May 18, 2017

By Sallie Bingham

The New Mexico History Museum here in Santa Fe just opened a big exhibit called Finding a Voice, with many photos and texts about the communes that existed in this state in the 60’s and 70’s, specifically those at Taos, Questa, and Placitas. The tone of the written commentary is respectful, if not worshipful, and the complex and painful questions raised are largely avoided.

“Finding a Voice”—a version of the familiar feminist call to “Find Your Voice”—makes me wonder whose voice was, at least ideally, to be found. I don’t think it could have ben the voice of this almost entirely male, entirely white group of young men, whom the exhibit calls “disenchanted middle-class youth.” That class distinction added to the power they would claim as a gender as they grew up makes it seem that “a voice” would probably be, or become, the familiar voice of white male privilege.

At the museum yesterday morning, I searched for images of the women involved in setting up and running the communes here—Buffalo, Thunder Hog Farm, The Lama Foundation—and I listened to Lisa Law’s commentary. She was very much a part of those times.

Then I looked through her book of photographsFlashing on the Sixties, which begins, “These photographs are nostalgia, pure and simple, memories of a moment of Divine Funk.” And perhaps that is the way this show, and the communes, should be regarded.

But there is a good deal going on behind these photos of naked men building adobe walls, playing sitars, and posing outside of shacks with women and babies.

First, the question of class. If any of these disenchanted youth had seen—or lived in—the shacks of the dust bowl or Appalachian mining towns, would they have felt the enthusiasm they seem, from these photos, to have felt about returning to those roots?

If any of the women had done the heavy labor of immigrant grandmothers in the big cities, hauling water, emptying chamber pots, cooking on wood stoves, would they have been willing to submit to the same endless toil inside the context of standard gender relationships that gave them little voice in how their communes were run?

It seems unlikely. I doubt that the immigrant population in the U.S. sent many offspring to the communes. The entire absence of darker-skinned people may be explained by the fact that self-chosen poverty had little attraction for those who were living with the real thing. The voices of black women, crucial to the Civil Rights movement of the same period, would not have been easily absorbed into the old stand-behind-your man of conventional white society, recreated unchanged against the mountains of New Mexico.

The photos of women that I found in the show fell into four categories: there was the Angel, a blond beauty with flowing hair and garments; the anonymous Earth Mother, her face hidden by flowing hair; the Naked Pregnant Girl, posing proudly in front of her man; and the Nursing Mother, also nameless, her face invisible behind her long hair.

Perhaps most telling, though, was the portrait of a seated couple with a young man leaning against the woman’s knees while she braces his bare shoulders with both hands. It seems to me almost inevitable that these attempts to live off the grid could never have survived for more than a few days without the labor, and even more important, the emotional and spiritual support of the women, the wives and girlfriends who encouraged, cleaned and cooked and took care of the babies.

The exhibit attempts to link the people of the communes with the anti-Vietnam protests, but when it comes to the question of whether these able-bodied young white men served, I saw only a display of a Vietnam War-era uniform—which had nothing to do with the communes. In fact, some of the bitter division evoked by their presence in a poor, Hispanic and largely Roman Catholic state stems from the communards’ reputation as draft dodgers.

Not only draft dodgers, but according to the locals, scavengers, living off hand-outs, food stamps, and occasionally shoplifting.

The vacuity at the center of this movement is due to the absence not only of a central moral vision but of the feminine in its specific and inspirational form. The Lama Foundation introduced the idea of the Divine Feminine—represented by an idealized naked woman—as the same time it forbid the taking of drugs. Hard drugs, introduced by the Diggers, had already changed the nature of the commune enterprise. We all live in the aftermath.

There is a link between the reality of the communes and the Alt-Right Movement that is roiling U.S. culture today. The link is machismo, unacknowledged white male privilege. Any movement that depends on women’s labor and women’s acceptance of a subservient traditional role will eventually become oppressive. As Noreen Malone argues in a long, powerful expose in New York magazine (May 14th), “To Understand the New Right, It Helps to See it Not as a Fringe Movement, But As A Powerful Counterculture.” A worldview based entirely on resentment draws on a “literal army of dissatisfied, disenchanted mostly male young adults ripe for radicalization.”

To the left—or to the right?

Either way, a movement that like all movements depends on the cooperation, labor, and spiritual and emotional support of women, with no acknowledgment of our leadership will create some version of Mike Cernovich’s first book, Gorilla Mindset: Timeless Strategies to Release the Gorilla Within You.

Said Gorilla would surely enjoy the rapturous blond girl, naked behind a big armload of pot plants, who introduces this complex and bewildering collection of photographs.

This girl would be middle-aged now and probably long since gone from this impoverished state. She would hardly feel responsible for the deep division that now separates our three communities, white, Hispanic and Native American.

For the bitterness the communards left behind in little towns like Taos and Placidas has never gone away. Unlike the 1920’s, when Mabel Dodge Luhan forged alliances depending on respect between East Coast artists and Taos Pueblo, the communards exploited the local people on whom their survival often depended.

A dear friend of mine whose grandfather was a construction worker in Taos during this period tells a story of finding his parked truck stripped of all his tools, essential for his work and which he could not afford to replace. He’d stamped the handles with his name, and when the tattered young thieves brought the haul to the gas station, hoping to sell them, the attendant, who knew who the tools belonged to, called grandfather before calling the police.

Grandfather arrived and asked the crestfallen young men why they’d robbed him. They told him they needed to buy bus tickets to go somewhere—home? Or just someplace else?

He took them to the bus station and bought them tickets, which he couldn’t afford. In one graceful move, he exercised forgiveness and foresightedness, ridding Taos of wanderers the inhabitants couldn’t afford.

But this man was exceptional. For most of his neighbors and friends, memory of the communes is sharp and sour. We have yet to sweeten it.

Perhaps nostalgia extracts a price in consciousness. Perhaps we really can’t afford it anymore.

To learn more about Sallie Bingham’s books and writing, please visit her website: SallieBingham.com.