Making Peace with the 60s, by David Burner, Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 295 pages, $29.95
As someone who came of age in a post-Beatles, post-Vietnam, post-Watergate America, I initially bristled at the very title of David Burner's Making Peace with the 60s. Growing up in the 1970s meant living through a "national malaise" spread by any number of downer contagions: stagflation and oil shocks; openly evil or incompetent presidents and legislators; brief stabs at wage and price controls and "double" daylight saving time; the threat of imminent nuclear war and, widely held to be even more sinister, nuclear power; booming divorce and crime rates; the possibility of Skylab crashing through the roof at the worst possible moment; the moral equivalent of war against setting thermostats above freezing; migrating killer bees and the occasional killer rabbit; and so much more.
As if such mini-apocalypses weren't enough, there was another annoyance aimed specifically at us kids: constant, invidious comparisons to the '60s generation by the '60s generation. They were idealistic, we were cynical. They were active, we were apathetic. They smoked dope and had sex to open their minds, we merely indulged ourselves. "You kids today, you don't do anything, you don't know where it's at," regularly ranted one of my high school history teachers, a bearded ex-hippie whose high point in life was hitchhiking to Woodstock. (His low point, I assumed then and hope for his sake now, was teaching at my high school.) "We were out in the streets, man, out in the streets!" he would say, exhorting us to some vague notion of revolution while demanding we raise our hands before speaking in class.
To be sure, Burner's book includes echoes of such invective–at one point he decries the "fad of self-cultivation…that followed the sixties"; at another, he bitterly writes off the '80s as "lost American years" focused solely on "consumption." Such comments are unsurprising, given that Burner, a historian at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, is both a veteran of the '60s (he was born in 1937–making him typical of the pre-baby boomers who actually led the supposedly generational movement) and an unapologetic "social democrat."
But Making Peace with the 60s is no valentine to its subject. It is more like a post-mortem inquiry on an accident victim. One can almost see Burner, as the pathologist, probing the corpse, shaking his head, and muttering, "It didn't have to be this way." Given Burner's politics, Making Peace with the 60s is perhaps even more damning than the relentless Destructive Generation: Second Thoughts on the '60s, by leftists-turned-rightists Peter Collier and David Horowitz. While Burner ultimately offers very little peace, he does tease out some interesting insights regarding the apocalyptic trajectory of the 1960s. Chief among these is an acknowledgment that when it comes to public policy and political processes, there is often an unbridgeable gulf between intended consequences and actual results.
For Burner, "the history of the 1960s is the history of the breaking apart of the liberal mentality," particularly with reference to the two intersecting mass actions of the decade, the civil rights and anti-war movements. To understand that breakup, Burner "examines forces of the era that might have been allies but succeeded in becoming enemies: a civil rights movement that severed into integrationist and black-separatist; a social left and a mainline liberalism that lost a common vocabulary even for arguing with each other; an anti-war activism that divided between advocates of peace and advocates of totalitarian Hanoi."
Burner's strength is his unflinching willingness to draw the continuities in such developments, even as it pains him to do so. Where more reverential histories try to parse out the bad from the good, Burner shows how the two were intimately, if not always necessarily, related. With considerable success, he charts how a civil rights movement stressing the content of character melded into the radical chic of black separatism and armed insurrection and how liberals prosecuted a "progressive" war on poverty at home while simultaneously waging a "reactionary" war in Vietnam.
With the civil rights movement, Burner charts a fairly linear descent from moral high ground to the swamp of identity politics. The civil rights movement of the 1950s and early '60s "was about as close to moral perfection as American political action has ever come," he writes, stressing that its authority stemmed from its adherence to nonviolent civil disobedience, "a practice especially equipped for defying racial barriers and inviting even the most virulently racist enemy to recognize their wrongness and obsolescence."
However, once that movement gained its initial goals–"a meal at a lunch counter, a seat on a bus, a swim at a pool, the use of a book in a library, a ballot in a voting booth"–black power, with its emphasis on identity politics, replaced it. Borrowing a term from Lillian Smith's 1949 anti-racist novel, Burner fingers individuals and groups such as Malcolm X and the Black Panthers as "killers of the dream." He bemoans the "vigilantism following the decline of the nonviolent phase of the civil rights movement" for a number of reasons, especially for its "narcissistic absorption in the group content of self-identity."
