Love And The Ruins

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What with baby boomers running our instruments of communication, what were we going to talk about this month but, yes, the 40th anniversary of Woodstock? Lay it on me, man! Peace! Love! All that ’60s stuff!

Or some of it. The marginality of Woodstock as a Great American Event will grow more obvious as—I hate to put it this way—people younger than the present writer diminish in number. There wasn’t much about the ’60s one would want to relive, and somewhere on the list of forgettables would be the muddy mess in Max Yasgur’s pasture that August of 1969.

The ’60s made more memorable contributions than that to cultural and social fragmentation, the foremost of those being the sabotage of our educational institutions. Demonstrations against the war weren’t nice either, but I am minded to speak of education—specifically, of higher education—due to the appearance of an important book, Stanford in Turmoil: Campus Unrest, 1966-1972 by a university president of the era, Richard W. Lyman.

It is not a happy account. Gangs of somewhat educated yahoos (look up, some time, the origin of the term in Gulliver’s Travels) raged about, bullying the administration, taking over buildings—actually burning down the ROTC building, plus two wings of the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences—destroying 10 offices and one foreign scholar’s life work.

Stanford? This went on at Stanford? I’d been there only a few years earlier as a graduate student in history. Indeed, one of my professors was Richard W. Lyman, in his pre-presidential phase. He was a very good professor indeed: a gentleman and a scholar, as people used to say, when those terms mattered to many.

Many a gentleman and scholar failed to credit his eyes in the ’60s as placid campuses erupted with hatred, malice and unreason. I wouldn’t presume to guess how many believed intuitively in Original Sin—the inborn pride and madness of the human race. I can’t imagine that even the most irreligious came away from the ’60s without some intuition of human defectiveness.

Woodstock, my eye! Peace and love—mere dumb show; dish towel disguises for the awful passions hiding below, starting with the passion to have it—whatever “it” might be—all one’s way, without reference to norms, traditions, dignity, tolerance, free speech, the received wisdom of the species.

“However irrational political processes may be,” writes Lyman, “they are not made any more rational by [violent] behavior. Rationality itself was widely scored in the 1960s and suffered setbacks. It has never entirely regained its place in its supposed Temple, the University.” No, and probably won’t in our lifetimes. The old system was founded on general consent to the idea of rational discourse. We were finding out around the time of Woodstock that rational discourse was the last thing on the minds of the moral vandals. Who—scary thought—still live among us. Bill Ayers and his wife Bernardine Dohrn come to mind, thanks to last year’s small flap over their friendship with Barack Obama. How many mob members, from Stanford and a thousand other campuses, how many or members of their cheering sections, live down the street, or, worse, occupy places of prominence, as in the media? Neither they nor the marks they left have gone away.

Writes Lyman: “Without falling into the trap of blaming the 1960s for everything that has gone wrong since, one can argue that American politics has never recovered from the blows it suffered at the hands of the Sixties radicals.” He faults the Right for fostering disillusionment with government. “But the New Left got there first. Their contempt for ordinary politics, with its compromises and evasions, has by now become epidemic in the United States, to the point where many people believe that the only way to deal with any really important question of public policy is to take it ‘out of politics.’ Students of the rise of fascism in Europe may be forgiven for finding this worrisome.”

Happy 40th anniversary, folks.


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