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Don’t Be Like the Hippies

Wall Street Bets, the Beatles, and man’s search for meaning.

Living is easy with eyes closed, Misunderstanding all you see. It’s getting hard to be someone, But it all works out. It doesn’t matter much to me.

–The Beatles, “Strawberry Fields Forever”

When the Beatles first sang that “nothing is real,” it was February of 1967. The song had originally been destined for the LP Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which came out in May of that same year and helped kick off the Summer of Love. The rebellion in the streets of San Francisco that summer was against artifice and consumerism, against the Vietnam War and sexual morality alike.

The disastrous consequences of the hippie movement are well known among conservatives: radically decoupling sex from commitment has left women depressed in record numbers and men at the mercy of their worst impulses. The extravagant failures of that generation are carefully recorded by Helen Andrews in her new book, Boomers—it’s not my intention to rehash them at length here. What I keep thinking about these days, instead, is the perceived state of affairs that the hippies were reacting against. I think we have more in common with them than we might like to admit in that regard. Maybe we can learn from their mistakes.

Things Come Undone

The Vietnam War lasted 20 years. When it started, a Republican — Dwight D. Eisenhower — was president. During those years of the late ’60s, two Democrats — John F. Kennedy and, after his assassination, Lyndon B. Johnson — failed to bring hostilities in Southeast Asia to a close. It must have seemed suddenly that the difference between Republicans and Democrats was a mirage: if the enormity of the war was unchanged by either party, if it dragged on through presidency after presidency, what did the supposed distinctions between these supposedly great men really amount to?

And then there was the assassination. By all accounts, it was almost impossible to believe that Kennedy had just been shot like that. “We were working in one of the worst moments of the nation’s life back then and we didn’t know what to make of it,” said the journalist Bob Huffaker, who covered the story: “much like what happened on 9/11.” The fact that an American president could be killed so shattered America’s postwar perception of itself — as untouchable, as permanently triumphant, as exempt from history — that many people simply refused to accept that one man and a few bullets could bring an entire epoch crashing down.

“There were a lot of people who wanted Kennedy dead,” said one suspicious layman, Michael Fontaine, “a lot of powerful people. There are secrets still being held and I never bought for a minute that [the killer Lee Harvey] Oswald operated alone.” Likewise Hugh Aynesworth: “We can’t accept very comfortably that two nobodies, two nothings—Lee Harvey Oswald and Jack Ruby—were able to change the course of world history.” This was modern America’s inaugural conspiracy theory: suddenly, it seemed plausible to a lot of people that the official narrative about absolutely everything was not just mistaken but thoroughly deceitful on a grand scale.

In an atmosphere like that, you could sing “nothing is real” and get thousands of heads nodding along. You could build an entire album — Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band — around a series of LSD trips and psychedelic trances, with the implication that hallucinogenic drugs revealed more truth than any newspaper would ever dare to. And you could propose the deconstruction of traditional mores on the basis that they, too, represented more false teachings from the grown-ups who had lied to you so often for so long. It must have seemed as if everything — from marriage to military service — was a construct and a means of control.

Overdosing on Rebellion

The problem, of course, was that youthful excess turned rebellion into not just a reaction but a life philosophy. It’s one thing to realize that America isn’t invincible like you were taught; it’s another thing to conclude that all patriotism is blindness. It’s one thing to chafe against insincerity; it’s another to assert that 2,000 years’ worth of carefully constructed sexual ethics is an outright lie. In a classic case of throwing babies out with their bathwater, the hippies tore everything down and realized they had absolutely nothing to replace any of it with.

All they had was themselves, viewed through a flattering haze of drugs and sex. Here is how Paul McCartney described a fateful acid trip that would lead to one of Sgt. Pepper’s hit tracks:

It was amazing. You’re looking into each other’s eyes and you would want to look away but you wouldn’t, and you could see yourself in the other person. It was a very freaky experience and I was totally blown away. John [Lennon] had been sitting around very enigmatically and I had a big vision of him as king, the absolutely Emperor of Eternity.

When every authority has been debunked, man at last makes himself God, vainly imagining himself “Emperor of Eternity.” The results have been predictable.

Conservatives have a fair amount of justified disdain for free love. But these days, it seems many of us are no less convinced than the hippies that “nothing is real.” Indeed, the suspicion that absolutely everything is a farce might be the driving sentiment of our age.

As far as conspiracy theories go, “Epstein didn’t kill himself” has way more traction than anything anyone ever cooked up about the Kennedy assassination. PizzaGate and QAnon, though far more unhinged than the Epstein theories, are no less influential and compelling to a significant portion of the electorate.

