t’s a Rorschach Test: Say what you think of the 1960s and you reveal a great deal about yourself. For some the sixties were a time of splendid creative disorder, in which a rigid cultural and impossible political life underwent critical and long-needed change. The Establishment, that congeries of social, economic, and political power connections, was everywhere under attack.
During these years civil rights were expanded, especially for blacks in the segregated South. Women’s rights beyond the suffrage were beginning to be recognized. Sexuality (with the important aid of the birth-control pill) was freed from its old middle-class constraints and straitjacketed morality. Windows were everywhere flung open. People could at last breath in the fullness of life.
For others, the sixties were hell on earth. Disruptive protest was endemic. Drug experiments often brought permanent derangement or death by overdose to the young. In the sexual realm, orgiastic squalor was deemed normal and sex itself became a trivial act. Authority was everywhere undermined, as tradition was spat upon under the banner of glib shibboleths: Do your own thing, change the paradigm, don’t trust anyone over 30. All this in the name of . . . what—anarchy, a misguided notion of democratic values, revolution itself? The sixties, in this view, put an end to dignity, seriousness, a middle-class way of life that made the United States the splendid country it only recently was.
The first problem confronting anyone contemplating the sixties is that the decade shows up the thinness of accounting for history by the all-too-tidy decennial category. An argument can be made that the sixties really began in 1965, with the Free Speech Movement at the University of California at Berkeley. One can just as easily maintain that it began in the late 1950s with the black student sit-ins at lunch counters in the South in protest of immoral segregationist accommodations. Some would set the beginning of the sixties with the election in 1960 of John F. Kennedy, who ushered in a new spirit of youthfulness; for others, his assassination marked the start of the sixties. The journalist Christopher Hitchens, despite his later political change, always identified himself as a soixante-huitard, or man formed by 1968, the apex of sixties agitation and excitement. Many would hold that the great watershed event of the sixties was the Vietnam War, though that war was not fully engaged until 1969 and not officially ended until 1973.
The motives behind the “student unrest”—my favorite of all euphemisms—that set its seal on the sixties are also in contention. Some argue that moral revulsion was behind the protest movements of the decade: genuine hatred of injustice in nearly all realms of American life, culminating in the deadly injustice of asking young men to die in a needless war in Southeast Asia. Others claim this is tosh, that the anti-Vietnam protests were about little more than prosperous college students protesting to save their own bottoms, perfectly willing to let working-class whites and poor blacks die in their place. As proof of their argument, they note that once the draft was abolished, the protests immediately simmered down, then ceased. Isaiah Berlin thought that the student protests in America and Europe, were chiefly the product of ennui: “The Welfare State, prosperity, security, increasing efficiency, etc. do not attract those young who feel the need to sacrifice themselves for some worthy ideal, if possible in company with other like-minded persons, and that they are desperately searching for some form of self-expression which will cause them to swim against some sort of stream and not simply drift in a harmless way, too comfortably with it.” At one point Berlin refers to them as “barbarians.”
Some say the sixties haven’t ended yet, and that the overall cultural effect of the sixties far exceeds that of the thirties, the other crucial 20th-century decade in American life. They point to the fact that many of those who had a good sixties are now in power: in the universities, in politics, in the bureaucracy, the media, throughout the culture generally, exerting a strong sixties influence on current events. Identity politics, the prominence of victim groups (blacks, LGTBQ, et alia), the rise of multiculturalism, the democratization of the university, the ready turn to street protest, the radical change in both the constituencies and the nature of the Democratic and Republican Parties, and so much more—all of it, without great difficulty, can be accounted for as a direct legacy of the sixties.
The key figures of the sixties are now either dead or easing into old age. Allen Ginsberg, Paul Goodman, Stokely Carmichael, Norman Mailer, Timothy Leary, Jane Fonda, Bob Dylan, Tom Hayden, Joan Baez, Gloria Steinem, James Baldwin—figures of protest all. Joseph Heller’s antinomian novel Catch-22, the hippie musical Hair, the movie Easy Rider, the druggier songs of the Beatles and of the Rolling Stones, all these, the most famous artistic products of the sixties, were in the main in opposition to mainstream culture. Art, though, was never the leading motif of the sixties; the politics of protest was, together with the undermining of middle-class values.
One’s reaction to the sixties is likely to have been conditioned by one’s own personal situation during the time. Perhaps the best time to have been going through the period was in one’s 20s and the best place in one or another graduate school; to be, in another words, of an age that put one fully in the stream of life, open to physical—sexual, pharmaceutical, political—freedom and experiment, with little or nothing at stake in taking radical positions. Best, surely, during the sixties to have been unmarried and without children.
