The War at Home

When John Dos Passos wrote his eloquent interior dissent about the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti in USA, he ended a white-hot condemnation of what would now be called the power structure with the blunt, fierce conclusion: “All right we are two nations.” That has always been true, but it seems even more true today. There has always been an “Other America,” not of poverty but of dissent and/or defection from the status quo, and though still a relatively small minority, it is now larger, more widespread, more fashionable in many circles, and therefore more threatening and frightening to the “straight" majority.

Michael Harrington made the point that the “Other America” of poverty was largely invisible to the rest of the nation and so was more easily ignored by it, but the “Other America” of dissent is now uniquely visible and therefore all the more difficult to ignore. The hippie costume and hairstyle have spread as far as the formerly crew-cut sanctuary of professional sports, with sideburned Joe Namath donning beads over his practice jersey, Joe Pepitone and Ken Harrelson setting the pace for baseball with long hair and mod outfits, and an angry Vince Lombardi attributing the downfall of the Green Bay Packers to “too many sideburns and blue shirts.”

No mother’s son is safe from the insidious influence of longhair looks and habits and thoughts. Anti-Establishment ideas, once limited to the tiny circulation of sober little weeklies, are spread through a truly grassroots underground press that is not restricted anymore to the intellectual enclaves of the two coasts, but springs up in places like Lansing, Michigan; Bloomington, Indiana; and Austin, Texas. The dissenter’s drug, marijuana, is as prevalent as booze during Prohibition: American soldiers smoke it in Vietnam and during Army Reserve summer camps, and Arlo Guthrie can get a knowing laugh from an audience at the Southern Illinois University campus at Edwardsville with a reference to the great pot shortage of the past summer.

As the whole configuration of attitudes, ideas, prejudices, and lifestyles associated with long hair and hippie garb spreads geographically, socially, and chronologically (down into high school, and up among balding Hollywood producers in Nehru jackets), so does the hostility increase among “straights” toward anyone whose dress or speech or opinions even superficially (as is so often the case) resemble the dissenter-defector group—or, as it is more commonly called among the crew-cut superpatriot set, the Hippie-Commie-Queer-PervertFags.

When I recently grew sideburns and let my hair creep down the back of my neck over my collar, I was sneeringly called a hippie by strangers; my manhood and my patriotism were questioned on streets and in stores; a TV interviewer discussing with me a book I had written suddenly stopped to ask—with obvious displeasure—why my hair was long (I told him, “So I can look subversive,” since I felt sure that’s how lie regarded it); some businessmen at a hotel convention asked if my long hair didn’t “bother me” (I said no, but it obviously bothered them); and all this while I was wearing the most innocuous straight outfits with button-down collars and proper thin ties and the sort of thing I think of as my “assistant district attorney suits.”God knows what greater and more venomous response I’d have got if I had sported a string of beads or a Nehru jacket. I wouldn’t much want to find out.

There is a real and growing violence in the society about these seemingly innocent and personal matters of costume, because the costume or any part of it has become such an emotionally loaded symbol. Future anthropologists may well conclude that the greatest internal conflict in America in the late 1960s was not between the rich and the poor, or the black and the white, or even the young and the old, but the people with long hair and the people with short hair.

The most powerful artistic statement I have seen about the hostility engendered in this conflict (it might be called the Cheat Haircut War) is the movie Easy Rider, starring Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper. and directed by Hopper, The movie is sometimes pretentious, sometimes pompous, often overly romantic and naïve, and yet for all its flaws it has raw power, it communicates something vital and real, and it sets against some of the most beautiful American landscapes some of the ugliest American emotions. It is like a shock treatment communicated through film, pounding home the feel and sight and terror of casual, unnecessary, wanton violence in the most convincing and horrifying manner I have ever seen on the screen.

It shows, incidentally, how silly it is to try to censor violence from the movies and television (or from any medium of communication) in the pious-prissy hope that if we don’t see it, evil will go away, and it we do, we will he encouraged to imitate it. There is a way of showing violence that is not glamorous, not heroic, not appealing, not manly, but as a nauseous, frightening revelation of the darkest, most twisted side of man, and that is how it is shown in this film. Easy Rider is instructive about the very real violence and hatred that runs through this society and is poisoning it, right now, this day, this minute. It is not pretty, it is not stimulating, it is not provocative. It is ugh and painful, and we had better face it if we are to have any chance of surviving it, much less curing it.

