Both the Left and the Right Misremember the Sixties


Mr. DeGroot is the author of The Sixties Unplugged: A Kaleidoscopic History of a Disorderly Decade (Harvard University Press, March, 2008).

"If you remember the sixties," quipped Robin Williams (and quite a few others), "you weren"t there." He was, of course, referring to the haze created by all those mind-expanding drugs the beautiful people popped, mainlined and smoked. In truth, however, time has proved an equally effective hallucinogen. As years go by, real events have given way to wild imagination. The decade has been transformed into a morality play, an explanation of how the world went astray or, conversely, how hope was squandered. Problems of the present are blamed on myths of the past.

Memory acts like a filter, yielding a clearer image of the past. The impurities are removed, producing a distillation both logical and meaningful. We forget, for instance, that back then the music business made a lot of money from silly songs like"Yummy, Yummy, Yummy," or that Sergeant Barry Sadler"s"Ballad of the Green Berets" outsold"Give Peace a Chance." We remember the Students for a Democratic Society, but forget the Young Americans for Freedom. We recall Che Guevara's success in Cuba but not his humiliation in Bolivia. The decade belongs to Kennedy and Dubcek, not Reagan and deGaulle.

The Sixties is both a decade and an idea. Strictly speaking, it is a finite period of 3,653 days sandwiched between the Fifties and the Seventies. But it is also, unfortunately, a collection of beliefs zealously guarded by those keen to protect something sacred. Fantasy has been turned into ideology, with the effect that the Sixties has come to be defined not by time but by faith. Believers object violently to any attempt to redefine the decade, dismissing rebel analysts as reactionary, revisionist, or neo-conservative. For forty years, a battle has raged over ownership of the decade, with those who dare to question hallowed truths bombarded with a fusillade of consecrated dogma.

After the decade died it rose again as religion. For quite a few people, the Sixties is neither memory nor myth, but faith. Religions do not require a foundation of logic--indeed they defy logic. So it is with the religion of the Sixties. Believers in the gospel cling faithfully to a dream that ignores the laws of economics, politics and human nature. They imagine into existence a world where everyone is rendered peaceful by the power of love and where greed, ambition and duplicity are banished. Reality itself is suspended.

The believers worship a few martyred gods (Che, Lennon, Kennedy, King, Lumumba) and seek truth in the teachings of an assortment of sometimes competing prophets (Malcolm X, Leary, Hoffman, Hendrix, Dylan, Dutschke, Muhammad Ali, et al). Their reliquary includes the incense, hash pipes, beads, buttons, tied-dyed shirts and day-glo posters still sold at sacred sites in Berkeley, Greenwich Village, Soho, and Amsterdam. Their gospel is peppered with stock slogans from the Heavenly Decade:"all you need is love,""make love not war,""power to the people,""turn on, tune in, drop out."

The power of the faith, and the equal and opposite zealotry of those who reject it, has impeded rational assessment. Quite simply, the Sixties has been invested with far too much singularity. For the faithful, it was a time of hope and promise, an example to us all. Thus, every glowing ember of that spirit is carefully nurtured, in the vain hope that it will someday flair again. On the other side, the Sixties is used as an example of what happens when freedom is allowed to run amok, and a convenient scapegoat for all the ills that followed.

Cast aside the rose-tinted spectacles and we find a decade dominated by mindless mayhem, shallow commercialism and unbridled cruelty. The Cultural Revolution was the one of the worst atrocities of the 20th century. The Six Day War made victims of every nation in the Middle East. In Indonesia, one million people were slaughtered at the temple of greed. An accurate timeline of the decade is packed with events not normally identified with Sixties iconography. How many people, when considering those times, think about Sharpeville, the Six Day War, Vatican II, the massacre in Mexico City, Biafra, Jakarta, the rise of McDonalds and Murdoch or the cannibals of Guangxi?

The music was great, the drugs colorful, the dreams transcendent. Unfortunately that was not enough. The Sixties counterculture started from the assumption that changing the world begins with changing oneself. Metamorphosis is not, however, as easy as lighting a stick of incense. In any case, the soul is seldom a match for machines. In the Sixties, fantasy worlds were built on a flimsy understanding of how the real world works; in consequence, they had as much logic as an M.C. Escher print. No wonder, then, that"reality sucks" became a popular expression in the Seventies.

