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Eyes Wide Open

James O'Brien

The Pioneer Press story about the now-infamous G.I. Joe giveaway at the July 5 Twins game came with the subheadline, "Peaceniks rip team's idea to honor military." A few weeks earlier, on the first day of the Ronald Reagan memorial onslaught, Gov. Tim Pawlenty held a press conference to claim, "My first political action was to distribute Reagan leaflets (in 1980) on the West Bank. The hippies heckled me, but I didn't care."

Peaceniks. Hippies. Jesus H. Christ. That is where we are, in the great name-calling race of 2004, and, apparently, that is what we have become, all of us, any of us, who don't fit neatly into the God-and-country demo or who question a culture that sells war and games. With a single word, an editor at a respected daily newspaper can cavalierly marginalize an entire group of thinkers, and a governor can do the same thing with a richer-than-thou smirk, never mind the fact that punks and new wavers were more common on the West Bank of Minneapolis in 1980, and that any "hippies" Pawlenty had to muddy his skirt with were probably just working folks.

Make no mistake, both words are with-us-or-against-us conservative code for traitors, but they haven't always been invoked with such ceaseless derision. As British word scholar Michael Quinion writes, "The first use of the word 'hippie' was in the '50s. There are several theories about the origin of the word, including one from the opium smokers' 'on the hip' (as they reclined while smoking), through the West African Wolof language word hipcat meaning 'one who has his eyes wide open.'" And the first use of peacenik was in 1965, derived from beatnik, though etymologists note that its earlier equivalent peacemonger was first used in 1808.

The two words have rich histories, but unlike Pawlenty and the Pioneer Press, I don't know a single soul I could so easily reduce to a one-word explanation--but I'm working on it, and I'll try to have it ready for you by the end of this page. It's tough, though, because all I can think of is the group of friends I spent the day of the Reagan memorial with at a cabin in Wisconsin. Most of us spent the '80s hanging out in rock bars and bitching about Reagan, but, even though our roots are in punk rock (whose roots are more in line with the so-called hippie ethos than most latter-day punks would care to admit) and its various offshoots, more than 20 years later there was no group-think to be had. One friend admitted to bawling her eyes out when she saw a photograph of Nancy Reagan with her hand on her husband's coffin--a strain of empathy I and a few others couldn't muster.

Still, the main thing we have in common is a distrust of government, especially the current government, and a worldview that is more dove than hawk. We fall under no particular demographic umbrella; to call the lot of us (singles, parents, couples, musicians, librarians, dentists, kids) hippies or peaceniks serves only to identify us as the enemy within.

To be sure, hippie or peacenik would fit the group of students I sat with last week in a class at the Zen Center of Minneapolis, but even then they don't play. They came from all walks of life, ranging in age from early 20s to early 60s. Many sat on pillows, most were in their bare feet, all listened to the instructor talk about the Buddhist tenet that there is only the here and the now, and about how awakenings take place frequently, not once or twice in a lifetime. Several wise minds weighed in with their own interpretations of nowness and nature, and, to heighten the moment, the instructor read aloud from the preface to Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass:

This is what you shall do: Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to everyone that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul; and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body.

As he read, I thought about my own individuality, how very complicated absolutely everybody I know is, and about the outside world and how it too often goes untouched by poetry and the likes of Whitman. It's the same feeling I get when I hear great live music--why can't this be translated to the larger world?--which made me think about the gaggle of fed-up hippies and peaceniks (Golden Smog, the Honeydogs, the Ike Reilly Assassination, Iffy, Martin Devaney, etc.) who will storm First Avenue this Sunday in a fundraiser for John Kerry.

What they will do is get over their political differences and aversions, and gather because they have been called names by the powers that be that amount to fighting words. They will be drawn by a spirit I learned from a woman who has more guts than any of her nation's leaders, so much so that when she was raising a family in the '60s, she put a "White Racism Must Go" sign in the front yard that elicited a few threatening calls from the neighbors. I call her one thing: Mom.

For her and the rest of us, I wonder what all-inclusive moniker we can fly under? I've been working on it, and the only thing I can come up with is people, of which Quinion writes, "There is evidence from Chaucer onwards that some writers chose to use people as a plural for person, not only in the generalized sense of 'an uncountable or indistinct mass of individuals' but also in specific countable cases."


Jim Walsh can be reached at 612.372.3775 or [email protected].

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