The Battle Over the 1960s

Even before his inauguration, Barack Obama has already made at least one vital and perhaps enduring contribution to American culture. His winning campaign for the presidency has gone a long way toward ending the stranglehold that the myths of the 1960s have held on our national imagination for lo these many years.

Obama is our first post-baby boom president. He came into adulthood in the Reagan era. And to reach the White House he has had to overcome one quintessential, cut-to-pattern boomer, Hillary Clinton, and a Vietnam warrior, John Mc­Cain, who tried to win by tarring Obama with the worst excesses of the 1960s countercultural Left, as personified by Weather Underground leader William Ayers. Along the way, Obama also had to make a painful break with his old friend and one-time mentor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, after trying to explain Wright’s angry rhetoric by noting that the minister was a product of the 1960s.

Wiping our national slate clean of the curse of the ’60s is important because the culture war of the past three decades has really been a war about the legacy of that decade. On the Right, the ’60s are viewed as the time when narcissistic white liberals and over-empowered minorities pulled the rug from under a traditional social order that was still serving us quite well. Many Republican careers have been made by tying every call for social justice, equality, and peace to that dubious era of “sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll.”

Meanwhile, to many in the baby boom Left, the ’60s were viewed as a lost Golden Age. It was a time of liberation from repressive social norms. It was the era in which African Americans finally won their full citizenship rights, millions of ordinary Americans acted to end an unjust war, and women began to take their rightful place in the public square.

THIS BATTLE OVER the ’60s is a conflict without a resolution, in part because the chronological ’60s were in fact two distinct cultural eras. The first one ran from 1956 (the Montgomery bus boycott and the advent of Elvis) to 1965 (the passing of the major civil rights legislation and the beginning of the massive military involvement in Vietnam). This was the era of idealism in which a new generation, black and white together, set out to right the nation’s historic wrongs.

The second ’60s began with the fraudulent Gulf of Ton­­kin Resolution, which em­powered President Johnson to wage total war in Southeast Asia, and ended with the August 1974 resignation of Richard M. Nixon. This was an era of anger, disillusionment, alienation, and repression. And the wild “acting out” of mostly white upper-middle-class dissidents during this era is largely responsible for the decade’s bad reputation.

Obama promises to take us past the 1960s wars because he wasn’t part of them. He was, he kept reminding us, only 8 years old when Bill Ayers and his ilk went underground. But, really, Obama has a shot at moving us past the 1960s-rooted culture wars for the same reason that he has a chance to heal the nation’s historic divisions of race. Obama is biracial, and he is also bi-generational.

Just as a matter of demographics, most analysts define a baby boomer as someone born between 1946 and 1964, so technically Obama, born in 1961, is in the cohort. He doesn’t feel like one partly because he was a first child, and, for late boomers, the ’60s were something that happened to their older siblings. Also, Obama may identify so strongly as a post-boomer because his mother’s adventurous life was so much of a piece with the earlier ’60s era, the one dedicated to building the beloved community and changing the world.

Ironically, what Obama really has the chance to do for America is to, once and for all, expel the demons of the later ’60s and simultaneously revive the idealistic and hopeful spirit of the earlier ones. We need that spirit now, because in the last few decades, we’ve built up a whole new catalog of wrongs to right.

Danny Duncan Collum, a Sojourners contributing writer, teaches writing at Kentucky State University in Frankfort, Kentucky.

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