My book, The Sixties Unplugged, was intended, somewhat obliquely, as a leftwing criticism of the Sixties ethos, a condemnation of those self-serving Sixties radicals who caused irreparable damage to the liberal mainstream. Perhaps not surprisingly, the American left has rallied to condemn the book, while at the same time I have regrettably become a darling of the right. What this demonstrates is how admiration for the Sixties has become a shibboleth on the left. In order to retain one's leftwing credentials, one must pay homage to Rudi Dutschke, Abbie Hoffman and Tariq Ali. As a result, the lunatic clowns of the 1960s have escaped censure for the harm they did.

Those who bemoan the betrayal of the Sixties spirit are in effect arguing that the decade had no effect on our present, that it was a delightful interlude between the conformist Fifties and the self-indulgent Seventies. Yet this denies the law of historical continuity – the fact that everything develops from that which precedes it. No decade is unimportant; no period exists as anomaly. The Sixties are important, but not for reasons most people understand. Revolution was never in the cards. Positive progress was derailed by a bunch of deluded misfits in thrall to violence and in love with their own television image. Perhaps the most enduring bequest is the convenient gallery of scapegoats it produced. Across the Western world, populist leaders have been eager to blame current problems -- moral decay, crime, violence and the plight of the family -- on a generation of revolutionary desperadoes more powerful in myth than they ever were in life. If the Sixties seems strange to us today, it is probably because we tend to look at the wrong things. By paying so much attention to what was happening on Maggie's Farm, we failed to notice the emergence of Maggie Thatcher.

As summer beckons, we find ourselves facing another sequence of significant anniversaries. It is now nearly 40 years since the May events in Paris, the Chicago riots, and the Grosvenor Square demonstrations. Anniversaries have a way of cleansing the past of unpleasantness. History becomes party. I'm told that every hotel in Paris is fully booked for the upcoming celebrations even, ironically, the Ritz. The celebrations will provide yet another opportunity to assert ownership over a decade. Lighting a joint will again take on political significance. Play a few bars of"Blowin' in the Wind" and even the most apathetic baby boomer will recall that he once manned the barricades.

The survival of the Sixties myth says something about the resilience of our spirit, if not about the reality of our world. The decade brought flowers, music, love and good times. It also brought hatred, murder, greed, dangerous drugs, needless deaths, ethnic cleansing, neo-colonialist exploitation, soundbite politics, sensationalism, a warped sense of equality, a bizarre notion of freedom, the decline of liberalism and the end of innocence. Bearing all that in mind, the decade should seem neither unfamiliar nor all that wonderful.

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Peter Saracino - 5/14/2008

It always struck me as odd that so few historians have written about the glaring ommisions in two of the key film documentaries of the 1960s: "Monterey Pop" and "Woodstock". In addition to the music festival Monterey was home to Ford Ord, one of the army's important staging points for sending troops to Vietnam. The two cultures appear not to have encountered one another there in the summer of 1967.

And why does "Woodstock" ignore the role of those National Guardsmen who helped prevent the chaos from turning into a disaster?

DeWayne Edward Benson - 5/13/2008

It might appear today only the secular world and individual have true understanding of relation between religion and war. In truth and fact the only relation I as a Christian have found, are politician's and their entertainer's proudly announcing that god supports their Empire ambitions.

Just war and war's for Democracy at best I've found later installing secular government (aka regime) leader's, and not surprisingly these favoring Western corporations affiliated if not owned by same politicians.

Most christian churches today are corrupt and serving politician's rather than God, however of the few true Christian churches, these will not be found yoked to politicians or political parties. Those yoked I believe serve a god called Lucifer.

DeWayne Edward Benson - 5/13/2008

There may be some that believe drug-addict's and free-sex groupies of the sixties were the backbone of activism and legitimate protest, however this was only believed by delirious minds or those accepting PSYOPS propaganda.

