Paul Kantner of Jefferson Airplane famously said that if you can remember anything about the 60s you weren’t really there.
Cute, but not really true. I bet even Kantner remembers quite a bit (as you can see by this), and he was most definitely there.
As was I.
In my post earlier today about Cornell in the late 60s, commenter “mizpants” had the following to say:
How terrible the sixties seem in retrospect — more and more so, the older I get. It was truly the opening of a Pandora’s box. The anarchic glee looks diabolical from here. I used to nod vaguely when people waxed nostalgic about that time. Now I leave the room.
Well, I ain’t going to wax nostalgic; I didn’t much care for the 60s even at the time. Oh, it was nice to be young, and the music and the fashions were fun and fine, and there was a sense of something new beginning. But I was very uneasy about what that new thing actually would turn out to be.
People seemed silly, full of themselves and self-indulgent, histrionic, violent, and (this is rarely written about) misogynistic or even misanthropic as they mouthed platitudes about the rights of women and of mankind. Those things gave me an uncomfortable feeling that fools and reckless idiots, or people up to no good, were in the driver’s seat of the movement. They seemed pretty drunk on their own power, too, while simultaneously accusing others (the older folk, of course) of being power-mad.
Now that I’ve learned more about the repercussions over time, it seems even worse. But even some of that was hinted at then, as I learned in a course I took that was called “Russian Intellectual History”:
It was there I learned—without anyone ever telling me directly—that in the 60s we were reliving those long-past Russian years in a somewhat altered, Americanized form. No, my generation was not unique; that was clear. No, we were not inventing something that had never been tried, going down some wonderful path that had never been trod. We were going somewhere that in the past had led to nothing good.
I could see it for myself; all I had to do was read, and think. If we don’t learn history we are indeed condemned to repeat it. And even if we do learn it, we may be condemned to repeat it anyway.
It was not only reading about it in the abstract; I was experiencing it more up-close and personal:
I also remember attending an SDS meeting at that same university…I was flirting with Leftist thought at the time–trying it on for size, as it were. And what I saw there made it clear to me that it was not a good fit for me. The level of mindless rage was immediately apparent. The speeches seemed nothing but name-calling and obscenities, with a few prepositions and conjunctions and verbs thrown in to aid the flow. It was assumed that everyone was on the same page and no argument or reasoning was necessary. The type of language used reflected the jettisoning of the conventions of rational discourse on the part of speakers who fancied themselves revolutionaries.
It was all there, even then. And this is not 20/20 hindsight. I well remember my visceral feeling of slowly-dawning horror when attending that meeting. I didn’t totally understand it all at the time, but I sensed both on an intellectual and a gut level that what I was seeing was wrong, dangerous, and would lead to no good.
Nothing I’ve seen since has disabused me of that notion.
You might ask how I managed to remain a liberal Democrat for decades after that experience. I’d refer you to my change series for the answer, but I’ll add that I simply did not connect the radicals I saw at that meeting with most of the liberals in the Democratic Party. Also, I didn’t know much about conservativism and never thought to seek it out because what I read about it in my usual and trusted sources, the NY Times, the Boston Globe, and the New Yorker, made it seem not worth the trouble. It really took the advent of the internet to introduce me to it and get me to realize its value.