relevant? We have been told our differences are between progressives and conservatives. Is the real divide as it applies to how we want to be governed authoritarian and anti-authoritarian?

      Progressive thinkers and conservative thinkers can coexist, one could argue that is what makes a balanced and stable society. While authoritarian and anti-authoritarian beliefs coexisting seem to lead to conflict.

      I also think Classic Liberal thinking will allow us to answer the question of what to do about issues such as Healthcare. In Ontario, Canada our Healthcare costs are unsustainable and this has been known by our government for years. You can even read the report on the government website. But no politician will talk about it because saying you are going to mess with our healthcare is political suicide. The sacred left-wing healthcare cow is going to starve because, once again, they don’t want to talk about it.

      So, let’s have at it, let’s figure this stuff out, have the much-needed dialogue. Classic liberal thinking can do that. Will the dialogue decide the left should be saved? I don’t know, I could be convinced. Any new anything whether a Left or Center is going to have the same difficulties. Getting heard through the current noise. So, if a “New-New-Left” wants to declare itself and enforce the separation, it will need to be a diverse collection of loud voices… just like the “New-Left” was.

      Cheers!

      Christopher

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      1. Andrew Gripp (@AndrewGripp)

        By no means was I calling for a new political party. In the U.S., at least, such a party would have no real chance of emerging. This is a separate discussion, but I believe we need to enact reform that would make the emergence of parties easier. I’ve been writing about this issue for a few years. I think proportional representation is the way to go. Canada seemed to flirt with the idea recently, but backed away. In the U.S., that discussion is almost a non-starter, and it’s a shame. Our political systems do not make it easy for different ideological groups to compete openly with one another (as distinct parties), but rather channel that competition into and for control over major parties that are too large for their own good. That’s a shame. I think the two-party system, which he have very much entrenched in the U.S., is flawed for all kinds of reasons.
        My focus in the article (and here) is on the level of social and ideological groups.
        I don’t think there is a huge difference between the progressive-conservative spectrum and the authoritarian, anti-authoritarian one. In the eyes of conservatives, I am an authoritarian in some ways, ex: on economic matters (as a shorthand, I favor the Nordic model). There is considerable overlap between these two spectrums. And while I agree on the relative uselessness of them, they do serve some purpose.
        I’m not sure what you mean by a classical liberal “discussion.” I don’t see how that is really different from any kind of honest discussion. I can have a reasonable argument with a libertarian or conservative: I don’t see what is “classically liberal” about it . And I do think the left and right are having these conversations. Sam Harris, on the left, has conversations with people of all persuasions. Ben Shapiro, a conservative, has visited lots of college campuses to talk to and debate people on the left. Are these things rare? Yes. But they can happen more, and they don’t require any deference to classical liberal discussion or thinking.
        So I’m all in favor of dialogue. In this regard, fine, I can sign off on the need for a “new center” that values this kind of dialogue and that eschews the dishonest rhetorical tactics that characterize political and cable news discourse. But it’s importance not to confuse this case for epistemological openness and rigor with any particular political program or content. I fear some who are identifying with classical liberalism are succumbing to this confusion.

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  4. suddeninterest360

    Great article. Curious, from reading the article and comments it seems like the disenfranchisement of many on the left is a vast space for dialogue. I credit sources Areo and several podcast hosts (i.e. David Rubin, Sam Harris, Josh Zepps, etc.) for bringing the core intellectual base back into solid liberal values; yet I am a little concerned about the attraction “classical liberalism” or the libertarian party is getting too.

    Have you spent time reading much on libertarian socialism? Since my disassociation from the modern incarnation of the left I have rekindled some of my early liberal inspiration. Revisiting Murray Bookchin, and Noam Chomsky on these topics has provided some insight into how the left can bring back their values without the state.

    Like

    1. Andrew Gripp (@AndrewGripp)

      I agree, Sudden. However, I wouldn’t take anti-statism too far. I think that the state can play a useful and necessary role in achieving ends that cannot (or likely would never) be achieved through voluntary actions. I admit that, to some, this sounds authoritarian. According to libertarianism, it is.
      But I think the case for the Nordic model is so powerful that one should accept the authoritarian charge (however inaccurate or pejorative) and argue for the legitimacy and utility of such an interventionist state, granting that it violates liberty to some substantial degree (though it does promote freedom, which is different).

      Like

  5. MO WOODS

    I took the use of “Classic Liberalism” to mean the liberalism of my childhood in England as I defined it in my reply. It’s sad we need to add classical to try to make it mean that. Come “The New Enlightenment” I’m hoping terms can in some way be returned to their original meanings….but it’s a slippery word….after all Classical actually refers to Mozartian times if my memory serves….my university days were a long time ago!

    I think I’ve just succeeded in muddling myself even more. Definitions stopped changing for me when I was probably in my late 20s….for me they are the norm. Does that make any sense? Do all generations do the same?

    Like

  6. Christopher Kiely

    I don’t want to give too much away, some of what we’re discussing here is getting into topics of my next articles! But I do want to respond to the Libertarian comments. I may come across as Libertarian at first blush because I do believe in Individual freedom, non-aggression and the altruism that some libertarians make a point of declaring important. But I am not a dogmatic believer that any one political philosophy or ideology is THE way to go and Libertarianism loses me not too long after those topics are covered. People seem to be losing their faith in parties and adopting political theories as their identities, i.e., Marxists, anarcho-caps, libertarian, etc…

    I am also trying to find the right language to use. In North America civics and political science are subjects that in many cases are simply not taught anymore. The understanding can be lacking. The epistemological is important but I am looking for simpler language to express ideas. I’ll leave the real heavy intellectual lifting to guys like you Andrew, and what you are doing is important. I need people to keep writing articles like yours so I have something cite 🙂

    But I’m digging for a different kind of gold in my writing. Something to bridge the gap and make matters of the mind appeal to the heart. I believe we often forget that the real stories that change opinions touch the heart and not just the mind. There is what Bill Hicks and others have called the “intelligence of the heart.” I’ll give credit to Bill because he has a nice quote about it.

    “This is where we are at right now, as a whole. No one is left out of the loop. We are experiencing a reality based on a thin veneer of lies and illusions. A world where greed is our God and wisdom is sin, where division is key and unity is fantasy, where the ego-driven cleverness of the mind is praised, rather than the intelligence of the heart.”

    – Bill Hicks

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  7. Sebastien Delacroix

    As a huge HST fan, 60s tragic and bemused observer of postmodern academia, I loved this. I go to a lot of hippie raves and there’s plenty of good will among us millennials. Most of that crowd want to spread love, and they adhere to a vague, well-intentioned sort of liberalism. It’s sad to see their youthful enthusiasm co-opted by a school of left politics that’s increasingly at odds with the sort of universal compassion that people like Ginsberg, MLK and JFK stood for. I’d be interested to read more from you on what we can do to rekindle the beat spirit and channel it into practical work that’ll actually help disadvantaged people.

    Like

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