Missing the '60s

An obsession with political power as the wellspring of meaningful living is at the root of all that was wrong about New Left ideology.

Mount Shasta loomed ahead. I stood there in the middle of nowhere, thumb out, heading to Berkeley. Time to bail out. Moments before, I had bounced along in a home-built van—a cumbersome pile of two-by-fours bolted atop an old VW flatbed truck. I had planned to buy land with friends, raise goats, eat brown rice, and forge a future in communal bliss.

But bliss eluded us. Some tiff or another welled up. The muckamuck of the group, an ex-professor and antiwar-movement celebrity, counseled repentance. We all needed, he intoned, a little Maoist self-criticism to purge us of our bourgeois mentality. Problem was, I didn’t feel guilty about who I was. And I was sure the ex-prof was a macho male chauvinist. I bid adieu then and there, stepped out of the van, and returned to Berkeley just in time to sing “The East is Red” to Chinese athletes arriving for round one of Ping-Pong Diplomacy.

This was the ’60s. An era of ripe media images— antiwar throngs, ghettos aflame, civil rights sit-ins, and beaded, bearded, and besandaled flower children. Yippies and hippies. Woodstock. Bob Dylan. Black Panthers. The Vietnam war. Black lights and lava lamps. JFK and Tricky Dick. Acid tabs and acid rock. The images spew forth—colorful, comic, heroic, heartrending.

An era so ripe with images is not likely soon to be forgotten. And so, with predictability, exactly 20 years after 1968—sort of the big bang of the ’60s —the year of Robert Kennedy’s murder, of violent clashes between protestors and police at the Chicago Democratic convention, of nationwide sit-ins—we are deluged with reminiscences.

For lightweight pap, we can turn to a September Newsweek cover story. For comedy, there’s P. J. O’Rourke’s rollicking confession, “Harry, Krishna, and Me,” in The New Republic. In the ’60s, O’Rourke owns up, he believed in everything. Like, for example, that the “university was putting saltpeter in the cafeteria food,” or wearing his hair long would “end poverty and injustice,” or “love was all you need.”

Turning to more substantial stuff, we have books. Practically a whole shelf full. Conspicuous among them is Tom Hayden’s Reunion: A Memoir. Cofounder of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and leading light of the New Left, Hayden gives us at once an autobiography and political history of the recent past. Three other authors, one-time SDS president Todd Gitlin, New Left historian James Miller, and David Farber, who as a teenager observed from the outskirts the demonstrations at the 1968 Democratic convention, all dissect ’60s politics with a sympathetic pen.

The ’60s was not one long political meeting or a perpetual sequence of sit-ins. Lawrence Wright’s In the New World paints the bigger picture—a slice-of life portrait of one guy reaching adulthood on his way through the ’60s: a “nihilistic, unwashed barbarian, opposed to progress, naively longing for peace, excoriating [his] expensively educated mind with frightening drugs, at times passive, simplistic, snobbish, unpatriotic, ungrateful, uncivil, suspiciously feminine, and obnoxiously proud of himself”—or so thought his dad.

No set of reminiscences would be complete without at least one voice for the opposition, that caste of characters who think the ’60s weren’t all they’re cracked up to be. John Bunzel fills that void with Political Passages, a collection of essays by ’60s political activists— the “second thoughts” crowd—no longer enamored of their former political affiliations, nor of the era that spawned them.

All these books make for good reading. They inform, they provoke thought, they even entertain. The politician in Tom Hayden keeps his historical account moderately white-washed, but for the most part he is surprisingly candid. Gitlin has an elegant way with words and a knowledge of beatniks, rock music, and movies that makes his political tale part of the larger American scene. Wright is downright delightful: “I took [my girlfriend] to Preservation Hall to hear the old black jazzmen; we paid a dollar at the door and sat on the floor….the jazz was fossilized and I felt, as I sat inside the ring of white people in the audience, all of us grinning and tapping our toes, that we were attending a Negro zoo.”

One can’t help but sympathize with some of the tableaux these books depict. Gitlin and especially Hayden bring alive the poignancy of the civil rights movement of the early ’60s. The voter registration drives and efforts to desegregate public facilities were conducted with dignity by often unpretentious people—black and white—of strong religious convictions. They faced, in stark contrast to their own demeanor, unrestrained bigotry and unwarranted official violence. We meet, in Hayden’s book, a Kennedy-appointed judge who remarks, “I didn’t want these pinks, radicals, and black voters to outvote those who are trying to preserve our segregationist laws and other traditions.” Or the Southern sheriff who claims, “I believe we ought to be strict about who votes. There isn’t a nigger in Georgia who wouldn’t take over if he could. They want all the power.”

The civil rights movement took some wrong turns along the way—toward black-power violence, a preoccupation with public welfare, and an emphasis on group rather than individual rights, as Julius Lester conveys in his fine essay in Political Passages. But its basic thrust in the early ’60s was toward fulfilling the goals of the American Constitution, as Gitlin and Hayden underscore.

That the ’60s was a time of domestic violence accounts for much of the era’s bad reputation. Two Kennedys and Martin Luther King were assassinated. Urban ghettos went up in flames during riots. Students destroyed university property. Would-be revolutionaries planted bombs. But the violence of the ’60s was not uniquely a product of leftist politicos and unpatriotic ingrates, a point all these authors illustrate. Officially condoned violence erupted all too often, triggering justifiable outrage.

David Farber describes at length Chicago Mayor Richard Daley’s refusal to accommodate antiwar protestors’ requests for rally permits. Instead, he assembled a security force of some 40,000 men armed with M-1 rifles, army carbines, shot guns, and tear gas, then put them through antidemonstrator hate-drills.

Hayden describes police gone amuck in a battle over People’s Park in Berkeley: “The Alameda County sheriffs carried shotguns loaded, not only with birdshot but with deadly double-O buckshot….About 150 demonstrators were shot and wounded, many in the back.”

There are, of course, two sides to this story. Demonstrators took provocative actions that often deteriorated into mayhem. These ’60s chroniclers, to their credit, don’t overlook this. They also rightly point out, however, that official violence often preceded violence by demonstrators, and official responses to violence often far exceeded what was necessary.

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