The shift in the movement was palpable and swift. For instance, the Congress of Racial Equality, which had helped organize the integrationist Freedom Rides in the early '60s had by mid-decade become resolutely separatist. At the group's 1966 convention, leader Floyd McKissick dismissed nonviolence as a "dying philosophy" that had "outlived its usefulness." A year later, Burner writes, McKissick's successor, Roy Innis, would unveil plans for "organizing two separate and distinct races of people" by "sealing the borders" around black ghettoes. "We shall overcome" rapidly transmogrified into "Up against the wall mother fucker!"
This chronology, of course, is well known. What Burner brings to the material (besides considerable anger) is a keen appreciation for how separatism grew out of the integrationist civil rights movement. By the mid-'60s, civil rights activists turned their energy to problems beyond matters of formal, legal integration. Writes Burner: "Their tactics and concerns of necessity began to take on a black separatist cast: community organizing, improvement of neighborhood schools and of slum housing. The most immediately gratifying way to attack poverty was to nourish the economy, the schooling, the neighborhood pride, the political awareness of black communities. "In a very real sense, the successes of Martin Luther King helped clear the path for radicals who would deride him as "de Lawd" and "Martin Luther Queen."
Interestingly, Burner lays much of the blame for the rise of black power at the feet of white liberals. Comparing middle-class radicals in the '60s to their counterparts in the 1930s, Burner writes, "never did middle-class radicals of the earlier period prostrate themselves before representatives of the working classes in the way some white leftists of the 1960s would do before black claimants to revolution." Echoing Tom Wolfe in Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers, he writes, "to the extent that some American liberals patronized separatist black militancy or in its presence became guilt-locked in silence, liberalism became complicit in its own political decline."
While Burner's analysis has a good deal of explanatory power, it begs the question of why liberals came to "define the oppressed as agents and bearers of truth beyond the comprehension of established society." In a discussion of the influence of Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and other Beat writers on '60s culture, Burner himself suggests a reason. Beat writings, notes Burner rightly, celebrate "rootlessness, rebellion, [and] great gobs of primal undigested experience….The rebellion…was against what the authors took to be the timorousness of the nation's culture, the narrow limits it placed upon experiencing." In this respect they anticipated many aspects of '60s culture. (Burner also stresses that the Beats were hardly all proto-left-wingers, or even liberals. Kerouac famously hated hippies, supported American efforts in Vietnam, and admired National Review. William Burroughs, whom Burner correctly notes "could be something of a reactionary," had more in common with the John Birch Society than Students for a Democratic Society.)
The Beats, drawing heavily on existentialism, Romanticism, and other trains of thought that celebrated authenticity, "sought, and stored reflectively in their writings, experience gained in encounters." The legitimacy they gave to "primal undigested experience," along with their starkly primitivist conception of blacks and black culture, certainly helped set the stage for the liberal racial dynamic Burner describes. Indeed, Kerouac even lauded blacks, Mexicans, and American Indians as the "fellaheen"–earthy, sexual, unrepressed peoples closer to nature than whites.
Like his discussion of the civil rights movement, Burner's assessment of Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty is unadorned. Although as a left-liberal he supports the idea of government redistributing wealth, Burner unflinchingly catalogs the failures of the programs associated with the effort. The result could almost be a set of talking points for Newt Gingrich: Many federally funded community action programs, Burner writes, "fell under the domination of self-serving hustlers"; the Job Corps "showed disappointing results"; Head Start's "larger efficacy" is questionable; the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, designed to boost spending on poor schools, "was not a notable success"; "only about 13 percent of homeowners and 43 percent of renters benefitting from [the Housing Act of 1968] were among the poor" as originally defined. Burner is reduced to identifying Medicare as "the most effective of Great Society programs," even while admitting that it (and Medicaid) "assured that medical costs, already rising, would sharply accelerate." While granting that an "indeterminate number of Americans" made it out of poverty due to Johnson's programs, Burner nonetheless writes that the "liberal attack on poverty failed in practice."
