May/June 1999 | Volume 50, Issue 3
Say “the sixties” aad sappy nostalgia seems to follow reflexively. Well, Age of Aquarius, baloney. Greening of America, hooey. Got to get back to the garden, gimme a giant break. Talk about false dawns. The sixties heralded a rebirth of truth and beauty and freedom, a cosmic liberation. How come their only lasting monuments are the drug culture (thanks, kids), a lot of sheepish job-seekers with embarrassing gaps in their r»sum»s, and a spiritual hangover that thirty years later not even extra-strength Motrin can cure? That other self-destructive mass societal spasm, China’s Cultural Revolution, at least had a theory behind it. The sixties was one spontaneous, protracted narcissistic binge with all the intellectual clarity of a spoiled brat’s tantrum. Peer deep into the purple haze. The sixties smelled bad, looked bad, made sloth a religion and ignorance a virtue. Professor Timothy Leary and his fellow prophets proved to be clowns. Sixties culture, not surprisingly, is deader than ancient Sanskrit today. (Could you sit through a revival of Oh! Calcutta!? ) The sixties always felt vaguely sleazy and sinister—even when you thought you were grooving. The one profound thing about the period is the mystery of why a society so advanced so willingly fell under the spell of this mush-headed vision of life as children’s holiday. But don’t ask me. By the time I got to Woodstock, I was itching for a bath.
Before Fillmore West and Tiny Tim and the Mansons was the period 1960-65, the other sixties—the Kennedy era of idealism and good feeling—no less real for all the subsequent disillusionment. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech one year, passage of the greatest civil rights legislation in a century the next. The origins of a genuinely idealistic national program that would end with a man on the moon. A golden era of constructivism and progress, those deceptively bland years of the beehive hairdo and the twist and “Bonanza,” a re-ignition of national will and confidence after the slumberous Eisenhower years. High noon in America, just before the murky twilight of those other sixties descended upon the land. We’ve never felt so good about ourselves since.