One day when I was in my early thirties and still working as a furniture mover, I got to talking with one of the other workers, a guy roughly of my generation. I'll call him Bill because for the life of me I can't remember his name. Bill was an aspiring writer as I was an artist- other members of the firm were actors, performers, stunt men...it was that kind of outfit, great fun to work for. Bill and I started bemoaning the lack of political awareness in the current generation of young people. 'You remember what it was like when we were in University?' I said rhetorically, 'What ever happened to all that idealism?'
Bill looked at me sadly, put his thumb and forefinger together and mimed blowing smoke. 'That's what happened, man, ' he said. 'Nobody gave a shit anymore.' He went on to expound on his theory that the Government had introduced pot as a way of defeating the radical movement, and the conversation petered out in mutual commiserations.
There used to be a saying that if you could remember the sixties you weren't really there, but in '61 I was all of 18 and just entering higher education , and although lately I have trouble remembering why I went into the bathroom, those years I can recall with absolute clarity. I started out in a small private College, at a time when the Beat movement was at its height.. The Beats fascinated me, they seemed so world weary and cynical . When Allen Ginsburg wrote 'Howl' in 1955 he opened with :
I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness,
starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking
for an angry fix...
The Korean War, the first war America had ever lost in its short history, was a recent memory. I remember when grim faced veterans started showing up going to school on the GI bill. It was a little hurtful that they seemed to regard the regular students as a bunch of silly kids. We were raised in innocence; although some of us had lost brothers or cousins to the war it was viewed as not a real war but a Police Action, the implication being that the police, having dealt with whatever situation had occurred, had simply come home. The things we worried about were Communism and the Atom Bomb, in that order. 'I led Three Lives' was a hit show on TV, the story of an FBI agent who infiltrated the American Communist Party while living the life of a normal citizen. The Communists were presented as something like Pod People, alien beings who infected loyal Americans with their strange beliefs. Why not? We had all heard the stories of Brainwashing done to our boys in Korea. Then there was the Bomb. Unimaginable devastation loomed over our heads, ready to be hurled by those same godless, alien people who had invented Communism. The fact that America was the country that had invented said Bomb, and the only nation to actually use it on a supine defeated people frantically suing for peace, was not mentioned.
No, we were loyal Americans, possibly the last generation to so style itself. I was in the stands at a College football game when play was halted and the announcement of the Cuban Missile Crisis cme over the loudspeakers. To a man (it was an all boy's school) we stood up and cheered. If they had asked for volunteers to join the armed forces at that instant, I truly believe we would have trooped en masse down from the stands and signed up. You have to understand about John F. Kennedy. He was to us King Arthur reborn, and while he lived he could do no wrong. 'Ask not what your country can do for you,' he famously said, ' Ask rather what you can do for your country.'
I'm not sure when it began to go sour. I transferred to a State College in my second year, and found the campus already in ferment. There was the Peace Movement, and the Civil Rights Movement, broadly speaking. A lot of the same people belonged to both groups, and the organizing was done mostly by women. I'm telling you, it was heady stuff, especially to one like myself, a confirmed bookworm and romantic. This was my first real experience being involved with a group of people united by a single cause. Overnight, seemingly, our government and the entire adult generation became the Enemy. Women I hardly would have dared talk to normally were keen to recruit me, and hung upon my every word with breathless attention. At first, anyway..
Then there was the music. This was not like the droning of dreary hymns in church- White churches, at any rate. When the group joined hands and sang 'We Shall Overcome' or 'We shall no be moved' there was a feeling of fellowship mixed with martial posturing I had never experienced before. And the feeling of empowerment! To shake fists at an American President- even sad old LBJ, was a heady wine indeed. 'Hey, Hey, LBJ, How many kids did you kill today' we chanted at Rallies while the indiscriminate bombing of Vietnamese villages went on. Some of my fellow students rode buses down South to register Negro voters, and a few (as I've written elsewhere) never came back. We were judgmental, moralistic and, I suspect, a royal pain in the neck.
Suddenly, it seemed, everything changed. There was, of course , endless factionalism, those advocating violent revolution forming multiple splinter groups. I suspect, however, that the real problem was that we had no coherent program to offer, no solution to the problems we so mercilessly exposed. We encountered no wall of resistance which we could have happily thrown ourselves against- my feeling, looking back, is that our elders, exhausted by the effort needed to maintain the facade of a rational world in the face of concentration camps, (first invented by the British during the Boer War) mass bombing of civilian populations (ever seen pictures of Cologne or Tokyo in the forties? Not to mention Vietnam and Cambodia) – our elders, the Enemy, were just about ready to give up and turn the world over to us. We were, in effect, about to Overcome.
Then we discovered what so many revolutionaries have discovered down through the ages- ideas cannot be fought by marches and slogans. Ideas are not defeated by violence and throwing rocks and bottles at police. Ideas are only defeated by better ideas, and we had none. We had no savior to offer, no spokesperson, no candidate. Those who might have assumed the mantle were all our elders, and they were all dead, victims of deluded individuals with their own revolutionary agenda. Embarrassed we slunk away, grew our hair, dropped out, got high, and turned an entire generation into a bunch of colorful buffoons.
Now at the threshold of the new millennium, after all the protest songs and rhetoric of the 60's, we find ourselves, those of us who survived, with but a single anthem- the lines of a poem by AE Houseman :
'And how am I to face the odds
Of man’s bedevilment and God’s?
I, a stranger and afraid
In a world I never made...
To which the much vilified Ayn Rand has added a single postscript: 'Why didn't you ?'