Kent State Massacre

We were idling away the evening on the balcony, drinking wine and talking about everything from the Keith Richards book to Medicare cuts. Our neighbors – she a renowned blues singer deeply engaged in progressive causes; he an accomplished painter, musician and entertaining raconteur – were just paying a warm, friendly social call.

But when I happened to mention that it angered me that many today consider our generation, the Sixties generation, a failure, I set the singer’s eyes ablaze. It was like I’d reported nasty and untrue gossip about her family. In a sense, I had.

When she got home, my friend emailed me an impressive list of accomplishments and accomplished people that have not yet been matched by our successor generation. Among them: Steve Jobs. Stevie Wonder. Civil Rights. A war ended by popular protest. Gene splicing. The space program. Sir Tim Berners-Lee and his invention of the Web. Environmental consciousness. Feminism. Habitat for Humanity. The Peace Corps. And my favorite: frozen margaritas.

So what’s to criticize? The most common complaint is that the Sixties Generation was at bottom self-indulgent, that its idealism was selfishness in disguise, that it gave up the disguise for material gain and political apathy.

The hard-core punk band, Seven Seconds, sang in their 1983 song, “Clenched Fists, Black Eyes”:

We’re aiming for a different goal,
Succeeding where the hippies failed.
But one thing’s sure and you can bet,
We’ll be more than a drugged-out threat!

Or, let’s take the criticism from one of my generation’s own heroes, Joni Mitchell:

My generation was ready to change the world but when the baton was passed on in the seventies (the hippie movement) fell into a mass depression. We degenerated into the greediest generation – the hippie, yippie, yuppie transition from the sixties to the seventies to the greedy eighties. My generation dropped the baton and spawned this lackluster generation.

There are a lot of myths – and a great deal of historical confusion – about the Sixties and that generation’s legacy. It’s often overlooked that conservatives, in America and around the world, launched a vicious, well-funded attack on the values and the people responsible for revolutionary changes – feminism, Civil Rights, Medicare/Medicaid, etc.

There’s even a specific memo written on a specific date – the infamous 1971 Lewis Powell memo to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce – credited with launching that campaign. Powell, subsequently appointed by Richard Nixon to the U.S. Supreme Court, was alarmed by the size of the chorus for change:

The most disquieting voices joining the chorus of criticism come from perfectly respectable elements of society: from the college campus, the pulpit, the media, the intellectual and literary journals, the arts and sciences, and from politicians. In most of these groups the movement against the system is participated in only by minorities. Yet, these often are the most articulate, the most vocal, the most prolific in their writing and speaking.

In other words, we didn’t drop the baton, as Mitchell suggested. It was stolen from us by a well-organized counter-revolution that led to Thatcherism in Britain and Reaganism here. Trust me, neither “ism” was our idea. We fought against them and we’re still fighting against them.

Nonetheless, there’s truth to the idea that some of the creative energy of the Sixties dissipated in the Seventies and Eighties. Many were demoralized by the killings at Kent State and Jackson State. We celebrated Nixon’s resignation, but Watergate was an ugly spectacle that left a bitter taste in our mouths.

Also, Powell said something in his memo that deserves attention. Only a small percentage of Sixties youth actually participated in the movements for political and cultural change. In other words, the “Sixties Generation” was a far more complicated beast than many assume. I mean, both Karl Rove and I are of that generation. For decades, Rove’s been paid millions to destroy the reforms of the Sixties and marginalize the values that led to those reforms.

That leads me to a fair criticism: the wealthy and successful members of my generation, even those who held on to values of compassion and responsibility for others and oneself, failed to confront the counter-revolutionaries effectively. While the Right built an unprecedented communications infrastructure, we too often trusted that we would succeed simply because our cause was right and just.

I suppose this generational, rhetorical tug-o-war will get more heated as the efforts to dismantle Medicare and Social Security continue and more boomers turn 65.

I’d just like to remind people that it really was altruism that drove the struggle for Civil Rights, for equal rights for women, for a safety net for the least fortunate among us.

Hell, none of us thought we’d ever turn 65. To pretend, like pundits at ABC, Newsweek and elsewhere do, that our selfishness is behind our opposition to the dismantling of Medicare is a cynical lie perpetrated by right-wing extremists who can’t stand it that America’s better angels lead us to take care of one another.