Will We Ever Get Past the Cultural Wars of the 1960s?

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Mr. Briley is Assistant Headmaster, Sandia Preparatory School.

In the beloved Oscar-winning film Forrest Gump (1993), the cultural wars of the 1960s are apparently resolved with the triumph of conservative values embodied in the film’s title character. Forrest (Tom Hanks) is a patriotic, color-blind Southern entrepreneur who personifies American innocence. He volunteers for military service in Vietnam, earning the Congressional Medal of Honor, while his sense of philanthropy enriches the lives of his African-American neighbors. On the other hand, Forrest’s love interest, Jenny (Robin Wright Penn) exemplifies the counterculture of the 1960s, and her penalty for descending into the darkness of leftist politics and culture is death. Jenny is sexually promiscuous, partakes in the drug culture, and is abused by her SDS boyfriend—exposing the hypocrisy of the New Left peace movement. As a result of her activities, Jenny contracts a virus, presumably AIDS, and dies after bearing Forrest a son who will advance into the new millennium unburdened by the turbulence characterizing American society during the 1960s and 1970s. The recent controversy surrounding the alleged “relationship” between Democratic presidential candidate Barak Obama and former 1960s Weather Underground radical Bill Ayers, however, indicates that the demonization of the counterculture proclaimed in Forrest Gump remains alive and well in American politics.

The ghost of Jenny and the 1960s is being resurrected by the media and Republican presidential candidate and Vietnam War hero John McCain, who prefers to raise cultural politics rather than concentrate upon the difficult economic and foreign policy issues confronting the country. Images from forty years ago are employed to distract the populace from more serious discussion of an exit strategy from the Iraq fiasco, record profits for oil companies, rising food prices, and access to health care. An indefensible status quo is maintained by suggesting that critics are in some fashion reminiscent of unpatriotic dissidents from the past who supposedly “spat” upon American soldiers and engaged in domestic terrorism during the Vietnam era. In this reactionary scenario which dominates the politics of Forrest Gump, contemporary dissent is equated with antiwar protesters of the 1960s undermining troop morale. The argument is that this time we must silence the voices of criticism and support the troops.

The retreat into an uncritical patriotism, which undermines the democratic principles upon which the nation was supposedly founded, along with guilt by association were often successfully employed by Joseph McCarthy and the anticommunist crusade in the post World War II period. But these political tactics, which continued to influence political debate during the 1960s, were not abandoned as the Cold War ended in the late 1980s. During the 1988 presidential campaign of George Herbert Walker Bush, the candidacy of Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis was characterized as an unpatriotic manifestation of the 1960s counterculture. After all, Dukakis was a liberal member of the American Civil Liberties Union, which challenged the Pledge of Allegiance while protecting the rights of radicals attacking the flag. Resorting to the patriotic symbolism of the 1960s culture wars proved beneficial to the Republicans as the large lead of Dukakis in the national polls quickly evaporated.

The Bush triumph, however, was short lived. The World War II veteran who presided over the Persian Gulf War and removal of Saddam Hussein from Kuwait was defeated by Bill Clinton. The young Arkansas governor on the surface appeared to symbolize the ascendancy of the 1960s generation. Clinton opposed the Vietnam War and avoided service in the conflict. He was a fan of rock music, expressing his admiration for Elvis Presley and playing the saxophone for late night television audiences. He was exposed to the drug culture of the era, but never inhaled. Issues of youthful dissent and even marital infidelity failed to halt the Clinton candidacy.

Those who assumed that the electoral victory of baby-boomer Clinton placed the politics of the 1960s in the past were premature in their obituaries. Clinton’s 1992 electoral success, with only 40 percent of the popular vote, benefited from the third party candidacy of Texas multi-millionaire Ross Perot. The early reform efforts of the Clinton administration dealing with health care and sexual orientation discrimination by the military were thwarted, and the Clinton presidency moved in a more conservative direction; abolishing welfare on the national level and advocating free trade agreements questioned by many trade unionists and environmentalists.

Clinton also benefitted from the overreach of House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s conservative revolution, and the former Arkansas governor easily defeated in 1996 a somewhat lackluster campaign from World War II veteran and Kansas Senator, Bob Dole. Clinton’s second term, however, was tainted by sexual scandal and impeachment proceedings. Cultural critics perceived the sexual indiscretions of the president as manifestations of the more libertine 1960s values. The campaign of Vice-President Al Gore floundered on how to handle the Clinton scandals, and George W. Bush emerged as the winner of the disputed 2000 election. The Vietnam War as an issue in presidential politics was evidently a relic of the past for Bush, whose military career consisted of a questionable tour of duty in the Texas Air National Guard, triumphed over Vietnam veteran Gore.

