Sociology

Category Killers

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A Generation Divided: The New Left, the New Right, and the 1960s, by Rebecca E. Klatch, Berkeley: University of California Press, 386 pages, $22.95

Those who believe in stable, immutable political categories will have a hard time interpreting the career of Cindy Decker (a pseudonym). Decker's mother belonged to the John Birch Society, and Cindy's earliest political views, formed as a teen in the early 1960s, reflected those of the radical right. Another Bircher arranged for Cindy to spend two weeks at the Freedom School, an academy in Colorado Springs run by free market guru Robert LeFevre. There, Birchite skepticism about socialism veered into skepticism about any sort of state, and she found herself taking in lectures espousing anarchism, atheism, and pacifism.

Decker got involved with a fellow she met there, and he drew her into the Minutemen, an anti-communist paramilitary group. At the same time--1964--she started going to the University of Kansas, where she got involved in the civil rights, antiwar, and hippie movements. Increasingly disturbed by the racist element in the Minutemen, she wound up moving to Berkeley and joining the national council of Students for a Democratic Society. There, among socialists, she espoused libertarianism--even as she joined a drive to organize tuna cannery workers.

There must have been something in the Kansas air: Gus diZerega studied there too, and through a series of odd events managed simultaneously to chair the campus chapters of SDS and the conservative Young Americans for Freedom. DiZerega's introduction to non-Euclidean politics came at the YAF chapter's third meeting, when a beautiful young woman--perhaps Decker, though diZerega doesn't identify her--arrived and sat in the back of the room. She turned out to be the secretary of the local SDS, and after the meeting she told diZerega that his group was a bunch of "fascists."

"Fascists believe in big government," she said. "You believe in the draft, don't you?"

"Well, yeah," replied diZerega.

"Doesn't the draft mean big government controlling people?" she asked.

Suddenly on the defensive, diZerega decided, after a little more back and forth, that he should try attacking instead. "Well, you socialists believe in big government," he said.

"I'm not a socialist," she replied. "I'm an anarchist." And that, diZerega reports, was when things started "to get real bent."

Both of the above stories come from A Generation Divided: The New Left, the New Right, and the 1960s, a remarkable book by Rebecca Klatch, a sociologist at the University of California at San Diego. Many histories of SDS have been written, and lately there have been several volumes about YAF as well. (See "Radical Squares," February 1998.) Klatch is one of the few scholars to look at both. The result is a study that is complex, textured, and three-dimensional.

Klatch's book was inspired by Karl Mannheim's essay "The Problem of Generations," which, she writes, "argues that people in the same age group share a historical location in the same way that people of the same class share a social location." Within these generations, she continues, "there exist separate and even antagonistic generation-units," which "form a dynamic relationship of tension. At the same time that they are in conflict, they are also oriented toward one another; their antagonisms are part of an ongoing conversation." Curious how people "could have lived through the same events and interpreted them in such radically different ways," Klatch applied Mannheim's model to those who came of age in the '60s, interviewing 74 veterans of SDS and YAF.

Klatch entered her project understanding that generations aren't monolithic. She emerged understanding that "left" and "right" aren't monolithic either. Many pictures emerge from her book, but the clearest image is one of openness, even adventure: of young people trying to make sense of the world around them, exploring it, trying out ideas without much regard for rigid categories.

Yes, the book contains a lot of the life stories you'd expect: SDSers who became professors or therapists, YAFers who took a direct route to button-down Beltway jobs. But what to make of Decker (whose path eventually earned her a master's in public health) or diZerega (now a professor of political science, an environmentalist, and a Wiccan elder)?

Or Rob Tyler (another pseudonym), a former Youth for Goldwater who turned to anarchism, got purged from YAF, and bitterly "spent the whole summer afterward smoking hashish and listening to Dylan records"? In the '70s, Tyler moved to Los Angeles' Venice Beach, got into Rastafarianism, inhaled a lot of weed, started talking with Vietnamese and Cambodian refugees, was horrified by their stories of Communist atrocities, and ended up working for the Reagan campaign. These days he's a lawyer. Got that?

