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.