Backed by the books of H.L. Mencken and Sinclair Lewis, I thought the middle class, though it was the class of my upbringing, hollow and hypocritical.
I considered myself a strong liberal, leaning to the radical, in politics. I thought John F. Kennedy, for example, a sell-out—another pretty face but business as usual, little more. I thought American society deeply philistine. Backed by the books of H.L. Mencken and Sinclair Lewis, I thought the middle class, though it was the class of my origin and upbringing, hollow and hypocritical. If you had said to me, as my father used sometimes to say, that “you can’t argue with success,” if you meant success in America, I would have answered that I knew of nothing better to argue with.
Living in the South in 1963–64, I was, at the age of 26, director of the anti-Poverty Program for Little Rock, Arkansas, and its surrounding county. As such, I befriended and worked with the local chapter of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the courage of whose members in facing down angry Southern police and their German police dogs I much admired. When I say “worked with,” I mean I gave local SNCC leaders advice on how to secure federal funds for their own political causes. I felt myself on their side as I did on the side of all blacks whose lives in the South were clearly stunted by inferior education and other segregationist arrangements. I was impressed by Lyndon Johnson, whom I thought of as John F. Kennedy minus the Camelot baloney and with real political savvy added.
The first inkling I had of feeling uncomfortable with the sixties was when graduate students from Columbia, Barnard, and NYU came down to Little Rock, supposedly to aid the black cause. A few taught at the city’s two impoverished Negro colleges, Philander Smith and Shorter; others worked on SNCC projects. They were fundamentally unserious, I thought, spending a summer doing moral tourism. One among them, a young woman, called me at my anti-Poverty office to notify me that a protest march was planned that afternoon at the state capital building and that I was expected to attend.
“If I do,” I said, “I would have to give up my job and with it any possible further usefulness I might have.”
“You’re either with us or not,” she replied, and hung up.
Not long after I left Little Rock, Stokely Carmichael, one of the leaders of SNCC, announced that the time had come for the civil-rights movement to declare for Black Power, which meant white participation was no longer welcome and which put an end to the integrated movement that had until then had such splendid momentum. Thus the first and last great moral movement of my lifetime—“moral” in the sense that it set out to right clear wrongs, and its appeal through moral suasion was to the best nature of Americans—ended, heartbreakingly, in shambles, never to regain its former strength or standing.
I would encounter something of this same moral righteousness that I found in the New York students come down to join the civil-rights movement among the young at my next job. This began in 1965 in Chicago, where I was a senior editor of Encyclopaedia Britannica. The spirit at Britannica was preponderantly liberal, in a largely admirable way. One editor there remained in his home in the South Shore neighborhood long after the neighborhood had become nearly all black. Another, an older woman, had moved into a deliberately and carefully integrated apartment complex on the near South side called Prairie Shores to show that not alone her heart but her entire body was in the right place.
The younger editors at Britannica were differently disposed, keener on symbolic behavior than on committed actions. The smell of pot wafted in the back stairwells at Britannica. Anti-Americanism was part of coffee-break conversation. One among these younger editors used to say about anyone he found loathsome, “He’s a great American.”
I began teaching in the English Department at Northwestern University in 1973. The Vietnam War was over, and so, one might think, were the sixties. But the universities, where much of the tumult had begun, were among the first of the country’s institutions to continue to feel the effects of the era in a powerful way. The significance of the university in keeping alive the spirit of the sixties can scarcely be overestimated. The reason, of course, is that members of the sixties generation for the past 40 or so years have been the preponderant teachers of college students, and have imbued many of these students with their own sixties-formed views.
The university culture I entered as a teacher in 1973 was vastly different than the one I had known as a student two decades earlier at the University of Chicago. An almost militant informality now reigned. Younger professors taught in jeans and T-shirts. They called their students by their first names, and in some instances their students returned the compliment. Student evaluations, one of the small victories of the student uprisings, were now installed, so that at the end of every term, a professor was, in effect, graded by his students. This put being lively, as opposed to be being thorough or serious, at a premium.
Course titles—“Television Commercials as Poetry,” “Science Fiction in the Real World”—began to sound more like uninteresting magazine articles than university courses. Marxism, disqualified elsewhere in the world, found a home in contemporary English departments. Fresh political interpretations of traditional works were everywhere on offer. Shakespeare turned up gay in one classroom, a running dog of 17th-century English imperialism in another. A graduate student once came to me to ask if I thought David Copperfield “a sexual criminal.” She went on to explain that the man who taught the Victorian novel in our department thought he was because he had contributed to his first wife’s death in childbirth—contributed, that is, by making her pregnant in the first place. Not nice to knock a colleague, no matter how nutty or stupid he might be. “We sleep tonight, Ms. Jones,” I replied, “criticism stands guard,” and walked off.
