A yoga class in Aspen, Colorado, 1969
Wagner Park in Aspen Colorado, 1969
It is said that if you remember the Sixties, then you weren’t really there. I should point out that I wasn’t really there. I was a kid living in suburban Texas during the whole period of The Sixties. As far as I was concerned, The Sixties was something that happened on tee vee that made no discernable impact upon the environment I lived in. My first tangible contacts with The Sixties came as they were ending and after they were over. Our annual summer family road trip in 1969 took us to Aspen, Colorado, to the ski lodge my grandparents still owned at the time. We arrived in an Aspen crowded with hippies. Their VW vans parked everywhere, and there were always 10 frisbees in the air at any one time in the parks. I remember the wool ponchos, the jeans, the long hair, and the bare feet black with dirt. My parents were appalled. Eleven year old me was horrified … and a little intrigued. I had older cousins who joined the hippies in Aspen. Later in life, I had a good friend who was a serious hippy in those days, long before I knew him. In his teens and early twenties, he regularly hitchhiked from his home in St. Louis to San Francisco to join friends in the Haight. I had friends later in life that went through the Vietnam War at about the same time. One of them joined the Navy hoping to avoid combat. He ended up on river patrol in the Mekong Delta and told some horrific stories. Another one I knew whose major passion in life was German literature, found himself snapped up by the draft after he earned his master’s, and right in the middle of the Tet Offensive. He never talked about his wartime experiences and never recovered from them. He never achieved that academic career and the scholar’s life he long wanted, though he never lost his passion for German literature.
By the time I came of age, and discovered The Sixties, the counter-culture, the anti-war movement, etc. were all coming to an end, and the long reaction against them was beginning. Those my age who shared my interests were very few and thoroughly marginalized. Most of the rest of Texas suburban kids I knew shared the conviction of their parents, that the turmoil and violence of the Sixties vindicated the Conventional Order. Like French conservatives during the Bourbon Restoration of 1814 – 1830, they fully expected a return to the status quo ante as if nothing had happened. Their expectation of restoration turned out to be as frustrated as my expectation of revolution.
Jefferson Airplane poster; I confess a certain fondness for these old psychedelic posters. Art Nouveau and Symbolist designs redone in Dayglo colors
The Sixties was a revolution. It was not the political revolution many expected. As a political revolution it was a total failure. The people who own and run the United States now are the same people who have always owned and run it. No real power changed hands. The Sixties was a profound social and cultural revolution that dramatically altered people’s expectations out of life down to the present day and far into the future. During the 1960s, the Victorian era and its cultural legacy finally ended in the USA. That culture ended in Europe much earlier with the First World War.
Alexis de Tocqueville said that expectation is the spark of revolution. Indeed, it was expectation that drove the turmoil of The Sixties. Expectations that were sown in the experience of World War II came to fruition in the 1960s after having lain dormant (though far from dead) in the 1950s. As in the First World War, African Americans served in the Second World War with distinction and expected an end to segregation as their just and overdue compensation. After World War I, they returned to violent white resistance and repression in the wave of lynchings and racist violence of the 1920s. They returned from World War II determined to prevail in the struggle this time around. When Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus, everything was ready for the long struggle that followed. Women entered a workforce with acute manpower shortages created by the war. They did what was long considered “man’s work,” and they did so quite successfully for high wages, sometimes higher than what their husbands earned. Many began to feel that baby-raising and housekeeping were not necessarily destiny after all. Gays and lesbians who long felt isolated and were invisible to each other as much as to society, found each other and discovered their numbers in the wartime mobilization. Some gay veterans described visiting Paris’ once famous gay nightspots as a transformative experience. The gay clubs and cabarets of Paris reopened immediately after Liberation and were packed with soldiers dancing with each other, a first glimpse of substantial numbers of men and women who shared their same feelings and the first suggestion of potential political power.