The terrorist attacks of 9/11, of course, altered American politics. Wrapping himself in the cloak of national security, President Bush ordered military action against Afghanistan. The president, however, divided the nation with the invasion of Iraq, squandering the sense of unity which engulfed America in the wake of 9/11. As the administration mismanaged the war in Iraq, the president retreated to the rhetoric of the Vietnam era. Dissidents were undermining the war effort and contributing to the collapse of morale among the troops. Thus, failure in Iraq was attributed to a lack of will on the home front.

Vietnam as a cultural symbol was played out in the 2004 election. The president was able to survive an investigation into his record as “a fortunate son” in the National Guard, while newscaster Dan Rather lost his job for failing to adequately examine documentation regarding Bush’s military record. Meanwhile, the record of war hero John Kerry was challenged in the abominable Swift Boat attack campaign. While more objective investigations exonerated Kerry, the damage was done. Kerry’s decision to join the Vietnam Veterans Against the War and participate in the Winter Soldier hearings describing atrocities committed by American troops in Southeast Asia was beyond the pale to many on the political right, who used the 2004 presidential campaign to punish the Senator.

The cultural wars of the 1960s played a pivotal role in the Bush-Kerry race, and they have raised their ugly head again in the 2008 campaign. Thus far, the McCain camp has been more reluctant to criticize Obama’s former pastor Jeremiah Wright in the character game of guilt by association. But plenty of others on the right are doing this for McCain. And it is interesting to note that in Forrest Gump, the only racists portrayed are militant members of the Black Panther Party, while the Ku Klux Klan gets only a passing mention and Southern whites are simply not well educated on race relations. During the nationally televised debate before the Pennsylvania primary Obama was questioned about his relationship with Wright, but ABC newscaster George Stephanopoulos also challenged the Illinois Senator regarding his relationship with 1960s radical, Bill Ayers. In subsequent television interviews, John McCain promoted the Obama/Ayers controversy as a legitimate campaign issue. While insisting that Obama is patriotic, even though he refuses to wear a flag lapel, McCain, nevertheless, wondered why Obama would associate himself with someone like Ayers.

Evoking the simplistic symbolism of Forrest Gump, McCain is contrasted as a war hero with the domestic terrorism of Ayers and his wife Bernardine Dohrn while members of the Weather Underground. Commentators such as Sean Hannity of Fox News describe Ayers as an unrepentant radical terrorist. Ayers’s memoir Fugitive Days was ironically released on September 11, 2001. In an interview with the New York Times conducted before the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Ayers was quoted asserting that he did not regret setting bombs and could not discount the possibility of resorting to such action in the future. In a letter to the Times, Ayers insisted that the newspaper distorted his remarks, arguing that he simply regretted that the Weather Underground and other antiwar organizations were unable to do more to end the war in Vietnam.

Ayers and Dohrn surrendered to federal authorities in 1981, but charges were dropped due to prosecutorial misconduct in the government’s harassment of Weather Underground family and friends (Interestingly enough, the FBI’s Mark Felt, who was later revealed to be the Deep Throat source for Washington Post reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, was convicted for this harassment before being pardoned by President Reagan.). Today, Ayers is a professor of education with the University of Illinois at Chicago and serves on the board of directors of the Woods Fund of Chicago, an anti-poverty, philanthropic foundation. In a classic case of guilt by association, Obama is also on the Woods Fund board, and in 1995 Ayers and Dohrn hosted a fund raiser for Obama’s Illinois state senatorial campaign. The audacity of those who seek to resurrect the cultural wars of the 1960s by linking Ayers with Obama should be dismissed with the simple observation that when John McCain was a prisoner of war and Bill Ayers was making bombs, Barak Obama was in grade school. Even Forrest Gump could grasp these elementary facts. It is, indeed, time to stop demonizing the 1960s and get on with debating the real issues of war and peace along with economic inequality which confront the United States.

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Michael Davis - 5/9/2008

McCain doesn't have to say a word about Obama's patriotism. We will leave that to the 527's, like the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.

Obama's extreme liberalism will haunt him this Fall.


Andrew Mark Elgert - 5/8/2008

Good points, but I think you mean RMN (Richard Milhous Nixon).

Andrew Mark Elgert - 5/8/2008

I agree completely, Mr. Brooks. I'd like to add that guilt by association is bad, but that it pervasive from both the left and right. And I just resulted to moral equivalence, but if it's good enough to excuse an offense as great as bigotry, then guilt by association should be all clear.

Yet, I am intelligent enough to know that the author of this opinion feels it is unfair to examine Obama's feelings toward America. Unfortunately, Obama himself has made this a necessity with his former spiritual adviser's, his wife's, and his own comments regarding their disdain for the United States. For someone suspected of being anti-American in the post-9/11 America, connections to Weather Underground members are just icing on the cake, whether or not the person harbored those views. It appears that either Obama or those close to him did hold these views. However much the author of this opinion might dislike it, the media is gong to get tougher and tougher on Obama, just like they are going after my candidate's age.

