How the Right Stole the '60s (And Why We Should Get Them Back)

It wasn't until I got to college that I heard that the 1960s had "failed" and that all the Baby Boomers went straight and sold out.

Yet such sweeping proclamations never quite rung true. Those weren't the people I knew when I was a kid: the aging organic farmers, the people living on and running a commune founded long before I was born, the self-sacrificing teachers and social workers, the lawyers who gave up a big paycheck for a good cause, or my friends' parents, who managed the local Kinko's and were anything but wealthy. Those weren't the adults I later met who sometimes struck me as more radical in their ideals and extreme in their political convictions than my college classmates. Maybe these folks weren't the vanguard of the revolution, but neither were they getting rich from selling it out. Instead, they were just regular people trying to make ends meet and live by their principles.

My family spent the '80s and '90s, long after the spirit of the '60s had supposedly been put to rest, carrying a torch for some of the inspiring qualities of that decade. Our home was marked by constant creativity, healthy suspicion of material wealth and social status, and our trust in the ultimate goodness of humanity. We called our parents by their first names as a testament to our status as equals (and often drove them crazy when we threw the injunction "question authority" back in their faces). For over a decade, we drove around in countercultural classics -- two VW vans covered in bumper stickers.

School, however, was one place they never drove us to. Instead, my siblings and I enjoyed a life of anarchic leisure and self-education. We were "unschooled," a radical branch of homeschooling that had its heyday in the 1960s (though similar educational philosophies go further back). Growing up in Georgia, my parents' commitment to raising their kids outside the mainstream definitely put us in a minority. But it was a strong one, and one we were proud to be part of. Like countless kids across North America, we were tie-dyed diaper babies.

Idealism lost

Regardless of whether we were raised in the hippie tradition, those born too late to remember the '60s firsthand have heard an awful lot about the decade, most of it bad. The period has been trivialized, commemorated and castigated ad nauseam. It's been reduced to a risible relic, a series of clichés about hippies and protesters and lost idealism.

Today we too often assume the mythic '60s to be solely the invention of sentimental liberal Baby Boomers unable, or unwilling, to let go of the past. But, more often than not, the 1960s the media portrays is a construct invented to serve corporate and conservative interests. The fact is, conservative Baby Boomers are even more fixated on the '60s than their progressive counterparts.

The spirit of the '60s, conservatives claim, has infiltrated and corrupted almost every corner of our culture, destroying America in its wake. They blame the decade for corroding family values, weakening the church, inspiring rampant drug abuse, spoiling the poor, ruining higher education, ridiculing Western civilization and emasculating white men. Over the last 40 years, reactionary forces have never ceased their assault, singling out the decade for unique and unparalleled abuse, alienating many people, especially young people, from the progressive ideals and spirit of experimentation the 1960s embodied.

For the generation that has come into political awareness against the backdrop of Sept. 11 and the war in Iraq, this has proven particularly true. The last few years have seen the '60s framed in a negative light with powerful consequences. The right is expert at circulating potent untruths about the era, like the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth's 2004 smear campaign against John Kerry or the digitally edited image of Kerry sharing a podium with Jane Fonda at a 1971 antiwar rally he never attended.

These misinformation campaigns build on longer-term strategies that erase historical realities from the public memory (and, as a result, erase possibilities from the public imagination). A timely example is the mostly forgotten GI movement against the war in Vietnam, an important chapter in 1960s history uncovered in the recent documentary "Sir, No Sir!" Jerry Lembcke, a Vietnam veteran and scholar who appears briefly in the film, wrote an entire book about one of the '60s' most enduring -- and counterfeit -- images: the self-sacrificing soldier spat upon by unpatriotic protesters. Lembcke shows how the Nixon administration and the media purposefully propagated this myth in an effort to disparage the antiwar camp and drive a wedge between the military and civilian peace movements. Decades later most people, young and old, barely remember that half a million young men deserted, that grunts were refusing to fight en masse, and that soldiers published over 100 underground antiwar newspapers.

