October 1996 | Volume 47, Issue 6
Everyone knows it was a radical decade—but not who its real radicals were
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.
I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix …
Lots of people were to find lots of fixes soon enough. Some of those people would be trying to fix their sense of being “jailed in the prison air of other people’s habits,” and to express “a disbelief in the socially monolithic ideas of the single mate, the solid family and the respectable love life.” What was coming, said the author of those words, was “a psychically armed rebellion whose sexual impetus may rebound against the anti-sexual foundation of every organized power in America,” a rebellion demanding “that social restraint and category be removed, and the affirmation implicit in the proposal is that man would then prove to be more creative than murderous and so would not destroy himself.” So said Norman Mailer in “The White Negro,” a peek over the horizon into the future when we would indeed be liberated from the tyranny of the single mate and the solid family, and would stay off the streets at night. Mailer’s essay was published in Dissent magazine in 1957 and republished in pamphlet form at 1562 Grant Avenue in San Francisco, by City Lights Books.
But the 1960s as a decade of dissent did not begin where the “Beat generation”—that word generation again —supposedly did, congregating at the City Lights bookstore in San Francisco’s North Beach section. (Only in America could a bookstore be the Finland Station of what fancied itself a revolutionary movement.) Neither did it begin in 1964 at Sproul Plaza on the Berkeley campus, with Mario Savio and the Free Speech Movement. Rather, the decade of dissent began at a place not famous as a locus of tumult, the podium of a Republican National Convention.
In the beginning was Barry Goldwater. In 1960 in Chicago the junior senator from Arizona, seething with the ancient (well, by American standards) and accumulated grievances of the American West against the American East, thundered to the convention that he was mad as hell at Nelson Rockefeller and his ilk and was not going to take it any more: “Let’s grow up, conservatives. We want to take this party back, and I think someday we can. Let’s get to work.” Four years later he and his people had control of the party. Eight years later the NixonWallace share of the popular vote was 57 percent. In fact, the most remarkable example of “people power”—a favorite incantation of the left in the 1960s—was the achievement of George Wallace’s ragtag army in getting him on the ballot in all fifty states in 1968, when laws impeding third-party candidates were much more onerous than they now are.
The radicalism of the left did not seek power; it purported to despise power. Whereas the left in the 1930s exhorted its adherents to organize, the left in the 1960s celebrated spontaneity. The left in the 1930s was produced by hard material conditions. In the 1960s social abundance and personal affluence were the prerequisites for, and contributing causes of, the campus-based radicalism. That radicalism sought a revolution in “consciousness,” sometimes with chemical assistance.
Which is not to say that the radicalism of the left was otherwise sterile. By acts of bravery and skill and perseverance, acts that have not lost their power to take one’s breath away, the legal edifice of racial injustice was dismantled. Whatever one thinks of the other consequences of the sixties, the decade is redeemed by what was done in bus terminals, at lunch counters, in voterregistration drives on ramshackle porches along dangerous back roads, and by all the other mining and sapping of the old system. But a revolution interested primarily in “consciousness” is bound to be self-absorbed—each revolutionary looking inward, fascinated by the supposed malleability of his or her “self.” The shaping of the “self” is apt to be a more fascinating project for the “consciousness revolutionary” than any mere social reform.
So powerful were—are—the energies let loose in the sixties, there cannot now be, and may never be, anything like a final summing up. After all, what is the “final result” of the Civil War?