The old days are calling…
The old days are calling… it wasn’t, and still isn’t, necessary to go back very far to find radical contrasts.
Reminiscence alone tells stories that can make twenty or thirty years seem like a century.
Recently, the storyline is about increasing detachment, from nature as well as each other–and, in a strange way, from ourselves or parts of our multiple selves.
Communities and conversations discarded like relics from a pre-electrified era. Discussions, once a staple in communal sharing, are among the things we remember doing.
When I was a kid in the 1960s, we tossed around a joke about belonging.
“As an outsider,” one of us would quip, “how do you feel about the human race?”
I have no idea if this dig was popular outside my hometown, Binghamton, in upstate New York. Our universe was smaller, then, and everyone in mine heard this one. The ultimate put down, accepted casually. The pressure point applied, do whatever and be a member, identified as like everyone else or seen, otherwise, as less human.
Related: The Mystery of What We Remember
Conformity versus nonconformity, the values of each, confronted us with a dichotomy rich and real enough that we argued about it as teenagers. There was a choice, we knew, and the majority usually won. What was in doubt was the level of ease in the victory and how many tagged along with it.
Into an intensely conformance-based culture wedged what became known as the counterculture or subculture. It was new, although Bohemians, Beatniks and jazz were around for a decade and longer.
There were enough hats to keep a healthy corral of haberdashers busy…
The counterculture energized as a reaction to conventions that were too strict, shallow and exclusive. Some of us couldn’t fit in. Mass conformity required counterpoints for reference. Thinking objectively, others refused.
When I look at public images from the 1950s, I notice how formally everyone seems to be attired. Even at baseball games, men were in suits and women were in the background. My wife once gave me an Elliott Erwitt poster that showed Fifth Avenue congested with pedestrians in that era, and although a few exceptions could be seen, the men are in suits, the women in dresses.
There were enough hats to keep a healthy corral of haberdashers busy, but none of the baseball variety.
Segregation absentmindedly acknowledged in photographs of venues from Boston to Whatchamacallit, New Mexico, most clearly and blatantly in the South. The formal apparel everywhere shouts constraint. Rigidity maintains lies about what it is to be men and women underneath.
In the Fifties, post war America raced ahead of the rest of the world economically. Productivity in our factories surpassed every other nation, not by a little, by huge amounts. America, it seemed, had discovered its potential as conditions of war forced a unity that hadn’t existed previously, and momentum pulled everything with it. Whether we wanted it to happen or not.
In extreme times, like the 1950s, radical contrasts sprung loose. Nearly anything is possible. Inevitably, voices rose, questioning the values of unexamined enthusiasm. Leaks erupted.
When I think about Kerouac’s On the Road, I can see it from one angle as a survey of where the worst cracks had started separating by mid-decade. In Howl and Other Poems, Allan Ginsberg chronicled the lives of people gnawing at the edges of American conformity.
As the decade became history, minority groups from African-Americans to homosexuals showed they were no longer willing to shut up at the insistence of old white men. The majority – made a minority through disempowerment – women found louder voices.
A unexpected stage set. Tom Brokaw declared his generation “The Greatest,” but he was wrong. Mine was. Forced to deal with the ravages of white male dominance hardened by his. Cultural clashes epic, unforgettable. Efforts still made to stuff the truths of what happened into unmarked graves.
Remember the Sixties, The Old Days?
The United States came unglued, not from state to state as we had in the Nineteenth Century, but class from class, ethnic group from ethnic group, gender from gender, generation from generation, and across political persuasions. The cruelest social elements eventually won, as they usually do, but others took huge risks and left marks social conservatives still try to erase today, half a century later.
As with the ugliest scenes from our past, the genocide against American Indians, the savage corruptions of slavery, the carpet bombing of Japanese and German civilians–the list goes on–some are trying to complete the work of the persistent denial machine.
