Journalist and the co-author of Woodstock Census: The Nationwide
Survey of the Sixties Generation
August 6, 2009
Newt Gingrich, during his tenure as House Speaker, declared the
Sixties "a momentary aberration in American history that will be
looked back upon as a quaint period of Bohemianism brought to the
national elite." The implication was that the countercultural and
political movements of the era were out of step with the American mainstream.
But forty years after the summer of '69, when a three-day festival of
Peace, Love and Music in a muddy New York State pasture celebrated
youthful ideals, isn't it high time we Americans face the truth that
the ideals of the Woodstock Generation -- ideals once widely mocked,
attacked and officially repressed -- have pretty much won the day?
The aberrant behavior to which Gingrich referred was not on the part
of young people with long hair playing American folk music in a field
at Woodstock. Far from an aberration of past history, the Sixties
were the harbinger of the present, but the struggle to get here is
best understood in terms other than the misleading labels of Left and
Right, Liberal and Conservative.
Why such a struggle, after all? Were they truly radicals, the people
who marched for civil rights, demonstrated against the Vietnam War,
boycotted lettuce and grapes and carried picket signs advocating
women's liberation? Were Che Guevara and Chairman Mao the most
admired and influential heroes of America's youth? How many flashed
the peace sign to complete strangers? Was Paul really dead?
Those are some of the questions I sought to answer when I
crisscrossed the nation with co-writer Deanne Stillman in the late
1970's, handing out questionnaires prepared with the help of
professional pollsters to more than 1000 people who responded to a
call for "Sixties Vets." The results, published in 1979 as "Woodstock
Census: The Nationwide Survey of the Sixties Generation," delivered a
contrarian view of what "The Sixties" really meant to people whose
experiences defined the era.
Instead of a generation of bomb-throwing anarchists, the majority of
the people describing themselves as political activists in our survey
-- who marched for civil rights (73%) demonstrated against the
Vietnam War (93%), boycotted school classes (69%) -- were motivated
less by ideology than by finding common cause with like-minded folks.
"There was strength in numbers," wrote one respondent. "Also, I liked
the spirit and the excitement and it was nice to see I wasn't alone
in my frustrations."
Instead of the wild, Bohemian "Sexual Revolution" described in a
sensational 1964 Time cover story as "Rebels of the 60s adrift in a
sea of permissiveness," our survey pointed to a more profound change
in mores: women taking control of their own lives. With 93% of our
Sixties Vets agreeing it was "okay for a woman to initiate sex," the
truly radical experience of one ex-hippie said it all: "Sleeping in a
bed in our commune one night with four other people (two men, three
women) and not having sex."
The most passionate, unifying experiences of the Sixties among the
largely white, middle class respondents to our Woodstock Census
survey involved issues that fall comfortably within the
socio-political mainstream of America: equal rights for women,
resolving the lingering racial divide, preserving the environment,
defending individual freedoms. "My best 60's experience," one
respondent recalled, was when his father, a Marine Corps drill
instructor, came to bail him out of jail after an antiwar
demonstration. "He told me he thought what I was doing was crazy but
he loved me for standing up for what I believed in and told me not to stop."
In fact, our survey revealed that the majority of individual
experiences with the countercultural movements of Sixties were shaped
not by the radical ideology of a Marxist Left, but by a deep desire
for a return to fundamental American ideals. From this point of view,
one could say the counterculture was a kind of conservatism, framed
in an inflammatory way as radical and "aberrant" by defenders of the
Headstrong is what you might call the African-Americans sitting-in at
whites-only lunch counters, or facing down firehoses and police dogs
-- maybe foolhardy -- but not aberrant. "Stubborn idealists" might
describe those millions of citizens across the country demonstrating
against the Vietnam War, but not out of step with our long tradition
of democratic dissent. In the battle over discrimination against
women in the workforce and the proposition of equal pay for equal
work, whose was the more radical position? Aberrant behavior had
nothing to do with wearing love beads (59%), believing in Flower
Power (64%), going to a "Be-In" (58%), or flashing the peace sign to
complete strangers (81%) -- maybe only a sublime silliness.
The truly aberrant behavior belonged to their tormentors, those
flag-waving ranks of ideologues, staunch segregationists, rabid
commie-hunters and free-speech-smothering censors, bent on preserving
their own quaint period of privilege, even if it meant radical
measures. They were the un-Americans, the subversives undermining the
principles that make America great, refusing to rise to the
challenges set forth by our elite, long-haired Founding Fathers who
created an imperfect union knowing it would be struggle but also
knowing a day of reckoning must come... and come it did. It was
called The Sixties and now even Newt is cool with it, speaking out on
environmental issues and pushing a "green conservatism." Welcome to
Yasgur's farm, Newtie... see you at the hemp store.
Rex Weiner is a journalist and the co-author, with Deanne Stillman,
of "Woodstock Census: The Nationwide Survey of the Sixties
Generation" (Viking Press)