The Legacy Of The Sixties

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THE SIXTIES HAVE BEEN MISUNDER- stood. It was not a radical decade, as the term radical is commonly used in connection with those years. It was not a decade of the left ascendant. Rampant, perhaps, but not ascendant. Rather, the decade was radicalizing, which, subsequent decades have shown, is different. Politically, the sixties invigorated the right more than the left. But of course politics is not everything. In fact, three decades down the road, the nation’s political discourse may be driven by conservatives, but they, although by many measures triumphant, seem aggrieved because politics seems peripheral to, and largely impotent against, cultural forces and institutions permeated with what conservatives consider the sixties sensibilities.

Treating a decade as a discrete entity obviously makes the assumption that history during that decade had an obliging tidiness, opening with a decisive and tone-setting episode and closing with a suitably climactic event. History rarely accommodates that assumption. Such a treatment of a decade also makes the equally dubious assumption that the decade in question had a clearly dominant tone or profile. So the 1920s was the decade of jazz, flappers, the birth of the sports celebrity (Babe Ruth, Red Grange, Jack Dempsey), the Lost Generation, Sacco and Vanzetti and ... Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge, and Herbert Hoover.

Let us stipulate this, then: A decade, even one as intensely felt at the time and as hotly debated afterward as the sixties was and is, can come to seem, when recollected in tranquillity, quite unlike the decade as it felt at the time, and unlike the decade as it is portrayed by people with an emotional or political investment in portraying it a particular way.

It is arguable that we should think of the sixties as beginning in November 1963 and ending in October 1973. That is, the years we connect with the tumultuousness associated with the phrase “the sixties” began with the assassination of a President and ended with the Yom Kippur War and the energy crisis. The assassination shattered (or at least many people say it did) the nation’s sunny postwar disposition; it supposedly “ended American innocence.” It is unclear how innocent was this nation that had been made possible by Puritans, had been founded by such innocents as Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and James Madison, had been born in the bloodshed of what actually was not only the American Revolution but also America’s first civil war, had been preserved by the worst civil war the world had until then seen … you get the picture. The sixties as a decade of “lost innocence”? Please. The 1973 oil embargo, which produced a sense of national vulnerability and pervasive limits, did seem to bring down a curtain on something. But on what?

Perhaps on a sense of limitlessness. In the middle of the 1960s the United States, or at least the leading members of its political class, acknowledged few limits on the nation’s power, or their competence. The United States could fight a war, and engage in “nation building” in the nation where the war was being fought, and build a Great Society at home, simultaneously. And the 1960s counterculture, which fancied itself at daggers drawn with the “Establishment,” partook of the same central assumption—that limits, sometimes known as hang-ups or repressions or bourgeois values, were to be ignored, confronted, transcended, abolished. The makers of the nation’s Vietnam policy may have had more in common with their most vociferous critics than either the policymakers or critics could comfortably admit.

Of course, the 1950s were pregnant with the 1960s. In the beginning there was not the word but the sound: rock ’n’ roll, the vocabulary of a self-conscious and soon selfconfident youth cohort. Rock ’n’ roll was nowhere in 1950 and was here to stay in 1960. The 1960s took part of the 1950s and stirred in danger—sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll.

ANOTHER 1950S COHORT, A SMALL ONE, THE Beats, anticipated the large cohort of adversarial intellectuals in the 1960s. Of course many of the Beats, unlike their 1960s children (if members of the 1960s “counterculture” can be so regarded), were passionate lovers of America—its cars, its beckoning spaces, and the sense of no limits that those cars and spaces intimated. But the Beats also had that sense of generational uniqueness, and of being set-upon by an unfeeling world, that was to characterize those who were pleased to be called “the sixties generation.” Remember Alien Ginsberg’s Howl from 1956: