By Segan Helle
Remembering the political origins of counterculture.
By SEGAN HELLE
The story of American counterculture is well-known. Rooted in sixties era fears and frustrations, counterculture arose as a challenge to American politics and culture. Youths began to reject imperialist Cold War policies and continued intervention in Vietnam. They were disenchanted with social values of materialism and conservatism. They turned against authority and turned to explorations of alternatives. The New Left was formed. Hippies flooded Haight-Ashbury. The feminist movement found momentum.
The punk subculture soon followed, bringing with it new music, new fashion, and the same ideology. Tie-dye and sandals were replaced with leather and Doc Martens. Body modifications, like tattoos, dyed hair, and piercings became symbols of non-conformity. Riot grrl swept the Northwest. Ideas of traditional gender-expression were inverted and thrown out.
It is difficult to pinpoint what today’s counterculture is. My guess is that it is an amalgamation of its predecessors, found in D.I.Y. scenes, far-left activist circles, and community art gatherings. Generally speaking, at the point counterculture is identified for what it is, it has already become mainstream. The most recent identified counterculture in the US was hipsterism in the early 2000s, which today is about as anti-establishment as the Starbucks brand.
Historically, counterculture has encompassed a litany of differing political views. However, at the center of American counterculture have stood a core of left-wing ideals. Those within American counterculture were generally viewed as anti-racist, anti-capitalist, pacifist, feminist, environmentalist, and, most of all, anti-establishment.
However, it is important to note that what we view as historic counterculture has largely been trends of white, middle class youth and the practices that have been passed down from them are not always necessarily true to those ideals. As time distances us from what most consider the first big American countercultural evolution of the sixties and trends from different subcultures are subverted and reeled into the mainstream, it is easy to forget the histories of each movement and become further removed from the ideology that surrounds it.
Take tattoos for example. Tattoos have a long history in the United States, but really came to popularity as a result of the punk movement which associated tattoos with individuality and rebellion. Modern tattoos in America thus have a deep link to the punk subculture and its ideology – an ideology entrenched in anti-racist and anti-establishment practices. But, it is important to remember that, according to the Smithsonian, western tattooing practices were taken from native Polynesian cultures, which were later subjugated under European powers.
Today, some popular tattoos use images or languages from Native, Hispanic, or Southeast Asian cultures. Tattoos of dream catchers, mandalas, buddhist iconography, calaveras, and other patterns and designs that hold cultural significance for different communities are stripped of their histories and contexts and appropriated by those outside of the culture. This comes at a harm to the communities that the imagery originated from: their culture is abstracted and stripped of its roots to be commodified, while they have often been oppressed by western forces for practicing that very same culture which is now only seen for its aesthetic value.
Modern and historic countercultural trends and practices often come into the mainstream at the expenses of people of color. The hippie movement in the sixties often appropriated southeast asian and native cultural practices. Hipsterism is largely linked to the gentrification of lower-income black and brown communities. Today, thrift shops are morphing more and more with high-scale boutiques that price out the people shop there by necessity, as a result of a growing countercultural trend of “thrifting” for clothes that mirrors past subculture’s desires for individuality and anti-corporate consumerism.
When countercultural trends are picked up by the mainstream but the ideologies are left behind, we forget that counterculture has always been something more than just being edgy. Counterculture, at its core, is political. It has always been meant to challenge the status quo. Its roots are anchored in activism, challenging everything from imperialism to gender norms. Everything must be remembered in context and counterculture is nothing without its revolutionary politics.
Segan Helle ([email protected]) loves punk music and countercultural fashion trends, but loves the political spirit even more.