Search for Sixties' soul

June 14, 1996

As mailings from the Rutgers University Alumni Association have been reminding me, it is 25 years since my graduation. Given my own reaction, I am sure that the arrival of "reunion announcements" instigated a million recollections and thoughts on the part of my now middle-aged peers. I am willing to bet that like me they could not help but reflect, both in personal and public terms, on the meaning and significance of our student days. For, perhaps more than any other cohort of the decade, we were aware of ourselves as part of the "Sixties generation".

We were a diverse lot. But, contrary to the claims of the powerful, I think the majority of us shared a deep commitment to democracy in the United States and its possibilities. Raised in the postwar years, we believed that America truly embodied - or, at least, could be made to embody - its proclaimed ideals of liberty, equality and justice for all. We assumed that a nation conceived in a revolutionary struggle could not possibly be doing right by fighting an imperial war in South-east Asia.

Whatever else they were, I continue to believe that the movements of the 1960s were not campaigns against the US; rather, they were campaigns for the US.

However much we have possessively thought of the 1960s as "ours", control of the decade's history was hotly contested even before it came to a close. Powerful interests quickly set about exploiting our experiences by way of clever selection, exaggeration, suppression, and fabrication. As an older colleague warned me: "You can spit at capitalism in protest. A corporation will harvest it, refine it, and market it. And your mother will buy it for you for Christmas."

I have seen it happen. For example, in 1977, in pursuit of advertising revenue, Playboy ran the following ad in The New York Times: "Good News for American Business: Those young men who wouldn't sell out in 1967 are buying in in 1977 - You know those young men we're talking about . . . the ones who were marching up and down their campuses protesting a war, forcing a President out of office, putting barber shops all over America out of business . . . They were remarkable then, intense and totally committed even as teenagers . . . And what's more remarkable about them is that they haven't lost one iota of intensity. They've just redirected it. They've traded the SDS for IBM, GM and ITT . . . Ten years ago they were protesting inequalities they saw in life . . . Today . . . The Playboy reader. His lust is for life."

The corruption of history and public memory has hardly been limited to advertising agencies. Hollywood producers are equally culpable of using and abusing the 1960s (consider the portrayal of the Sixties generation in Forrest Gump).

As we know all too well, New Right campaigners have spent the past 20 years perversely attributing practically every single national problem to the progressive changes wrought by the several movements of that decade. Such distortions take their toll.

Historians themselves have tried to keep the record straight and a library of work has been accomplished by both activists-turned-professors like Todd Gitlin (The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage); Jim Miller (Democracy is in the Streets), and Maurice Isserman (If I Had a Hammer); and younger folk like Meta Mendel-Reyes (Reclaiming Democracy); David Farber (The Age of Great Dreams); Kenneth Heineman (Campus Wars); and Jim Farrell (The Spirit of the Sixties). College courses on "the Sixties" are extremely popular among today's students.

Still, we should not be too sanguine. Can academic scholarship effectively challenge corporate media and the politically powerful? I discovered from the Rutgers Alumni Association's invitations to return for "a fun-filled May reunion weekend" that even universities seem capable of suppressing or, at least, avoiding the past.

The first invitation sought to evoke a bit of nostalgia - "It's been years since we walked through Old Queen's Campus and heard the bells of Kirkpatrick Chapel ringing above". Failing to mention that the cluster of buildings constituting Old Queen's housed not classrooms or student residences but the university administration, and that, aside from the chapel, only on rare occasions were we likely to be inside one of them, it also failed to note the most important of those rare occasions, the student occupation of Old Queen's in May 1970 following the killings at Kent State.

Along with the invitation came a questionnaire asking our preferred "Reunion Parade uniform: T-shirt, sweater, blazer, baseball cap, shorts, and/or sweatshirt"? This made me snigger and wonder about the reunion committee. A "Reunion Parade uniform"?

However much it may have seemed that my generation dressed in a uniform fashion - workboots, jeans and sweatshirts - most of us were doing our damnedest to stay out of a uniform. I imagined the committee was made up of former Reserve Officer Training Cadets; and, on second thoughts, I hoped it was, for it would have meant they had survived the war years. On even further thought, I figured that anybody who had been in uniform would never want to be again, leading me to the conclusion that the committee was composed of those young Republican types who had avidly supported the war but had done everything they could to avoid having themselves drafted into it.

A later mailing, directed to all the classes of Rutgers graduates, provided a list of reunion activities, including: tennis and golf outings, campus tours, gift and estate planning seminars, luncheons and dinners, musical performances and an evening at the "Stress Factory Comedy Club". I was now convinced that Republicans were running the show.

More intriguing for what they ignored than for what they included, the reunion announcements could have been addressed to any graduating class a generation later. Who knows what the committee was thinking? Maybe they just did not want to offend anybody. Or, maybe, they are embarrassed by acts committed a quarter-century ago and are trying to repress or cover up memories of radical politics and/or sex, drugs and rock 'n'roll. Or, perhaps, like the corporate execs and New Right politicos (which some of them no doubt are), they remain anxious about what a more critical remembrance of the 1960s might entail, that is, what it might demand in the face of the politics of the day.

Are the 1960s finished, kept alive merely in the memories of a greying generation of radicals? Yes. But the struggles are not. Just as the aspirations of the Sixties were linked to earlier generations' efforts, I am confident that another generation will arise to renew our campaigns to realise the US's finest possibilities.

In fact, about the time I received yet another mailing from the reunion committee, I also received one from the American Federation of Labor announcing "Union Summer". In the spirit of Freedom Summer which sent 1,000 college students south to register black voters in 1964, a thousand students will spend their 1996 vacations in cities around the nation working with unions for workplace rights and social justice. The 1960s may be finished, but the 1990s are not over yet.

Harvey J. Kaye is professor of social change and development at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay and the author of "Why Do Ruling Classes Fear History?" and other Questions (Macmillan 1996).

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