The movie is not one long dramatization of violence, but builds to it, deceptively, innocently, in a way that increases the shock when it finally comes. The movie falls into three main parts, the first of which is a sort of hippie travelogue that is mainly impressive for its scenery of the Southwest. The two hippies, Fonda (“Wyatt,”also known as “Captain America”) and Hopper ("Billy”), make a highly profitable sale of some cocaine they score in Mexico to a sinister-looking connection in Los Angeles, and with the money stashed in the red-white-andblue Stars-and-Stripes painted fuel tank of Wyatt’s motorcycle, they take off east for New Orleans, camping out when the motel-owners turn them away after casing their fancy motorcycles and their far-out costumes of leather and boots and buckskin. They get high on grass around their campfires, Billy talks frenetically of what a gas it’s going to he at Mardi Gras, Wyatt nods and remains supercool and uncommunicative except for cliché-hippie insights such as “I’m trying to get my thing together.”They pick up an Indiangarbed hitchhiker who takes them to his commune, and that whole scene is treated with ultra-reverence, as if we are getting a glimpse of some small tribe of Aztec holy men going about their rituals.

Just at the point when I began to fear that the whole movie was going to continue entirely in this vein of See the Kindly Hippies on Their Fun Trip Through the Southwest, the whole pace and texture of the story changed. It happens when Wyatt and Billy are thrown into a small-town jail and find themselves sharing a cell with a local lawyer who has been on a boozy spree the night before but is treated gently by the cops, who know him and his respectable parents and are familiar with his weakness for the bottle. George the lawyer, played with perfect wit and style by Jack Nicholson (who should cop everybody’s award for best supporting actor), is the prototype of the sharp but alcoholically self-destructive local lawyer, wanting to break out of his life but unable to make it.

George takes a liking to the hippies and gets them off with only a $25 fine, a far better punishment than the usual local custom of shaving any longhairs with rusty razors and kicking them out of town. George looks longingly at their bikes and their plan to go to New Orleans —he has meant to do that himself but never got around to it—and Wyatt asks him if he has a helmet. He says he sure does, and in the next scene we see him perched on the back of Wyatt’s motorcycle, wearing his old college football helmet, his varsity letter sweater, and his white summer suit, happily waving to the world and guzzling on a pint of whiskey. Wyatt turns him on to grass, and George gets high and gives a hilarious virtuoso analysis of how the “Venutians” are taking over the earth.

This unlikely trio of comrades suddenly run into trouble when they stop at a small-town diner in Louisiana and get the hostile stares, the crude comments, and the slow, murderous threats (rolled out with voluptuous pleasure) from the local sheriff and assorted crew-cut hemen (as well as the giggling, fascinated attention of a boothful of teen-age girls). This scene, incidentally, is especially authentic: Hopper shot it in a small-town café and asked the customers to say and do what they ordinarily would if three such characters on motorcycles came into the place to get a bite to eat. When the trio finally leave, without getting served, they camp in a woods farther down the road. That night, asleep around their still smoking campfire, they are set upon and beaten with lead pipes by the all-American fellows who saw them earlier in the café, and George is killed.

The movie then shifts into its darker, explosive, final portion. Billy’s frenetic efforts to have a ball at Mardi Gras are doomed and pathetic, and Wyatt goes through it like a sleepwalker. They take out a couple of expensive prostitutes and the four of them go on a symbolladen, cliché-ridden acid trip, and then the guys move on. But their tooling down the roads of rural America is not carefree anymore. The spirit is gone, everything seems overcast and foreboding. Wyatt, before going to sleep that night, sums up the feeling of what has become of the originally bright adventure, saying “Billy, we blew it.”

The next day, on a rural Southern road, they are passed by a truck with a couple of red-necks who decide to have a little fun, and by their definition of that, one of them takes down a rifle from a rack in the cab of the truck and guns down Billy. His motorcycle bolts and careens, spilling him in a wreck of blood and metal. Wyatt turns back and examines the mess, sees Billy broken but still conscious, swearing under his breath that he’ll get the bastards. Wyatt jumps on his bike and goes for help, but the red-necks in the truck turn back and fire on Wyatt, whose motorcycle leaps in a horrible spasm of flame and explosion. That is the end.

