Monday, December 01, 2008

Triumph of "The Good Sixties"?

A Huffpost column by Robert S. McElvaine caught my eye. It begins: "The legacy of the 1960s has been a matter of contention, with an uncertain outcome, for the past four decades. That contest was finally settled on November 4 of this year, when the "Good Sixties" triumphed over the "Bad Sixties."

With the election of Barack Obama as president, the Civil Rights Movement, which represented the best of the Sixties quest for freedom, has prevailed over the Selfish Rights Movement, which embodied the worst of the decade's freedom quest and which has most often in the years since defined the Sixties in the popular imagination. This month, "We shall overcome" overcame "I shall overindulge" as the meaning of the Sixties."

Well, such a shift from selfishness to "we're all in this together" certainly seems possible as the Obama administration begins, though at this point only time will tell. I am not entirely persuaded by Mr. McElvaine's attempt to link this sentiment to a particular Sly and the Family Stone song--or to his new book--though I'm sure both are related. But I hope he's right.

His division of the good sixties and the selfish sixties might explain the problem I've had in how the culture has come to characterize the decade. But I have never seen it this way. I don't equate the hunger for self-exploration and discovery, self-expression and self-fulfillment in the 60s with selfishness. A case can be made that the Me Decade of the 70s was a consequence of those quests for meaning in the 60s, though it was more of a perversion. It was pretty clear to me, standing in my t-shirt and jeans outside a disco in 1975, watching the suits, dresses and jewels on those entering.

But the era of greed is good really began in 1980. Those who fomented it, used what they regarded as 60s self-indulgence as a projection of their own hidden decadence. And we've been in that swamp of selfishness as virtue (which was also their newly perverted meaning of patriotism as American selfishness in the world) ever since.

It's going to take more than an election to turn that around. Although Obama's leadership is crucial, it's going to take more than initial enthusiasm. But Obama provides a balanced view: he honors the individual and the journey to fulfill individual potential, as part of the "we're all in this together" ethic. Self-discovery is essential to responsibility. You have to know yourself to be truly responsible, over the long haul.

In the 60s we battled against conformism as well as against social injustice. Often they were deeply related battles, especially when racial injustice was the standard we were supposed to conform to. But though we always have to find a balance, self or society is one of those false either/ors we need to get beyond. That was an equal rights message in most of our music.