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Woodstock at 50

In a few, short months, on August 15, 50 years will have passed since Woodstock (known formally as the Woodstock Music & Art Fair, An Aquarian Exposition), a defining cultural event of the 1960s and a defining event of the baby boom generation, took place.  It took 43 years for me to get to the rolling hills in White Lake, New York at the foot of the Catskill Mountains where the festival was held. The contemporary museum and outdoor music venue are a few hundred yards away from where the Woodstock stage was erected and the bowl-like lay of the land among the hills is still the same. The nearby farms, and the many lakes that made the cover of major magazines at the time because hippies bathed nude in those waters, appear much as they did decades ago.

Singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell’s anthem to the music festival, “Woodstock,” captures the essence of the time, but Mitchell did not come to Woodstock and a reading of her statements about the generation of baby boomers is perplexing.

Here is Mitchell in her own words on the counterculture and war:

She has said the parents of the boomers were unhappy, and “out of it came this liberated, spoiled, selfish generation into the costume ball of free love, free sex, free music, free, free, free, free we’re so free. And Woodstock was the culmination of it.” But “I was not a part of that,” she explained in an interview. “I was not a part of the anti-war movement, either. I played in Fort Bragg. I went the Bob Hope route because I had uncles who died in the war, and I thought it was a shame to blame the boys who were drafted.”

When Trump was elected president and began his right-wing makeover of the federal government and installed hate and inequality as the zeitgeist of this epoch, a commentator who I can’t recall said Trump and his administration were a slap in the face to the baby boom generation. That may be partly true, but many in that generation did not have political and social views and lifestyles that reflected the ethos of Woodstock, but thankfully a critical mass of the young men and women from that era did.

“Don’t mourn: organize!” sounds good, but the critical mass of the baby boom generation vanished long ago and what we have now is an unmitigated disaster. It’s a disaster politically, socially, economically, and above all environmentally!

Readers may want to reflect on the fact that just over eight months after the fields of Max Yasgur’s farm in White Lake remained  a muddy mess that some say took years to return to its natural state, the horror of Kent State and Jackson State happened.

Comparisons between Woodstock and Kent State and Jackson State need to be made carefully. There is a world of difference between attending a music festival and countering the National Guard as occupiers on a campus in Ohio, or protesting at a historically black college in Mississippi. Both protests turned lethal because the rhetoric and actions of the government (national, state, and local) were so highly charged with hate and violence at the time that death and mayhem were easy to predict.  The entire society witnessed the violence that was the Vietnam War on the three major television stations at the time on an almost nightly basis. It was a war that came into living rooms within the U.S. and around the world as protest spread.

The young men and women at Kent State and Jackson State learned that protesting war in the politically and racially charged atmosphere of 1970 came with a high human price. There are veterans of those two mass shootings that still must live their lives with those wounds both physical and psychological.

The singer-songwriter, Neil Young, who wrote the anthem of Kent State “Ohio,” was a bit inconsistent as the years passed. Here are his views on Ronald Reagan: “I was one of those who felt that some ideas he had were good ideas.”  Ronald Reagan, then governor of California, hated both the First Amendment’s right to free speech and the generation that dared to protest.

And again, here’s Young after the attacks of September 2001:

Post 9/11 Young takes a hard turn back to the right, with the 2002 song Let’s Roll and its somewhat ham-fisted battle cry for America to kick some ass and get revenge overseas, and its support for the Patriot Act restricting rights at home. The angry call to arms includes lines like “going after Satan on the wings of a dove” and “facing down evil.”

As the years and decades passed, many baby boomers stayed active, and our presence was more and more noticeable in the movements against war, for the environment, against nuclear weapons, for women’s rights, for civil rights, for gay rights and many social, political, and economic movements both local and national and international. When Trump called neo-Nazis and white supremacists “some very fine people,” fingers to the wind were easy to find among the generation of baby boomers.

Nostalgia may become a form of depression, which can be mild or serious. It is important to remember, but more important to move on with those memories into today. When critics say the Vietnam antiwar movement turned violent, well, that was a tiny minority and it did not represent the movements that came later. To those who hold that the victories of the 1960s and early 1970s were permanent, look to the revolution of the right that has ripped apart movements for social, political, and economic change.

With Russiagate now history, get ready for Trump’s assault on Iran, or perhaps some other target, that may coincide with the 2020 election cycle, and pay close attention to those from the Cold War era that gave rise to a permanent class of war-makers and those who make huge fortunes from the preparations for war. Take notice of the more contemporary right-wing heirs of the Cold-War.

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Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer. He is the author of Against the Wall: Memoir of a Vietnam-Era War Resister (2017).

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