Thursday, January 30, 2014

The Contested Terrain of the 1960s

Who are we together? How much better can we do?

Lingering by a CVS pharmacy desk, waiting for a prescription to be filled, I read a column in Time magazine the other day. The piece, "Boomers can't let go of the '60s," by P.J. O’Rourke, recalled the 1960s, and, in most ways, trivialized the decade. O’Rourke clearly believes that the ‘60s deserve little credit for driving cultural and political change.

The ‘60s, he wrote, loom particularly large in the rearview mirror mostly because baby boomers are strategically placed to produce and circulate the myths that make the era appear to be more important than it was (and is) in reality. In O’Rourke’s version, the decade is stripped of all its drama and significance.

Without researching the question, I’d guess that O’Rourke subscribes to the notion that the generation which begat the boomers, a mix of World War II vets and prosperity builders, is the “greatest generation,” while their children, the boomers, are smug, spoiled and over entitled. I believe something entirely different.

I believe the ‘60s (a decade, more or less, that neither began or ended precisely by the clock and ran slightly longer than most decades since) were a time of true political ferment, of hotly contested political terrain, of dramatic cultural change, of revolutionary promise. And I believe that the young activists of the period devoutly wished to do good. Of course, the specifics of that good, and how much good was achieved, are eminently debatable details.

The angry reaction the column provoked in me did not outlast the walk home on a cold winter afternoon. But later that day, comfortably situated in the living room, a fire burning in the hearth, we watched “The Butler,” a movie that adroitly contrasts the personal and tactical accommodations with which many Blacks negotiated the mid- to late-20th century with the urgent passion for change generated by the Civil Rights movement and injected into most Black households by both their children who entered adulthood during the ‘60s (or thereabouts) and by the Black media of the time.

At one point in the movie, Cecil Gaines (a fictionalized version of a man who served as a White House butler for 30 years) calls the Civil Rights Act of 1964 the most important governmental human rights action since the Emancipation Proclamation. This observation put me in mind of O’Rourke all over again. After all, his essay omits mention of the 1964 law, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Civil Rights Act of 1968.

These omissions would be a major flaw in any summary of the ‘60s, except one with little purpose other than ridicule. One can’t help wondering just how well it might pay to be one of those rewarded for peddling a diminished version of the 1960s. And speculating about what ideological purpose might be served by such diminution.

Remunerative or otherwise, O’Rourke’s 600-word column included, by my rough count, at least a half-dozen trivializations of the period, with barely a nod to its most important achievements. In his telling, there is much to minimize:

“Then it all went so wrong. Shooting and killing and troops in combat gear, not only in Watts and Detroit but all the way over in Khe Sanh, Vietnam. Feminists were angry for some, as far as men could tell, feminine reason. I had to maintain a C average to avoid the draft. Turns out you can’t fly after you take LSD. There was a war on poverty. We lost. And it rained at Woodstock,” O’Rourke wrote.

His shooting-and-killing-and-troops-oh-my attitude may arise from a lack of interest in the events that immediately followed Dr. King’s assassination, the enraged and desperate rioting that occurred in the immediate aftermath and that preceded the entry of National Guard troops into the ghettos of northern and western cities. There is no serious mention of the Vietnam War here, either; only a single Vietnamese city meant to stand in for a decade of war that devastated a sub-continent and left tens of thousands of dead and wounded warriors in its wake.

Accumulated unfunded debt from that war also crippled the Great Society, President Johnson’s ambitious assault on poverty and its most important causes. But O’Rourke spares only a derisive nod to the War on Poverty (which would come under attack from Republican politicians for the next 50 years, and some Democrats, as well).

He moves on then, dismissing feminism and inverting the distinctly feminist notion that “the personal is the political.” In O’Rourke’s telling, the political becomes the personal, becomes the C-average he was forced to maintain to stay in college and stay out of the military draft. With the observation that it rained at Woodstock, O’Rourke completed his reactionary rendition of ‘60s events.

