Generation In Motion

I am reading a book written by a good friend of mine about the troubled sixties. It is, in large part, an apology for the age that has commanded such critical scrutiny by traditionalists like myself and it finds its strongest arguments nestled in a close look at the poetry and music of the period. There is no question that some of the best popular music ever written appeared during those years by such song writers as The Beatles, Pete Seeger, Phil Ochs and Bob Dylan. The author of this book, A Generation In Motion, happens to be an expert on the period and especially on Bob Dylon; he has written a book about the man and his songs that nicely complements this book. The author, David Pichaske, is an English Professor at Southwest Minnesota State University in Marshall, Minnesota. At one point in the book, he remarks about the sixties generation, in contrast with later generations:

“A less aware or educated generation or one distracted by a war or a depression might have ignored the injustices and irritations that so troubled the sleep of sixties children. It would have slumbered blissfully and ignorantly and quite comfortably. A more cynical generation would have been less obsessed, less righteously angry. It could maybe have laughed or shrugged its shoulders. A less motivated generation would have despaired and retreated to the safety of distance.”

Now there are several points that the author makes in this passage that deserve our attention. To begin with, Pichaske is convinced — in contrast with critics of that period — that the children of the sixties were idealists who had a definite program. They were not anarchists bent on bringing down the “establishment,” simply. To be sure, they did want to attack the established powers and throw off the cloak of servitude they were convinced they were burdened with. But they did so with a purpose: they advocated complete freedom from outrageous constraints together with a determination to make the world a better place, to bring about peace and love and better communication among all humans.

“What we had in mind was something a little more humane, a little more free. Less of a ‘niche for everyone and everyone in his niche.’ More flexibility. Fewer rules. . . .  And we wanted it now.”

So says the author. I will not debate the point, except to say that the generation saw gray issues in black and white. Furthermore, their notion of freedom, which was a cornerstone of their program, is confused and weakens the case for the plan in the minds of those undoubted idealists during those troubled days.

Freedom is not to be confused with license, as it is so often, and is so assuredly in this case. Freedom is not possible, as John Locke pointed out many years ago, without law and order. True creativity and a full expression of human endeavor requires discipline and self-restraint. Imagine a group of people all trying to get to a rope tow on a snowy day to get to the top in order to ski down the hill. If there is no order, no discipline, there is chaos. Indeed, complete freedom is chaos, nothing more and nothing less. (In response to this comment, my friend said that if the tow rope were pulling you toward a cliff you might prefer chaos!) In any event, the attack on the establishment by the young during the sixties was based on the notion that freedom was an inherently good thing, that more is better, whereas, in fact, it is not — at least not the kind of freedom most of them espoused. All of the truly great contributions to humankind, from art to literature to science, were made by men and women who knew — and held themselves to — the necessity of restraint and order. The rebels of the sixties may have had a program, as Pichaske says, but it was confused at its core. As a result it is no wonder it could not be sustained.

But Pichaske’s larger point is well taken. By and large, these were not cynical young people and the generations that followed them appear to be — perhaps because the dreams of their idealistic parents and grandparents came to naught. The gap between those ideals and reality became increasingly apparent to increasing numbers of people. In any event, the current generation, together with their parents (including myself of course) do appear to prefer distance and separation from others. This is especially the case given the current explosion of electronic toys and the internet that stress a “social network” in which people seldom meet and communication is stunted and incomplete.

In the end I think the rebellion during the sixties brought to light a number of illnesses that were beneath the surface and deserving of serious attention. But that rebellion became an end in itself for many of the rebels and it rested on a fundamental confusion about what is and what is not important. As a result, the colleges and universities jettisoned those courses that were essential to a good education, at the insistence of groups like the S.D.S., and the culture at large awakened briefly to the inequity of segregation, the horrors of unjustified wars and acquired some beautiful poetry and music — but very little else of permanent value. In the end more and more people went deeper into themselves and grew farther apart than ever. The hope of peace, love and better communication among all people turned out to be a pipe dream.

