Someone recently wrote that if you want to know what shapes a person’s political consciousness, check out what was going on in the world when he or she came of age in their 20s. When I was in my 20s, the Vietnam War had just begun. Women, if they were fortunate enough to go to college, were essentially limited to two careers, nursing and teaching, but what was really expected of them (all of them) was to become mothers and housewives. The birth control pill had just been invented, and the Catholic Church was adamant that no one should use it. I saw a frightening movie, “The Cardinal,” about a woman dying in childbirth because the Church decreed that when given the choice the baby’s life must take precedence over the mother’s. Women avoided Catholic obstetricians in droves if they refused to prescribe birth control pills. Leon Uris’ novel, “Trinity,” documented centuries of oppression of Irish women robbed of the right to control their own bodies.
In the early ’60s, economic power was essentially unavailable to women rendered helpless and dependent on men who were not always promise keepers and not always kind. Half the human race was quite literally defined and limited by the functions of their uterus. Such primitive and rigidly gender-based power imbalances were not good for men, and not good for women — nor were they good building blocks for healthy marriages or well-developed people.
Though much has been written about the corrupt self-indulgence and moral relativism of the ’60s, we were a generation who reached adulthood meeting with widespread expectations to offer our lives as martyrs for the next generation. For women, the sacrifice came in the form of uncontrolled, unplanned and unending childbirth.
For men, it was expected of them to offer their young lives as cannon fodder in a war which was essentially mismanaged, unexplainable and unwinnable. America had not been attacked as it had been in World War II, but President Lyndon B. Johnson assured his young daughter Lynda Bird that her daddy wasn’t going to be the first American president to lose a war. Young men were drafted and killed, sent to war by powerful older men whose own sons were almost universally exempted. Talk about the Culture of Death!
Together, the oppressive power of big government, big corporations and big religion forged a rebellion. We had learned firsthand about the arrogance of power. Just as in physics, in cultural life every action leads to a reaction. Our generation wanted more from life than the culturally prescribed path of conformity and war, stagnation and misery — hence, the ’60s.
It is not easy to overcome natural apathy nor to mobilize people to political action — an undeniable reality discovered by conservatives in the Clinton era. The ’60s could not have occurred without the widespread palpably repressive uniformity and suffocating atmosphere of the ’50s, as perceived by millions of Americans. Though David Horowitz, author of “Second Thoughts About the Sixties,” claims that opposition to the Vietnam war was engineered by him and other red diaper communists, the rebellion was much more than that. The ’60s were a heroic grasp for individual empowerment and freedom, and a rejection of the deadening conformity and mind-numbing grip of the big institutional agencies — government, corporate and religious.
The ’60s grew into a creative burst of epic proportions. Whether it be in music, art, education, writing, poetry, women’s rights, law, medicine, religion, political science, the era has changed American cultural life and American thinking forever, for good and bad, but for far better rather than worse.
Opposition to the Vietnam War is the primary reason American politicians still strive to wage wars with no casualties. There is now an abiding recognition by the politicians, as there should always have been, of the American people’s low tolerance for the tragic waste of body bags and flag-draped coffins. We don’t hand over our sons lightly to the forces of government or politicians whims — nor should we. When waging a war, the government needs very good explanations other than mere blind patriotism to now enlist the cooperation of the citizenry.
It is fashionable lately to blame the ’60s for many of America’s current ills, but the decade was essentially one of libertarianism — an earthquake power shift from the big institutions into the hands of ordinary people. Because of that, we are no longer a society that requires rigid sex role uniformity or economic bondage for blacks, women and gays. We have gleefully escaped the black and white numb conformity of “Pleasantville” and become exceptionally confused and colorful — and it has led to some incredibly interesting times.