“Question Authority,” another shibboleth of the sixties, took a direct toll on universities, where intellectual authority was formerly, quite properly, at the heart of things. In an earlier era, the chairman of an academic department was the most distinguished man, less often woman, in the department. In what the sixties academic rebels would view as the bad old days, he set the tone and, more important, the standard, in scholarship, conduct, seriousness generally. If a young instructor wished to teach a course in, say, the Beat Generation or the novels of Kurt Vonnegut, he was likely to say sorry, but such subjects fall below the line of serious literary study. Besides, students could read such stuff outside the classroom on their own without pedagogical aid.
Now, with the chairman being someone who has agreed to take on the job, with all its pettifogging administrative tasks, only because it meant as a reward he could lighten his teaching load or take an earlier sabbatical, no one, really, is at the helm. Now there is unlikely to be anyone to tell a teacher he can’t do the course in “Star Wars and the Literature of Apocalypse.” Owing to the sixties, conduct became, and has remained, free-floating, with everyone in business for himself. Any outside interference with what goes on in the classroom or outside of it with students is likely to be viewed, incorrectly but firmly, as an infringement of academic freedom, as if the right to egregious behavior and politicizing courses were what academic freedom is about.
idway in my teaching career at Northwestern, a woman named Barbara Foley arrived to teach in the English Department. She was a no-bones-about-it Marxist. At Northwestern, she openly proselytized undergraduate students, ushering them into a group she called INCAR, or International Committee Against Racism. Everyone knew about this proselytizing; nobody stood ready to object. Only when she allowed, after organizing a shout-down of a Nicaraguan Contra speaker, that the man didn’t have a right to speak—in fact, she said he deserved to die—and that First Amendment rights didn’t apply to him did she get into difficulties. None of this, not even her turgid Marxist writings, got in the way of her being offered tenure by the Northwestern English Department. When the university’s provost, an honorable and earnest traditional liberal named Raymond W. Mack, denied approval of her tenure on the grounds of her uncivil behavior, many of her colleagues among the faculty protested. The Modern Language Association, by this time itself vastly politicized, beseeched Northwestern to reverse its decision, though under another man of principle, the school’s then-president, Arnold Weber, the school did not back down. It held that anyone who acted on the belief that he or she didn’t believe in free speech was not a worthy citizen of a serious university. Foley is still in business, now a distinguished professor at Rutgers, unaltered in her politics, still arising each morning hoping to greet the revolution.
Among his many wise political apothegms, Orwell wrote that liberals fear few things more than being outflanked on the left.
n the sixties, the adversary culture, a term first used by Lionel Trilling, and standing for an academic milieu opposed to the prevailing mainstream, itself came close to becoming the mainstream. One of the chief inheritances from the sixties was the death of traditional liberalism, a liberalism devoted to public justice, political equality, economic opportunity, and honorable disagreement with opponents—the liberalism of such politicians as Hubert Humphrey, such writers as John Steinbeck, such intellectuals as Lionel Trilling himself.
If the sixties killed liberalism, it also did a pretty good job on adulthood. Most men and women who went through the sixties even now find it difficult to oppose any doctrine or behavior that is leftist in its origins or inspirations, for to do so would be to betray their youth. Among his many wise political apothegms, Orwell wrote that liberals fear few things more than being outflanked on the left. In the 1930s, this fear brought many liberals into the Communist Party, put them on the side of the Stalinists in Spain, caused them to overlook the monstrousness of Lenin and sanitize the cruelty of Trotsky, and turned the Democratic Party over to identity politics. History has never been an effective teacher, and so 30 and more years later, liberals, out of fear of being outflanked once again, everywhere gave way to radicals, so that dogmatic academic feminism, victimological African-American Studies, and the rest found a secure place in the first watering and then dumbing down and thorough politicizing of university study that eventually seeped through the general culture.
Scratch a man of the sixties, who now himself may well be in his seventies, and you will discover someone who feels a continuing, if in however lingering a form, allegiance to the era of his youth. Youth is the keyword here. The great promise of the sixties was to snatch the world from the stodgy and dodgy old, and make it anew for the ebullient young. I occasionally see men I taught with who are now in their late sixties and early seventies who dress as if still students. They carry backpacks, wear baseball hats backwards, are in jeans and gym shoes—in what I think of as in youth drag. But for their lined faces, grey hair—and the occasionally heartbreakingly sad grey ponytail—they might themselves be students. Clearly they intend to go from juvenility to senility, with no stops in between.
The price of the sixties was the death of a once-admirable liberalism and the eclipse of adulthood. Some would say, considering the broadening of American society overall, it was well worth it. Your call. Rorschach Tests, after all, aren’t graded.