Conservative complaints

It's hard to overstate just how prominently the '60s figures on the conservative movement's cognitive map. Next to the Bible, George W. Bush's second favorite book is Myron Magnet's "The Dream and the Nightmare: the Sixties Legacy to the Underclass," which the president claims "crystallized for me the impact the failed culture of the sixties had on our values and society." In his introduction Magnet explains how Bush's "youthful fling with the culture of the sixties" gave him "firsthand knowledge of its destructiveness." Having learned the error of his ways Bush, Magnet assures us, will govern in as "un-sixties" a manner as possible, which means, among other things, cutting social services and rehabilitating good old-fashioned tradition and morality.

The reactionary right defines itself in opposition to a sensationalistic, exaggerated stereotype of the 1960s and its excesses. The basic building block of the "great backlash," to use Tom Frank's phrase, is victimhood. In this version, millions of moral Middle Americans have had their values trampled by hedonistic hippies, latte-drinking liberal elites, raving antiwar protesters and black power advocates, while hardworking blue-collar guys are laid off because of reverse discrimination. The '60s marked the beginning of America's great moral decline, the story goes, and the conservatives are here to set the country back on track.

Despite all of this, the liberationist theme of the '60s remains alluring, its appeal rooted in the American ideal of the rugged individualist. Thus, the challenge facing conservatives, and one they have risen to with flying colors, is turning people off from a certain kind of exploratory, experimental freedom we associate with the period. This is accomplished, at least in part, by demonizing the decade and its legacy, and by equating liberation with licentiousness, intemperance and indolence. The hullabaloo about rising divorce rates, rampant crime, welfare dependency, moral relativism and "values," however vaguely defined, never ceases because this method has worked astoundingly well. At least it has so far.

The irony is that "the '60s" also serves as shorthand for an array of moral values that remain forceful and have filtered into the mainstream: nonmaterial aspirations, collectivity, environmental awareness, diversity and nonviolence, to name a few. This is a heritage progressives should be proud of.

Surviving traditions

In an article published in The Nation just after the 2004 election, Barbara Erenreich wrote that part of the religious right's power stems not just from the sanctity of their beliefs, but from the fact that their institutions help people meet basic needs. In an era of diminishing social services, churches offer material assistance, becoming "an alternative welfare state, whose support rests not only on 'faith' but also on the loyalty of the grateful recipients." Progressives, she argues, should rethink their disdain for service-based outreach programs, recalling that it was once "the left that provided 'alternative services' in the form of free clinics, women's health centers, food co-ops and inner-city multi-service storefronts."

Today we often hear how '60s-era efforts to build counter-institutions went up in smoke, like so many communes collapsing under the weight of free love. But the reality is that today thousands of people carry on these traditions, furthering '60s values largely under the radar. There's the Weaver Community Housing Association in Carrboro, N.C., a nonprofit cooperative. WCHA, founded in 2002, is the brainchild of Dawn Peebles, who, in her early 20s, was living with a handful of roommates in a place she describes as a "slum house." After realizing how much money they were throwing away on rent and how much better they could run things themselves, Peebles was inspired to take action. She traveled the country visiting dozens of dweller-controlled living situations, including anarchist squats, tree sits and a Seattle feminist collective that's been around for over three decades.

Today WCHA continues to grow and now owns a total of 19 apartments on two pieces of land. Because WCHA attracts many who would probably never consider living on the stereotypical '60s commune, the residents are incredibly diverse. People young and old, black and white, politicized or not-so-much, call the coops home. As Peebles put it, "You don't have to be a card-carrying anarchist" to benefit from cheap housing.

The Common Ground Clinic in the Algiers neighborhood of New Orleans is another compelling example of the enduring relevance of endeavors strongly associated with the '60s. Growing out of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Common Ground now serves over 100 people a day. Started by three "street medics," the effort has rallied countless volunteers, including more conventional health care workers.

Taking it back

The conservative commentariat remains horrified by what they take to be the left's cultural ascension since the 1960s. Yet liberals are more inclined to lament what they see as the decade's legacy of political defeat, frustration and disappointment. By failing to appreciate what was accomplished during the '60s or defend the intentions behind those efforts, we strengthen the conservative attacks on the era.

It's important to ask who benefits from '60s bashing. And can we trust what we've been taught about the era to be accurate? Like it or not, the decade represents much more than just a sequence of historical events. In our cultural imagination, the 1960s has come to be synonymous with experimentation, idealism and commitment to social change. These are attributes we should defend proudly and refuse to ridicule, rebuke or let the right define for us.

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