The following article first appeared in The Dartmouth, America’s oldest collegiate daily and the official student newspaper of Dartmouth College. It was published Friday, August 14, 2009 and was written by staff columnist Sam Buntz. It is very good writing and is re-printed here, verbatim.
Aug. 15 marks the 40-year anniversary of the Woodstock Music and Art Festival. Many college students look back on the days of Jimi Hendrix and Keith Moon with nostalgia — nostalgia for a time when we didn’t even exist. Admittedly, the music of the late 1960s was great and still forms the core of what I listen to. But I feel I need to question the haze of good vibes surrounding Woodstock and the Baby Boomers’ claim that it totally meant something, man — like we had real values, and then, in the words of Easy Rider: “We blew it.”
But blew what? We’ve inherited Woodstock’s liberated sexual and chemical attitudes but none of its “values.” This is because those values never existed — Woodstock was filled with insincerity. Only individuals can have values or integrity — movements are nothing but individuals surrendering themselves to the common flow.
Hunter S. Thompson provided an example of the wistful nonsense surrounding Woodstock in his famous “Wave Speech” from “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.” He writes, “We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave…[L]ess 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.”
It is fortunate that waves crash — particularly this wave. A life of free concerts and drugs is demonstrably unsustainable. Consider that Woodstock did not return a profit for decades and it destroyed Max Yasgur’s farm. If the hippies had their way, progress would be impossible. We would be living in a primitive nightmare. When everyone is enjoying the vibes, no one is curing cancer or elevating people out of poverty — or even cultivating themselves spiritually (despite pretensions to the contrary). All that exists is a brute world of self-destructive selfishness.
You might argue that the counter-culture contributed importantly to civil rights and the anti-war movement. I would argue that only individuals who worked hard did. Martin Luther King, Jr. wasn’t exactly wearing tie-dye, and neither was Robert F. Kennedy. They wore suits. MLK was a Baptist minister. Followers of the counter-culture possibly did more to perpetuate the Vietnam War than to stop it, considering that their strategy for ending the conflict was to get high in a tent and assume that their “energy” would overwhelm the forces of darkness. Practical people destroyed the hippies, and clowns like Jerry Rubin and the “Yippies” did nothing but make them appear more fatuous.
No doubt, the era produced some sincere people — George Harrison always struck me as a cool guy. But the movement as a whole was no less life-perverting than the order it was attempting to displace. “Meet the new boss / Same as the old boss,” sang Roger Daltrey. It is only you who can do anything: this is the lesson to be learned from the failure of Woodstock and our misguided nostalgia for it. It is only you, with no reliance on popular fads or causes. This is no New Age pep-talk, but the harsh reality of existence, the agony of being an individual self — total responsibility for maintaining your own personal heaven or your own private hell with no one else to turn to.
Every American believes that he or she is utterly original. Harold Bloom has gone so far to say, “No American pragmatically feels free if she is not alone, and no American ultimately concedes that she is part of nature.” The hippies represented a twisting of this truth about our country. They promised personal liberation and self-knowledge, but they really offered mass anesthetization. Volkswagen buses filled with conformists paraded under the guise of non-conformity. Timothy Leary and company said they wanted to turn you on and wake you up — but why did you slumber, a sleep within a sleep?
In the Woodstock philosophy there was no work to be done. To wake up, to become truly human, you didn’t have to do anything. You just had to be. But this is a misunderstanding. By affirming that you can know yourself without having to seek that knowledge, or that you can improve society by “dropping out,” you do nothing. It is a form of nihilism. A better formula was provided by Voltaire, when he wrote, “But we must cultivate our garden.” Otherwise, the weeds choke everything.