Scornful of the '60s

Book authors are saying the decade was a fraud. Not so.

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There is a new culture war on the 1960s. It peaked on television with the first network showing of "Forrest Gump." There, every clich about '60s radicalism was on display. A Washington antiwar rally was presented as a gathering of obscenity-shouting hippies. The civil rights movement was reduced to anti-white sloganeering. The sexual revolution was portrayed as little more than a mix of dope and great parties. Only the mentally challenged Forrest Gump, loyal to his black Army buddy in Vietnam and unconditionally in love with his grade-school sweetheart, is able to make it through the decade with his values intact.

Gump's take on the '60s isn't that different from the one we've gotten recently from an outpouring of books. Uniting these books and their authors is the same shared perspective - that the 1960s were a decade of excess that we would have been better off without. In David Horowitz's "Radical Son: A Generational Odyssey," the decade is epitomized by murderous Black Panthers and the role Ramparts magazine, which Horowitz edited, played in heroizing them.

In Roger Rosenblatt's "Coming Apart: A Memoir of the Harvard Wars of 1969," the '60s are summed up by the crude takeover of University Hall by Harvard's Students for a Democratic Society and the failure of the faculty to speak out effectively. And in Philip Roth's "American Pastoral," the 1960s are embodied in his hero's spoiled suburban daughter, who, in the name of bringing down the establishment, blows up a store, killing four innocent people.

Recommended: 1960s plus 50: How well do you know the tumultuous decade? Take the quiz!

As we close in on the end of the century, there is every reason to view the '60s critically. America began the decade with extraordinary power and extraordinary wealth, and what followed from this opportunity for change was often disappointing. As critic Paul Berman recently observed in "A Tale of Two Utopias," an account of 1968, "There was bafflement that a movement so grand and touching in its motives as the student leftism of the 1960s could have degenerated and disappeared so quickly."

What follows from the newest accounts of the '60s isn't, however, the kind of tough-minded assessment Berman offers in a book that carefully balances the accomplishments of the decade against the failures. What follows instead is the notion that at their core, the '60s were a fraud. We are asked to view the decade's struggle for racial equality as a product of venom and criminality, to see the antiwar movement in terms of the arrested development of the young, and to look on the sexual revolution not as a departure from Victorianism but as the harbinger of AIDS and date rape.

As someone who came of age in the 1960s, I am repelled by this assault on generational memory. This was, after all, the decade of the Mississippi Freedom Summer and the rise of Cesar Chavez's United Farm Workers and Woodstock. But the serious damage from the new war on the '60s is not, I believe, to generational memory so much as our current politics.

A decade ago, during Ronald Reagan's second term, historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. confidently predicted, "At some point shortly before or after 1990, there should come a sharp change in the national mood and direction - a change comparable to those bursts of innovation and reform that followed the accessions to office of Theodore Roosevelt in 1901, Franklin Roosevelt in 1933, and of John Kennedy in 1961." The historical cycle Mr. Schlesinger describes has not, however, come to pass, despite the administration of the first two-term Democratic president since FDR. The social change begun in the 1960s remains uncompleted.

The civil rights revolution and affirmative action have been good for the black middle class, but for the bottom third of African-Americans, the last 30 years have been an educational and social disaster. The same pattern is true in health care. Medicare and Medicaid have been a blessing for the elderly, but for the working poor and the unemployed, regular medical treatment remains unaffordable. Even the vaunted prosperity of the '60s, fostered by the fiscal policies of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, has not lasted. Gone is the entry-level blue-collar job, while for middle-class workers, downsizing, along with downward mobility, has become the norm.

Whether we have the will to tackle this uncompleted social agenda is anyone's guess. But when the kind of social change begun in the '60s is portrayed as fraudulent and mean-spirited, the task becomes that much harder. What follows is the notion that since the 1960s were a mistake, any social program growing out of the '60s is also a mistake. As Horowitz puts it, "A consensus was building across the nation that the reforms inspired by its radical passions had been tried and found wanting, that they were factors contributing to the social pathologies. There was a newly tough attitude toward welfare and crime."

At its extreme, this toughness is epitomized by the social rollbacks called for in the Contract With America. But such thinking isn't limited to the extreme right. The Democratic "lite" version of it may be seen in the Clinton administration's willingness to let welfare devolve back to the states for the first time since the end of the New Deal. In this context, how we view the '60s takes its toll. We're asked to look back in horror and then tell ourselves we've done enough for students, the poor, and minorities.

* Nicolaus Mills is professor of American studies at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, N.Y., and author of the forthcoming "The Triumph of Meanness: America's War Against Its Better Self" (Houghton Mifflin).

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