Who Made the Sixties? The People or the Celebs?

Cover art for the book By the Light of Burning Dreams

Who built the seven gates of Thebes?
The books are filled with names of kings.
Was it the kings who hauled the craggy blocks of stone?
And Babylon, so many times destroyed.
Who built the city up each time? In which of Lima’s houses,
That city glittering with gold, lived those who built it?

– Bertolt Brecht, from “A Worker Reads History”

Bertolt Brecht’s most widely read poem in the 1960s was “A Worker Reads History.”  Though Brecht wrote it in German in 1936, and though a great many Sixties folk were not enthusiastic about the working classes, the poem struck a nerve with a generation eager to make history of their own. Decades later, one might ask how much or how little history did the self-styled revolutionaries actually make? They were certainly blamed for many of the ills of society. Near the end of his days as a cultural revolutionary, Abbie Hoffman explained, facetiously, that he was responsible for crime in the streets, kids acting out, drug addiction and the absence of standards to judge works of literature, film and music. Hoffman was reacting to the assaults on the Sixties and the smears on his own personality.

Even before the decade of the 1960s ended, critics of the counterculture and the anti-war movement lambasted radicals, feminists and left wing ideologists for creating anarchy and fomenting chaos.

Over the past five decades, the culture wars—with defenders of the Sixties on one side and detractors on the other—have not abated. “The Sixties” are still scapegoated; the generation that embraced sex, drugs, rock ‘n’roll and rebellion are still held responsible for the decline of the American empire. That’s giving them far more credit than they deserve.

A work of art on exhibit at the Morgan in New York seems to exemplify this state of affairs.

Titled “Hellish Sixties,” it depicts a figure with obscured eyes and the phrase “you are very sleepy,” which suggests a kind of mass hypnosis. The work includes a transcribed letter to the editor of Vogue magazine which explains, “The sixties were not glamorous or innocent as your October issue would have us believe…It was pure hell.”

Hell for some, heaven for others, or hell/heaven for folks like me who felt ambivalent at the time, though less so now. It’s easier to accept the era in hindsight than it was to live through the war, the arrests, jail and confrontations in the streets.

For the most part, By the Light of Burning Dreams (Harper) honors “the triumphs of the Sixties,” though it does not neglect “the tragedies.” The book, which is by David Talbot and Margaret Talbot (a brother and sister team)—with help from Arthur Allen, Margaret’s husband, as well as Camille Peri, David’s wife—is divided into eight chapters, plus an introduction.

I might call By the Light, a work of history as biography and an exploration of the role of celebrities in the making of the era.

The Talbots, who are widely published and widely acclaimed, focus on Sixties figures, such as Tom Hayden and Jane Fonda and John Lennon and Yoko Ono, who made a mark on history.

The Talbots also chronicle the rise and fall of prominent Sixties organizations and groups such as The Black Panthers, the United Farm Workers and the American Indian Movement, though their emphasis is on individuals, not on mass organizations.

By the Light is a pleasure to read. It’s well-researched, consciously crafted and thoughtfully arranged. Much of the material will be eye-opening to Americans who didn’t come of age until the Obama years.

Veterans of the Sixties will probably recognize most of the people and groups that are profiled in these pages, but they will likely be surprised even if they protested in the streets of Chicago in the summer of 1968, gathered at Woodstock the following year and watched the Watergate hearings on TV in 1973. By the Light offers surprises

Heather Booth isn’t an unknown feminist, but the Talbots aim to shine a spotlight on her. Indeed, they give her more attention than she has so far received in the annals of the era, including Todd Gitlin’s classic, The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage, which covers the history in great detail and that also has political axes to grind. Gitlin argues that the Sixties ended in December 1969. He neglects the large anti-war demonstrations that took place in the early 1970s, and the spread of feminism and the counterculture

The Talbots are mostly not interested in settling scores, though they make judgments about the efficacy of political gestures like the Panther romance with guns and Cesar Chavez’s drift away from field workers into his own head.

Like Heather Booth, Craig Rodwell, another figure in these pages, isn’t widely known outside the gay liberation movement, though he played a big part in persuading closeted men and women to come out and to demonstrate in the streets. The Talbots accord Rodwell the recognition he deserves.

