Missing the '60s
Political Passages: The Journey of Two Decades in America, 1968–1988, edited by John Bunzel, New York: Free Press, 354 pages, $21.95
Chicago '68, by David Farber, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 304 pages, $19.95
The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage, by Todd Gitlin, New York: Bantam, 513 pages, $19.95
Reunion: A Memoir, by Tom Hayden, New York: Random House, 539 pages, $22.50
Democracy Is in the Streets: From Port Huron to the Siege of Chicago, by James Miller, New York: Simon & Schuster, 431 pages, $19.95
In the New World: Growing Up with America, 1960–1984, by Lawrence Wright, New York: Knopf, 322 pages, $18.95
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.
I am not merely succumbing to nostalgia and delusions about the good old days. I remember once being stopped by police as I was returning home from a camping trip with a group of friends. My neighborhood was under a state of siege in the aftermath of some demonstrations. The police found nothing amiss and packed us back in our van, but then sprayed Mace on us before sending us on our way. There is a cautionary tale in each of these histories about abuse of government power that deserves telling—and remembering.
But for all these books have to offer, there is still something missing. In an essay in Bunzel's book, Joseph Epstein opines: "The sixties, I have come to believe, are something of a political Rorschach test. Tell me what you think of that period and I shall tell you what your politics are. Tell me that you think the period both good and bad, with much to be said for and against it, and you are, whether you know it or not, a liberal. Tell me that you think the sixties a banner time for American life…and you are doubtless a radical.…Tell me that you think the sixties a time of horrendous dislocation, a disaster nearly averted…and I shall tell you—well, I am not sure what you are precisely, but your views, friend, are close to mine and I am pleased to meet you." (He means, of course, that you are a conservative or a neoconservative or something along those lines.)
Epstein is wrong. He is wrong because he makes the same error that Hayden, Gitlin, Miller, and other New Left spokespersons make. It is the error of focusing on the exceptional and mistaking it for the rule.
Epstein thinks the '60s was a sorry time, a blight, a pox on American history, because he doesn't like socialism nor the drug-besotted, middle-aged dropouts now lingering in Haight-Ashbury. Of this scraggly crowd, he muses, "What you do with your own life is your own business, but I'm awfully glad that, in the battle of competing visions, yours lost."
But what vision is-he talking about? Leftist ideology and libertine culture were not widely representative features of the '60s. Huey Newton and Tim Leary may have made headlines, but their views and their actions did not epitomize the '60s. Antiwar sentiment was widespread; antiAmericanism was not. Drug use was widespread; drug abuse was not.
The vision Epstein detests is a mythical one conjured up by giving importance to headlines rather than reality; to mediamakers rather than the oft-invoked, but usually misconstrued, masses. Mythical vision in hand, Epstein then concludes that if you thought the '60s were part good, part bad you must be a liberal. You must be a liberal (but not a radical) because, presumably, you disliked the episodes of violence, thought Charles Manson a pariah, and the Weathermen antiheros. At the same time, you liked Martin Luther King, Tom Hayden (or at least Joan Baez), and Ralph Nader.
There is, however, another way to read the '60s that permits nonliberals to find good and bad in those turbulent years by recognizing something left out of Epstein's vision. It is this missing history that New Left chroniclers of the '60s, like their counterparts among many " second thoughts" conservatives, cannot see because both are too preoccupied with politics and elites.
An obsession with political power as the wellspring of meaningful living—a dusty inheritance from the Old Left—is at the root of all that was wrong about New Left ideology. It is also the cause for much misplaced analysis by Hayden, Gitlin, and especially Miller.
New Left ideology, drawing heavily from sociologist C. Wright Mills, assumed that political power is the key to personal happiness, to personal power over one's own life. As Gitlin describes, "the centrality of the res publica, the public thing, took the form of insisting the personal was political—that power was present in every aspect of everyday life, from housework to homework." So too was politics perceived as the great forger of community ties: "Politics," wrote Hayden in the Port Huron Statement, "has the function of bringing people out of isolation and into community."
The New Left drew heavily from Rousseau, as well. Like Rousseau, they viewed man as perfectible and believed in his infinite capabilities, through politics, to engineer a more perfect world. They played up the role of the intellectual—and of rational planning—to direct human affairs, neglecting the knowledge of experience, tradition, and what F.A. Hayek has so brilliantly described as spontaneous order.
This emphasis had consequences. On the one hand, the New Left vociferously opposed "big government." On the other hand, by wanting a society in which everything flowed from politics, they prescribed a world of big government. Walter Lippman hit the nail on the head when he protested this view, warning that "the false ideal of democracy…can only lead to disillusionment and to meddlesome tyranny limiting individual freedom."
