The new ’60s
Fighting for a cause defined the ’60s as a decade of glorious upheaval. A wide range of issues demanding firm moral judgment made activism contagious. There was revolution (and pot smoke) in the air. The time was ripe for sweeping change.
Looking back at the ’60s is a nostalgic return to high ideals, youthful exuberance, social activism, and a relaxation of societal taboos. Unfortunately, the issues on the front line of social change back then were left unresolved, which is why we’re fighting them all over again today.
What made activism so popular in the Sixties? Well, the free love movement had something to do with it. Hip-hugging bellbottoms and tie-dyed halter tops had a way of bringing passion to the protest line. Frivolity aside, however, the issues were somber and serious.
The Vietnam War killed 53,000 Americans and over a million Vietnamese. The struggle for civil rights was a contest for human dignity. Rachael Carson’s “Silent Spring” called attention to the tragic loss of bird song and the death of nature. There were good reasons to rise up angry.
The ’60s are over, but the need for activism is not. The causes that were fought for then are just as morally demanding today… and they are very much the same: War, equal rights, the environment.
Iraq pales next to Vietnam, unless you realize its absurd costs and the deceits that made it possible. Global warming and species extinctions are larger and more serious than what we learned from Rachael Carson. Equal rights have gone global in pursuit of a more equitable distribution of basic material needs.
What’s different today from the turmoil of the ’60s is the way activism has been relegated to the few – the lawyers, scientists, think tanks, lobbyists, bureaucrats and interest groups. There are no large, popular movements in the U.S. today because most Americans are co-opted into compliance with the faltering status quo. We want to leave our messes to someone else.
There is no huge wave of baby boomers sweeping into adulthood eager to kick self-righteous ass. This largest block of Americans – my generation – largely has forfeited activism for complacency by over-feeding from the trough of the largest resource-hogging nation in the world and denying inconvenient truths.
The war in Iraq is a debacle. Everyone knows that. Yet the moral impetus to stop it is tangled with the inflated stature of America’s world hegemony. The war is also muddied by oil, which lubricates the skids of unsustainable consumerism, to which we are fatally addicted.
The environment has reached a critical stage. Human impacts are far more imperative and broader in scope than they were in the ’60s when DDT silenced songbirds, when lakes were poisoned, when rivers were aflame. Answers then were manageable and often localized, where today’s environmental issues are urgent, highly complex, and global, requiring universal action, great foresight, and an acceptance of limits.
Equal rights are far from resolved and quite different from Martin Luther King’s day. Today’s ethical dilemma is defined by the widening gulf between rich and poor and the resulting inequitable distribution of global resources. Equal rights demand a moral reckoning as rich consumers dump a disproportionate share of pollution into the commons. Should the poor, those defined by race and geography, have to pay for the excesses of the rich?
What we face today are the new sixties, a time for activism, idealism, and communal and civic cohesion. We need bold leaders to call out the ranks of our disenchanted, disenfranchised citizenry. We need rabble-rousers to get Americans off the couch to fight the good fight for the benefit of their progeny. We need noisy, outrageous, morally-centered advocates for peace, equality, and health.
“Hope is only man’s mistrust of the clear foresight of his mind,” warns French poet and philosopher Paul Valery. Yet we must hope that our collective mind, our shared values and our democratic institutions can redress the wrongs four decades after Woodstock.
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