Blaming the Sixties
Mon, 3 Jun 1996 22:10:28 -0400

I was originally going to respond to Peter Braunstein's vitriolic response to
Mike Rappe's posting by criticizing Braunstein. And, in truth, there was
something in the tone of Braunstein's reply which took me back in time to many
frustrating debates I had with people who shared his views at that time. In
short, I found it possessed all of the rhetorical elements (self-righteousness,
moral superiority over the dreaded squares, an illuminati sensibility) that made
certain aspects of the era so thoroughly charmless.

As in:

> When I think of all the fetuses in the 60s who would have gone on to
>lead pure, All-Amerikan existences


>in stark contrast to the
>demure, totally functional martini drinking sexual harrassment crowd of
>the 50s.


>It was about deprogramming, Mike, not just accepting parental and societal
>dictums about who you should associate with, what you should believe, who you
>should fuck.

But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that there was a point in
there amidst the tired jargon. And it is this: people *should* stop "blaming
the sixties". It's a silly and useless historical exercise. Not that Mike was
doing it exactly, but Peter no doubt saw Mike as a good a surrogate as any for
David Horowitz--someone who really does "blame" the era.

Not that I think that much of what passed for received wisdom in the era was
anything other than baloney. But I don't see the wisdom in "blaming" an era.
What the hell does it mean to "blame" an era? It's a blunderbuss approach to
the past that hits everything in range, whether or not you deserve to have your
backside peppered with buckshot.

Pretty much every side has its share of hypocrisy on this. Neocons are quick to
blame the sixties. But it's mostly the left that trots out 20th century
conceptions of right and wrong to judge Columbus or the settlement of the West.
You can't have it both ways.

Of course, blaming the era for its failure to deliver the goods is in a certain
respect just the flip side of the coin to an uncritical celebration of the era's
excesses. It's not for nothin' that Horowitz, for example, adopts the zealous
tone of the recent convert, that being his tone twenty-five years ago, too.

But in the end, I think that Braunstein gets too much into "blaming the blamer"
and misses the chance for dialogue. For example, to the charge that drug-taking
in the sixties was harmful, he criticizes the martini-drinking fifties. This is
of course a classic dodge. Is he saying that drugs are okay? Or that they are,
like alcohol, potentially harmful, but that the older generation was simply
hypocritical for harping on psychedelics? That is, one can agree about the
harmful effects of the three martini lunch and still recognize the dangers of
other drugs. One might even make the case that both sets of behaviors are cut
from the same cloth, but that line of argument (heavens!) goes a little against
the grain of my generation's sense of millennial importance.

It is true that certain eras (like the sixties) are characterized by a feeling
of a dramatic break with the past, but it seems to me that the break is probably
always much greater in perception than reality. The sixties grew out of a lot
that came before, and one might therefore just as easily "blame" the World War
II generation for creating the affluent society, cut off from its past, that fed
millennial dreams. And so on.

Only by locating some of the era's weirdnesses in the blandness that went before
can people hope to escape this cycle of blaming. Isn't that what history is

Jeff Apfel