As in the civil rights movement, liberals found themselves outflanked to their left: "From the New Left came an attack on the liberal welfare state that made conservative objections sound like quibbles," writes Burner, reconstructing the argument. "Especially in the angriest days of Vietnam, many radicals were unwilling to believe any good of the government….The welfare state, as its enemies on the left saw it, was a form of pacification, imperialism at home at a time of imperialist venture in Southeast Asia. A welfare check, in effect, equates to economic aid for a Vietnamese village; a housing project, to a fortified hamlet; city police, to the marines." Compounding this point of view was what Burner calls the New Left's "special perception" of the poor as ennobled by their poverty. "To say that poverty was being romanticized here by Americans who could afford to romanticize it is to say the obvious," writes Burner.
While there is no doubt that elements of the counterculture romanticized the poor (one reason for the popularity of blue jeans), Burner is not particularly convincing that left-wing opposition to welfare played a major role in subverting the Great Society or the War on Poverty. Thirty years and billions of dollars later, many of the entitlements born of that era are still with us in one form or another; and, as Burner himself documents, most of the programs had flaws inherent in their design and implementation.
Burner suggests similar inherent problems with America's Vietnam policy. "Basic to an understanding of how and why a liberal administration moved the country to full engagement in Vietnam," he writes, "is the ingrained liberal habit of combining action and restraint that allowed neither retreat nor decisive engagement. To retreat would have meant abandoning the logic of the Cold War that had been at the very core of liberal internationalism, while to advance too quickly would have signified abandoning liberal prudence."
Burner provocatively links "liberal internationalism" to "liberalism at home." Both, he suggests, were applications of a technocratic approach to governing, which fell prey to the lack of local knowledge inherent in a top-down structure. "Liberals," he writes, "were…trapped within their own belief in expertise. In [Vietnam] the technical and military experts would surely find a way to reshape South Vietnam and defeat the communists."
That of course did not happen, in part because the government was never able to generate the sort of mass support necessary to prosecute the war. Even as the Johnson administration tried to cast the conflict in Cold War terms that stressed a monolithic, international communist menace that must be met at every turn, "relatively open access" to combat zones and hospitals for journalists, granted in part due to liberal convictions about freedom of the press, denied the government any monopoly on interpretation.
By 1968, Burner notes, about 700 correspondents were reporting on the war, "and many were finding plenty of stories unfavorable to the United States." Faced on the home front with a continually surging anti-war movement, the Johnson administration found itself on the horns of a similar dilemma: "Liberals had customarily defended the right of principled dissent, even when they did not approve the cause. Now that dissent had turned against the liberals' war."
For the most part, Burner is willing and able to recognize the ironies–many of them bitter for him–of such turnabouts. At times, however, he fails to recognize the larger implications of his analysis. For instance, in a discussion of German emigre scholar Herbert Marcuse, then "the country's most visible left academician," Burner explores the reason for the extreme cast of much '60s thought and the growing distance between young radicals and the rest of America. Radicals, under the sway of Marcuse's "revolutionary dialectic of history," were not just disrupting the status quo as a means to an end (as the early civil rights movement had been). Rather, the radicals were interested in "revolution" as an ongoing process through which consciousness constantly rethought and remade the world.
"Marcuse," summarizes Burner, "contended that capitalism had succeeded in destroying among the people in general the very ability to think and act dialectically. It had done so, the argument suggests, by buying off the working class with a superficial prosperity that masked the meaninglessness of life…and rendered the population incapable of serious thought. It was therefore necessary for intellectually advanced revolutionary movements to take over the job of thinking."
In outlining such an argument, Burner indicates why dissent within and among groups could increasingly no longer be tolerated: Within such a framework, there is ultimately only one truth, only one righteous path. Those who disagree are at a lower level of understanding and must be educated upward.
Although Burner implies this is a radical rupture from mainstream liberalism, it actually replicates many of the worst elements of the modern, technocratic state–relying heavily on elite leadership and top-down control. The distance between the radicals and a rapidly expanding federal government that dictated policy in more and more areas of daily life may not have been as great as appeared at the time.
Burner's own left-liberalism allows for–perhaps creates–such blind spots. Throughout Making Peace with the 60s, he draws no distinction between public and private spheres and consistently conflates government action with society as a whole. In an epilogue, he romanticizes the New Deal as a time of national purpose, "a sense of a wider community," and laments the lack of such national coherence now. While such tics are bothersome, they make the book all the more convincing. Even as Burner laments the demise of big government liberalism, Making Peace with the 60s painstakingly details where and why things went wrong.