I really try to avoid engulfing myself in The Sixties. Not because the era doesn’t have anything to offer. On the contrary, it continues to be a watershed moment/movement for all social change efforts that have been exerted since. Rather, I hesitate because learning about and emulating The Sixties seems to be such an easy, overly used reflex action for anyone interested in political activism and cultural change.
The Sixties, for better or worse, have become almost cliché. Overly romanticized and underappreciated at the same time.
But recently, I haven’t been able to ignore The Sixties. In fact, I’ve been (willingly) obsessed with various aspects of the decade/adent movement and its significance in our cultural history. Listening to the Grateful Dead and Jimi Hendrix. Watching the copy of Robert Greenwald’s Abbie Hoffman biopic Steal This Movie! that I had Netflixed (it had apparently, appropriately (?) enough, been stolen from the local library) months ago. And reading John McMillian’s recent offering Smoking Typewriters: The Sixties Underground Press and the Rise of Alternative Media in America, as well as Tom Wolfe’s classic The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.
So much of the cultural debris leftover by The Sixties centers around the critiques of its generation’s political activists and counterculturalists. Specifically, are these critiques credible, and should we value them as tools to use in our own observations of today’s society, institutions and relative norms? Or are they the whiny criticisms of unappreciative inheritors of Postwar America, aka the most powerful country in the history of the world? Regardless of which viewpoint one tends to agree with, both versions speak to the role that those active in The Sixties played in our national consciousness, and which, half a century later, we seem to be still trying to sort out.
What happens when the ambitions of a society are achieved, and then those realized ambitions are experienced by the subsequent generation as a point from which to start?
In Smoking Typewriters, McMillian quotes from the Sixties youth generation’s infamously manifestoic Port Huron Statement: “We are the people of this generation, bred in at least modestcomfort, housed now in universities, looking uncomfortably at the world we inherit.” As we today know, that inherited world, despite the best intentions and efforts of the previous generation (Tom Brokaw’s “Greatest Generation” – talk about a latent inferiority complex for everyone born since the (oddly titled) Great Depression) was one that caused concern. “If we appear to seek the unattainable … then let it be known that we do so to avoid the unimaginable.”
What was so unattainable? Change, of some sort. What was so unimaginable? The status quo. This is the basic societal conflict we’ve been trying to sort out ever since (and likely far longer, but today we’ll just focus on The Sixties and its watershed moment mystique).
It’s a cultural myth deeply rooted in our collective psyche. The hard-working parents pull themselves up from their bootstraps, succeed, and are able to pass along a better life for their children. Who then rebel against their confined existence within that inherited world (and worldview).
The push-pull of achievement and change. Of challenge and appreciation.
What do you do if your ideal is another’s obstacle?
I’m not sure. But, in reading The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, I found Wolfe’s description of the base misunderstanding between the two generations to befascinating:
“… it was very Heaven to be the first wave of the most extraordinary kids in the history of the world … with all this Straight-6 and V-8 power underneath and all this neon glamour overhead, which somehow tied in with the technological superheroics of the jet, TV, atomic subs, ultrasonics – Postwar American suburbs – glorious world! and the hell with the intellectual bad-mouthers tailfin civilization … They couldn’t know what it was like or else they had it cultivated out of them – the feeling – to be very Superkids! the world’s first generation of the little devils – feeling immune, beyond calamity. One’s parents remembered the sloughing common order, War & Depression – but Superkids knew only the emotional surge of the great payoff, when nothing was common any longer – The Life! A glorious place, a glorious age, I tell you! A very Neon Renaissance …”
The proverbial parents look in astonishment at how ungrateful and out-of-touch their children are, and the proverbial youth wonder back in equal astonishment, What did you expect me to do with this “great payoff” other than take it to the next level? Otherwise, what’s the point?
What does one do with freedom, ability, comfort, other than try to use it by continuing society’s progress toward a better … whatever? Even if it’s a messy process?
If the Postwar Period was about achieving a societal state of happily ever after, then The Sixties youth generation asks us, what happens after happily ever after?