There is No Power in Flowers

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photo by Mathias Degen

Emmett Grogan called it “the love hoax.” He was referring to the way a group of Haight-Ashbury business interests were branding the local phenomenon of 1967. The group of scenester-merchants called itself HIP, the Haight Independent Proprietors, and framing the oncoming summer as the “Summer of Love” would be a marketing master stroke. Big-hearted but intensely competitive, Grogan was annoyed at how HIP and others had co-opted the ideas of his organization, the San Francisco Diggers. Even the procedure known as “tie-dye,” to hear Grogan tell it, had originally come from the Diggers. It had been a creative solution some of the Digger ‘old ladies’ had come up with to solve a concrete problem. Now HIP was using it to promote their pop-up head shops and mimeographed weeklies. The Diggers were partly a troupe of agit-prop street artists and partly a community service organization. One of the Diggers’ most ingenious tactics of subversion was to place goods and services in typically commercial contexts and then offer them to the public for “free.” Food, clothing, health care. Experiences. “It’s free because it’s yours,” was the Diggers’ pithy phrase. That HIP could make a buck off the concept of free must have been particularly galling to Grogan.

Another way to say this would be to say that Grogan foresaw in a moment how his and his cohort’s critique of the hegemony would be cannibalized by that very hegemony. Sears and J.C. Penny would be selling striped bell bottoms in no time.

Grogan was too harsh. The members of HIP were as worried as he was about becoming victims of their own success. The Human Be-In in January had been a scene peak—both high energy and relatively hassle-free. By presenting Haight-Ashbury to mainstream society in a positive light, the Human Be-In was also a public relations coup. The consequence, however, was only to accelerate the number of youth who were moving by the week to the neighborhood. Between fifty and two-hundred thousand newcomers were expected after Memorial Day and the closing of the school year. Many would be runaways, arriving with nothing; many would wind up street beggars or acid casualties. The Haight had already surpassed its carrying capacity. The Summer of Love was, therefore, HIP’s way to harness some of the Be-In energy and to keep the mood upbeat.

ringolevioBy charging HIP with hucksterism, Grogan may have been dabbling in a bit of projection. He was an interesting person—the sort of LSD enthusiast who saw himself as a realist. From Grogan’s perspective, the members of HIP were cynics because they were in it for profit. At the same time, someone like Timothy Leary, someone who provided the intellectual rationale for the love hoax, was a “cloud-dweller.” The hippies, too, were “cloud-dwellers” to Grogan, gullible naifs, “experimenting with hunger.”

Grogan was not the only one to look askance on the hippies. Like the Beats before them, they were easy to make fun of. Their clothes and hair styles, their slang terms and fuzzy pronouncements. Their embarrassing sincerity and utopianism. Reagan of course mocked them, but I’m talking about persons one would expect to be more favorable. In his featured address to the Congress on the Dialectics of Liberation, going on in London in July, Herbert Marcuse took pains to point out to his audience—many of them young Americans–that there was no actual power in flowers. Todd Gitlin, a leader of the righteous and sober Students for a Democratic Society, was not sympathetic with the social program of the self-styled spiritual generation. He summed up the hippies’ fatal flaw and delivered it in his great book, The Sixties: “Love should be ashamed when it was founded on privilege.”

perry haight ashburyYet love as a concept was in the movement’s DNA. The Berkeley Barb described the Be-In as “the union of love and activism.” The San Francisco Oracle championed “a Renaissance of compassion, awareness and love in the Revolution of the unity of all mankind.” These folks were interested in religious matters, and according to Leary’s colleague Richard Albert, “the God of the New Age was Love.” In his week-by-week history of the Haight between 1965 and 1968 (where many of these quotes come from), Charles Perry tells of a sit-down with the local police, called by scene leaders early on. Listening to them articulate their hopes and concerns, the department head himself seemed calmed. These concerned if odd-looking young people struck him, he said, as “the love generation.” It was a sobriquet friendlier than Grogan’s.

But I’d like to go back to Todd Gitlin’s verdict. “Love should be ashamed when it was founded on privilege.” Clearly, this was Gitlin’s way of making a case for the hard work of rigorous analysis and political organization. He was agreeing with Grogan and Marcuse. There was no power in flowers. To think otherwise was cloud-dwelling. But we might raise another question: what about love not founded on privilege?

Very few spoke publically about love more often than did Martin Luther King, Jr. In 2016, Cornell West edited a collection of King’s writings, sermons, and speeches. The volume was meant to disturb King’s image as a bland icon and to emphasize his economic and religious radicalism. The works West chose for The Radical King are heavily weighted to the final years of King’s life, 1967 and 1968. In the spring of 1967 King came out against the Vietnam War. But throughout the year, he was particularly engaged with a challenge to non-violence from voices within the movement such as Stokely Carmichael’s. King’s book Where Do We Go from Here? is a record of that engagement.

