Summing the Sixties

April 10th, 2010
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When will we have heard enough about the Sixties? For many of us, the answer is “about 25 or 30 years ago”, certainly by the time of the Sgt. Pepper 20th anniversary specials. The Boomers are (finally) retiring, at least those who aren’t overturning all the mandatory retirement legislation and planning to stop anyone from displacing them until their emaciated bodies are carried from the corner office.

So why are we still talking about that decade? And, worse, why haven’t all the variously lettered “Gens” born since thrown over the tired ideas of the tie-dye and bead crowd? One reason is the dominance of the consensus narrative that emerged from the decade, and the fact that Boomers have bought these defining stories hook, line and sinker; then repeated them ad nauseam.

Wading through a neglected pile of magazines this Easter holiday, I turned up the best analysis of the Sixties I’ve probably ever read. As it was written by veteran author George Weigel, the depth of the analysis should be no surprise. He points to five major defining events of the decade and succinctly describes how each still casts a long shadow over today’s thinking.

The five moments, in chronological order, are: the Kennedy assassination (1963), Griswold vs. Connecticut (1965), the publication of The Secular City (1965), the Kerner Commission (1968), the Tet Offensive (1968), and the rise of environmentalism (1969). Somehow, the release of Sgt. Pepper didn’t make it to the list.

Numbers one and four should be no surprise, although his analysis there is also very instructive. For example, Kennedy’s “court historians”, Arthur Schlesinger and Ted Sorenson created not only the Camelot myth, but also the idea that the assassination was the “by-product of a culture of violence that had infected the extreme American right wing”. This despite the fact that Oswald was a convinced Communist, likely motivated by bitterness toward JFK’s Cold War policies.

Similarly, Weigel’s commentary on Tet not only reinforces what the more informed (like MrK) know about the military situation in Vietnam, but also shows how false interpretations of Vietnam affect the U.S.’ reaction to Jihadism today. Despite the density of the prose, it’s worth quoting one longer passage:

The antiwar domestic American politics of the Sixties were a volatile expression of what might be called, following the existentialist fashion of the time, the “politics of authenticity”. In the poitics of authenticity, what counts is the nobility of my feelings; what does not count is evidence, and what is not required is an examination of conscience in the light of the evidence. The politics of authenticity lead us by a short route to a public morality of feelings, impervious to data and dismissive of a moral calculus of possible consequences. Or, to put it in Max Weber’s terms, the morality of intentions trumped the morality of responsibility in the American debate over Vietnam. The irresponsibility that characterized the Carter and Clinton administrations’ responses to the threat of global Jihadism – a fecklessness deeply influenced by the canonical Vietnam narrative – is one obvious result.

His description of the other defining moments covered much new ground for me. Griswold vs. Connecticut was a case striking down the law against contraceptives – conveniently fast-tracked to the Supreme Court – that, though it might have seemed innocuous at the time, laid the groundwork for the unraveling of the traditional social-legislative fabric. Harvey Cox’s The Secular City may been seen to reflect the religious, and the Kerner commission the racial dimension of the same developments in America. The latter, Weigel points out, established that “Black America was a victim, and a victim could not be held responsible for lashing out against his victimization.” What has changed there in the last 40-odd years?

Lastly, environmentalism – with the first UN Earth Day declaration signed in 1969, and the annual celebration launched the following year – now appears to be a political fixture, in one form or another. To quote famous physicist Freeman Dyson, from yet another issue of First Things, “Environmentalism, as a religion of hope and respect for nature, is here to stay. This is a religion that we can all share, whether or not we believe global warming to be harmful.”

Well, I’ll reserve comment on the last point. I’ll simply recommend Weigel’s piece as the best eight-page summary of the Sixties I’ve read. If you’re a slow reader like me, that’s 20 minutes well spent.

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By John Weissenberger