I’m almost glad I wasn’t alive in the 60s. I mean, it was an exciting time, full of promise and change, but also a fairly confusing time. It’s nice to have 50 years or so in between myself and those years, if only to sit down and take a good look at what happened.
There was a lot of stuff going on then. A lot. Too much to examine at one time, I think. There’s an entire sea change that took place, apparently overnight. And for better or worse, we live in the shadow of the 60s even today.
What interests me more than anything else about the 60s is how the culture shifted. Or more to the point, how a counter-culture developed (for good reasons; the culture of the 20s-50s was pretty corrupt under its gloss of flag and family), and then how the counter-culture became the culture.
At some point, the rebels won. No-one realised it at the time, but they won.
But at the same time, they lost. Perhaps the rebels and hippies and whatever else managed to inject a bit of their ethic into society at large, but what they got back was more than they could bargain for. I should mention that at no time do I think the culture co-opted the counter-culture. No, I think they are one and the same. Or at least at some point they became one and the same.
It helps to imagine the counter-culture as a consumer class. Because above all else, they defined themselves by what they wore and what they bought. There’s a reason the VW van took off (hopefully not too literally, not too often). They appealed to the counter-culture.
And when the counter-culture bought it, those symbols became the currency of the new economy. Instead of standing apart from the culture, the counter-culture bought a bunch of stuff, created their own culture, and when you do that, people try to sell you things.
So began the cycle of “rebellious” fashions. Why sell a man three suits, a bunch of shirts, and some under-shirts that will last him years and maybe decades, when you can find the next big thing next year and have him cycle his clothes regularly?
Even better than that, have him believe that he’s going against the Man by wearing stuff his parents or his parents parents wouldn’t approve of. Who cares, as long as you sell him something.
This puts the lie to counter-culture right there. Every movement begins as an underground thing, moves mainstream, and then falls out of fashion. This isn’t because the lean, mean capitalist machine is co-opting all the good stuff (most companies couldn’t make something cool if they tried), but because the counter-culture is (as the culture was) inherently capitalistic. It defines itself with things, with fashion, with hair, with jewellery, with music, with anything that can give you some sort of cache, some sort of cool.
I’ll go out on a limb and say that the most rebellious thing you can do in today’s society is opt out of that. Opt out of the cycle of cool. Opt out of the business of status symbols. Opt out of keeping up with the Joneses, but also opt out of the cutting edge.
Materialism comes in all kinds of forms. For me, it used to be chasing cool. Comparative cool, I’d hasten to add, but cool nonetheless. Now I think it might be the desire to be at the forefront of technological churn (as of me writing this, I very much want an iPad 2; someone slap me please). For you it might be something else.
The real insight in all of this is to stop defining ourselves with things. Or, at least, with things you can buy. If you’re looking for a thing to define yourself with, try an empty cross. Try an empty tomb. No-one’s ever going to try to get you to opt out of love. No-one’s going to try to get you to opt out selflessness. Chase qualities. Or, if you want to say it the way Jesus would have said it, store up for yourselves treasures in heaven. There is, after all, no property crime in heaven. The kingdom doesn’t rust. And the kingdom is now.