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What the Sixties Was, and Is

ISSUE:  Autumn 1997
Reassessing the Sixties: Debating the Political and Cultural Legacy. Edited by Stephen Macedo. Foreword by George F. Will. Afterword by Todd Gitlin. Norton. $25.00

A Imost nothing about the cultural marker known as “the sixties” seems especially clear, including when the decade JL Jkcould safely slip into history books. Unlike the 20’s (which had the good grace to conclude with the stock market crash in 1929) or the 30’s (which came to an abrupt halt when Hitler invaded Poland in 1939) intimations of the 60’s are, for better or worse, with us still. It was, for some, the best of times; for others, the worst. Hence, Reassessing the Sixties, a collection of ten essays out to see the Age of Acquarius steady and whole. Few anthologies are so rigorously balanced as this one: if conservative George F.Will is given the honor of the book’s Foreword, ex-60’s radical Todd Gitlin is tapped to write the Afterword; if one’s heart beats faster when noticing the likes of Harvey C.Mansfield, Walter Berns, and Randall Kennedy are included among the contributors, the same heart will probably sink at names such as Martha C.Nussbaum, Martha Minow, and Cass R. Sunstein.

At stake is nothing less than a high-level, often provocative debate about which aspects of the sixties (admittedly, a very large catch-all) to embrace and which to reject. Bob Dylan, surely a man who struck many as the ethos incarnate, once argued that those times, those places, were about clothing—presumably, how the button-down collars of the fifties gave way to tie-dyed shirts, bell-bottomed pants, and flowers in one’s hair. But that is to confuse trappings with substance, and even those most enthusiastic about certain aspects of the counterculture are sanguine about these. After all, few (if any) people look spiffy in bell-bottoms and pot bellies three decades later and merely add to the problem—just as thinning pates make flowery adornment nigh to impossible.

No, it is not the sixties of Woodstock Nation or of San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district that matter now, although indictments against late capitalism, the military-industrial complex, and assorted institutions (everything from universities to the nuclear family) continue to be leveled. The difference is that now there are rear-guard defenses of the “system” in ways that the juggernaut of the sixties rolled over or bullied into silence. Thus, Harvard professor Harvey C.Mansfield can declare in full, unapologetic throat that “the late sixties were a comprehensive disaster for America” and go on to identify a dozen areas that strike him as particularly vexing: The Sexual Revolution; The Vietnam Syndrome; Feminism; The Collapse of the Family; Drugs and Crime; Environmentalism; Rock Music; Postmodern Literature and Film; The Underclass; The Politicization of Education; Affirmative Action; and Egalitarianism. Mansfield is obviously not amused by anything that the spirit of the sixties touched. As such, his screed is consciously designed to elicit praise from conservative true-believers and eyeball-rolling from virtually everybody else.

Most contributors, however, hew a more nuanced middle ground, separating the political legacy of the sixties from its cultural aftermath. Naturally, scorecards differ, but the punchstat numbers indicate that the political right emerged as a clear winner while much of the cultural agenda formed on the steps of Berkeley’s Sproul Hall seems alive-and-well in the contemporary university. As Alan Wolfe concludes, after providing a detailed chronology of how he moved from radical outsider to professional (and professorial) insider:

The American university does itself a disservice when it expresses its choice as one between intellectual work and academic work. If it strove to recognize both, the result would be a modified kind of professionalism— professionalism, so to speak, without its most conspicuous deformities. . . . The early student radicals of the 1960s who rejected the academy had at least one thing right: Grand ideas are worth fighting for. The later student radicals who transformed the New Left critique of the university into an avenue of professional careers also had one thing right: Universities matter. The academic world performs at it best when both ideas work together and performs at its worst when neither idea is taken seriously.

Wolfe seizes the middle ground and tries hard to make it appear the sole place from which reconciliation and good sense can flow. But given the heated debate that surrounds his words, it’s easy to imagine conservatives asking him to explain exactly what “grand ideas” the 60’s held.(Whatever else it might be, “All power to the people” is hardly an idea, much less a grand one; and for all its romantic intensity, “Black power!” was longer on theater than on specific strategies to improve black life in America.) And it’s equally easy to imagine aging New Leftists taking him to task for embracing the ways that former radicals abandoned the politics of the street for the identity politics of the classroom. In short, Wolfe wants it both ways at a time when the sixties has become a political prize that partisans of the Left and Right squabble over.

Meanwhile, Gitlin is probably closer to the complicated truth when he points out that much of the energy—sexual and otherwise— that surged through the New Left also made its way (perhaps at a lower frequency) “everywhere else”:

The whole society was in convulsion—if not transforming the way people have sex (who has conclusive data?), at least making it legitimate to talk about the way people have sex or wish they did. As for much-noted humorlessness, the self-righteousness of antifeminists, as that of the pro-choice movement does not dwarf that of prolifers. Absolutism in the defense of passions respects no political monopoly. The sixties that were seedbeds of fanaticism, were the sixties of George Wallace as well as Jerry Rubin, police goons as well as the Black Panther party, napalm as well as flag burning.

Much as I dislike the spongy, all-purpose term, it is hard to escape the conclusion that the sixties were as much about “social construction” as they were about objective history. Granted, certain things happened—in chronological order and often because of events that preceded them. But this is not to talk about how to select the salient events, much less to combine them into a “legacy.” That is what the anthology’s respective authors attempt to do, each from a distinctive political vantage point. And it is here that Will’s punditry is probably on target: “Since the sixties our national life has been a running argument about, and with, the sixties.” If anything, the argument has only picked up steam of late. All of which makes Reassessing the Sixties such a valuable book, not only because it is timely (alas, a great many second-rate books are that), but also because taken as a whole, the essays collected between its covers raise the level of an important debate about our national character.


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