Genesis, Part 2
Mon, 10 Jun 1996 16:45:47 -0400

One of the difficulties in discussing the sixties is tautological.
Literally, the sixties means the events from 1-1-60 to 12-31-69, yet few use
the term in this sense. Most mean the social and political ferment that
began with the Berkeley free speech movement in 64 and petered out sometime
in the early seventies. While I agree that calling it the "sixties" is
somewhat inexact, we don't really have an alternative name as
"counterculture," the "movement," the youth revolt, radicals, hippies, each
have distinct meanings. Lacking a name that includes all of them, we have
called it the "sixties." Consequently, when people blame the "sixties," they
are not blaming an era, or indeed everyone in it. Most kids "behaved"
themselves, after all a majority of the young voted for Nixon in 68! They
are blaming those who attempted to change our society; the criticism is a lot
more personal than simply blaming an "era."

Secondly, several posts have claimed that the sixties weren't all that
different, or significant, evoking an image of waves moving up and down with
the sixties at the peak, or trough, of one of those swells. This view is
historically inaccurate. Whether the sixties were good or bad, there is no
question that it was extremely unusual. Certainly, at one time or another,
everything that happened in the sixties had happened before, we didn't
reinvent Western thought. There had been communes, drug use, bohemianism,
rejection of the prominent culture, youth revolt and anti-war protests before
the sixties, but none remotely of the breadth and scale witnessed then. No
matter how you cut, bake or dry it, the sixties were an extremely unusual
period of history and any effort to understand it outside of this context is
pure fantasy.

Returning to the theme of my original post, I believe it is impossible to
understand the genesis of the sixties without considering the reasons given
at the time. The two most prominent explanations, at least during the
sixties itself, was The Making of a Counter Culture (68) and The Greening of
America (70). Both books were written by professors who, amongst other
things, described the views of those active in the sixties. Both agreed that
these people perceived our civilization to be heading in the wrong direction
and that they needed, somehow, to change that.

Whether one agrees or not, it is impossible to understand the sixties without
factoring that evaluation into the equation. First, this belief obviously
influenced what happened at the time. People who believe that society is
going down the toilet, and who believe they might be able to do something
about it, tend to act differently than those who don't.

Secondly, the manner in which you understand the sixties, and its demise, is
ultimately going to depend upon how you answer that question for yourself.
If the sixties were wrong, and our culture was in no great danger, it's
hardly a mystery as to why the movement died. They didn't know what they
were talking about, everyone knew it and eventually they realized it

If this analysis is correct, then all the blame focused on the sixties has
actually been understated. The left was doing quite well, thank you, before
the onslaught of the sixties. Johnson won in 64 by promising the Great
Society, pushing through the greatest leftist legislation in the history of
this country. Instead of supporting that, the people in the sixties went
berserk like so many Chicken Littles, screaming that the sky was falling,
sucking all the oxygen from the left by promising to create the New Eden
while creating new enemies by the millions. When they finally came down,
slowly filtered back into the mainstream, muttering "Gosh, those drugs were
more powerful than I thought," they left the rest of us to deal with the
gargantuan conservative backlash that followed. Hey, if that's the reality,
give me a boot, I have no problem kicking that, even if my own fanny is in
there with it.

Mind you, I don't subscribe to that point of view, but if you do, please tell
me how that conclusion is escapable. If our civilization wasn't in any
significant danger, then how could it have been anything but irresponsible to
claim that it was, and act accordingly, at a moment when the left was poised
to make unprecedented gains?

My take? The sixties represented the moment when a large number of people
realized that our civilization was heading to a place none of us wanted to
go. Back then, the general public assumed that anyone who thought this way
was some kind of brain dead dope fiend. Today, there is a good chance that
this view, if put to a vote, would win. The examples are legion, but for
now, I'll just give one. In Earth in the Balance, Al Gore wrote that our
civilization was "dysfunctional." Alright, flashback time, imagine Johnson,
Humphries, Nixon or Agnew ever saying that back in the sixties!! Instead of
this statement destroying Gore's political career, he was elected
Vice-President a year later and the Republicans couldn't even make a decent
campaign issue out of it, so universal such assumptions had become.

Yet, judging from the thud of my original post, I have to suspect that few,
if any, on this list agree with this point of view. This is most
fascinating. But if you want a different take on the sixties, one
potentially explaining most of what occurred, ponder this: What if that
earlier evaluation were true, that technology had so transformed our culture
that our way of thinking, developed under vastly different conditions, was no
longer appropriate in today's society?

For instance, how can we continue to increase individual consumption when the
world population doubles every forty years? Our current ecological balance
is strained to the snapping point as it is. Remember how people used to talk
about alienation in the sixties? Well, it's worse. And oh yes, remember all
that crazy talk about society moving in a fascistic direction when LBJ was
trying to create the Great Society? Check out the scene today, not just the
anti poor, anti immigrant spectacle, but the fact we've doubled the
incarceration rate, imprisoning a higher percentage of our population than
any other country in the world. Meanwhile the public keeps screaming for
more prisons.

Maybe, just maybe, the sixties evaluation of the course of our society was
kind of, sort of, in the ballpark. What does that tell us? First, the
expression of that view would inevitably touch a nerve of unbelievable
magnitude, it meant messing with the great forbidden, profaning the holy of
holies. Consequently, the initial resistance to this evaluation would be
beyond formidable, it would be insurmountable. The first round was doomed ab
initio, it had no chance. People needed some time to chew on this one.
Secondly, it was one thing to intuit the problem, a remarkable feat really,
but it was quite another to chart the solution. Transforming the mentality
of western civilization . . . hmmm . . . sounds like a load.

No one knew how to do it. That's why the sixties died. The leftist theories
had either proven false or reached the end of their usefulness. New ideas
were needed, people had pieces of the puzzle, but no one could put it all
together. It fathered numerous experiments as people desperately sought a
way in which to create a new civilization. As any scientist will tell you,
most experiments fail. Without a framework of understanding to unify the
disparate elements of the left, there was no way it could continue. As a
former Berkeley organizer put it:

"We were adrift in questions and potentials: the organizational
disintegration of the Movement as a political body was an
outer emblem of our conceptual incoherence, the inability to synthesize an
adequate frame of understanding (and program) to embody all
that we had come to realize was essential for the transformation we
sought." Michael Rossman, New Age Blues at p. 101.