Monday, May 4, 2009

"Talkin' Bout My Generation"- Older Generation's Perceptions of the Hippies

While doing some further research into the hippie subculture, I stumbled upon the following youtube clip(Please watch before reading any further):

The clip is a 1967 CBS News report on the hippie culture in the Haight-Ashbury district of San-Francisco. The piece is narrated by an older newsman named Harry Reisner. The clip helps shed light on how the hippie counterculture was perceived and understood by outside observers, particularly those of the older generation. The perception those in the older generations had towards hippies has largely been ignored in the greater study of the subculture.  As understood from this piece, the older generations had a very difficult time making sense of the hippie subculture. In this clip, the hippies are treated as some sort of foreign  species that may look like homo sapiens, but share nothing in common with everyday Americans. Indeed, the piece comes off as some sort of an Anthropological ethnography of a far-off culture. Throughout the piece, Reisner maintains this condescending tone towards the hippies, and refers to them as, "Bizarre", and "irregular" on more than one occasion. More important than the tone taken by the narrator, is the content of the material he is reporting on. In attempting to make sense of the culture, Reisner notes that the Hippies', "concept for a new life is what unites them."  Yet Reisner never really delves into what comprises this hippie "concept of a new life." Throughout, the narrator defines the hippie's in opposition to mainstream culture, without ever concretely making sense of what the group stands for.  In his interview with a local band, the Grateful Dead, Reisner's colleague, Warren Wallace, searches for the broader hippie agenda as he asks the group what the Hippie movement is trying to ultimately accomplish. Indeed, throughout the clip, CBS News appears to be searching for the subculture's underlying ideology,and for its main purpose and goals. When Reisner fails to arrive at a single "mission statement", he declares that the movement is one of, "style without content." What began as a news story that set out to understand a different way of life  concluded as an authoritative rejection of a culture that CBS News could not quite successfully  grasp. The way in which CBS treated the hippie culture highlights the greater negative attitude held by those in the older generations towards the counterculture. Just like Harry Reisner, many older Americans were quick to dismiss the subculture as "bizarre" and devoid of content. 

This newsclip is useful less for the facts it reports than for the attitudes it portrays. To be sure, much of the conclusions reached by Reisner are simply untrue. In her book, Counterculture Kaleidescope, Nadya Zimmerman aggressively attacks this notion that the hippie movement was defined in opposition to mainstream life. Moreover, she criticizes the idea that the movement lacked any true purpose, or content. On the contrary, Zimmerman argues that the Hippie movement promoted a pluralist lifestyle. She notes, "...the counterculture negated its association with any single cultural thread by pursuing pluralism, by adopting everything."(13) It follows that the hippie subculture did indeed embrace various aspects of various different cultures, and did indeed stand for a variety of different platforms, all at the same time. So while some hippies preferred to become one with nature by tripping on Acid, others studied Hare Krishna, and others protested the war in Vietnam. Hippie phrases like "just go with it" and "let it be" all seem to fit within this greater pluralistic paradigm. This pluralistic ideology seems to explain Hippie culture of the 1960's far more effectively than the labels attached to the culture by dismissive and jaded members of the older generations. 


Zimmerman, Nadya. Counterculture Kaleidoscope. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2008.

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