The soul of this country has always been nurtured by people more interested in freedom than in regular baths: revolutionaries, pioneers, cowboys, Henry Thoreau and Walt Whitman all lived in sweat and dirt.
Yet in mainstream media I see a sentiment expressed time and time again: the Occupy movement would be great if it wasn’t just a bunch of dirty hippies. The implied notion is that to be dirty (presumably to be relatively unwashed- clothes muddied, hair greasy) and to be a hippy (someone committed to ideals of peace, equality, justice– someone more interested in love than in profit) are cardinal, unforgivable sins.
This attitude, popular as it is, is itself a sign of the incredible mental and moral distortion that our country is suffering.
The notion that dirty hippies are wrong and bad for the fact of being dirty and being hippies is a weird, dislocated and perverse remnant of the protestant-puritan work ethic ideal. It’s a notion that pretends to defend the dignity of clean, hard-working, upright people who live by the rules and produce the goods. These clean, decent people (we are meant to imagine) are being harassed and put-upon by folks who are so lazy and good-for-nothing that they refuse to even take a bath. The image of the dirty hippy is raised up as a resented foil— how dare someone relax their mandated hygiene schedule? How dare someone adopt principles that aren’t supportive of the existing paradigm when I have to shave and shower and get up for work in the morning?”
In a bizarre manipulative twist, people learn to hate and revile those individuals who are doing their best to live outside the oppressive system (those damn dirty hippies) rather than the oppressive, corrupt system itself.
Here’s something to consider, America: dirty hippies aren’t stealing your money; dirty hippies aren’t bleeding you dry with debt; dirty hippies didn’t get billion dollar bail-outs from the federal government. Who does that? Oh, that’s right– all those squeaky-clean, ultra-respectable bankers, that’s who. Out-of-control banks and corporations are the real threat to American decency and prosperity, not people who like to listen to Bob Marley and beat on drums.
Also, I’d like to advance a notion which may seem radical: the dirty hippies in my acquaintance are the hardest working people I know. They just don’t work for corporations. Instead they work doing things directly for the people immediately around them: caring for children, cooking donated food for free distribution to big groups, waitressing at small restaurants, building sacred art installations, teaching yoga, organizing community groups, skillfully repairing cars and musical instruments and clothing that others have discarded. All of those things take intense amounts of work.
That’s why I find it powerfully ironic when folks shout “Get a job!” at the Occupy Pittsburgh protesters standing with signs on the corner of 6th Avenue and Grant. As if a job was in itself an unassailable value. As if the vast majority of jobs weren’t repetitive, alienating, soul-deleting. No one needs a job. But we all need meaningful work and support to live.
Work is important. Work is tremendously valuable. Work is labor directed in such a way that the whole community benefits. That’s the kind of work that the puritan forefathers valued: work that kept the village alive and prospering. Labor done in the service of a gigantic corporation is not work in this sense. It doesn’t put value into the community so much as it extracts it. All those laboring in these kids of jobs are left feeling depleted, drained, purposeless. Their work has no obvious benefit to their community aside from the pay check it brings, and that is ever-shrinking. The value of their work floats off into the hands of their corporate overlords rather than extending to their children, their friends, their neighbors.
So then what happens? People become filled with ennui. They turn to pornography, drugs (both psychiatric and recreational– the distinction is perhaps not that substantial), alcohol, over-eating (witness the obesity epidemic), inane television. Anything to numb the pain of not being free, of not being allowed to live as their souls dictate. D.H. Lawrence said that people think freedom means being able to do whatever you want– but it doesn’t really mean that. Freedom means the ability to obey your own soul rather than an external authority, and it’s an ability that can be cultivated and exercised even in the most adverse conditions, even in conditions that mean it might be hard for you to wash your clothes and get a bath if you chose to obey your soul.
But that’s just the kind of freedom that dirty hippies are exercising, and they’re doing it on behalf of all of us. They deserve our gratitude much more than our scorn.