I recently began reading Abbie Hoffman’s 1969 book Woodstock Nation. Two portions particularly caught my eye. One was the following from “Thorns of the Flower Children.”
They were sick of being programmed by an educational system void of excitement, creativity, and sensitivity. A system that channeled human beings like so many laboratory rats with electrodes rammed up their asses into a highly mechanized maze of class rankings, degrees, careers, neon supermarkets, military-industrial complexes, suburbs, repressed sexuality, hypocrisy, ulcers, and psychoanalysts.
Education will be a subject of a future posting on this topic, but not today. After the initial assault of reading this passage, I felt that mixture of wanting to soften it for those involved in the system who are indeed doing good work and the feeling that nothing had really changed in nearly 40 years. I was 13 at the time Hoffman wrote this, and was fully enmeshed in middle class comfort. So, the radical hippie message was an alien voice to me.
But, today, after more than 30 years in the American higher education system, I am beginning to speak Hoffman’s language. Dealing with the bureaucracy and, too often, hypocrisy of a system that is bankrupting our youth financially and perhaps in other more important ways, has left me cynical.
Then, I read further in Hoffman’s book, to a selection titled “Che’s Last Letter.” I saw Motorcycle Diaries when it came out and then read Che’s Diary. The writing did not reflect the angry image I was taught as a child, but a gentle and reflective person. After calling for the youth of the United States to join in the revolution, Hoffman’s chapter continues
“What is so revolutionary about your revolution?” But, of course, you are cynical. Your universities teach you to be eternal cynics, a cynicism that can only be drowned in alcohol and diet pills and psychoanalysis and golf. Forget your cynicism…You must vomit forth your cynicism on the streets of your cities…
One may argue with the content or philosophy of the revolution. But, this passage speaks to a truth that the motivation to effect change in the world may only begin with the seed of cynicism. In order to view the illusions we live in, and grow the tree of a new way, we must shed cast aside cynicism as our primary tool. We must be willing to put aside the axe and use the shovel and how. We must always use the microscope, but add poetry and song. A revolution in society must be born of reason, but also passion.
A humanist vision can be critical of our current progress and helps us break down centuries-old paradigms and institutions. But, the intellectualism of the humanist vision needs to embrace the cocktail of Hoffman’s anger and Che’s compassion. Cynicism can serve as a primary vehicle to disillusion. We should water our tree of transformation, however, with the sweat of our determination, the wine of our creativity, and the tears of our love.