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.

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Sojourners Magazine January 2009
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