Does the Obama candidacy signal a return of “the sixties”? It’s possible. What does that mean? Even those us who were there remember the sixties imperfectly. Not because we were permanently stoned. Memory is selective. We remember it as better than it was. We were young, and that makes a difference.Yet, as tristero observes over at Digby’s place, the sixties were not just a time of flowering creativity and the securing of new freedoms, but also a terrible, difficult and dark time for anyone who had any political awareness.
The run-up to the sixties was in fact much like the last few years. Rick Perlstein’s book Nixonland fills in the grubby and genuinely horrible details. If you haven’t read it you owe it to yourself to see just how terrible each day’s news could be. A few words that come to mind suffice: anger, anguish, shame, embrrassment, fear, disgust, outrage, confusion — that’s just for starters. They should sound familiar to anyone paying attention these last few years. Maybe there was no internet or cable TV, but the period had its own versions of swiftboating, some of it as hilarious as it was dismaying. Here’s Perlstein’s sketch of a 1950 Democratic primary campaign:
George Smathers beat Florida senatory Claude Pepper by accusing him of being a “sexagenarian,” committing “nepotism” with his sister-in-law, openly proud of a sister who was a “thespian.” He also pointed out that Pepper had been a Harvard classmate of Alger Hiss’s. (Nixonland, p. 34)
Yet there is no denying the sixties were also historic. The world was changing, although not all the changes were happening at once or in the same direction. Suze Rotolo’s wonderful memoir of Greenwich Village in the years 1961-1965 is a double love story, one about Bob Dylan and the other about a bohemian enclave that no longer exists. It is quintessential sixties. But her story is also about the confusion and dilemma of a vibrant and sensitive intellect submerged in her identity as “Bob Dylan’s chick.” There was no women’s movement to provide the words and emotional and intellectual support to help her and those around her make sense of it. That was in the near future.
One movement had already come to fruition. The races were still separated, but the civil rights movement was underway as the decade started. It provided an essential ingredient that was to be a hallmark of the sixties: idealism. It was a robust and deep idealism and it engaged the best young minds of a generation. It wasn’t just political, but also artistic. The visual arts, music, theater, poetry were in wild and sometimes incomprehensible ferment (compared to The Living Theater, today’s avant garde seems timid). Nor was all the idealism productive. Coupled with accumulated resentment and outrage, it could also lead in other diections, such as the self-imolation of the Watts riots and later the violent self-destructiveness of the Weathermen faction of SDS.
But idealism was still the core. What unleashed it? When the decade started, the world was already pregnant with it. The developing embryo had its own organ systems: the civil rights movement; beatnik culture; rock ‘n roll; a reaction to McCarthyism. But the midwife was Camelot, the Presidency of the charming, young, dynamic JFK. Politically, Kennedy was an inveterate Cold Warrior and from a progressive point of view he was no prize. What he was, was a master of soaring and idealistic rhetoric. And the rhetoric unhooked the fasteners of Pandora’s Box and out flew Hope and Idealism and a sense of empowerment, particularly for the young. Pandora’s Box contained not only Hope but Fear. The idealism was eventually vitiated by the disillusionment and sense of betrayal after the assassinations of Malcoml X, JFK, Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy and the fierce Right Wing reaction that rose up to meet it. Pandora’s Box shut again. And the idealism it contained was shut away, too.
Until now. Barack Obama could well re-open Pandora’s Box. Obama, like Kennedy, is liberal only within the frame of conventional ideology. In progressive terms his proposals don’t match his rhetoric. The best I can say about them is they aren’t despicable, although in relative terms that’s pretty good. But that doesn’t mean the rhetoric is empty. Rhetoric is the art of persuasion. Rhetoric matters. And it can have an effect. All the ingredients for a revival of idealism are back again, just as they were at the dawn of the Kennedy Presidency. For the first time in many years I have an abundance of wonderful, dedicated, idealistic students. They want to save the world. They aren’t cynical. They think they can make a difference. They are full of creative energy. And I am hoping Barack Obama will be the catalyst.
You don’t have to remember all the details of the sixties to remember it was a wild ride. So if I’m right, hold on and fasten your seatbelts.