THE SIXTIES. That’s where the trouble began. Just ask Rush Limbaugh or David Brooks or Bill Bennett, or just about any right-wing pundit. THE SIXTIES is the problem. Of course, they don’t mean the decade but rather THE SIXTIES, a casserole of selected ingredients that includes the anti-war movement, the civil rights movement, women’s liberation, the chaos of the ’68 Democratic National Convention, and the myths of Woodstock and Haight. This familiar, even clichéd, stew excludes far more than it includes and always paints these events in the brush strokes of mindless anarchy, somehow implying that COINTELPRO and bombing Cambodia maybe weren’t so bad, after all.
Consider this recent comment by Washington Times columnist Victor Davis Hanson: “Those who protested 40 years ago often still congratulate themselves that their loud zeal alone brought needed ‘change’ to America in civil rights, the environment, women’s liberation and world peace. Maybe. But critics counter that the larger culture that followed was the most self-absorbed in memory.”
Why is change in quotes? Is it too distasteful a word? And what’s the logic here? That separate drinking fountains were better than the perceived solipsism of a generation? That lattés and organic food stores were too high a price to pay for recognizing the environmental havoc of industrialization? That every baby born from 1945 to 1955 turned up in Chicago in 1968, or would have if he or she could?
Or that segregation would somehow have faded away and the Vietnam War would have been “won” without the zeal of activists who had run out of options in the face of a recalcitrant administration (an all-too familiar problem)? What would it take to get the attention of all those nuclear families eating their TV dinners on TV trays in front of their TVs?
The narrative of how THE SIXTIES doomed America is familiar: An over-indulged generation of suburban babies born into the postwar boom became The Me-Generation. Pass the first dose of blame to Dr. Spock. Then move on to television, birth-control, Elvis (or the Rolling Stones, according to Alan Bloom), Timothy Leary, Earth Day, marijuana, acid, Abbie Hoffman, and lately (because of a loose Chicago connection, déjà-vu-all-over-again) Bill Ayers. Gordon Gecko, it’s fair to assume, would have stopped off at Yasgar’s farm on his way to Wall Street. The Port Huron Statement, the 1962 manifesto of the SDS, presciently anticipated the argument, opening with these words: “We are people of this generation, bred in at least modest comfort, housed now in universities, looking uncomfortably to the world we inherit.”
Why this obsession? For one, it suits well the Rovian tactics that have become the trademark of right-wing discourse: Strawman and ad hominem attacks have replaced actual debate. You can demonize anyone by attributing this mythologized heritage to them. You can add dirty words like socialism and communism and welfare state. You can invent ties between Obama and the Weather Underground. Best of all, you can make him responsible for losing another war, even though every major strategic assessment he’s made has turned out to be right—and some, like the Iraq timeline and negotiating with unfriendly nations, have been enacted by the Bush administration.
But THE SIXTIES is flexible. You can blame it for anything—national debt, high oil prices (we could drill, if it weren’t for those hippie tree-huggers and their obsession with caribou in the ANWR), Janet Jackson’s malfunctioning wardrobe (oops, what about Foley, Craig, Vitter, and company?), and godlessness (which has infinite possibilities).
This revisionism, of course, discounts (or mangles) the other historical and cultural influences of the postwar era, including McCarthyism, the growth of the suburbs and our ensuing reliance on the automobile, the application of scientific and medical discoveries to our increasing affluence and improving health, the expanding ties of American (and foreign) corporations to our expanding military (and its expanding presence around the globe), the mobility of Americans, and the explosion of the entertainment industry. It dismisses the rejection of consumerism by the anti-establishment movements of the Vietnam era, as capitalism, like the Borg, assimilated everything it touched, creating a need for endless growth and expansion—with consequences that have now begun to manifest themselves in the housing collapse, the debt crisis, and the international turmoil and environmental disasters we’ve created.
Notably absent (or grudgingly mentioned) in most accounts of THE SIXTIES (like Hanson’s) is civil rights, which somehow, we are to assume, would have resolved itself, given time, if only THE NEGROES had been more patient. Lynard Skynard summed up this complacency in its defense of “the southland” against Neil Young’s “Southern Man”: “Now we all did what we could do.” And that’s it. What more do you want? Whatever happens happens. Why stir up trouble?
As to Vietnam, according to the narrative, we “lost.” That is, we could have “won” if it weren’t for the traitors on the homefront. This narrative has been often retold in recent years. Of course, it leaves out “the most trusted man in America,” Walter Cronkite, muttering about Vietnam, “What the hell is going on?” which, granted, is more temperate than “UP AGAINST THE WALL, MOTHERFUCKER!” but still landed him on the same side of the divide. He finally went to Vietnam to see for himself—and now the nuclear families began to listen.
Whether stated or implied, THE SIXTIES is very much a part of the current presidential debate. Sturgis, South Dakota, echoed recently with a thunderous roar that seemed to come all the way from 1965, when the Hell’s Angels rolled headlong through an antiwar protest march in Berkeley. Thousands of bikers in Sturgis revved up their support for John McCain in a Harley hallelujah chorus that resounded with both their endorsement of the Bush-McCain non-strategy for Iraq and their disdain for the environment. And their hooting and cheers also mocked a half century of progress by women when McCain offered his wife up for the Miss Buffalo Chip contest as 100,000 leering eyes envisioned a topless Cindy McCain (and probably a banana). But you do have to wonder if McCain knew what a buffalo chip actually is, though the look on Cindy’s face suggested that she did.
BOB SOMMER’s novel, Where the Wind Blew, which tells the story how the past eventually caught up with one former member of a 60s radical group, was released in June 2008 by The Wessex Collective.