Myths and Truths
It is not possible to characterize a decade by a few dynamic events and movements. Ten years is a vast amount of time to consider the people, politics, entertainment, fashion, morals, fads and technology and how an infinite number of things all came together to make a coherent era.. However, as time marches on, it is easy to romanticize a time and recall it in certain terms. When I think of the 1920s, I think of Prohibition, flappers and biplanes. When I think of the 30s, I am reminded of the Great Depression, FDR, and the Golden age of Hollywood.
And so it is with the Sixties. As we are occasionally reminded by the liberal media, the 1960s were a time that youth rose into a counterculture that challenged the beliefs and morals that they were raised with. We are told the myth that this decade was when, using nonviolent tactics of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, this generation brought about racial and sexual equality and ended the war in Vietnam. This was a time when the youth of America rebelled against their parents and a “corrupt system“. They experimented with drugs as a “consciousness raising” tool listened to rock music and preached peace, love and free sex. Everything was pure and honest without a hint of violence, deceit, greed, or hucksterism. Everyone was united.
If you are looking back 45 years with rose colored glasses, you can be forgiven for your naïve impression of this time. If you’re a little more realistic, you will realize that there are several things wrong with this myth.
First, I have a problem with the label “the 60s”. Societies do not reset themselves on the first day of a new decade. Our society changed greatly in that decade. We were different country in 1969 then we were in 1960. Sociologists have debated when this era of change began and ended. A popular timeframe was from the assassination of JFK and the arrival of the Beatles in America in late 1963 and early 1964 to the reelection of Richard Nixon in 1972.
Also, the idea that everyone was united was a myth. Young people were not all uniformly liberal. Many of the young people were raised rather conservatively. While many may have been influenced at times by radical professors and peers, still many retained that conservatism. Jonah Goldberg describes in his book “Liberal Fascism” public opinion polls often showed younger Americans as being pro-military while older people were more likely to oppose the war. Antiwar attitudes of the young begin to increase as the decade closed.
A common misconception was that campus radicals and hippie leaders were just normal kids rebelling against the injustices and inequities they saw in their parent’s corrupt society. But it did have a grain of truth to it. In Goldberg’s book he states that numerous studies showed that most radicals were children of left-leaning parents. However it would be disingenuous to say that many kids were not influenced by the politics of the time. Many students (especially those of large Eastern universities) were very active in causes and maintain much of the liberalism they learned in college to the present day. I assume that many others went to the rallies and marches just to be part of something larger than themselves.
While there is some truth that there was a “Generation Gap” between parents and their kids(what generation does not have one?) Goldberg argues that bigger gap existed between those kids who attended college and those did not. Indeed, the ones who did not attend college and were not influenced by the far left rhetoric of the campus were more likely to go to Vietnam and retain their parents political positions and values. (although like any young person in the generations before and after, they would display rebellious attitudes at times.)
Because full-time enrollment in college would earn males a full deferment from the military, male students could protest the war from the safety of their campus. Nonstudents did not have this luxury. Many were drafted for service and over 55,000 of them did not return. The ones who did return were not the same. A number of them decided to dodge the draft and leave the country. Radicals praised them for having the courage to not participate in what they felt was an unjust and evil war. I don’t know the story behind each draft dodger but I can assume that many were just scared young boys who felt they were escaping from a bad situation.
It was in this generation that drug use became popular and cool. Previous generations had dealt with drug abuse but it was always on the fringes of society, not mainstream. To many it was popularized as being “consciousness-raising” and a significant way to be rebellious against parents, authority figures in society in general. “Turn on, tune in, drop out” was a statement by LSD proponent Timothy Leary in 1967. It became a mantra of the far left. While drug use was justified by the leaders of the movement, it’s results produced very few enlightened people and many pathetic drug addicts.
