What a long, strange, and violent trip it’s been

Originally published at The Benfell Blog. Please leave any comments there.

Driving cab in Marin County is, or at least was, for the most part a pretty mellow experience. These days, the companies have grown and I think there are a lot more cabs—and I imagine it is a lot harder to make a living.

But when I was doing it, it was a basic suburban experience with a fair number of rich folks who would occasionally need rides to the airport (I got more airport trips while driving in Marin than I ever did in San Francisco), drunks at the Fairfax bars that no one wanted to go out for, and the occasional icon from the 1960s—I remember a member of I think it was Terry and the Pirates who would get drunk at the Silver Peso in Larkspur and then need a ride home to Madrone Canyon. I got the impression that there was a lot of psychedelic history living out their lives on the slopes of Mount Tamalpais.

None of that prepared me for one night when I was dispatching towards the end of my shift. A call came in for a ride from Mill Valley to Redwood City Kaiser, with a one-hour wait, and return. On the one hand, if it was a good ride, it was a very good ride. On the other hand, it was a weird call—and dispatchers learn that weird calls are often bad calls—and the one-hour wait, towards the end of most drivers’ shifts (so they would be paying overtime during that wait) seemed like a recipe for trouble if I actually gave the order out.

My relief dispatcher had arrived. She heard me take the order. So did the Belaire Dispatcher in the next office. Among us, there was no dispute as to what happened next. I owned my own cab (and was not allowing anyone else to drive it) and I took the order. I don’t think I even wrote it down on the dispatch log but on a scrap piece of paper.

I drove down to Mill Valley. The customer came out and we began the trek to Redwood City. He took out his cell phone, called someone, and identified himself as “Wavy Gravy.” He was talking about “Ram Dass.” I figured these were bogus pseudonyms and continued driving.

We arrived at the Kaiser and he told me it would be an hour and a half—a bad sign: the order had been for an hour wait. Two hours later, I was still waiting. Another driver would surely have blown off the order by now, anxious to cut his losses and get his cab back before paying any more overtime than he had to. But because I owned my cab and didn’t have to turn it in, I could wait, and eventually, my customer came out. I drove him back to Mill Valley and he paid me with a credit card.

A couple days later, I read in the newspaper that Ram Dass—the real Ram Dass—had suffered a stroke. This order had been genuine from beginning to end and if I hadn’t taken it myself, it would surely have turned out badly.

I’m thinking about that in the wee hours this morning, because it was my only real brush with the 1960s counterculture. I actually lived in San Francisco during the Summer of Love, not very far away from the Haight-Ashbury, in the Richmond District. In 1967, I was eight years old; my father kept me well away. I only remember boarded-up storefronts after it was all over.

But the sense that I had missed something was, for me, palpable. Probably none of my schoolmates felt it; by the time I was in high school, I was already sensing a backlash that would continue for decades.

And I’m still piecing the story together. Bettina Aptheker’s Intimate Politics: How I grew up Red, Fought for Free Speech, and Became a Feminist Rebel (Emeryville, CA: Seal Press, 2006) here. Some books by Angela Davis there. Dim recollections of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Knowledge that a lot of black leaders got killed.

The counterculture movement, for me, decades later and not having actually experienced it, still represents a time when things could have come out differently. It was a time when all the values of society were open to challenge. It was a time when opposition to war meant something, when sexual repression was abandoned, when people experimented with altered awareness (usually with the help of drugs). I truly believe it was an opportunity for sanity.

It was also a time when the strands of history weave together to produce a different result from anything anyone could have imagined. And much to my surprise, I now think this is still playing out.

I’ve commented in the past about how capitalists need consumers to over-consume their overproduction and that our economic system relies upon this unsustainability. The counterculture challenged that and had to be suppressed on those grounds alone.

But another strand in the weave was in 1968, when Lyndon Johnson announced that the U.S. would sponsor Israel and about a month later, Sirhan Sirhan shot Robert F. Kennedy. Kennedy, who had sought the Jewish vote by supporting the move, died; and Richard Nixon was elected president.

Nixon expressed his own hatred and the hatred of a lot of other people in a lot of ways. But it seems like the shootings at Kent State (see also here) stand out. Adam Curtis, in his “The Century of the Self” series (parts 1, 2, 3, and 4) series (broadcast on BBC channel 4 in 2002), claims that counterculture movement leaders saw that they could not prevail against the mightiest military power in the world. So they turned inwards, in what became the Human Potential movement, on the theory that if people liberated their minds from the repressive state, the state would become superfluous.

Curtis explains that capitalists eventually figured out how to subvert the Human Potential movement by marketing to people’s “individuality.” The result is, I gather, an even more intensely and viciously individualist society than what we had before, a society that has accumulated so much debt (while feeding capitalist greed and neoconservative lust for war) that I believe it must surely collapse. We have exported the jobs that pay the taxes that can ever get us out of this mess.

I think Paul Krugman, Bob Herbert, and everyone else who ways we need jobs for a real recovery are right. But the possibility that the U.S. economy will ever again be “competitive,” ironically the very rationale for economic globalization, is gone. And a message of climate change is that even if the economy could somehow be resuscitated, the environment will not support it.

In hindsight, it very much appears, that as I suspected, the detested hippies of the 1960s were right. And our vicious efforts to suppress the counterculture have exacerbated the very problems they warned us of. I imagine they’ve long since paid off their mortgages on the slopes of Mount Tamalpais.

And while the financial system continues to struggle with toxic subprime mortgages, it is the rest of us who cannot pay our debt to the earth.