Most veterans after the war wanted to return to some kind of structure and stability after the experiences of combat and dislocation, and welcomed the “normalcy” of the late 1940s and 1950s. Other veterans had a taste of a larger world and of possibilities in life beyond the conventional expectations of a still very insular United States. They congregated in port cities like New York and San Francisco and created the first bohemias in the USA since the 1920s. The Beats created that yearning for freedom, adventure, and authenticity that would be central to the later Counter-Culture.
Expectation may be the spark of revolution, but there is nothing more combustible than frustrated expectation (as the rulers of the Arab world are now finding out). That same frustrated expectation drove the racial violence of the 1960s, and the later turmoil of the antiwar movement.
Captain Beefheart poster
The now much vilified sexual revolution of the 1960s was perhaps the most far-reaching and profound transformation of the era. The taboos that surrounded sex in the Victorian era dropped. People pulled back the curtain, hiked up their dresses, pulled down their pants, and took a good look. No fault divorce became law in state after state, and with it came a dramatic increase in divorce rates and a corresponding sharp drop in rates of domestic violence. Pre-marital sex was always more common than people assumed, and now it was no longer secret. The Pill transformed sex and what people expected from it. The Pill made it possible for the first time in history for women to control their cycles of fertility, and to have the final and decisive say in the decision to have children. Biology was no longer destiny. This opened up worlds of new opportunities for women, and forever changed traditional gender roles. I suspect that this might have happened in some form even without The Pill. Since World War II, women pushed ever further outward beyond the roles traditionally assigned to them, even in the face of resistance. Feminism remains under-rated as a major force in Post World War II history, nationally and internationally. I strongly suspect that reaction against feminism, and fear of the expectations it creates, drive religious fundamentalist movements around the world. It was the combination of the inspiration of the Civil Rights Movement and the sexual revolution that dramatically transformed the tiny marginalized movement for homosexual rights into a global popular movement for gay rights in the Stonewall riots of 1969. Family life will never be the same again. The old Victorian domestic ideal of the Master of the Castle and the Angel of the Home with silent obedient cherubic children is gone forever. The family today is more egalitarian and democratic with spouses thinking of themselves as partners sharing the responsibilities of raising children and maintaining the household. That spouses are two different genders or the same gender hardly matters anymore. The stability once provided by the clear Victorian hierarchy of pater familias on top of a descending order based on age and gender that safeguards its members against life’s uncertainties was replaced by the home as a less clearly structured and more vulnerable loving community facing the contingencies of life together however imperfectly.
The high culture of the 1960s may have been cool (from formalist criticism to Pop Art), but its popular culture was hotly Romantic. Thousands upon thousands of young men who never heard of Goethe lived out The Sorrows of Young Werther in The Sixties. The old Beat idea of life as a never-ending adventure, once confined to a small marginal population, now became the expectation of millions of people. Those old conventional satisfactions of a comfortable home and happy family were not enough anymore. People woke up to a modern world full of social and legal constraints that no longer seemed legitimate. This desire to be absolutely free was anarchic and had a corresponding longing for the authentic in a commercial world where language and imagery were entirely manipulative. Ironically, the always adaptable culture of commercialism found ways to transform these very deep desires for liberation and authenticity into sales pitches. The anarchism of the Counter-Culture could also take some very dark turns when people threw off all restraints as Charles Manson reminds us. This popular culture is still very much with us, though much transformed. Now everyone is in some measure a heroic outsider. The grungy jeans from the Army Navy surplus store with a tee shirt tie-dyed in a tub of Ritt Dye look that began as a rejection of consumer culture now comes tailored and costs a fortune in a high end boutique.
We usually associate The Sixties and its counter-cultures with the Left, but it transformed the expectations of the Right as well. The Romantic hero defying corrupted convention shades easily into Ayn Rand libertarianism and even into far right supremacism. Ted Nugent’s far right machismo is as far removed from the old 1950s domestic ideal as any group of Vegans in an Occupy encampment.
I know a lot of you out there lived through The Sixties and saw a lot more of it than I did. What do you remember and what do you think of it now?