There are more mainstream forms of disillusionment too: public enthusiasm for the r/WallStreetBets phenomenon, in which Reddit users gamed the stock market and thwarted hedge fund managers, arises from a general concern that “stonks” do not accurately represent the real prosperity of Americans and boil down instead to a gamified construct — exactly as real as a video game, and just as susceptible to cheat codes.

And if you want proof that growing numbers of people think the whole system of government is “rigged,” that most Republicans and Democrats in office amount to the same establishment, that the whole system needs to be “burned down” by an outsider who, whatever his other flaws, will at least tell the truth and call a spade a spade — well then, look no farther than the 2016 election. The spirit of iconoclasm that the ’60s generated is alive and well, because we are still reckoning with the seismic revelations of that era.

Our growing distaste for forever wars in far-off lands, our mistrust of experts who have failed us, our sense that America is not unbreakable but fractured, vulnerable, and culturally insecure: these things are not limited to the Right or the Left. They are the consequences of an entire nation realizing that our fantasies about limitless prosperity were misguided and our trust in the “experts” was misplaced.

Cautionary Tales

The internet makes it easier and easier every day to see that our leadership classes have failed and their credentials are meaningless. The louder they scream at us to pay no attention to the men behind the curtain, the more people start to wonder if everything about our society is an ornately confected illusion. Not a few people are whispering that maybe the whole thing was a mistake — that maybe we should scrap the country, or secede from it, and start over.

But that would be a mistake — the same mistake the hippies made. What we are not seeing is a failure of the basic truths on which America was built. Just the opposite: what we are seeing is a failure of our belief that we were so powerful we could do away with those truths. In the wake of our heady triumphs during the World Wars, when America grew strong as the “old world” of Europe tore itself apart, we came to believe we had transcended the realities of human nature and political change that have been at work since men first organized into governments.

The ease with which we lost our religion, the blithe optimism with which we shed old customs and habits: these are signs of what the ancient Greeks called hubris, the pride which comes from unprecedented success. Looking back on the rise and fall of the great Persian empire, the Greek tragedian Aeschylus reflected on how Darius, the disciplined and mighty king, left behind a son who thought he couldn’t lose, until he did — badly. Xerxes was guilty of “that pride, which from the gods calls down destruction on his head,” proclaimed the ghost of Darius onstage.

The Greek idea of anacyclosis — that civilizations rise and fall in a predictable pattern — was based on the observation that pride follows triumph, and then makes triumph impossible. “Hard times create strong men,” wrote G. Michael Hopf. “Strong men create good times. Good times create weak men. Weak men create hard times.” It’s easy to see where on that cycle we find ourselves.

It is hubris that has left America complacent and increasingly weak. The solution is not a rejection of the old truths but a return to them, as a refuge from the emptiness of our modern dreams. We were so focused on our greatness that we forgot the source of it, which is that “Creator” by whom we are “endowed with certain inalienable rights.” Unless we acknowledge this, we will go down into the dust as every great power has since long before Persia and Greece.

The Revolutionary Road Home

There is value in the kind of revolution that destroys empty and deceitful things. Insofar as the populist Right is showing both its willingness to crash heedlessly through the barriers of political correctness, and its antic disregard for the pieties of secular globalism, I salute it. But at a certain point you have to stop tearing down and start building up. If conservatives are about to stage their own cultural rebellion, let it be distinct from that of the hippies in exactly this way: let it be a rebellion not against law but against lawlessness, not against convention but against the cheap pseudo-sophistication which disparages convention. We are sick not from too much meaning, but too little, and the wrong kinds. What is really radical, now, is to re-establish the simple customs and essential truths that made us great in the first place: marriage, community building, self-defense, family life, devotion, faith.

There are appealing signs that this very online movement is headed in exactly that direction: the “retvrn to tradition” catchphrase, if you search for it on Twitter, will reveal many very modern, quite hip young people who nevertheless hunger for ways of life so long rejected that they have become novel again. The Right’s new fondness for bodybuilding, for traditional courtship, even for gun ownership, represents more than just lifestyle choices: these are efforts to plant a personal flag for deeper virtue and more integrity in one’s own life, and build outward from there. As they say online: you love to see it.

Eventually, of course, we will need to think about how those individual choices can be built out into a winning political platform. This will take more than just internet nihilism or plucky Reddit missions. It will take community organizing, local leadership, and funding from sympathetic donors. But the lifeblood of it will be this new spirit of rebellion, this defiant search for meaning, this insistence upon substance in a world gone mad. Until we get another shot at an election — and we will — this is our task. It is a good one. If we do it well, then by the grace of that Creator who endows us with our rights — who is himself the realest thing there is — we will find our way back to reality.

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