Oh, and as far as the Rather documents go, they were written with Microsoft Word and had a filter applied in Photoshop. They were discovered to be forgeries when a blogger made an identical copy using the aforementioned software. Rather screwed up bit time and let his journalistic integrity (if he ever had any) completely slip because of his ideology.

Oscar Chamberlain - 5/7/2008

Your welcome. I think its wider dissemination will help others evaluate properly the significance of your comments.

Ed Schmitt - 5/7/2008

Who the heck is RFN? Richard Fitzgerald Nixon?

Joseph Mutik - 5/7/2008

That's the main conclusion of this one sided article.

Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 5/6/2008

Thank you for repeating the punch line so others are less likely to miss it. Actually, the five points leading up to it were rather stale retorts. The phrase "leftist-created worldwide starvation," on the other hand,has the force of an axiom.

Bryan Mullinax - 5/6/2008

So let's see - the left can bash Dick Cheney and use the talisman of Halliburton (a company in which he no longer owns even one share of stock), but anyone who wonders just why Barak Obama used Ayers to help launch his political career is just bashing the 60's?

The Blood for Oil crowd condemns President Bush as being cowed by the oil companies, but pointing out that continued association with a terrorist, who hates America so much he is willing to be pictured stomping on the flag even today is out of bounds?

What's next? Not being able to say Barak Obama's middle name without condemnation? Oh yeah.....

Oscar Chamberlain - 5/6/2008

"The best solution for this leftist-created worldwide starvation might be to shoot everyone who has made regular contributions to the Sierra Club. "

If that's the best a conservative can do for sarcasm, then conservatism is dead.

Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 5/5/2008

I found "Forrest Gump" a mildly entertaining tale--fairly second rate-- of a mentally lacking soul, and not a metaphor for everything that happened in the 1960s, which is really a stretch.

Gore's tour in Vietnam, by the way, was much more "questionable" than Bush's service in the TANG...

The Rather documents were FORGERIES, as any logical 12-year-old could see, and as Rather and Mary Mapes should have known and probably did.

The Iraq "fiasco" is now a good success, if you trouble to look again.

The oil companies may have record profits, but their profit margins are half that of certain drug companies, food companies, and many others. Those vaunted "record profits" of big oil companies are not excessive by any rational yardstick.

And rising food prices are the direct result of "greens" in Congress who stupidly mandated tremendous infusions of ethanol into gasoline. The best solution for this leftist-created worldwide starvation might be to shoot everyone who has made regular contributions to the Sierra Club.

Vernon Clayson - 5/5/2008

To label this an essay is a stretch, it's fluff and looks like something a high schooler might write if high schoolers could write. Being critical of George Bush is the norm for you liberals but he did earn his wings as an aviator, not an easy chore. Stating John Kerry is a war hero is nonsense, he should hide his face when compared to John McCain, McCain spent more time in solitary confinement than Kerry spent in the Navy. Al Gore did go to Vietnam but he saw no danger while working in an Army news office, but even there he had bodyguards and spent an abbreviated tour, All thanks to Daddy Gore. This fact is never mentioned while George Bush's military service is denigrated and is still being examined to the minutest detail. The 60s was an absure time, student unrest was a novelty for draft dodgers and students who had too much time on their hands. JFK and LBJ sent our military to their deaths and injuries at weekly rates comparable to all the losses of the current war. RFN inherited their debacle and, while the losses continued for a while, he got us out, we looked bad but we got out. All three, JFK, LBJ and RFN, were at a loss of what to do. We no longer know how to fight and win, our aim seems to be to coast until domestic politics sees an advantage to giving up or hanging on indefinitely.

Serge Lelouche - 5/5/2008

I completely agree. It's encouraging, however, to not that fool who wrote this is a prep school principal, rather than say, a Stanford professor. There may be some meritocratic elements of academia after all.

John Q. Public - 5/5/2008

The argument is that this time we must silence the voices of criticism and support the troops.

No it isn't, but you're welcome to your strawman.

The argument is that, unlike the 60's, there will actually BE an argument. Welcome to the freedom of information age perfesser...and your skirt is showing.

Tim Matthewson - 5/5/2008

It sure took the author a long time to get to the point -- "The audacity of those who seek to resurrect the cultural wars of the 1960s by linking Ayers with Obama should be dismissed with the simple observation that when John McCain was a prisoner of war and Bill Ayers was making bombs, Barak Obama was in grade school. Even Forrest Gump could grasp these elementary facts. It is, indeed, time to stop demonizing the 1960s and get on with debating the real issues of war and peace along with economic inequality which confront the United States."