Day 201: The Diggers Take Aim

originally published July 19, 2012

There was a time long ago, before caring became unhip and irony closed its shutters on the glaring sun, when joining a movement was – to many, anyhow – a rite of passage within one’s internal sense of community. Sure, the “99%” movement is still going strong today… or so I suspect. It’s hard to say; once they dropped out of the 24-hour news media cycle, most people I know stopped keeping up with them. Our local Occupy protest was shut down last year, with relocation penciled in by its organizers, but it never really happened.

Sometimes it seems the 1960s counterculture movement has been reduced in the collective consciousness to a stereotype, a mass gathering of bright-colored clothing and guys who all look and sound like Tommy Chong’s character on That 70’s Show. This is a tragedy of our narrow attention spans. Our parents (and, let’s face it, grandparents) wanted to change the world, and truly believed they could.

Ideas for social change bubbled in a virtual froth through the youth generation of the 1960s, some feasible and productive, others mired in faulty premises and unattainable outcomes. Some of the talented kids started bands to preach their messages. Others were more comfortable in the realm of theatre.

Enter the Diggers.

It’s hard to classify the Diggers as an improv troupe, but that’s technically what they were, just as the closely-related San Francisco Mime Troupe is technically a theatre group (not a mime group, so they will be spared my scorn at the foul art of mimery). But both organizations were primarily focused on the message behind their art.

The Diggers grabbed their name from a 17th century agrarian movement in England, in which a bunch of farmers figured their lives would be better if everyone lived in small egalitarian communities, redefining the notions of property and entitlement. They set up colonies, similar to the peacenik communes that dotted the western landscape in the later years of the counterculture movement. And much like the communes of 40 years ago, ye olde Diggers didn’t experience a lot of staying power in their carefully crafted lives off the grid.

Both the farmer-Diggers of long ago and the actor-Diggers of San Francisco detested capitalism. The SF Diggers published a manifesto declaring money to be an evil thing. They called upon the citizens of San Francisco to assemble and “turn in” all of their money to the Diggers for equitable redistribution. No word on how many people took that seriously.

I suspect not even the Diggers themselves took this concept seriously. But they did believe to their core that a moneyless society based on true principles of socialism (not the Red Menace bastardization that at the time was the scourge of the establishment generation) was the most logical progression of the human race. And so the Diggers set an example. They started giving stuff away.

The Diggers’ free stores, which were set up in the Haight-Ashbury region of San Francisco for as long as the inventory lasted, gave away free food, medical care, transportation and temporary housing. With each ‘purchase’, the buyer received an insight into the Diggers’ philosophy, the twinkliest notion of life beyond consumerism. The store would open every day, offering free stew and bread to anyone who needed it, its ingredients donated by silent partners who believed in the cause.

It wasn’t a soup kitchen of course – the Diggers were artists. They doled out their edibles through a large empty picture frame, dubbing it the Free Frame of Reference. This became a symbol for the movement, with numerous 2-inch-squared frames handed out to supporters and diners.

Free medical care was provided by volunteers from the University of California, San Francisco medical school. They arranged for safe places for homeless kids (and there were many in San Francisco in the mid-60s) to sleep through the night. In addition to their consciousness-raising performances, they organized a number of free concerts for the community. Because of their fortunate geographical circumstances, those concerts featured acts like Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead. Also, there was this:

No, that’s not a detached robot anus, engaged in mid-poop (I thought that too!). The Diggers had their own recipe for whole wheat bread – in fact, if Wikipedia is to be believed (and why stop blindly believing it now?), whole wheat bread was popularized by this movement. The recipe called for the bread to be baked inside a coffee can, and according to the widely-circulated leaflet which contained the recipe, it was to be given away. Anyone can bake it, just make sure you give it away to someone else.

In this post-ironic culture (or post-postmodern, or whatever label fits the world today), it’s hard to look at the Diggers’ efforts without a swirl of skepticism and/or cynicism creeping up from my inner curmudgeon. But if there was corruption or an ulterior motive within the calf’s heart of the Digger society, it never stumbled into the light. History’s conceit probably houses scads of critical articles written in the 1960s about the underlying greed and phoniness within the Diggers (and other such groups), but how much of that is simply bogus propaganda? How much of any of it?

It comes down to faith, that coy little dame at the end of the bar, waiting for the clutter and clang of dissent and well-roused rabble to clear out of the way as eventually they must. Many will refuse to believe there was a purity at the heart of the Diggers’ crusade. I have the choice to join that camp, but I won’t. I know a moneyless, cooperative society will only emerge in my lifetime if the framework of our current culture were to collapse (and honestly, probably not even then), but I want to believe that the men and women who aimed to embody such a world as an ideal truly meant it.

The Diggers may have lived amid impossible aspirations, but at least they were genuine.

Here’s a quick glance at some of the Diggers’ acts and legacy:

  • In October 1967, they staged a public funeral for the Hippie – they wanted the world to know that this term was a concoction of the media, not a banner waved by true idealists. It worked, inasmuch as the event received national attention. Given that the word ‘hippie’ has now been reduced to the dominant stereotype for anyone with hair down to their shoulders in the 1960s, I don’t think this can be seen as a long-term win.
  • Their publications are considered (again, by Wikipedia at least) to be the origin of the phrases “Do your own thing” and “Today is the first day of the rest of your life.” So you can thank the Diggers for those inspirational posters.
  • The Invisible Circus was a 36-hour “happening”, which became one of the most storied events of the pre-Summer-of-Love San Francisco scene. During a panel discussion on pornography, when it came time for the police vice officer to speak on the dangers of porn, one of the Diggers stood up and slapped his penis onto a shelf inside a glass display case. The audience sided with the penis, not the cop.
  • Peter Coyote, was a founding member of the Diggers. You’ve probably seen his less-activist-ish work in ET, Bitter Moon, and Repo Man.

Maybe it’s time we bring back the marriage between improvisation acting and public awareness. Maybe it’s a movement like this that can usurp the 99% cause and actually get some results.

Should we call up Wayne Brady and Ryan Stiles to run this thing or what?

Categories: art

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