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12 thoughts on “Generation In Motion

  1. Hugh, what an interesting topic, one that should be reviewed. I have several thoughts that shape my perspective of this quilt. First, there were many types of people and issues that needed addressing. While we had idealistic types, there was some whites and blacks who were fearful of rocking the boat against the establishment. And, there was an establishment that were not altruistic including the likes of J. Edgar Hoover, George Wallace and the Military Industrial Complex. I think some had a plan, but were waylaid or usurped along the way. For example, the Flower Power movement had run its course by the time it became popular. George Harrison said what he saw was spoiled rich kids who had run away from home. These look backs are hard as they attempt to paint a whole picture with individual parts. I think we can say it was a time of great change and the songs, poems and art reflect that. But, to your point, the big successes came out of structure from the turmoil – civil and voting rights and Medicaid and Medicare. Yet, the times they were a changin. BTG

  2. Hugh, thanks for the even-handed look at the Sixties, and for giving Dave such well-deserved attention! I do think we’re seeing some protest with a purpose these days with the ongoing marches, demonstrations and speeches in the wake of the rolling tide of the combination of police violence against and the criminal justice system’s overwhelmingly slanted treatment of black Americans. This is a demonstrably flawed, if not failed, system with failed methods. I don’t condone the wanton violence that’s marked protest in some cities, but there are many who are legitimately speaking out against, marching against something that needs fixing.

    I hope they have better success than the Sixties generation did overall.

    • Recall that the 60s generation also resorted to violence out of frustration. They hoped and dreamed of a world filled with peace and love but reality kept smacking them the face. One can take only so much of that sort of thing! Wouldn’t you agree, though, that the demonstrations today are a faint shadow of those in the 60s??

  3. Very interesting post, Hugh. I do believe a great deal was accomplished by the 60’s generation, perhaps more than we give it credit for. I’m convinced that it was the continuing demonstrations that ended the Vietnam war. The intertwined media, military, and politicians was ultimately broken apart by demonstrators. Kent state sent a message about civil rights and the evils of force. (sadly, a war we are having to fight once again with the militarized police). However one feels about the outcome, our moral imperatives and restrictions were changed in a manner that can never go back. As BTG notes, Medicare, Medicaid, and Civil Rights came about in the 60’s. A national wariness and suspicion of the military/industrial complex grew out of the demonstrations, a distrust that was not reduced until the disasters of the Iraq war and the GW Bush administration and its clear efforts to again mislead the country.

    These are just a few things that I believe were forever changed by the children of the 60’s, and their goals and accomplishments were anything but a “pipe dream.”

    • Yes. “Pipe dream” may be a bit strong. But there is now a certain air of cynicism that is assuredly the residue of broken promises and dashed hopes. Perhaps the 60s generation reached too high.

      • I agree with that. My wife and I have often talked of the failures of feminism, and how the advances achieved in the 60’s were taken for granted by subsequent generations, contributing to many of the battles being re-fought today. I see many similarities in other areas where growth achieved was then taken for granted, and subsequently lost. The militarization of the police, back to the Kent State mentality, is a good example.

  4. Hugh, seeing the comments reminded me of a reunion tour of Crosby, Stills and Nash. Between songs, they commented on the relevance of some of the messages today. What became interesting, is some in the audience had grown into Conservatives, so the messaging did not strike the right chord. BTG

  5. This is our Professor in his usual “ax to grind” mode. The second to the last paragraph is unusually crippled by poor expression and grammar, and the whole tainted by a suspicion that Mr. Curtler harbors certain animosities that are both generational and ideologically a bit near sighted. I will not go further on the point, which my Grandmother always used to say is not worth making it if offends the intelligence of the accused (if you can’t say anything nice, etc). But this kind of commentary (less the expected wisdom) has become something of a Routine here. What gives?

  6. Hugh, thanks again for broaching this interesting topic of reflection, fueled by your friend and colleague’s book. The other take away from the Sixties that sometimes gets lost, is the deaths of three leaders in JFK, RFK and MLK. While these men were not without their imperfections, they truly moved the conversations and actions forward on equality and fairness.

    Of course, everything is related. Would LBJ been able to gain the support he received for Civil Rights changes without the death of JFK? Would RFK’s time in the spotlight changed or been delayed had JFK not been killed? If MLK had not been killed, would we see further positive strides in Civil Rights changes?

    If JFK lived would Richard Nixon every become President and would we have gotten out of the war with Vietnam earlier than we did? So, some of these changes that did occur may have been leveraged further by the lives who were tragically taken from us.

    At any rate, keep on making us think. Well done sir. BTG

    • Thanks, BTG. It is fascinating how events interact with one another. The “game” of reconstructing history is fun to play and takes us deeper into those events themselves. That’s what good historians teach, I would think.

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