Rock music was the soundtrack of the counter culture movement. Drugs and rock music went hand and hand. Groups like the Beatles and Rolling Stones and later the Who, the Doors, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and others (including bands from the hippie “capital” of San Francisco like Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead) encouraged change and their music was loud and discordant enough to be hated by the older generation
The apex of the counter culture movement occurred in August 1969 with the 3 day musical festival near Woodstock, NY. It was billed as “Three Days of Peace and Music. It has been glorified over the years as a festival which defined the movement and has been remembered by some liberals as a time of love and togetherness. In truth it was ill planned and incompetently run. Many more people attended than the organizers planned. There was not enough food, water, medical or toilet facilities and the traffic jams forced NY Governor Nelson Rockefeller to close a section of the New York Thruway. Added to that was constant sound problems and occasional rain that turned the ground into a muddy mess. Many of the people there did not mind however. The use of pot and hallucinogenic drugs was widespread. (a hippie leader later complemented the concert goers for their use of these types of drugs instead of more dangerous drugs like heroin!)
But not everybody was pleased. Thousand were stuck in traffic jams and never made it to the show. Others were miserable in the rain and mud. A young Billy Joel attended the show and said “I hated it. I think a lot of the community “spirit’ was based on the fact that everybody was so wasted”
An incident late in the festival illustrated the gap that existed at that time between radicals who wanted to tear down our society and rebuild it as they felt it should be and those who did not agree with them (and just wanted to have a good time.)
Yippie Abbie Hoffman had convinced the festival organizers to allow him to set up a tent to educate and recruit people to his cause. When he found the tent far away from the music and people, he ran on stage during the Who’s set and attempted to berate the audience for having a good time and ignoring his cause. Guitarist and songwriter Pete Townshend hit Hoffman with his guitar and threw him off stage. The crowd cheered. Townshend was not impressed with the festival and the audience. Two years later The Who released the album “Who’s Next” with contained the song “Baba O’Reilly” . In a magazine interview a few years later, he admitted that the inspiration for the “Teenage Wasteland” in that song was the audience at Woodstock.
If Woodstock was the high point of the counterculture, the rock festival at Altamont Speedway in California less than six months later was it’s nadir. The festival,, although better run than Woodstock, was mired in violence from the beginning. Scores of people were injured in fights, several cars were stolen, and significant property damage was done. The organizers and co-headlining act, The Grateful Dead refused go on stage because of the violence. Fearing the crowd, the other headlining act, the Rolling Stones, hired Hells Angels to guard the stage as they played (allegedly for $500 worth of beer) As the Stones played “Under My Thumb”, there was a disturbance in the crowd between one of the concert goers and several Hell's Angels. As Mick Jagger and the band watched, the Hell's Angels murdered Meredith Hunter.(In film footage of the incident, it is obvious that Hunter is high on drugs and it has been claimed that he had a gun and his intention was to jump onstage and murder members of the band) .
If they did not already know, Altamont convinced the nation that the counterculture movement had a violent underbelly. But violence had always been a part of the movement. Several radical organizations bombed government buildings and facilities. The Black Panthers assassinated police and plotted terrorist activities. Tom Hayden of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) called the Panthers “our Vietcong”. An outgrowth of SDS, the Weathermen conducted domestic terrorism and preached the benefits of violence. Vietnam Veterans Against the War had an internal debate as to whether they should assassinate politicians who supported the war. As Goldberg says, “Gandhis they were not”
The purpose of this article was to debunk some of the myths about this time period. My intention was not to say that nothing that came out of the Sixties was good. This period has produced most of the people who have run our country for the last twenty or so years. Two of our Presidents matured in this period. Nothing illustrates the chasm that existed in the Sixties more than Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. In addition, people like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, individuals who have truly changed our society (as well as thousands others)came out of this era. Our current President, Barack Obama, who was born in 1961, is a philosophical descendent of the Sixties radicals.
But probably the best thing that come out of this was we now have a nation where people are more accepting of people’s differences. Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence “All Men are created equal” Despite our current issues, America is as close to this as it has ever been.