Flower Power Failure

The fortieth anniversary of The Beatles' pathbreaking Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band album last year gave birth to a virtual cottage industry of nostalgic journalists comparing today's events with those of four decades ago. Sure there are a few superficial similarities between 1968 and 2008 (America embroiled in an unpopular war abroad, for instance), but analysts are misreading the zeitgeist if they expect this generation to react to the political turbulence in the same way as the late lamented flower power children.

The flower power movement is arguably the most misunderstood of the sixties' legacies, being reviled equally by the left and the right. It has been accused of being cultish and immoral, ornamental and repulsive, substance lacking and substance abusing. The ambiguity in pigeonholing this mass community movement is evidence that it was nothing like anything before. While being readily embraced by counter-culture media like the Berkeley Barb, it remained relatively insulated from the passions being unleashed in Paris where students were flirting with a violent mix of Molotov cocktails.

In fact, flower power opposed the politics not only of the mainstream but also of the left. Hippies saw the confrontation tactics and mass demonstration of the anti-war movement as a mirror of the status quo, and attacked the Establishment with methods that were more evocative of Gandhian ahimsa. In one of the most poignant photographs of the era, flower children can be seen not only standing impassively before fully armed National Guards, but inserting flowers in the barrels of rifles that are pointed at them.

The movement realised that government policies were not the only forms of oppression that needed to be challenged-- liberation of the mind should impact both the workplace and the home, from the boardroom to the bedroom. They believed they had to go beyond traditional criticism and protests in order to challenge the square society; and this they accomplished with flair, using methods that were playful, imaginative, and improvised. When buses brought tourists to stare at Haight-Ashbury in 1967, hippies ran alongside holding up mirrors. This style made its mark on the movement's tactics, and demonstrated how new forms of protest and resistance could be created. The mind boggles at what could have been accomplished if these brilliant liberal free-thinkers had the power of the Internet in their hands!

Even as the movement imploded from an overdependence on drugs, the Establishment struck back with astonishing speed, demonising the excesses of the period and establishing a consumerist society to ensure that such social experiments were never attempted again. If it is true that art imitates life, then there is some truth in the caricature of today's latte-sipping YouTube generation who is not just impassive, but inert to events unfolding beyond the boundary of her personal space. Happily, the Presidential primaries in the United States have demonstrated a discernible growth in political awareness, as first-time voters are making their voices heard through the ballot-box.

Unfortunately, these faint rumblings have not yet reached the intensity of a mass movement, and therefore, drawing premature parallels between the sixties and the noughts stretch the limits of rational reasoning. It should also be remembered, if only as a wish-defiance, that 1968 killed the voices of two powerful hopemongers--Martin Luther King, Jr and Bobby Kennedy.

There's nothing in the streets,
Looks any different to me,
And the slogans are replaced, by-the-bye.
And the parting on the left,
Are now parting on the right,
And the beards have all grown longer overnight.
Meet the new boss
Same as the old boss.
The Who, Won't Get Fooled Again

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