Regarding our received image of the sixties, it's time to question authority.
October 23, 2009
An NRO Q&A
Don't believe what you've seen in the movies. Malcom X wasn't
friendly with Martin Luther King, most anti-war protesters were just
looking "to get laid," and plenty of Americans lived through the
whole decade without seeing a hippie, save on TV. Jonathan Leaf,
author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Sixties, answers
some questions from National Review Online's Kathryn Jean Lopez to
set our record straight on that infamous decade.
KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: If sixties radicals "were a small minority on
college campuses and were often held in disdain by their fellow
students," why have they had so much cultural influence?
JONATHAN LEAF: Because through Hollywood movies, TV shows, and books,
they've managed to tell a tale that reflects their own narcissistic
vision of themselves as central and heroic to the time. Have you ever
seen a Hollywood movie celebrating sixties counter-protesters who
supported the Vietnam War? Did you know that hundreds of Berkeley
students protested the "Free Speech" radicals? For that matter, how
many Hollywood movies have you seen about the soldiers who fought
bravely to defeat the Communists in South Vietnam? After the Second
World War, Hollywood made films about the heroism of decorated
veterans like Audie Murphy. Where is the film about the bravery of
Medal of Honor winner Milton Lee Olive III, who, by himself, fought
off several hundred NVA regulars to save his platoon?
LOPEZ: So who is more the representative sixties college student, numberwise?
LEAF: Self-identified conservatives were a plurality on all but a few
LOPEZ: Your chapter on student radicals suggests it was more about
sex than politics. Was it?
LEAF: Absolutely. Two former Students for a Democratic Society (SDS)
leaders gave me identical three-word answers when I asked them why
they joined: "To get laid."
LOPEZ: Why am I "Not Supposed to Read" Destructive Generation? Is it
on the banned-books list?
LEAF: Peter Collier and David Horowitz were sixties radicals who
observed the cynicism and depravity of the New Left from the inside.
They tell you what the Students for a Democratic Society and the
Black Panthers were really like. Hollywood would rather Americans not
know this. After all, if all knew this who would pay to see movies
like Mario Van Peebles's Panther, which celebrates Huey Newton?
LOPEZ: What's wrong with the phrase "the anti-war movement"?
LEAF: All of the most important leaders of the "anti-war" movement
Tom Hayden, Bill Ayers, Mark Rudd, Abbie Hoffman, Katherine Boudin,
et al. were very much in favor of violence and war. It's just that
they wanted our Communist enemies to win. Their love for violence was
possibly best indicated when Bernadine Dohrn announced at a national
SDS convention that the group should adopt a new salute of forked
fingers to honor the Manson murderers who ate and then stuck their
forks into the belly of the dead but pregnant Sharon Tate.
LOPEZ: Why do you have to bring Barack Obama into it?
LEAF: Most Americans today didn't live through the sixties. They need
to know what it was to judge Obama and the future still to come out
of it. This isn't just because they should know who Obama's friends
like Ayers and Dohrn really are. Consider that during the campaign
Obama said he wanted to nominate Justices like Earl Warren. As a
constitutional law professor, Obama plainly knew what this meant. The
American people might have voted differently had more understood that remark.
LOPEZ: Why do you attribute "the decline and fall of the American
university" to the sixties? God and Man at Yale was published in the
early fifties; it would seem the decline and fall was far along by the sixties.
LEAF: The worst of the tenured radicals took to academia as a way to
avoid the draft. Student deferments continued for graduate education,
and, realizing that mainstream America was indifferent to their
utopianism and intolerant of their sloth, they found a refuge there
and haven't left. Also, grade inflation began with attempts to keep
students from losing draft deferments.
LOPEZ: You have a chapter called "The Sexual Revolution and the Start
of Feminism: Where'd Mom and Pop Go?" Uh, or the Mommas and the
Pappas? Are the sexual revolution and feminism to blame for whatever
is or is not true about the Mackenzie Phillips story?
LEAF: I can't say about Mackenzie Phillips. I hope the story isn't
true. But it can be said that the radicals in the National
Organization for Women supported drastic changes in divorce laws,
"reforms" that did away with no-fault divorce in all but one state.
And they fought for welfare policies that encouraged poor women to
have children out of wedlock and poor men to leave the home or to
LOPEZ: What's a young man doing attacking aging (and some deceased) feminists?
LEAF: I don't think most people today understand how completely
different the ideologies and beliefs of Betty Friedan and Gloria
Steinem are. The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Sixties tries to
explain that and why Steinem's ideas are so objectionable and
problematic for women. She's still alive, though.
LOPEZ: Why do you point out that "César Chávez campaigned for the
deportation of illegal immigrants"?