The John F. Kennedy elected as we struggled out of the 1950s was a falsified persona. It fit a popular, short-lived strain of idealism, but the split was still fifty-fifty. Without routine electoral cheating in Chicago, Nixon was president instead and history turned another way.
What if this marginal lunatic lead in days less explosive than eight years later?
We’d be celebrating Tricky Dick as a great leader who led coolly through challenging times, if for no other reason than that he would not have been executed as Kennedy was. The undermining of the mythical American Dream might have been more gradual or halted.
Late in the 1960s, the good old days, I sat in a scratched together outdoor cafe in Toronto with a group made up of draft dodgers, deserters and our Canadian hosts. Tables and chairs filled out a courtyard behind a church, the rear third of which was an American Immigrants Hostel.
Young men fleeing the military machine slept on bunks while trying to gain landed status and find jobs. After days passed wandering around Yonge Street and trying to comprehend our circumstances, we stayed up late in the evenings, talking politics, talking about the war. Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King were both dead and hopes for Hubert Humphrey’s election felt desperate.
Even at that, Humphrey was a latecomer to the antiwar alliance and not considered dynamic enough or trustworthy. Leaving us with a hopeless revolution or exile, realistically.
Between cigarettes and bad coffee, one of the things I remember most clearly from those conversations was the Canadian fear of an American poison seeping north across the border. Their new charismatic leader, Pierre Trudeau, might incite the extremes Kennedy had. Joe, the church sexton who was our main contact, feared American-style assassinations.
“With Diefenbaker, the guy we had before, what would’ve been the point?”
With Ike, too vanilla to excite the extremes, in office, we’d been just as secure.
What the murder of John F. Kennedy in 1963 gave my generation was the first serious deflation point for the American myth. Now, it was impossible to make an undiluted claim on cultural superiority.
But plantation mentality ruled
The coverup that followed left us with a not always spoken distrust of our leaders. Younger generations have a healthy dose of that anyway, naturally, but ours inflated. It grew, fueled by the abuses, especially in the old mosquito republics of the South, by establishment efforts to fend off demands for basic civil rights we’d been told everyone already had.
Plantation mentality ruled. Then, the military-industrial complex Eisenhower, himself a member, warned about captured the nations convictions and steered us into the Vietnam War, an event that, because it was so public in a time of expanded media attention, hobbled society like the Indian genocide and the fight to retain slavery did.
It wasn’t so much that the reasons for turning immense power against a tiny Third World country sounded shabby and dishonest, the immediate impetus faked, it was the obfuscation of the powers behind the decisions that shattered credibility.
Supercharged by the epic paranoia that followed World War II, the invisible and unelected government of the United States gained ground against the one we believed we’d voted for.
When the cruelty xenophobia justified caught us and we stopped asking enough questions of our leaders, taking the elixir of patriotism instead, effete elected officials, for the most part, opted to stay in power by keeping in line.
The Old Days: Worth Fighting For
As a generation, mine had the choice of fighting back without much grownup help or joining the killing and dying in Asia. Most chose to kill and die, believing that winning vindicates murders and destruction. Didn’t we have history and destiny on our side?
As the countercultural trend toward nonconformity and individual freedom, later disparagingly recast as “the hippie movement,” was nudged by war and civil rights into a political position, experiments in turning on, dropping out and expanding consciousness were marginalized.
Flower power was no match for napalm dropped on civilians in front of cameras or the fear generated by shoot to kill orders to control unarmed civil disobedience. The dinosaurs saw their control eroding and, as usual, imagined only violence and threats as answers. The alienation was permanent.
We might already have lost before they murdered unarmed students at Kent and Jackson State Colleges. But we went less visible, not away.
The cultural hash stirred. Generations following ours were conditioned differently, alerted to a world full of dangers and symptoms we didn’t have. Never again would a ragtag bunch of ingrates and smart asses be granted power to shake things up as we did.
David Stone is a New York City based writer whose most published titles include Traveling Without A Passport and A Million Different Things: Meditations of the World’s Happiest Man.
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