The Legacy of the Sixties

In writing about the legacy of the 1960s, I must begin with a confession. During most of the 1960s, I was a university student, first in engineering, then in theology and finally in philosophy. It was an exciting period and hopes ran high. Issue after issue came into public view and was analyzed, discussed and debated vigorously. The decade began with the civil rights movement out of the fifties. As the war in Vietnam escalated, the anti-war movement sprang up. Major institutions were subjected to critical analysis, and the revamping or replacing of the capitalist economic system was perceived as urgent for the well-being of the country. Consumer protection made significant advances, and the need to eliminate poverty in America moved to the forefront of dialogue on university campuses. It was the Age of the New Left, inspired by writers like Herbert Marcuse and Albert Camus. The Port Huron Statement of the Students for a Democratic Society made it abundantly clear that the New Left was not a single-issue movement, but rather a movement that aimed to transform the whole of American society.

But now to my confession: Although I followed the events of the sixties with great interest, I was never actually involved in any of them. Or to put it another way: I followed the events academically. I read the literature of the New Left, but I couldn’t tear myself away from the books long enough to actually do anything. Having said that, I would like to pose a question concerning the legacy of the sixties. Out of all the issues raised in that decade, what has really survived the course of time?

Clearly, consumer protection, spearheaded to a large extent by Ralph Nader, did not survive. After his publication “Unsafe at any Speed” in 1965, in which he detailed the design flaws of General Motors, Nader was effectively banned from the US media. That the anti-war movement did not survive requires little discussion, given the events since the tragedy of 9/11. And the situation of the poor in America reflects a similar state of affairs; instead of eliminating the most extreme levels of poverty, we have allowed the wealth distribution in the country to diminish year by year until a very small percentage of the population control today most of the wealth. Any mention of revamping the capitalist economic system is viewed today as unpatriotic since the words “democracy” and “capitalism” have become synonymous in the public mind–in spite of the apparent contradictory nature of the concepts. In a democracy, the principle rules: one person, one vote. In a corporate structure, the principle is: one share, one vote, which means that one person can obtain an incredibly large number of votes. For many years, the gains made in the area of civil rights were hailed as a great achievement of the sixties, but it is becoming progressively clear that these gains were only superficial. Racism in America was not eradicated; it was only suppressed and has now reared its ugly head once again.

So what did actually survive the sixties? If we survey the many issues that were raised in the sixties, we find that two of them stand out as prime examples of success: the feminist movement and the gay/lesbian movement. By all accounts, these two issues are still very much in the public mind, and when I speak with liberals about the changes that have taken place over the last 30 years, these are the issues that are always mentioned. In truth, the advances in these two areas have been dramatic. When I was a student at Vanderbilt University, it was more or less a boys’ college, especially in the engineering school; today, the gender mix is about 50/50. Women have secured CEO positions in major corporations and have made impressive contributions in Congress. As far as the gay/lesbian movement is concerned, it is apparent that same-sex marriage will eventually be accepted in most, if not all states. For progressive liberals, the achievements of these two movements are a testimony to the success of the sixties and build to a large extent the legacy of that period. Having been out of the country for 30 years and trying now to “rediscover” America, I find myself, however, at variance with both conservatives and liberals.

First of all, I find it disturbing that liberals have been willing to abandon the other major issues of the sixties and focus their attention so narrowly on what can be broadly termed “gender issues”. What about poverty, war, consumer protection and so forth? How did concern about the whole of American society mutate into a concern for the rights of a group within American society? There was in the sixties a sense of the common good that is lacking in the insistence of individual groups on their rights. Secondly, one can’t keep from noting that these two issues, feminism and gay/lesbian rights, have received enormous corporate funding, which has enabled the establishment of academic departments in all of the major US universities. University chairs have been funded and research projects have been financed. If I want to write a book on the social benefits of same-sex marriage, I will have little difficulty locating the necessary financial backing. If, on the other hand, I want to write a book on inequality in America, funding will not be as readily available. One might conclude from this that corporate America has channeled the interests of the liberals into areas that are economically neutral. A research project on same-sex marriage does not have the same potential impact on the capitalist system as a research project on poverty and inequality.

Secondly, I have the impression that the feminist movement and the gay/lesbian movement have ceased to be authentic movements and have calcified into rigid ideologies. I use the term “ideology” to mean the uncritical fixation of thought on an idea or set of sets to the extent that the reality of the actual world is distorted, thus rendering productive dialogue with opposing views virtually impossible. The inflexibility of an ideology can be clearly seen in the area of literary criticism, where the parallels between the old Marxist interpretation of literature and the feminist interpretation of literature are quite striking. Whereas the Marxist literary critique invariably discovered a dialectical process beneath the surface of the narrative, the feminist approach invariably discovers the destructive influence of a patriarchal society as the deeper meaning of the text. The ideological fixation results in both cases in a monotone interpretation that repeats the well-known slogans ad infinitum.

Without question, the New Left was from the outset radical. And nowhere was its radicalism more apparent than in its countercultural practices and its abhorrence of establishment values. Looking back on the sixties, I think that no one at that time could have imagined that this radicalism would be a contributing factor to the development of neoconservatism in the 1970s and 80s. Mainstream liberal democrats like Norman Podhoretz reacted to the extreme countercultural aspects of the New Left as well as to the New Left’s criticism of the Israeli war of 1967. Even democrats with Trotskyist, i.e. Marxist, leanings like Irving Kristol moved to the right, and with the aid of Leo Strauss’ anti-liberal philosophy, a new form of American elitism was eventually forged: the Neocons. Ironically, the neoconservatives are in some ways just as radical as the New Left was, and their insistence on perpetual war bears a striking resemblance to Karl Marx’ permanent revolution. The radicalism of the neoconservatives stands out clearly when one compares the ideas of a neoconservative like William Kristol with the old-school conservatism of William F. Buckley Jr. To be sure, Buckley was never known for his humility, but he was willing to make compromises in order to unite the various factions of conservatism. Both Buckley and Kristol must be considered as elitists, but Buckley was a pragmatic elitist, whereas Kristol seems to be an uncompromising elitist. In my opinion, the neoconservatives have taken arrogance to the level of hybris and have developed an ideology, which is impervious to rational criticism and ill-suited for meaningful dialogue. The radicalism of their views on foreign policy belongs–oddly enough–to the legacy of the sixties.

In the end, I don’t find the neoconservatives to be very “conservative” in any meaningful sense of the word. Conservatives are supposed to preserve traditional values and ideas, and I don’t consider torture, rendition and preemptive war to be a part of our heritage. Nor I am impressed with the claims of the neoconservatives that they are preserving the Wilsonian tradition through their efforts to spread democracy in the world. Their policy decisions reflect an interest more in imperialistic expansion than in the spread of democracy. On the other hand, it doesn’t seem to me that today’s liberals are very “liberal” in the true sense of the word. Neither the feminists nor the gays and lesbians strike me as broad-minded and open to various opposing views. What I perceive as the legacy of the sixties are three ideologies: the feminist, the gay/lesbian and the neoconservative, all of which are in some way outgrowths of the 1960s and none of which seem capable of serious dialogue. Since I was an expatriate for so many years, I freely admit that my perception may be wrong. But if I am right, where do we go from here?

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