LEAF: To correct another myth about the sixties and explain the real
reason for Chávez's success and also to make clear that the case
for limiting immigration from Mexico is a moral one which those
concerned with raising the status of Latinos have historically been
LOPEZ: What's the point of calling Malcolm X a con artist?
LEAF: Many sixties movements which started out well were hijacked by
radicals who gave wholly different goals to previously respectable
and admirable causes. This is true with Steinem and the other
radicals' hijacking of feminism. It's even more true with Malcolm X
and Huey Newton and civil rights.
Most of what Malcolm X claimed about himself was a lie. His father
wasn't killed by white supremacists. He wasn't a big-time gangster
before his conversion to the Black Muslim sect. He was a struggling
gay prostitute. He wasn't friendly with King. He knew for years that
the idea that all whites were devils was ludicrous, but he kept
preaching it anyway. And, even at the end of his life, he was a
separatist not an ecumenical lover of all people.
LOPEZ: Should conservatives really be questioning the civil-rights movement?
LEAF: We need to look at it honestly and critically. This means
respecting its real accomplishments. But it also means seeing
affirmative action as what it is: a betrayal of King's call to look
not at the color of his children's skin but the content of their
character. And we have to make clear that the Black Panthers and
Stokely Carmichael weren't in favor of "civil" anything.
LOPEZ: What do you have against rock'n'roll?
LEAF: You can respect Paul McCartney without making a wholesale
endorsement of the music and the values underlying rock and the rock
scene. Rock wasn't the start of music. And if we forget Bach and
Beethoven or think the Rolling Stones are comparably significant,
something is very, very wrong.
LOPEZ: I take it you're not a fan of drugs or sex either?
LEAF: I've tried a number of drugs. I don't think I lost my freedom
or my mind, but I also don't think they were really that much fun.
And I saw plenty of friends who did lose their liberty or their marbles.
I'm not against sex.
LOPEZ: What do you have against "Christian rock," calling it a "contradiction"?
LEAF: Rock music by its nature and in its basic sound celebrates
violence, sensuality, and abandon. These aren't the values of
LOPEZ: Do feminists hate, say, Christian conservative types, the
Catholic Church, more than the Rolling Stones? Does that make any sense?
LEAF: Yes, and plainly it doesn't. Just read the lyrics to a few
Stones songs from, say, "Some Girls." They're pretty shockingly misogynistic.
LOPEZ: How many 1960s movies are NR kinda movies?
LEAF: Most. But they're not usually the ones that critics liked at the time.
LOPEZ: But wasn't Midnight Cowboy from the sixties?
LEAF: Yes. But, although critics loved it, it doesn't make much sense
in the form that it was released. Its director, John Schlesinger,
admitted that the protagonists must have been lovers. That's what it
really is a disguised gay love story. But that's not what got made
or what Hollywood celebrated with an Oscar.
LOPEZ: What was wrong with sending a man to the moon?
LEAF: The expense. It cost about what the Iraq War has. But we could
have learned just as much through unmanned missions. Yet no nation
was freed from tyranny by Buzz Aldrin. And NASA's claims of
inventions which came out of its research are mostly bunk.
LOPEZ: You have an entire chapter on fashion. Are you entirely fair,
though? In focusing on Jackie Kennedy and Haight-Ashbury, don't you
gloss over a lot?
LEAF: Doubtless. Haight-Ashbury, in particular, is way overemphasized
in understanding sixties dress. Many people in this country lived
through the sixties without ever seeing a hippie except on TV.
LOPEZ: If the Great Society is a war on common sense, why does it continue?
LEAF: It has a constituency. Think of Congressman Rangel. And utopian
groups, like ACORN and the Children's Defense Fund, keep fighting for
it. Gingrich's welfare reform did a lot of good by circumscribing the
worst of it. Let's hope the reform doesn't fade away.
LOPEZ: Why are you so interested in the sixties, anyway?
LEAF: The contradiction between the radicals' stated idealism and
their actual cynicism and sexism fascinates me.
LOPEZ: Why would we rely on someone who was not living it to tell the history?
LEAF: Sometimes an outsider has a more objective take, no? I hope, anyway.
LOPEZ: How was William F. Buckley Jr. the counterculture?
LEAF: His ideas were outside the mainstream. It's said that Harvard
didn't have one faculty member who voted for Goldwater. But time has
ratified the importance of the ideas of Buckley not Abbie Hoffman.
Of course, if people don't possess any real knowledge of the sixties,
an understanding of that might not continue. My book tries to give a
lot of the real stories about everyone from Nader to Ho Chi Minh. I
hope people buy it. I think they'll enjoy it.