To defend nonviolence, King defended the deeper, underlying concept of love as a spiritual principle. “We’ve got to get this right,” he told a group of SCLC leaders in August of 1967, after working and re-working his language about love throughout the year. Many of his articulations were structured around the binary of love and power. Love was “identified as a resignation of power, and power with a denial of love.” But it was wrong, King argued, to see love and power as opposed. Rather, he aimed for a merger. “What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice and justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love.” He heard the arguments of the militants. He granted the points made by the postcolonial critiques. Economic structures required transformation and rebuilding, as did the psyches of the colonized and the poor. Yet King’s still believed in nonviolence as “a tactical program” because it was grounded in his theology. “I have decided,” King said, “to stick with love.”

King’s difficulties in making his case for love and his inability to keep the movement from fragmenting may have less to do with sound theology than with his underlying semiotic. “When I speak of love, I am speaking of a force,” King said in a sermon earlier in the year. In one of his favorite constructions, he described love as the “key that unlocks the door which leads to ultimate reality.” The basic metaphor is mechanistic. The new physics were almost a century old, but King still lived in a Newtonian universe in which linear force and impact were the “ultimate reality.” Power has the advantage in the binary of love and power. Love is the junior partner in that binary, so to speak, and has to rise and merge with power to achieve some of the authority power already enjoys. This is still our underlying semiotic. There is still no power in flowers. Until we can conceive of love as totally divorced from a binary with power–apart from force, from a means to an end, from getting something done in the world –we may be stuck no less than King was. But that’s just my own interpretive fixation.

My main point has to do with HIP and their preemptive branding. I suggested that “Summer of Love” was successful marketing, and what I meant was successful in the long term. It’s hard to say whether the brand worked to ward off the neighborhood’s rising paranoia as the influx of newcomers continued. With an over-numbered, under-resourced population, things got tense on the street. It turned out meth was a better drug than LSD for negotiating the daily grind, and then heroin was required for numbing the crash that followed the meth. These were new economies of addiction, less forgiving than the old ones. Grogan himself succumbed. In the long term, however, the Summer of Love as branding brought forth a set of ideas and images that have persisted. It has claimed, to a large degree, the whole of the Haight-Ashbury phenomenon and much of the greater bohemian resurgence. Its ideas and images are relatively shallow and harmless, still easy to make fun of, still more about style than substance. In the mainstream imagination, the phrase has claimed not only the summer of 1967 but has pushed many of the other events of that momentous season into the background: race-rioting in Newark, Detroit, and other cities; the Six-Day War; the Congress on the Dialectics of Liberation in London; court cases legalizing mixed-race marriage in the US and homosexuality in England; Vietnam Summer. It claims more territory, too, than does King’s intellectual struggle with the concept of love.

As we near the end of the 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love, and draw nearer to the 50th anniversary of King’s assassination, we might note once again what was lost in the latter event. Surely today there are scholars of Affect Studies thinking hard of ways to give love its due. In the post-Trump manifestos associated with Tikkun Magazine, love is given a central place in political strategy in a way similar to King’s. But I think we can say with confidence that there is no figure as influential as King in our public life today who can speak the way he did about love. He was able to do what those of us with more secular minds have trouble doing, to see love as something not only real but integral to the material structure of the world. When King spoke of love, he wasn’t speaking metaphorically. He wasn’t being merely rhetorical. King believed that radical love was a way of knowing the world that had actual influence in the world. Recently on S-USIH’s Facebook page, an accomplished and highly-regarded scholar posted a brief and powerful response to a challenge from the right for the left to state its principles. Among the principles this scholar stated was that “human rights are practicable if not verifiable.” I support this sentiment. But for King human rights were both practicable and verifiable due to his theology of love.

As a coda, a couple of random points:

  1. These arguments over the meaning of love had some place in the Houseboat Summit, a long conversation between Alan Ginsberg, Allan Watts, Gary Snyder, and Timothy Leary in February of 1967. The full transcript was printed in the Oracle—and in a way as to be practically unreadable. Lots and lots of words, in a tiny font size, sometimes white on black, sometimes black on white, and with the margins curved on some of the pages to form interesting shapes. Ginsberg, Snyder, and Watts were a little hard on Leary that day. They ganged up on the arriviste a bit, perhaps deservedly so.
  2. The Houseboat Summit was also part of the debate on the nature of revolution that I touched on in my last post. It was the same old contest between love and power. That debate, I wrote, was “fraught and agonized,” and in response a colleague tweeted, “as always.” That made me think of the recent, brilliant album by Childish Gambino called Awaken, My Love. Here the debate on the nature of revolution–in direct association with Black Lives Matter–is played out in a way that puts emotional data to the fore. Varieties of love that philosophers and theologians parse with precision—carnal love and the love consciousness that inspires political activism—are placed along a love continuum. Both, especially the first, can be blissful. The singers long to lose themselves in it. Yet the conscious component of love consciousness—the socio-cultural part, the being “woke”—can make those who happen to possess black bodies very paranoid, indeed. One of this album’s songs, “Redbone,” figures prominently in the film, Get Out, and for good reason. A highly recommended listen.

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