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Historian William Rorabaugh explores ’60s counterculture in ‘American Hippies’

William Rorabaugh is a University of Washington professor of history and author of several books. He answered a few questions about his latest book, “American Hippies,” published by Cambridge University Press.

“American Hippies” is an engaging and thorough history of the counterculture movement in the United States and its cultural and political ramifications, in the 1960s and to this day. How did you come to write it?

W.R.: In the 1960s I lived in the San Francisco Bay Area, the flower power epicenter, and while I was never a hippie, one of my best friends from high school spent 13 years living a countercultural life. So the topic always interested me. Hippies surged into prominence in the late ’60s and then declined. As a social historian, I became interested decades ago in this odd social movement. During my research, I realized that the counterculture’s multiple legacies truly did reshape American culture.

You note three themes underlying the American hippie experience: authenticity, individualism and community. Why did these concepts stand out, and what did they mean in the context of the hippie/counterculture movement?

W.R.: Although hippies often disagreed about beliefs and practices, they shared a desire to be authentic. Members of the counterculture condemned mainstream society for being conformist, rule-driven and uptight. Authenticity meant “doing your own thing.” Because freaks distrusted both society and government, individual decisions were applauded as the most authentic. This was exploratory and chaotic. At the same time, personal autonomy created loneliness and isolation, which explains why hippies yearned for community. Many hippies lived in certain urban neighborhoods, such as Fremont in Seattle, or in rural communes. Communes enabled residents to sort out their lives.

You focus on the American counterculture experience in this book. Was hippiedom, in your view, a primarily American cultural phenomenon? If so, why?

W.R.: In the ’60s the United States exuded incredible energy, which young people in other countries noticed. Television, Hollywood films and musical recordings started the global village. While the counterculture was centered in the United States, hippie communities could also be found in Vancouver, London, and Tokyo, all cities in countries with post-World War II baby booms. In many ways, hippies were announcing, “We are not like our parents.” One global commonality was the new rock music and especially the wide appeal of the Beatles, who espoused counterculture values, including psychedelic drugs and easy sex.

“Hippies . . . were young, white, and middle class, but they were never a majority of young Americans,” you write. “Nonwhites rejected being hippies.” Why do you think this was so?

W.R.: Hippies came from white middle-class families and grew up in suburbs, which were very white. So were crowds at Woodstock and other rock festivals. They had little experience with people of other races. Hippies made African-Americans uncomfortable. While hippies sneered at success, poor young blacks had to fight to join the mainstream that freaks rejected. Young whites found their parents to be gluttons of consumer culture. Hippies saw that consumption failed to make their parents happy, but they did not understand that their parents were reacting to deprivation between 1929 and 1945. Young blacks craved consumer goods as signs of success and acceptance.

How did hippies relate to the rise of feminism in the ’60s?

W.R.: Hippie men treated women as sex objects to be tossed aside on a whim. Early on, few hippie women understood feminism, but after they found themselves discarded, they began to see their own exploitation, especially if they had to raise children alone. The love generation had a lot of children.

Similarly, how did hippies and the storied “free-love” counterculture deal with homosexuality? Does the 21st century American acceptance of gay marriage have its roots in the hippie legacy?

W.R.: Most hippies were heterosexuals, but because hippies believed that sex was “no big deal,” closeted gay and lesbian hippies got cover inside the counterculture. Over time, more open sexual attitudes helped gays exit the closet. As attitudes changed, gay marriage was easier to accept.

The “most curious” legacy of the hippie movement, you write, “is the role that it played in the development of the personal computer, the rise of the high-tech industry and the emergence of Silicon Valley.” Would you briefly explain that connection?

W.R.: Because hippies believed in personal freedom and hated big corporations, they embraced the idea of a personal computer to empower the individual (or small business) and displace IBM, which controlled most of the world’s computing power. Steve Jobs, the co-founder of Apple, came out of the Bay Area’s counterculture. He started building computers at a hippie computer club in Menlo Park a couple of blocks from where Jerry Garcia had lived when he had founded the Grateful Dead.

Connections between the hippie movement and such current events as Burning Man seem obvious. But you also connect Harry Potter and Star Wars to the counterculture’s move to the mainstream. What do these entertaining fictional worlds owe to the hippies?

W.R.: Hippies had a moral vision of the world, and so do the Star Wars films. Luke Skywalker is a technologically empowered individual living an authentic life defending his community. J. K. Rowling builds on these themes in the Harry Potter books, but she adds fantasy, mysticism and the supernatural. These are counterculture values. Freaks felt that mainstream society had gone awry because it was too scientific and too rational. At times, hippies argued, feelings were more important. Rowling entreats the reader to trust in feelings.

Finally, what would you like readers to take away from “American Hippies”? And if they had one more book to read about that culture and era, what would you suggest?

W.R.: “American Hippies” is a short overview that explores how the ’60s counterculture changed American society and its culture. The changes were about drugs, sex and rock music, but they proved to be about much more, including high-tech, natural foods and looser child-rearing practices. Two excellent personal memoirs are Roberta Price’s “Huerfano,” and Peter Coyote’s “Sleeping Where I Fall.”

Read entire article at University of Washington