“Perhaps 1960 to 1969 keeps bothering us because it was an unsuccessful tragedy,” he conjectured. “Aristotle’s Poetics explains the failure. First, says Aristotle, the subject of tragedy must be serious. Almost any adjective can be applied to the ‘60s except that one.”

I read this stuff and wondered what O’Rourke was really doing during that time. Something other than assuming a vanguard position in the fight for progressive social change, I’m sure.

It’s not like I consider myself an exemplar of right-thinking and right-doing at the time, or later, but I was witness to quite a lot and participant in some of the action, and though there were often little victories to celebrate, there was tragedy, too. Some of that tragedy was the desperate suffering from war and injustice that popular movements of the time set out to change. And some of it was the kind of tragedy that befalls efforts that fall short of their goal.

I knew plenty of committed people, too, some of them conscientious, some of them desperate. And some of them living lives so roiled by personal tragedy that just getting up in the morning and out the door was an achievement.

But O’Rourke doesn’t seem to have stepped up himself or to have known people who did. In hindsight, he sees farce where I see compassion and solidarity and magnificent striving. His essay doesn’t even mention Martin Luther King, Jr., except indirectly:

“We had heroes in the ‘60s. They had flaws. But their flaws didn’t lead to their destruction. They were killed by deranged fools.” Though O’Rourke is no doubt referencing King here (and John and Bobby Kennedy), I’m far from certain that King was ever a hero to him except in retrospect.

I don’t really care to argue whether King’s death was a tragedy in some Aristotelian sense; it seemed tragic enough to me and to millions of other Americans. I was a draft resister at the time, living in Toronto briefly when I heard the news report about King’s assassination.

It was the morning after his killing and cities across the U.S. had already begun to burn as enraged Blacks took to the streets in an orgy of destruction that led primarily to the torching of their own neighborhoods. The first report I heard focused on rioting in Chicago, my hometown. I called my father, an Illinois state legislator, from a pay phone on a Toronto street corner.

I don’t recall a moment in my life when I was ever more emotional than I was during that call, which lasted almost half an hour. “What have they done, Dad?” I cried. “What’s happening? What did they do to King?”

I couldn’t stop sobbing. I’m sure much of what I said during that call was incoherent. My father was relentlessly patient and sympathetic. Our relationship since I had left home at 18 to go off to college had not been a good one. On the question of the Vietnam War, which had become an obsession to me, we differed dramatically.

My path to Toronto had developed out of my opposition to the war. Away at college, I hadn’t done well academically. But in Ann Arbor, on the University of Michigan campus, I had discovered intellectual challenge and true political passion.

I wanted, more than anything else, to understand the historical roots of our involvement in Vietnam. How did we come to wage all-out war against a tiny, Southeast Asian country with no strategic importance to the United States and a history of resistance to foreign invaders and domestic tyrants? How could the United States conduct this brutal war overseas while Americans lived at home as though nothing was happening?

Dad had been a navigator in the Army Air Force during World War II, a much-decorated airman, proud of his contribution to that war and secure in his patriotism. He was part of that cohort that would later come to be known as the “greatest generation.” But he was also among a wealthier elite, one of the influential people who supported the war even after it was obvious to most everyone else that it was a mistake, an enterprise that had decimated Southeast Asia and a good part of a generation of Americans who served in or who opposed that war.

My father and others, heroes of the World War II victories, were also the decision-makers who launched the witch-hunts of the 1950s and the foreign interventions of the next 30 years. They were the architects and, in many cases, the most direct beneficiaries of the massive military build-up of the last half of 20th Century and the distortions of the American economy that led to economic stagnation in the ‘70s and the continuing economic devastation of the American working class.

I didn’t (and don’t) claim that Dad supported all of the policies that I objected to then and now. But he, like many of his influential contemporaries, rejected the critical analysis of governance and policy that were central to the popular movements of the 1960s and ‘70s.

