Keep on rockin' in the free world
October 26, 2007
By Gabe Winant
In the most recent Republican presidential debate, John McCain
cracked a joke about how Hillary Clinton tried to earmark federal
money for a Woodstock Museum: "Now my friends, I wasn't there. I'm
sure it was a cultural and pharmaceutical event. I was tied up at the time."
It's such a truism that the late 1960s were the crucible of the
modern political imagination that to restate it, and make it the
premise of a column, is a little embarrassing. But so long as
Woodstock and Chicago and Tet continue to haunt us, there's no
getting around it. Besides which, for all that we dwell on it, I
think there's some clearing up that needs to go on.
McCain's imprisonment was horrifying, as was the war that encompassed
it. And, on top of all the credit that he deserves for his heroism,
McCain surely does get just a little bit more for making what is
presumably the first-ever LSD joke in a presidential debate (and a
Republican one at that).
That said, I'd like an explanation of precisely why Woodstock doesn't
deserve a museum. Woodstock was a seminal moment in American cultural
history, and the immense resentment it faces, along with hippies in
general, represents a reactionary strain in our politics.
McCain's joke captures, in three sentences, the essence of American
politics since 1968. In 1968, Nixon got elected bemoaning
"unprecedented lawlessness," "unprecedented racial violence" and
"hostile demonstration." It's true that the social regimentation of
the 1950s and earlier racial segregation, institutionalized sexism,
sexual repression, etc. didn't go down easily, and the struggle
against them wasn't always pretty, or defensible (e.g. the
Weathermen's bombing campaign).
But it's a damn good thing that it came out the way it did. First of
all, the collapse of the old racist, sexually morbid society has been
so gradual and peaceful that it isn't even over yet, decades later.
Second, there's simply no doubt that most Americans would rather live
in today's America than Dwight Eisenhower's.
People have voted, as it were, with their feet. And the rest of their
bodies. We're most of us pretty glad, I think, that sex can be spoken
about at louder than a whisper, and with members of the opposite sex.
Few dare mourn explicitly the passing of Jim Crow and the draft. And
I suspect you could find a pretty good majority to support the idea
that Jimi Hendrix was, indeed, one of the most extraordinary
musicians of modern times.
But we're not an entirely single-minded people, Americans. We've been
known to do one thing, and sanctimoniously vote for another. This is
why Bush claims his favorite song is the Everly Brothers' "Wake Up
Little Susie." Recorded, of course, in 1957, it's about a couple that
goes on a date to a movie, only to fall asleep and worry about the
scandal of getting home so late. It's perfect, right up to the
diminutive epithet attached to Susie's name.
Conservatives have spent the decades since Woodstock campaigning
against rock and roll and the era of social change that it
symbolized. Nixon's vice president, Spiro Agnew, used to joke about
"acid, amnesty and abortion" as the Democratic platform, and Reagan
kicked off his presidential campaign in Philadelphia, Miss., site of
the murder of three Freedom Summer civil rights workers. Why do you
think the modern Republican mind is fixated on Hillary Clinton?
Hillary is about as straight as it gets. She's the most conservative
of all the Democratic candidates for president, and was a Republican
in college. But she, like most Americans was dare I say it?
liberated by the 1960s, and she had the nerve to point this out in
metaphorical terms in 1992: "I suppose I could have stayed home and
baked cookies and had teas, but what I decided to do was to fulfill
Unforgivably, she let slip that she does not regret the passing of
the pre-Woodstock America, of cookies and teas, and male-only
workplaces and white-only water fountains. And neither, despite the
occasional Republican vote, do most Americans.
Sure, hippies did some absurd things. But I suspect that Trey Parker
and Matt Stone of South Park and "die, hippie, die" fame have no idea
how much they owe to Abbie Hoffman. Although they are now the butt of
easy jokes, hippies built American modernity, and for that they
deserve our thanks, not our ridicule. And they did it peacefully.
It's our model of liberation that helped inspire the oppressed all
over the world to tear down their own prison-states (and they say
Reagan won the Cold War). It may be frightening to the modern GOP
that most of America doesn't yearn for 1957, but it's time to move
on. I hope that, in the next presidential election, both candidates'
favorite songs include some electric guitar.