It is difficult to convey the horror of the scene in a summary of the action. I left the movie feeling battered and shaken and weighted with the final question it poses, without ever openly stating the word, but putting all its weight on your head: Why?

Why the needless death and destruction of these fairly innocuous, generally pleasant, and harmless young men? Because their hair is long? Because they dress in colorful costumes and ride motorcycles? The answer of course on one level is Yes, that’s it — but still, Why? What is so threatening about these external symbols that brings forth a hatred deep enough to lead to murderous violence?

In the only verbal confrontation with the theme of the movie, George the lawyer attempts to answer that question. He tells Wyatt and Billy after the scene in the café that the straights and the red-necks hate them because they represent freedom, and that is terrifying to them because they aren’t free themselves. George argues that most people “sell themselves everyday in the marketplace” and are afraid to break out of their standard routine or even to question it, are filled with fear and hatred of anyone who has done so. He says the superpatriots speak piously about democratic rights and freedom for all under the American system and they praise “rugged individualism,” but when they actually see someone behaving or even dressing in a way that differs from the accepted norm, they are enraged by it, and want to stamp it out.

I think so far as it goes that is true, but it is only part of the story. I don’t pretend to know all the answers by any means, but I don’t think the hatred of people regarded as hippies springs only from the sense that they may represent personal freedom to some people. The violence directed against the hippies is similar in many ways to the violence against the Negro in this country. The gunning down of Wyatt and Billy by the red-necks reminded me of a story reported by Murray Kempton about a woman newspaper editor in the Deep South whose life was in danger because she had dared to write and publish something everyone in the area knew but didn’t question—the “sport” of the local sheriff who liked to drive around his county and shoot at any Negroes he spotted walking along the roads. Sometimes he just scared them, made them run, and maybe just wounded them. Other times he might kill them. It didn’t seem to matter much to him. It was like hunting rabbits.

God knows the Negro in America doesn’t represent “freedom” to those who hate him and have tortured and killed him—except, and this is obviously important—in the mythology of the Negro’s sexual freedom and prowess. This mythology is also attributed to the hippies, the specter of dope and sex and free love orgies, tend certainly this creates fear and hatred and envy among many law-abiding, right-thinking, Godfearing citizens of the type who only make it at out-of-town conventions or drunken parties, if at all.

But I think there is more than that, too, in the violent hatred of hippies. I think it springs in part from our national fear and distrust and dislike of anyone and anything different from the norm, the great irony and tragedy of a nation founded on diversity and fearing it, a society devoted to erasing all differences of nationality and putting everyone into the same “melting pot,” a process that hopefully produces a standardized, production-line human who is stamped with approval as “all-American.” Not just part, but all. Just as being “all-American” is the best thing in the eyes of the majority, the worst thing is being “unAmerican,” which means anything not practiced or approved of by the majority itself.

Well, you may think the talk of violence about these matters is really exaggerated; you may argue that Hopper loaded his case, that he portrayed an extreme and untypical reaction to the hippies of his story. But there is gruesome evidence to the contrary. Hopper and Fonda, riding through the rural roads and stopping in small towns to shoot scenes for the movie, were themselves surprised at the degree of hostility engendered by their motorcycles and their dress. In an interview in the New York Times, Hopper said:

Every restaurant, man, every roadhouse we went in, there was a Marine sergeant, or a football coach who started with Look at the Commies, the queers, is it a boy or a girl?” We expected that. But the stories we heard along the way, man, true stories of kids getting their heads broken with clubs or slashed with rusty razor blades—rusty blades, man -just because they passed through town with long hair. And not just in the South. In Montrose, Colorado, where we made “True Grit,” I walked into a bar and immediately a guy swung at me, screaming, “Get outta here, my son’s in Vietnam,” and the local sheriff was right behind him, screaming that his son was in Vietnam, and I said, “Now wait a minute,” that I was an actor and there with the movie, whereupon the boys’ high school counselor started screaming to get out, that his son was in Vietnam. And I thought “What if I wasn’t an actor, what if I was just traveling through and was thirsty?” So I said “Okay, I’m hitchhiking to the peace march,” whereupon eight guys jumped me. Incredible, but true, I swear.

