Hip(pie) Flip-Flop

Ari Melber, guest on All in with Chris Hayes, on June 10, 2014:

“They used to say, ’Don’t trust anyone over forty…’”

 Whoa, whippersnapper! You were ten years off. As someone who graduated from college on the cusp of the Summer of Love (1967, when the deliciously smoky notes of The Doors’ Light My Fire wafted from transistor radios), I recoil at the thought that we budding counter-culturists could’ve even imagined turning forty. Hence the real byword: “Don’t trust anyone over thirty.”

The Coiner

Though often credited to hippie prankster Abbie Hoffman, the phrase was coined by the lesser-known Jack Weinberg, a grad student at UC–Berkeley and a key figure in the incident that sparked the Berkeley Free Speech Movement. The date was October 1, 1964, when the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War were in full swing and a ban of on-campus political activity at Berkeley was in place, But Weinberg took a chance: As head of the campus chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), he set up a tableful of pamphlets on the racial oppression he had recently observed in the Deep South.

In raced the campus cops, and Weinberg sat in a police car for 36 hours and watched as some 30,000 protesters listened to speeches and sang “We Shall Overcome.” (To no one’s surprise, the protestor-friendly police officers kept him fed and comfortable for the duration.) If the movement was a cause célèbre to some and an utter disgrace to others, it caught the nation’s attention and made the Berkeley protests a model for campus demonstrations countrywide.

But back to the “don’t trust” meme.* Years later, Weinberg revealed how he happened to come up with it:

I was being interviewed by a newspaper reporter who kept asking me who was “really” behind the student action, implying we were being directed by Communists or some other sinister group. I told him we had a saying in the movement that we didn’t trust anyone over thirty—a way of telling the guy to back off, and that no one was pulling our strings.

A San Francisco Chronicle columnist was to first to publicize Weinberg’s coinage, and newspapers across the country were quick to pick up on what seemed a rallying cry for young Americans catching the hippie/pro-social justice/anti-war train. But time marched on, and by the 1980s the defiant phrase had fallen by the wayside. And Jack Weinberg? He moved from memberships (and advocacy for) labor unions to a job with Greenpeace to one with the Environmental Health Fund to environmental consulting in developing countries. And in April 2014 he entered his 75th year. (The math: 75 = 30 x 2.5.)

* The Free Speech Movement is older than the word meme, first seen in The Selfish Gene (1976), by the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. Said Dawkins, ‘We need a name for… a noun that conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation. ‘Mimeme’ comes from a suitable Greek root, but I want a monosyllable that sounds a bit like ‘gene’.” Today’s dictionaries define Dawkins’s word as “a term, idea, or element of social behavior passed on through a culture, especially by imitation.”

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