The Decade That Refuses to Die

THE ARGUMENT

March 12, 1995|By Todd Gitlin | Todd Gitlin,Special to The Sun

The revolts of the '60s were as profound and fierce as the orthodoxies they dislodged. The tremors still panic those who would prefer their lives tidy.

Yet here we are halfway into the not very gay '90s, and a president identified with those years, whether he likes it or not, is still doing his best to wriggle away from the reputation. His most vigorous opponent vilifies the '60s as the onset of the decline of civilization. Young people not yet conceived at the time of Woodstock have an attitude toward Woodstock - if only that it is "irrelevant," a term that first gained currency, in fact, in the '60s.

An enduring evidence of the vitality and the legacy of the 60s is that today one is expected to take positions and answer true-false quizzes on a long-gone decade. That era when all the authority idols were being smashed, was it a gift to civilization or a defeat? Did you inhale or didn't you?

How odd is it that the '60s, or what people call the '60s, remain a subject for active love and loathing. In the '60s, no one was pressed to take a position on the '30s. No one ran for office vindicating the '30s or promising to repeal them. Few young people danced to the music of the '30s. No one put on '30s costumes for '30s parties. Excepting Pearl Harbor, just over the edge, no one commemorated the great or terrible moments of that faded sepia decade.

The '60s, of course, took 10 years to unfold. The United States is a big and complicated country. For these two reasons alone, during the course of the decade, almost any simple proposition one could state about that time is partly true, partly false. There were extremities of passion, there were counter-extremities, there were all manner of sentiments in between, as there were forces that hoped against hope to stitch together a cracking center against all the pressures. It was in the nature of the '60s not to be simple.

Pause a moment on the speaker of the House's denunciation of "counter-culture McGoverniks" last November. Mr. Gingrich was casting aspersion on two apparently self-contradictory impulses in '60s movements: putting the self first, and putting the superstate first.

There was a good deal of self-seeking in the '60s, but there was also so much self-sacrifice and social solidarity. Many an authentic counter-culture McGovernik will join Mr. Gingrich in deploring the rampant selfishness of subsequent decades. Meanwhile, from the civil rights, peace, women's, minority and other movements, there was precious little love of the superstate.

Mr. Gingrich declares that the poor should decide things for themselves rather than suffer the whims of Washington bureaucrats. But this was exactly the program of the democratic Left in the '60s, which believed that "people should make the decisions that affect their lives," in the words of that organization of premature counter-culture McGoverniks, Students for a Democratic Society.

"Maximum feasible participation of the poor" was the Great Society version enshrined in the War on Poverty law. Whatever you want to say about the successes of those programs, you have to honestly recognize that what was proposed was an extension of democracy and local initiative, not more bureaucrats.

But '60s mythologies have their fevered uses in today's pole-mics. Images of the '60s are available for these purposes because so many slaps were administered to so many cheeks in such short order. The challenges to authority were so intense, they would go on stinging for decades.

The best thing about Terry H. Anderson's "The Movement and the Sixties: Protest in America from Greensboro to Wounded Knee" (Oxford University Press. 500 pages. $25), is the evidence he compiles of just how sweeping and national was the spirit of rebellion, especially between 1968 and the early 1970s. He does his greatest service describing developments outside the most notorious elite universities (Berkeley, Columbia, et al.), the most photogenic organizations (Black Panthers, American Indian Movement, et al.) and events (the 1968 Democratic Convention, Woodstock).

Anderson is a professor of history at Texas A&M, and unlike other writers about movement life (including myself in "The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage"), he makes room in his chronology for revolts in the hinterland, at unfamous schools and on plain Main Streets.

He does justice to uprisings of Chicanos in the Southwest and California. Himself a Vietnam veteran, he gives a good account of the rebellion and disintegration that tore apart the armed forces. He reminds us how much violence was committed against the movements of the left by racists and spurious patriots. He is stronger on the externals, the statistics, the rhetoric of revolt than on capturing the inner life of the movements but there is a valuable compensation, namely the scope of his survey.

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