Despite our political disagreements, Dad was there for me that day in Toronto when it felt like the world was coming apart. Perhaps that description, of a world falling to ruin, was a little overwrought, especially for a white, middle-class child of the ‘60s who would survive his occasionally alienated and disillusioned experience of his country with relative ease. To be sure, others have struggled, politically, socially and economically, with much worse, their personal difficulties unfolding in the context of widespread social disruption, like, say, New Orleans after Katrina.

But that, to me, was the whole point of the ‘60s. The Civil Rights movement, the Great Society, the Peace Movement, Feminism, Black Power, Environmentalism, the Farmworkers’ Union, the uprisings of Native Americans, left insurgencies within labor unions, militant demands for gay power and rights—all of these featured the agitation and activism of young people moved in their hearts and minds by the great promises of U.S. history.

We were rebelling against what the country was and did; we were moved by a belief that the greatness of the American promise—the self-evident truths, the inalienable rights, the huddled masses yearning to be free, a nation that might truly be dedicated one day to the proposition that all men and women are created equal—could be realized if we were passionate and committed and relentless. These beliefs, all of them, were resident and rooted in our minds and in our hearts.

That we would mostly fail to be true to our sense of our best selves may be the source of the angst that bubbles up as O’Rourke’s ridicule, or the source of the angst that has bathed my own brain in delusional memories of our collective heroism. Perhaps, that is my challenge. Not so much to persuade others that I am right and that the O’Rourkes and Limbaughs and Reagans and Palins of this world are wrong. But to satisfy myself that what I believed then, and mostly believe now, is not a strangely persistent naïveté, or the remnants of an altered state that merely soothes and comforts me. A half century after the yet-to-be-precisely-determined end of the ‘60s, what can I continue to reasonably believe about who I am, who we are together, and how much better we can do?


  1. Born in 1940, teaching English literature in the 1960's,joining MLK's march on Washington. Being in the classroom when JFK was shot and school was dismissed early. Living thru the Cuban missile crisis which precipitated fallout shelter construction mania. Teaching our students where to go in the classroom if we were bombed. Coming back from a trip to the USSR with slide programs which underscored how most Russians had been taught English as a second language. Response often was that they knew speaking English led to more power and asserting that we powerful Americans had no reason to study another language, particularly Russian. So much more. Result in me was suppressed anger. Kind of still there because half of my time is now lived in southern Ohio where "friends" are still nonthinking (shall I say it, "ignorant") Tea Party members.

    1. Thanks for responding. A life of engagement, to be sure. And I've got so many questions. When was the trip to Russia? Who organized it/what was its purpose?

      What are your political conversations, if any, with your southern Ohio friends? What happens to your suppressed anger?

  2. The "myth" of the 60's is especially useful to the Right because it allows them to imagine that what happened was some sort of accident or mistake. There was a uniquely spoiled generation that screwed everything up; by implication, there might be some sort of reversal when that generation passes from the scene.

    In reality, of course, the 60's were more an intensification of long-term trends in American history. African-Americans had been fighting injustice from the beginning; the sexual revolution, the change in the roles of women, and the self-asssertion of gays had more to do with urbanization than ideology. Seen this way, it becomes inconceivable that there could be an effective roll-back. The Right will try -- and hurt a lot of people in the process -- but our side is sure to win.

    1. Yes, I agree, Eric. The '60s liberation movements were a natural historical consequence of long-term trends, but I don't believe many people could have predicted their militance and political impact. Those movements changed legal and political systems, dramatically limited the war-making capacity of the strongest military power in the history of the world, created new work-life opportunities for millions and revamped our society and culture.

      Those movements and the good that they did also faced a fierce counter-attack from corporations and the Right that have resulted, so far and among other things, in dramatic historical revisionism, corporate "free speech," unregulated political spending, new voter suppression laws, wage stagnation, a volunteer/mercenary army and the highest rate of incarceration in the world. This is only a short list of obstacles that Left popular movements must overcome. In the face of those difficulties, your optimism is admirable (and necessary).