Nor are Hopper and Fonda the only ones to find such reactions. Another recent long-haired traveler through America, the young, rather gentle rebel James Kunen, author of The Strawberry Statement, sent dispatches of his hitchhiking trip to the Boston Globe and in one installment described meeting in a luncheonette in Sante Fe a man he called “The Exterminator,” after hearing his belief that the hippies contribute nothing, have in fact descended from the human race and should be slaughtered like pigs. In Russia or China they would be killed, he said. Therefore, since they are not sufficiently grateful to this country for letting them live, they should be killed.

Kunen also found that many of the increasing number of communes formed by hippies who want to get out of the cities “are in a state of siege,” and he reported after visiting a commune near Taos, New Mexico, that

the hippies have been regularly brutalized, in some instances castrated, in one instance killed. The hippies themselves told me nothing, barely talked, seemed constantly stoned more out of necessity than choice.

What is one to conclude about this? Why can’t people in a “free society” go to the woods if they choose and buy some land and build shelters and raise their own food without fear of being set upon by bands of sadistic bullies? Hopper told the New York Times interviewer:

I dunno, it’s a nightmare. What I want to say with Easy Rider is “Don’t be scared, go and try to change America, but if you’re gonna wear a badge, whether it’s long hair, or black skin, learn to protect yourself. Go in groups, but go. When people understand they can’t tromp you down, maybe they’ll start accepting you, accepting all the herds.”

Maybe so, but for all our rhetoric about tolerance and individual freedom there is little in our national experience to give much hope to that dream of acceptance. Again, one comes to the mysterious Why? Why does it enrage so many people to see others living differently or even just looking different from the majority? Why does it matter if someone has black skin, or wears beads and bells and feathers? What in the name of God does it matter to you if your neighbor chooses to wear a lemon meringue pie on his head? If he doesn’t make you wear one, what business is it of yours?

Maybe Kunen came close to one aspect of the puzzle when he told of passing a car on the highway that had a bumper sticker that said “America—Love it or Leave it" and making an obscene gesture at the people in the car. He observed that “I probably didn’t shake them up that much. But they should have appreciated it. If it weren’t for people like me, they wouldn’t have a damn thing to stick on their bumper.”

Maybe we need enemies and scapegoats at home as well as abroad. Maybe the hippies need them too. The hatred and violence is not limited to the crew-cuts and red-necks, for in spite of all the rhetoric about love and peace, violence and hate break out from the longhairs too. Most hippies are intolerant and suspicious of people who don’t wear their uniform, people who don’t share their beliefs and attitudes and don’t speak in their monotonous hip lingo. Right, man? There is nothing so pious as the holier-than-thou contempt of a pothead for a nonsmoking drinker. The most virtuous and well-meaning patriot would still get an obscene gesture from James Kunen for sporting a pro-America bumper sticker, just as James Kunen is sure to get obscene gestures from hostile straights for sporting his long hair.

Out of fear as well as hostility some hippies who have been physically assaulted are talking of arming themselves, or already have. A group of rock musicians and buddies consulted with a friend of mine about their plan to purchase a castlelike house in Southern California and fortify it with guns to repel vigilantes or fuzz. A writer I know who went to the Chicago Democratic Convention last year met a group of young kids from Michigan who modeled themselves on the Viet Cong, lived off the land, hid out in friendly houses and farms, and blew up sections of railways that carried military supplies. A native Viet Cong— in Michigan!

It seems as if all the “herds” are arming, even for the cause of peace. There is a sort of “Citizens Arms Race.” The Black Panthers have armed themselves and are being increasingly gunned down in shootouts with local cops. The superpatriots in cities where riots have occurred have armed themselves and prepare for street fighting. In cultured, gang-ridden Boston, fifty-eight people were murdered in the first six months of this year. Our different herds are becoming more and more like hostile guerrilla bands. If the Administration ever gets us out of the war in Vietnam, maybe it will turn its attention to the wars in Michigan and Mississippi and California. The guerrilla wars within our own increasingly affluent and increasingly violent society may well be the most dangerous wars this country will face in the coming decade. Easy Rider may only be a preview.