Progressive Blogosphere-style Post of the Day

(Could that be abbreviated “PBsPotD”? Anyway…)

Ta-Nehisi Coates very frequently makes good points, and I particularly like this one, from a post responding to a letter sent in by one of Andrew Sullivan’s readers:

I’ve often wondered how much of Andrew’s conservatism, and really the politics of the “serious” left (TNR, Slate, Washington Monthly, a chunk of the Atlantic) is rooted in an utter disdain for the late 60s–the riots, free love, the drugs the Panthers etc. It’s understandable, but obviously very weird for me.

I’ve wondered this too, and don’t know what to make of it personally. I came to American cultural history from my idealistic and naïve passion for Woodstock, banned books, the Beats, Berkeley and Columbia protesters, that sort of thing. And all that I’ve read about this attitude towards the political establishment informs my own politics, too, even in a more pragmatic and cynical and “within-the-system” age. To me, both student radicalism and African-American civil rights activism (whether it be Dr. King or the Panthers) are a reminder that it is worth entirely reimagining the status quo, and that we don’t have to settle for what we have. Radical anti-war activism helped to turn the tide against Vietnam; obviously the civil rights movement had a profound effect on real political outcomes.

I’m sure that the smart bloggers/writers I read and work with acknowledge this; most of them have a better understanding of American sociopolitical history than I do. But I think, as Coates suggests, there is a tendency now for those analysts whose lenses are narrowly focused on Washington to think themselves and their politics above these movements that turned 1960s and ’70s society, culture, and politics upside-down. And I always feel a little ridiculous, a little stupid, a little childish in comparison, because I think there was a certain beauty in those movements’ investment in the creation of a better world.

Vietnam was huge. The generation gap because of it was huge. The civil rights movement was huge. But that is not to say that there are not still questionable and unjustified interventionist wars, that there are not still vast generation gaps, that there are not still civil rights battles to be fought. When we do so, it is perhaps worth looking backwards to groups of people in a particular era who firmly believed in the promise of a better world. We can debate how much of an effect these groups had on discrete political decisions (the civil rights movement’s was certainly pivotal; the antiwar and countercultural groups’ were somewhat more varied); but their immense cultural impact is surely worth something.

UPDATE: A truly wonderful article by Maurice Isserman from the Chronicle of Higher Education Review about the 40th anniversary of Woodstock is relevant (subscription required). Some selected paragraphs:

Blight has argued that the purpose and spirit of Civil War commemorations underwent a significant shift in the decades following the 1860s. At first such gatherings served as a reminder of the issues and passions that had driven North and South into their conflict. But by the time veterans of the Blue and Gray met at Gettysburg, 50 years later, the anniversaries had come instead to symbolize the end of sectional division and the eclipse of the issues (including, unfortunately, any national commitment to black equality) that had loomed large during the war and in its immediate aftermath. Woodstock nostalgia and commemorations, on the contrary, have tended to be about reconciliation, with an emphasis on the values that unite Americans across generational and partisan lines. Woodstock’s enduring mythic legacy—a dream of innocence, redemption, self-reliance, and self-invention that owes so much to the traditional American narrative—began to define the event in popular and historical memory even before Jimi Hendrix brought the concert to an end on Monday morning, August 18, 1969, with his inspired retooling of the national anthem. […]

Woodstock would go down in history as a moment of reconciliation rather than confrontation largely because, in the end, nobody wound up beating up or shooting or cursing at anyone else. Police officers, hippies, and Bethel’s residents were on their best behavior, and a great sigh of relief was heard across the news-media landscape. So Woodstock became, on the one hand, the quintessential “60s” event, the culmination of a decade of challenge and change, but was also thought to stand apart from the decade’s darker impulses, as a moment of restored innocence and good feeling in a time of turmoil and discord. Wadleigh’s documentary, Woodstock, opens with a view of Yasgur’s fields in the days leading up to the festival, with two hippie guys riding by on horseback, their blond, flower-child girlfriends clinging behind, while Crosby, Stills and Nash can be heard on the soundtrack singing, “It’s been a long time coming.” Cut to the cows. Cut to the tractors. Cut to the Woodstock stage under construction. Welcome to the American Eden. […]

Woodstock was not a protest, and many of those attending never had attended, and never would, a political demonstration. (That applies to a couple of the friends with whom I attended the concert.) But without the political insurgencies that preceded it, without the vision of the possibility of change and self-definition that began with the civil-rights movement and was taken up by more and more Americans (students, women, and, earlier in that summer of 1969, gay people), Woodstock would never have happened. Richie Havens, in opening the festival, extemporized a song around one word: “I start strumming my guitar and the word ‘freedom’ comes out of my mouth as ‘FREE-dom, FREE-dom’ with a rhythm of its own,” he would later recall. “This was the same feeling I’d been experiencing all along. The feeling that Bethel was such a special place, a moment when we all felt we were at the exact center of true freedom.” No one listening to Havens’s ode to freedom in 1969 could hear it without being reminded of Birmingham in 1963, Selma in 1965, and Martin Luther King Jr.’s martyrdom in 1968. Lang describes the Movement City that Abbie Hoffman and other New York-based activists set up on the hillside, which came equipped with the usual movement paraphernalia: radical newspapers, leaflets, a mimeograph machine. All that proved unnecessary. As the days rolled by, Lang writes, “I noticed fewer and fewer people manning the Movement City booths set up by the various political organizations. The entire gathering had become Movement City.”

The generational upheaval, of which Woodstock was one expression, had yet to reach its crest. A few months after the festival, in October and November 1969, many Woodstock veterans, and many others inspired by what they had heard about the gathering, would take part in the huge Moratorium and Mobilization demonstrations against the Vietnam War. And the following spring, in May 1970, they would be among the hundreds of thousands taking part in the national student strike following the invasion of Cambodia and the killings at Kent State University and Jackson State University.

The Movement City part of the Woodstock legacy tended to be forgotten in the years since, if not necessarily by the veterans, the musicians, or the organizers, than by Woodstock acolytes among succeeding generations. Certainly there was little of that legacy in evidence at the Woodstock commemorative concerts of 1994 and (especially) 1999. Woodstock is reduced in popular memory to a weekend of blissful abandon, a chance to dress up in flower-child trappings, a brief excursion to nirvana and back. Maybe on this 40th anniversary, at a moment when the country faces challenges and decisions every bit as important —and divisive—as in 1969, we can remember Woodstock as a more complicated, less “innocent” phenomenon. It was Eden, but it was also Gettysburg (or Agincourt, as The Times would have it). And, thinking back, I still stand a-tiptoe at the memory.

3 thoughts on “Progressive Blogosphere-style Post of the Day

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