Wednesday, November 14, 2007

The 1960s Are Hard to Escape

I was born in the early-1960s, but with the exception of some of my earliest rock-and-roll recollections, I feel more a child of the 1970s and 1980s. Or, at least that's what I figured after reading this week's cover story at Newsweek:

Barack Obama was born in the 1960s but is not of them. Such is the constant promise of his presidential campaign. Announcing his candidacy last January, he vowed to lead a "new generation" unencumbered by the divisive struggles of the past. By last week, when a Fox News reporter asked him to define the difference between him and the Democratic front runner, Hillary Clinton, he had grown more pointed. "Senator Clinton and others have been fighting some of the same fights since the '60s," Obama replied. "It makes it very difficult for them to bring the country together to get things done."

Obama's promise—I am not the'60s—is heartfelt, but ultimately hard to believe. Just look at the gray-haired '60s idealists inside the senator's own brain trust who see him as the fulfillment of 40 years' worth of hard work. Or look at the throbbing crowds that mob the young senator, reminiscent in so many ways of the crowds that mobbed Bobby Kennedy 40 years ago. Or look at the Secret Service detail that trails Obama, a reminder of the old '60s lesson that assassination is a real threat. Obama is the '60s, whether he likes it or not.

John McCain is also the '60s. A former naval aviator who spent the latter part of the decade in a North Vietnamese POW camp, McCain uttered the best line of the 2008 presidential campaign last month in a Republican primary debate. "A few days ago, Senator Clinton tried to spend $1 million on the Woodstock Concert Museum," McCain announced. "Now, my friends, I wasn't there … I was tied up at the time." The Republican room erupted, not in laughter, but in applause. His campaign quickly took the debate clip and cut a television ad.

McCain knows what Obama should have learned by now: the '60s are impossible to escape. They will define the 2008 presidential election, just as they have defined American politics, and American culture, for the past 40 years. It is fashionable to see the boomers' '60s obsession as a reflection of their own narcissism, their inability to get over themselves. But this does not do justice to a truly traumatic decade. In the midst of adolescence, an entire generation was presented with repeated reminders of its own mortality: the Cuban missile crisis; the assassinations of Jack Kennedy, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr.; the violence in the cities; the 58,193 Vietnam War dead. So much death and killing, too much to simply put aside.

But what about the rest of us? Nearly 162 million Americans were born after Dec. 31, 1969. More than half the country, then, knows the decade only through mythology (peace, love and liberation) or through marketing (tie-dyed T shirts at tourist shops, the Rolling Stones on oldies radio, Dennis Hopper in Ameriprise Financial ads). They rightly question what makes the '60s so special: What, after all, did the baby boomers really achieve 40 years ago? Why does NEWSWEEK commemorate 1968 instead of 1918 or 1941?

The answer: because all of us, young and old, are stuck in the '60s, hostages to a decade we define ourselves as for or against. As the pages that follow demonstrate, the '60s were not necessarily, as some baby boomers would have it, America's defining moment. But they were an era when a generation held sustained argument over the things that have always mattered most: How should America show its power in the world? What rights were owed to African-Americans, to women, to gays? What is America and what does it want to be?
Read the whole thing.

I understand why the 1960s get so much attention. Yet I dont' think it's necessary to hold the 1960s as a decade of revolutionary morality with which to hold hostage the nation's conscience. We needed the change, in civil rights, desegration, the advancement of women, and so forth - but a lot of the tumult we could have done without.

Ultimately, I think the 1960s will remain the decade of influence as long as our top political leaders hail from that era. In the years ahead, kids who came of age in the 1970s and 1980s will come to power, and we'll remember bands like the B-52s and Devo, phenomena like MTV and skateparks, and political movements like the Reagan Revolution.

Each political era has its triumphs and tragedies. In remembering earlier times we take seriously the formative periods of our history.