Counterculture of hope and rage: a bittersweet history of the '60s

Despite the enormous impact of the 1960s on American culture, ``There's been an enormous silence on the subject,'' says Todd Gitlin. ``There's not been a first-class novel about the '60s. Nor has there even been a movie that's true to the '60s.''

Dr. Gitlin speaks as both a former '60s activist and a scholar. He was president of the radical Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) in 1963. A sociologist at the University of California, Berkeley, in the '70s, he wrote about the relationship between mass media, student protest, and the administration. (``Brilliant cultural analyses,'' says Prof. Leslie Rado of Yale.)

Now Gitlin has enlarged his canvas. He's written one of the few cultural histories of the tumult of the 1960s that is considered both readable and scholarly. [Titled ``The Sixties, Years of Hope, Days of Rage,'' it is reviewed in today's book review section, Page B3.]

``Until recently, there's been no major evaluation of aspects of the '60s - the student revolt, what it meant, why it occurred,'' says Harvard sociologist Nathan Glazer. ``A lot was said at the time, but there's been very little reflective consideration.''

The reason for the strange silence, Gitlin says, is not that artists, writers, and historians are ``too close'' to the period. It has been 20 years. His explanation goes to a comment Norman Mailer once made about writing novels - that to write well, ``You must have a sense of the real.''

``I take that to mean you have to have some place to stand on in order to send the imagination out to do its work. But during the '60s, hundreds of thousands of people lost their sense of the real.''

During the most intense years of protest - '68, '69 - there was a sense that the Old World, the old order, was over, Gitlin continues: ``That the intellectual, emotional and cognitive ground was blasted. There was a sense of `endgame,' of having run out of something: run out of clarity, run out of a single vision, run out of perception, of the Enlightenment, the Renaissance, rationality.''

It went deeper than loss of hope, deeper than personal identity or a lament over the national culture. ``What I'm describing was epistemological, ontological: a sense of the real - what Mailer talks about.''

We are sitting in Cody's Bookstore and Cafe on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley. It's a locale wrapped up with Berkeley's considerable history of protest - a meeting place for radicals during the days of rage, only a block from the famous ``People's Park.''

Today, People's Park is a run-down, hardscrabble patch of grass inhabited by street people. But in 1968 it was a rallying point - an unused piece of university land that hundreds of students, wives, and counterculture folk turned into a tiny, communal ecotopia.

When the university bulldozed the land at 6 o'clock one summer morning, a couple of thousand people, including the president of the Berkeley student body, marched to the park to sit in. A squad of Alameda County sheriff's deputies suddenly opened fire, hitting 50 to 100 people with buckshot, killing one. A day later, Gov. Ronald Reagan sent in 3,000 National Guardsmen, and helicopters. Rioting ensued. In two days, Berkeley turned from a liberated zone to occupied territory.

Student leaders, including Gitlin, considered People's Park, not Chicago in '68, the symbolic end of the nonviolent student ``Movement.''

As for sunny Telegraph Avenue, it's still a busy, cluttered mix of boutiques, caf'es, and revolutionary graffiti. The long-haired migrants from the East 20 years ago are still here. Graying, and now with deep, long-suffering tans, they no longer throw bricks at plate glass windows but spread out peaceably on the sidewalks hawking tie-dyed clothing, jewelry of feathers and turquoise, and various other accouterments meant to cleanse the aura, show support for farmers in Nicaragua, or be worn during the next major shifting of the planets.

The thing is, Gitlin was never one of them. He was a Jewish boy from the Bronx (his parents were schoolteachers) who majored in math at Harvard. Gitlin makes a basic distinction between the themes and style of the '60s counterculture and what was the ``New Left.''

The counterculture had its roots in the '50s popular culture, he says: rock-and-roll, Mad magazine, irreverence, skepticism, James Dean, and Marlon Brando, who when innocuously asked in ``The Wild Ones'' what he was rebeling against, snarled, ``Whadda ya got?''

The New Left emerged from cultural opposition of a tougher sort: the Beat experience, urban life, organized labor, the old Left, liberalism, and ``red diaper babies'' (children of '30s socialists).

For a while, all the different strands came together as the Movement, Gitlin says, ``an unstable equilibrium of elements that coexisted and even seemed to be a unity.''

But the strategic mistake of the New Left, he adds, was to settle too quickly on the metaphor of revolution as a way of understanding what was happening. ``That was a disaster,'' Gitlin says. ``You had contending forces, all vying to run this phantasm. It made for destructive behavior, stupid thinking, people cutting each other into ribbons.'' It also meant you were set up to be miserable if the revolution didn't come (it didn't).

Today Gitlin thinks the metaphor should have been (and still is), one of reformation. ``Revolution is too cavalier an image for the late 20th century. It conjures up the damaging idea of hurling oneself into the caldron. There seem to be no limits. And too many alibis can be assigned to it. You can explain any action by saying, `Oh, the revolution made me do it.'''

``Reformation'' demands rebuilding, rather than turning everything upside down, he adds - reworking values and actions in a way that is both radical and civil.

Also, it was the times, the Zeitgeist of the '60s, that came unleashed. The decade existed in a wrenching dualism, he says: As both the Age of Aquarius and the eve of destruction; the Peace Corps and Vietnam; years of hope and days of rage. One could hold extremist views because they were the residue of ``revolution.''

The '60s generation today feels differently about ``a lot of things'' - drugs, sex, the needs of children, education. Even social politics: ``I think a lot of the New Left today is less romantic about the inherent virtues of the underclass - just because they live in often nightmarish conditions.

``We have less illusions about the intrinsic nobility of Third World revolutionaries, even though we don't want Reagan looking over every shoulder.

``But I think we are also finding that much of the critique of the Vietnam war at the time is turning out to be right.''

So Gitlin does finally defend many of the troubles and excesses of the ``participatory democracy'' of the '60s.

Because? Because, as he ends his book, one should ask oneself ``whether the world's managers, left to their own devices, can be trusted to cease torturing and invading peoples who are inconvenient to them; to cease driving peasants off their lands and into starvation; to keep the rain forests and battered species alive; to sustain the planet Earth and preserve us from industrial poisoning.''

Gitlin says, ``It's a bittersweet book, and it ends bittersweetly.''

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