The authors aim to balance the role of crowds with the role of leaders like Hayden, Bobby Seale, Cesar Chavez and Dennis Banks. But they tend to come down on the side of leaders, or “celebrities” as they call them.

By my count that word celebrities appears more than a dozen times in these pages. Barbara Walters is defined as a “celebrity hound” and New York is described as the “capital of celebrity culture.”

I lived in New York from 1967 to 1974, a time when so-called celebrities were accessible. I did not have to go out of my way to meet Jerry Rubin, Bill Kunstler, Marge Piercy, Bernardine Dohrn and Susan Sontag who mixed with crowds in the streets, at meetings and in courtrooms.

It may be helpful to say that while men like Hayden and Seale were famous in the movements they helped to jump start and fuel, they were largely unknown to Americans who got their news from Walter Cronkite and Barbara Walters. Some leaders had ten minutes of fame before they passed into the pages of obscurity.

Aaron Sorkin’s greatly flawed feature, The Trial of the Chicago Seven, has done more to alert twenty-something year olds about the defendants in Judge Julius Hoffman’s courtroom than any other recent movie or book. And that’s a good thing.

By the Light of Burning Dreams comes along at precisely the right time to deepen and widen the view of the Sixties that’s held by those who have come of age with the Black Lives Matter movement and #Me Too.

This book is written with the events of the last few years in mind, though thankfully it doesn’t try to draw direct lines between then and now. The authors respect the intelligence of their readers.

About two thirds of the way through their book, the Talbots write that “any uprising” is “a call and response between the crowd and individual actors in it.” Indeed, sometimes the crowd anticipates the headliner, and, as sly Sly Stone sang, “Everybody is a star,” “everybody wants to shine.” That was another way of saying what Brecht said in “A Worker Reads History.”

Fom my point of view, the Talbots exaggerate the role of celebrities and don’t give nearly enough credit to the many many people (the crowds) who belonged to SDS, the Panthers, the Yippies, the White Panthers, The Gay Liberation Front, the United Farm Workers, and the women’s  movement.

The authors clearly made a conscious decision to emphasize the stars of the Sixties show.

Near the start of By the Light, the authors offer a quotation from Berkeley activist and lawyer Anne Weills who observes that while Tom Hayden “believed that individual agents make history,” she and the women in the Red Family emphasized “collective leadership,”and that “the masses make history.”

By focusing on celebrities, the Talbots add something new and different to our understanding of the Sixties. They also recognize the pitfalls of stardom and know that a celebrity can unfortunately create a cult of his or her own personality and undo some of the work they had done.

 By the Light swings the pendulum too far toward what the Talbots call “the politics of stardom” and “celebrity activism.”

Sometimes they also exaggerate for effect. They call the events at Wounded Knee in the early 1970s, “the most courageous and sustained Native American uprising in the twentieth century.” Maybe. What about the occupation of Alcatraz which preceded Wounded Knee?

Why does there have to be a “most”? And why do the authors have to say that Tom and Jane were “one of the most formidable couples in American politics”?  Eldridge and Kathleen Cleaver were also a formidable couple and so were Abbie and Jerry.

Couples come in many shapes and sizes. They come from every corner of the North American continent and from every social class and ethnic group. Some are white collar, others blue collar.

I have one story I have to tell. At an Italian restaurant with my pal Tom Hayden, the owner who was Jewish and gay, looked at him and asked, “Where do I know you from?” Tom gazed at the man and said, “I’m Dustin Hoffman.” The owner shook his head. “No you’re not,” Tom replied, “I’m Tom Hayden.”

The owner said, “You’re the guy who was married to Jane Fonda.”

Perhaps that’s how history will remember him, not as the author of the Port Huron Statement and not as a California politico, but as Mr. Jane Fonda. Hollywood fame surpasses movement fame.

By the Light of Burning Dreams accords Hayden the attention he deserves. It honors many largely unsung and unheralded individuals, including Stew Albert, Judy Gumbo. Bill Zimmerman, Dolores Huerta, Madonna Thunder Hawk, Kiyoshi Kuromiya and Shinya Ono, who became a friend and a comrade.

Open the pages of this elegantly written and provocative book and meet the usual and unusual suspects in all their glory and with all their charisma. And don’t forget, “Power to the People!”  Power to the celebrities just doesn’t have the same appeal.

Jonah Raskin is the author of Beat Blues, San Francisco, 1955.