As I forced myself to watch the NBC mini-series "The Sixties" in February, I was reminded once again that a "culture war" rages today for the soul of America. An important objective of that war is to control the way in which the past is portrayed, for to interpret the past is to give meaning to the present and direction to the future.
There are two competing interpretations of the 1960s. The first is exemplified by the claim of '60s radical-turned-Democratic politician, Tom Hayden, who wrote in his memoirs that "We of the Sixties accomplished more than most generations in American history." In this view, the Sixties were exciting, heroic, and uniquely infused with moral passion the "Promethean moment," as one commentator put it, "when the Chosen Ones went through hell to save their souls and ours."
The second interpretation is far less flattering: It was a time of incredible intellectual flatulence when pretentious adolescents under the tutelage of Herbert Marcuse and his ilk affected a pose of moral superiority vis a vis their countrymen.
It was a time when the pampered and narcissistic children of privilege spouted Marx, Che Guevara, and Franz Fanon and engaged in no-fault acting out.
It was a time when self-styled radicals embraced the enemy against whom their countrymen were fighting and dying. It was a time when for many, the goal was to cleanse fascist, racist "Amerika" by "any means necessary."
The nihilism that lay at the heart of this radicalism turned murderous thugs like George Jackson, Charles Manson, and Huey Newton into "authentic," existentialist, revolutionary heroes.
The made-for-TV version of the '60s offered up the former view. To be sure, the "bad" '60s are represented by Kenny Klein, a Weatherman, Mark Rudd-like character who moves from idealism to radicalism and accidentally blows himself up with a homemade bomb. And of course, we see the "really bad" '60s in the person of Brian Herlihy, the high-school jock who enlists in the Marines because he doesn't get the expected football scholarship to Notre Dame, goes to Vietnam, and returns a burned out wreck the Traumatized Vietnam Vet that has become a staple of the popular culture, evidence to the contrary notwithstanding.
But the mini-series is really a celebration of the "good" '60s: the idealism of the civil rights movement and opposition to the immoral Vietnam War. The good '60s are represented by Michael Herlihy, Brian's intelligent and morally earnest younger brother who rejects what the viewer is invited to see as the fatuous patriotism and authoritarianism of his father's America; Sarah Weinstock, the proto-feminist, radically-pure, Barnard girl whom Michael pursues, even as she falls under the sway of Kenny; and Willie Taylor, a black preacher from Mississippi who, after his church is burned down by racists, moves to Watts, where he is gunned down by police during the 1965 riot, and his son Emmet, who is driven by his father's killing into the embrace of a sanitized version of the Black Panthers.
"The Sixties" takes us, via the idealistic Michael, through what former radical Peter Collier calls "the Movement's stations of the cross" the Freedom Rides; the March on the Pentagon; the assault on Columbia University; the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago, the "Days of Rage."
But this odyssey reveals a glaringly apparent bias on the part of the producers and screen-writers: the mini-series gives the "black" experience short shrift, despite the fact that the civil rights movement remains the noblest achievement of the decade. This is because although the white "idealists" celebrated by the mini-series may have participated in the civil rights movement, at least at the beginning, they did not inspire it, preferring the "authentic" (that word again) black voices of Malcolm X and the Panthers to that of Martin Luther King. For Michael and Sarah, the real "happening" of the decade is the Vietnam War.
"The Sixties" is an example of what Peter Collier and David Horowitz describe in their memoir, Destructive Generation, as "the manufacture of innocence out of guilt, the eternal work of the Left." For the Left, they continue, there are no yesterdays, only tomorrows, never any "fossilized remains of death and destruction caused by past commitments," only the utopias to come.
The high note upon which the mini-series ends with the whole Herlihy family reunited and its consciousness raised illustrates this phenomenon. There is no suggestion of the decade's deplorable legacy.
Abroad, it was the "liberation" of South Vietnam, costing, in addition to Saigon's war dead, a minimum of 100,000 summary executions at the hands of the communist liberators, a million and a half "boat people," and a like number of individuals sentenced to "reeducation camps," genocide in Cambodia, and a perceived shift in the "correlation of forces" that encouraged Soviet adventurism throughout the 1970s.
At home, the decade spawned one social pathology after another drugs, drug-related crime, the explosion of sexually-transmitted diseases, feminized poverty, "poverty pimps," and race hustlers-resulting from the radical assault on "the System."
In view of this legacy, "The Sixties" is truly an example of the attempt to "transfer the enduring guilt of [the Left's] bloodstained past into the golden innocence of its redemptive future."
When the expected revolution did not occur and the war ended, the anti-war movement of the 1960s fragmented. Most moved on to new fads physical fitness, eastern religions, environmentalism, entrepreneurship, and yuppiedom in general. Others practiced Franz Fanon's concept of revolutionary violence, e.g., the Weather Underground or this and that "liberation army," surfacing periodically in some Keystone Kops caper reminiscent of World War II Japanese soldiers on Pacific islands who, unaware that the war had ended, fought on as best as they could.
Still others began what the German New Leftist Rudi Dutschke called the "long march through the institutions." From their tenured positions on university campuses, they now inculcate into new generations of students the idea that the United States is irredeemably racist and oppressive. From their positions in the news and entertainment industry, they wage the "culture wars." And from the executive branch, they corrupt the American Republic by means of the moral relativism they imbibed during this most corrupt of decades.
For many of us, what is most unforgivable about the "idealists" celebrated in "The Sixties" is that many of them actively worked for the defeat of American forces in Vietnam, and most of the rest acquiesced in their enterprise. One of the little revisionist lies perpetuated by the mini-series is that while the protesters opposed the war, they did not have anything against those who fought it. This lie is refuted not only by the actions and rhetoric of the protesters at the time, but also by the personal experiences of countless Vietnam veterans. It is truly disingenuous to claim otherwise.
For at least a decade now, there has been talk of "healing the divisions" of the '60s. In my view, there are two groups from the decade who stand in the way of any such reconciliation: the opportunists whose "idealistic" opposition to the war was merely a cynical ploy to cloak concern for their personal safety; and those who continue to believe that by protesting the war, they were somehow morally superior to those who fought in it.
My attitude toward the first group is summed up by an observation of John Stuart Mill, the quintessential 19th century liberal. "War is an ugly thing," he wrote, "but not the ugliest of things; the decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks nothing worth a war, is worse. A man who has nothing which he cares more about than he does about his personal safety is a miserable creature who has no chance at being free, unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself."
As for the second group, I would echo the even more eloquent remark of my friend Jim Webb, recipient of the Navy Cross for heroism in Vietnam, former Secretary of the Navy, and best-selling novelist, when asked by a radio talk show host his thoughts about Jane Fonda. "If she was on fire," he said, "I wouldn't cross the street to urinate on her." Only he didn't say "urinate." I wish I had said it first.