HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

November 17, 2008
Farewell to the Sixties

Jerome Richard


While Obama's victory has certainly not vanquished racism, it has shown that our society has moved away from regarding people through the prism of skin color.  From now on most whites will not make assumptions about a person's prospects based on skin color.  And neither will most African-Americans.  That is good.  The era of racial prejudice is not ended, but it has been attenuated.

Less obvious is that what has ended is The Sixties.  While some people called Bill Clinton "the first black president," what he really was to social conservatives was the first hippie president.  His longish hair, his admission that he had smoked marijuana (no one believed his statement that he had not inhaled), his casual sexual morals, and something about his whole demeanor said counter-culture to these folk, especially coming after his staid predecessors, Reagan and Bush 1.  That's why opposition to him was so visceral, so fervent.

The reign of Bush 2 and Cheney was very much an anti-Sixties movement, its Christian fundamentalist base representing the antipathy of everything the Sixties espoused.

Now, two generations on, the Sixties seem irrelevant if not quaint.  One expression of this is the indifference with which most people greeted Republican attempts to link Obama to William Ayers, the Sixties radical.  A Washington state ranch hand named Mike Cagwin told Seattle Times columnist Danny Westneat that nobody seemed to care if Obama had known a Vietnam-era radical named William Ayers. (Seattle Times, 11/05/08)  "It's all old '60s crap," Westneat quotes the sixty-year-old Cagwin.  Republican fear-mongers must have been beside themselves.

Even more revealing is the way the generation of today that roughly matches in age the generation that we call the Sixties has made itself felt within the system rather than against it.   Democratic candidates going back to George McGovern counted on a youth vote that never materialized.  Obama certainly deserves most of the credit for making it happen.  This son of a hippie mother was different from previous candidates not just in skin color and age, but in showing that one could be part of the establishment and against it at the same time.  Change indeed.

The culture of the Sixties was most publicly displayed in the 1967 Summer of Love celebration in San Francisco.  The anti-establishment politics of the Sixties reached a climax during the 1968 Democratic convention when Abbie Hoffman and the Yippies led thousands of mostly young people in the demonstrations that Chicago police turned into riots.  That happened in Grant Park, so it was inadvertently symbolic that forty years later a comparable number of mostly young people peacefully cheered Obama's election in that same park.  They didn't know it, no one said it, but the Sixties were over. 

The values that best animated the Sixties however-peace, love, acceptance of superficial differences-- have not disappeared.  They were there in abundance in Grant Park on November 4, 2008.


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