I’m always amused at the way that phenomena such “the hippies” are perceived to be a monolithic structured movement with clear goals and established doctrine.
There were people who espoused “free love” and the “age of Aquarius” and “back to the Earth” and similar ideas. A very few of them actually gave though to the ideas and published philosophical musings on the subject. There were other people who simply opposed the Vietnam War or who opposed the legal racism of Jim Crow or the de facto racism entrenched in law in northern states. Rather more of them were likely to publish their thoughts. Still others (but not really very many) thought that society was so corrupt, that the whole structure needed to be torn down. Several of them also published their views. It is possible to find individuals that might be called hippies in each of those groups. However, while there was some mingling among the groups, there was never a cohesive force that said “this is the way” that found a major following among the masses.
Most hippies were simply kids who saw an opportunity to try new things and did. I would be willing to bet that far more guys from that period served in the military than actually lived in a self-sustaining commune. Even if you throw in the urban or college “communes,” you are not going to find that they come anywhere near a majority of the population of teens and twenty-somethings from that era.
The voices that were raised the loudest (and were given the most media attention) were the voices of those who were farthest out in their ideas. There is no point in Walter Cronkite trying to tell a story about a group of kids who wanted to modify a local curfew that was too restrictive when there might be a kid out there calling for the local resevoir to be spiked with LSD. The immediate predecessors to Falwell and Robertson wouldn’t whip their congregations into foaming-at-the-mouth-mobs by pointing at the kid who asked whether Catholics and Baptists could live side by side when they could more easily quote John Lennon out of context that he was more popular than Jesus.
Some of the really far out ideas have fallen by the wayside simply because they were weird. On the other hand, with the excesses came the more considered thoughts in the same direction that have not fallen away.
None of the following have come to pass because of the hippies, but all were ideas that were carried forward to a great many people during the hippie era:
- More concern for the environment
- more acceptance of non-traditional arrangements in families
- women’s rights
- gay rights
- a reluctance to simply accept everything handed out from Washington as “true” or “good”.
Have these changes been unalloyed good? Probably not. Did they all spring from the hippies? Certainly not.
However, the great unwashed mass of kids who wandered around and bumped into each other and learned new ideas from people with whom they would not normally have ever spoken introduced a certain acceptance of people into society.
Of the three groups that I mentioned earlier, the group that has had the most “defectors”–guys who grew up, got a haircut, and turned themselves into businessmen or politicians–has been the group that called for the destruction of society. My guess would be that they were always interested in power and they finally realized that there was more power to be had within the system than from trying to replace it.
The back-to-the-earth people have not produced a large number of open-pit-mine owners or clear-cut timber barons. The anti-militarist and pro-racial-equality groups have not produced any notable police chiefs or generals or race-baiters (Gingerich, notwithstanding–but then he was a power-tripper).
However, you can find a lot of the more outspoken members of those groups quietly working on neighborhood or city-wide conservation groups or neighborhood outreach programs. Quite a few of them went on to become lawyers who take those sorts of cases, now.
As with any “movement,” of course, the vast majority were simply kids who participated while it seemed interesting and then grew out of it. There is no harm there.
The only seriously distressing legacy of the period is the way in which so many people bought into the idea that they could not effect change in government, and so dropped out of the political process. Too many kids believed the leaders who thought that marches and demonstrations would change the world. They never noticed that however loud they were, they were never in a majority and so had no real hope of changing the world at that time. As the era wound down with Nixon’s dirty tricks, far too many of them simply gave up on politics and they now stay away from the election process in the millions.