Astra Taylor: How the Right Stole the '60s (And Why We Should Get Them Back)

Roundup: Talking About History

It wasn't until I got to college that I heard that the 1960s had "failed" and that all the Baby Boomers went straight and sold out.

Yet such sweeping proclamations never quite rung true. Those weren't the people I knew when I was a kid: the aging organic farmers, the people living on and running a commune founded long before I was born, the self-sacrificing teachers and social workers, the lawyers who gave up a big paycheck for a good cause, or my friends' parents, who managed the local Kinko's and were anything but wealthy. Those weren't the adults I later met who sometimes struck me as more radical in their ideals and extreme in their political convictions than my college classmates. Maybe these folks weren't the vanguard of the revolution, but neither were they getting rich from selling it out. Instead, they were just regular people trying to make ends meet and live by their principles.

My family spent the '80s and '90s, long after the spirit of the '60s had supposedly been put to rest, carrying a torch for some of the inspiring qualities of that decade. Our home was marked by constant creativity, healthy suspicion of material wealth and social status, and our trust in the ultimate goodness of humanity. We called our parents by their first names as a testament to our status as equals (and often drove them crazy when we threw the injunction "question authority" back in their faces). For over a decade, we drove around in countercultural classics -- two VW vans covered in bumper stickers.

School, however, was one place they never drove us to. Instead, my siblings and I enjoyed a life of anarchic leisure and self-education. We were "unschooled," a radical branch of homeschooling that had its heyday in the 1960s (though similar educational philosophies go further back). Growing up in Georgia, my parents' commitment to raising their kids outside the mainstream definitely put us in a minority. But it was a strong one, and one we were proud to be part of. Like countless kids across North America, we were tie-dyed diaper babies.

Idealism lost

Regardless of whether we were raised in the hippie tradition, those born too late to remember the '60s firsthand have heard an awful lot about the decade, most of it bad. The period has been trivialized, commemorated and castigated ad nauseam. It's been reduced to a risible relic, a series of clichés about hippies and protesters and lost idealism.

Today we too often assume the mythic '60s to be solely the invention of sentimental liberal Baby Boomers unable, or unwilling, to let go of the past. But, more often than not, the 1960s the media portrays is a construct invented to serve corporate and conservative interests. The fact is, conservative Baby Boomers are even more fixated on the '60s than their progressive counterparts.

The spirit of the '60s, conservatives claim, has infiltrated and corrupted almost every corner of our culture, destroying America in its wake. They blame the decade for corroding family values, weakening the church, inspiring rampant drug abuse, spoiling the poor, ruining higher education, ridiculing Western civilization and emasculating white men. Over the last 40 years, reactionary forces have never ceased their assault, singling out the decade for unique and unparalleled abuse, alienating many people, especially young people, from the progressive ideals and spirit of experimentation the 1960s embodied.

For the generation that has come into political awareness against the backdrop of Sept. 11 and the war in Iraq, this has proven particularly true. The last few years have seen the '60s framed in a negative light with powerful consequences. The right is expert at circulating potent untruths about the era, like the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth's 2004 smear campaign against John Kerry or the digitally edited image of Kerry sharing a podium with Jane Fonda at a 1971 antiwar rally he never attended.

These misinformation campaigns build on longer-term strategies that erase historical realities from the public memory (and, as a result, erase possibilities from the public imagination). A timely example is the mostly forgotten GI movement against the war in Vietnam, an important chapter in 1960s history uncovered in the recent documentary "Sir, No Sir!" Jerry Lembcke, a Vietnam veteran and scholar who appears briefly in the film, wrote an entire book about one of the '60s' most enduring -- and counterfeit -- images: the self-sacrificing soldier spat upon by unpatriotic protesters. Lembcke shows how the Nixon administration and the media purposefully propagated this myth in an effort to disparage the antiwar camp and drive a wedge between the military and civilian peace movements. Decades later most people, young and old, barely remember that half a million young men deserted, that grunts were refusing to fight en masse, and that soldiers published over 100 underground antiwar newspapers....

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