Being a 71 year old male that lived through this period, I can asure you that it took commitment and strong patriotic resolve to stand up against the lies and deception used by the US-Gov and agencies like the Pentagon controlled by the crazies such as Kissinger and Cheney.

In fact just recently I've read about a Jesse Macbeth whose testimony of atrocities done in Iraq as a soldier is now being proven as fake. This technique similar to individual's used to denigrate the Vietnam Veterans Against the War, the US-Gov implanting many such within Vietnam Vet-groups to cause confusion and deception. The purpose of the US-Gov and Pentagon was to denigrate Vietnam Vet's that were at the time revealing truth about the Vietnam war, and the lies used to keep the atrocity going.

At any rate it is still real and honest patriot's that stand up against the crazies in control of our government, and again only the informed citizen that will know when propaganda is being used to misinform them.

Karl S. Shepard - 5/13/2008

I am quite certain that the collage DeGroot presents is accurate - as far as it goes.

The point I think he misses is the disaffecton and opposition to the Viet Nam war created by the draft, the lack of which largely accounts for the lack of protests in the streets.

It is really quite different when you have people yelling "hell no I won't go" and combine that with the disproportionate number of blacks drafted into the armed services during the early years of the Viet Nam war.

The college deferments, if you remember, kept the sons of working class white students whose fathers could afford college tuition, out of the draft until 1970.

After 1970, the United States went to a lottery system that included me with a lottery number in 1972. Thankfully the draft stopped in 1973 before I was drafted or went to Canada.

By that time, even students in high schools were radicalized. Most did not smoke pot or were captivated by the stupid antics DeGroot believes are important. I will admit that some of us were amused by Abbie Hoffman's "Steal this Book"; we didn't, we bought it. Most were more concerned about going to war.

At Truman High School in Independence Missouri there was a sit down strike in the lobby of the high school broken up and beaten up by scholar?-athletes, in those days better known as jocks - not for the straps in which they carried their brains.

Student alternative newspapers were the rage. I have an entire attic full of papers from that period - original sources that beg to differ with the opinion expressed by DeGroot.

Back to the draft. The drafted and the deferments created so many iniquities that African-Americans became radicalized. The books that showed up in small book shops in no small measure contributed. Franz Fanon, not mentioned here, and many other tomes fed that opposition. It happened to coincide with many more currents in US and even world hitory: Angola, Mozmbique, Guinea Bissau - Chile, among others. Remember the 1968 Olympics in Mexico? - the raised fist by black athletes? - unlike the stupid jocks in Truman High School backed by the principal qua president Nixon?

I know that DeGroot is right, revolution was not in the picture. And yet somehow I cannot quite believe that those drafted into an anti-colonial imperial quagmire were so misled. College educated white kids, high as they may have been, started to understand. The experience of war has a way of bringing a person to his senses.

DeGroot does not account for the disaffecton with US government, the Viet Nam Veterans Against the War, and the less common theme, "frag the lieutinent".

"Yummy Yummy I got love in my Tummy" may have sold more albums. But WHB in Kansas City played Edwin Starr and other artists. We may not have bought the albums, but we heard the message.

Karl Shepard
Hillsboro OR

Dominic Anthony Pacyga - 5/12/2008

Amen ---- Let's remember that Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin and the like elected Richard Nixon and eventually brought us Reagan and the Bush family. These so-called leaders played at revolution and ignored the working-class realities of the time (black, white, brown, and yellow). The nostalgic memoirs of former Weathermen only underline this reality. They did not get it then and they don't get it now. It is time that both the Left and the Right let historians do their job in evaluating the era.

Daniel Pope - 5/12/2008

This seems more than a little overdone. If the "American left has rallied to condemn" the book, the rally must have been held in one of the telephone booths leftists sometimes choose as their rally sites. I haven't found any reviews remotely fitting this description.

To bracket Rudi Dutschke, Abbie Hoffman and Tariq Ali with "lunatic clowns" is gratuitously nasty.

That Reagan and DeGaulle were among the true victors in the aftermath of the conflicts of the 1960s is a plausible, if not particularly original, claim. It demands more serious attention than the name-calling and self-promotion in this article.