And what about SDSer Barry Skolnick? (Yes, that's another pseudonym.) A red-diaper baby, in the '70s he joined the October League, a Leninist group, and set to "organizing" the factories. The League fell apart in 1979, and Skolnick passed through a series of jobs--cabbie, teacher, reporter--before starting work at a company that manufactures truck parts. Now he runs his own business, where, he told Klatch, he's "ironically…trying to develop joint ventures between American truck manufacturers and transportation companies and Soviet companies." (This was in 1990.) He is disillusioned with Marxism--he's "down on genocide and mass executions and gulags, reform through labor, and those kinds of things." But he's still a leftist, though he believes that "without the free market, you can't have democracy."

These people aren't Hollywood-hatched ciphers à la Forrest Gump, trekking through each standard station of the '60s cross. These are lives that actual people actually led, each with its own eccentric detours. Even the well-known interviewees--Weatherman terrorist turned Democratic activist Bernardine Dohrn, libertarian folksinger turned conservative congressman Dana Rohrabacher--took unusual paths. If anything, their careers seem stranger than the rest.

None of this is to suggest that SDS and YAF weren't very different groups, or that they weren't generally opposed to one another. Klatch finds several clear distinctions between them--and, within YAF, between the libertarian and traditionalist factions. (Today the word traditionalist has an agrarian aura, but back then it simply denoted support for relatively free markets, the Cold War, and "ordered liberty.") Besides the obvious ideological differences, there are recurrent sociological patterns: Most of the interviewees came from privileged backgrounds, but the leftists tended to come from the highest crust, with the libertarians in turn enjoying more privileges than the trads. Younger radicals were more likely to join the hippie subculture than were those who joined the New Left in the early '60s; libertarians, similarly, were more likely to go psychedelic than traditionalists were.

But these are broad statements, more a background against which people can move than a set of rules that everyone is obliged to follow. And even these generalizations were no doubt fuzzier among '60s youth than Klatch's book implies. Her sample, after all, consists of committed activists, people who were far more ideological than their peers. What about the freshman who flirts with socialism, reads Ayn Rand, and joins a bowdlerized Buddhist group, without committing to any particular vision? What about the hard-working community college student who plans to be a nurse, usually votes Republican--and experiments with LSD? What about the vaguely liberal 20-year-old who goes to peace marches to pick up women? The activists Klatch interviewed helped launch the sweeping social transformations of the past 35 years, putting such notions as cohabitation and gay rights onto the agenda. But it was these other people--less visible and more eclectic--who integrated those changes into everyday life. (And it was they who let other ideas of the era, from rural communes to geodesic domes, rot in history's dustbin.)

There are other inevitable distortions, characteristics that distinguish this book's activists from most of their peers. Most, as I mentioned, came from relatively privileged backgrounds: For more than half, both parents had completed at least some college. Many were raised by people who cared deeply about politics. Only three of the SDSers and one of the YAFers are black. This may be a fair sample of those two organizations, but it does not represent a whole generation.

I don't fault Klatch for this--despite A Generation Divided's sweeping title, most Americans who reached adulthood in the '60s simply lay outside her study's boundaries. But her book opens the door to those other stories, to a near-infinite range of events and intersections that our historical stereotypes ignore. Klatch's book might inspire another scholar to explore those other strains of '60s youth. Or perhaps stories such as Decker's and Tyler's will inspire someone to look for more ideological border crossers of the era--and not just among young people. For instance: It's well established, though rarely remembered, that many of the most militant labor dissidents of the '60s--angry rank-and-filers who thought their unions were too supine--voted for George Wallace.

Pacifism and the Cold War, traditional families and feminism, Reaganism and the counterculture: Klatch's book doesn't dissolve these seeming opposites, but it does force us to consider the unpredictable ways they've influenced each other. The categories we impose on the past aren't as stable as we sometimes assume. History, after all, is not the sum of our theories; it is the sum of our chaotic lives.

Jesse Walker (jwalker@reason.com) is an associate editor of REASON.