Tuesday, June 02, 2009


Ever the culture vulture, over the years I have immersed myself in the perennial wisdom of Plato, Aristotle, Marcus Aurelius (especially), Montaigne, Rousseau, and Kant--even Sade and Rimbaud. And one mustn’t forget the Rig Veda and the Heart Sutra, Confucius and the Daode Jing.

Yet I sometimes think that a competing source of wisdom (for me at least) lay in those ubiquitous buttons of the sixties and early seventies: 

"Pray for sex." 

"If it moves, fondle it." 

“Make love, not war.”

"Different strokes for different folks." (Isaiah Berlin labored long and hard to reach a similar conclusion.) 

"We are the people our parents warned us against." 

“Copulate, don’t populate.”

“Fly united.”

“Oral is moral.”

"Better blatant than latent." 

"Gay is good." 

"Before you ask, the answer is yes."

It’s a bit embarrassing, waxing nostalgic about the hippiesque oddments that linger in my mind. After decades of commercial exploitation, it is hard to recall the power of such precepts when they were fresh and new.

In our own day, the slogans show an affinity with blogging, since both involve discarding inhibitions. Moreover, the brevity of these lapidary slogans, most of which could be placed on a button, anticipated texting and Twitter. They were also a manifestation of collective thinking, somewhat in the manner of Wikipedia.

In the aggregate, the precepts embody a mindset that should not be ridiculed or lightly discarded. They convey a major positive message, and that is that affection, openly expressed, always trumps hostility and aggression.  One should avoid free-floating judgmentalism. There are many paths to fulfillment (“different strokes”). Don’t trash the choices of others; as long as they do not harm anyone, they are valid for those who pursue them. As regards the last precept cited, I’m not sure that the answer would always turn out to be yes, but affirmation should be our first impulse and not some automatic bleating of “no.”

At best the points made in the previous paragraph are lumbering, academic approximations. The slogans are not only more concise, they are more accurate.

That being said, perhaps it is best not to be carried away with enthusiasm. To be sure, the period around 1969 was a very stimulating and hopeful one. Most of us who who had the privilege of living in those wondrous years retain fragments of the emergent worldview.

Subscribing to the program in its totality is another matter, though. Many of the admonitions fostered “sexual permissiveness’ (as prudish squares would have put it). “Just do it!” In those days, of course, this advice seemed appealing and uncomplicated, especially as VD treatments were easily available. Drugs served to lower inhibitions. For most people that meant pot smoking (harmless) LSD (sometimes problematic, but widely believed to promote transformation of consciousness).

Yet all that was before the serpent was unleashed in Eden, in the form of HIV/AIDS, which appeared on schedule, so to speak, in 1981. The douze glorieuses, twelve years of demiparadise, came to an end.

All the slogans had their inventors, but these creative folks are for the most part unidentifiable today, and therefore unsung. An exception attaches to the brilliant “Better Blatant than Latent.” Marcus Magnus Overseth, who published the San Francisco Free Press, says that he created the slogan almost forty years ago (that would be May or June 1970) and that Time Magazine picked it up. From what I can tell, this claim is correct.

The Washington D.C. gay activist Frank Kameny coined the slogan “Gay is Good” in 1968. It was modeled on “Black is Beautiful,” showing the influence of the African American movement on gay liberation.

The admonition “Save water, shower with a friend” gained renown through its inclusion in Rado and Ragni’s “tribal rock” musical, “Hair,” which debuted in October 1967. However, I remember hearing the expression some months earlier. It riffed on a water shortage in New York City.

The musical’s powerful opening anthem did much to popularize the idea that a glorious New Age was beginning, the “Age of Aquarius.” Scholars of astrology have traced this meme back to the end of the Middle Ages, though there is no agreement as to when the Aquarian Age actually began--if indeed it has. If I recall correctly, the idea that the twentieth century would at last usher in the “era of harmony and understanding” first appeared in Gavin Arthur’s 1962 book, “The Circle of Sex.” A San Francisco resident and astrologer, Gavin Arthur (1901-1972) was the grandson of president Chester A. Arthur.

As a side note, I remember picking my way through the trash and panhandlers on the then-desolate Forty-second Street a good many years ago. Before me ambled a homeless man, jolly as could be. He was merrily singing about the dawning of the “Age of AQUARIUM.” Maybe he was right too.

[Hat tip to David Thorstad, who gave me a push in this direction. And thanks to Marcus Magnus Overseth for his confirmation.]



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