In retrospect, Hayden and Gitlin, though not Miller, sense this problem. For Hayden, the dilemma became a personal one: "We had become isolated, self-enclosed in a universe of political rather than human life. In this sealed universe, social relationships were centered within organization, language turned to jargon, disputes were elevated to doctrinal heights."
But although Hayden and Gitlin intermittently acknowledge the pitfalls of their vision of politics as preeminent, for the most part they remain locked into this paradigm—a paradigm impoverished by failure to understand even the basic workings of a decentralized society and economy. The result is a historical account that is overwhelmingly elitist—and radically wrong. They are wrong about the mainstream of the world they inhabited in the 1960s. They are wrong about their contemporary protagonists in the counterculture and antiwar movement of the '60s. And they are dead wrong about economics.
The New Left, seeing political action and public decisions as the only ones that count, wrote off their parents as unthinking "cheerful robots"—a phrase borrowed from C. Wright Mills. Miller, parroting Mills' assessment, describes America' as "a herd of blank drones drifting vacantly through the shopping malls of America." And Hayden describes a similar American, "going about business as usual while denying the existence of pervasive and threatening evils."
This view of middle America is a direct consequence of perceiving politics as the only fount of meaningful decision making. It never occurred to New Left thinkers (and still seems only vaguely realized by them now) that people in the '50s were making important decision about their lives. This had been a time of opportunity and choice after a decade of depression followed by a decade of war.
The economic prosperity of the '50s opened up the doors for many to move out of the cities and into homes in the suburbs in search of better lives. And it was a time of burgeoning community ties through voluntary organizations. People were making decisions about their lives. They just weren't making the decisions the New Left wanted them to make.
Nowhere was this more evident than among the poor, who were, according to New Left mythology, the most dispossessed and powerless (along with students). "We did not anticipate," Hayden wryly admits, "that the oppressed in whose name we spoke would want to enter the middle-class world we were rejecting." Many of America's poor, including blacks in the South, were busy working, however menial the job, because they saw work, not political action, as the path to personal empowerment.
It didn't occur to the New Left that American affluence resulted from the productive efforts of entrepreneurs, workers, investors—big and small—making choices and responding to opportunities. Instead, caught up in Marx's misconceived world of elites and masses, they imagined that wealth is just simply out there. All one needs is a bit of political power in order to divvy that wealth up as the enlightened see fit. They saw no connection between economic freedom and the wealth they observed around them.
Which brings me to the missing history. Though the New Left did not understand that political power cannot bring personal empowerment, many in the so-called youth movement did.
The New Left was always a small minority in the '60s, trying to fit slogans onto a movement that had its own dynamic. Ironically, however, their most widely circulated document, the Port Huron Statement, captured the essence of the era when it underlined the importance of human independence, of finding "a meaning in life that is personally authentic."
There is ample evidence of this individualism, this personal pursuit of happiness (and not in the hedonistic sense), in the '60s. It is evident in the popularity of the Whole Earth Catalog, with its panoply of tools for self-sufficiency. It is evident in the back-to-the-land movement the resurgence of handicrafts, the human potential movement, the withdrawal from party politics, the growing self-confidence of gays and women, and the healthy skepticism of authority. It is evident in the personal sagas of writers such as Julius Lester and Martha Bayles in Political Passages.
P.J. O'Rourke rightly satirizes the excesses and absurdities of some of these pursuits. And "second thoughts" chroniclers rightly point out that socialist mumbo-jumbo got mixed in with the personal striving. But, on the whole, the search for "personal authenticity" turned into productive activities that have endured.
The surge in entrepreneurship in the '80s is a legacy of the '60s. The '60s was, after all, an era of doers. That same group of baby boomers who grew their hair long, demonstrated, and meditated, is now described as economically conservative and socially liberal—in short, they value economic and personal freedom.
The New Left overlooks this legacy because it is still caught up in a description of the world borrowed from Rousseau and, consciously or otherwise, Karl Marx. The second-thoughts contingent of remade conservatives overlooks it because they, too, think the '60s was the New Left (and drug-crazed drop-outs). Lawrence Wright, more of a regular guy, comes closest to conveying what the '60s was really all about. The missing history, the tale not told in New Left or second-thoughts reminiscences, is the story of the silent (and not-so-silent), productive majority in pursuit of independence.
Book Review Editor Lynn Scarlett is also director of research at the Reason Foundation. Her husband, Jim Trotter, is a businessman and a former internal critic of SDS.