Living in Interesting Times, and Letting Go of Sixties Envy

Yesterday, journalist Shaun King posted this on Facebook:

Listen, I need you to understand what I’m about to say. This is what I taught the students at Morehouse last week.

2015 is not what we thought it was. The deadliest hate crime against Black folk in the past 75 years happened THIS YEAR in Charleston.

More unarmed Black folk have been killed by police THIS YEAR than were lynched in any year since 1923.

Never, in the history of modern America, have we seen Black students in elementary, middle, and high school handcuffed and assaulted by police IN SCHOOL like we have seen this year.

Black students, who pay tuition are leaving the University of Missouri campus right now because of active death threats against their lives.

If you EVER wondered who you would be or what you would do if you lived during the Civil Rights Movement, stop. You are living in that time, RIGHT NOW.

There’s a particular piece of this that jumped out at me: “If you EVER wondered who you would be or what you would do if you lived during the Civil Rights Movement, stop. You are living in that time, RIGHT NOW.”

This is something I’ve been thinking about, A LOT.

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When I was younger, I used to have a lot of Sixties envy. I was born in 1961, so I was a little kid in the Sixties, a pre-teen and teenager in the Seventies. And I used to have a lot of Sixties envy. When I was younger, I saw the Sixties as colorful and adventurous and exciting; when I was somewhat older, I saw them as a time of great political change, a time when you could really make a difference. And I envied people who’d gotten to be part of it. For years, I passionately wished that I’d been an adult, or even a teenager, in the Sixties.

In recent years, I have been letting go of that.

I’ve been looking at the deep polarization in this country; the rabid, bigoted, willfully-ignorant hatred of the Tea Party; the “We don’t care, we don’t have to” government serving its rich cronies and treating its citizens like children or criminals; the filthy rich turning the planet into a wasteland and treating anyone who tries to stop them like children or criminals; the pointless and apparently endless wars overseas; the grotesque hostility to black people, poor people, LGBT people, immigrants, women, for saying they want to be treated with basic human decency; the rapidly-changing attitudes about gender, race, family, drugs, sex, religion; the people who are terrified of that change and are responding to that fear with hatred.

And I’ve been realizing: Oh. This must have been what the Sixties were like.

1968 Democratic National Convention
I grew up in Chicago, and in the summer of 1968, my family went on a long camping trip. All I knew at the time was, “Camping trip! Rocky Mountains! Grizzly bears! Dinosaur National Park!” It wasn’t until years later that my parents told me the reason for that camping trip: my folks were beatnik hippie lefties, and Chicago in the summer of 1968 was a really fucking scary place to be, and they wanted to take the kids and get the hell out of Dodge.

I get that now.

I do not, in fact, want to get the hell out of Dodge. (Except temporarily, for an occasional breather.) I get that the saying “May you live in interesting times” is, in fact, both a curse and a blessing.* I do feel weirdly privileged to be living in interesting times. I feel weirdly privileged to be part of all this, to be part of social change movements that will be shaping the world for decades to come.

But yes. Shaun King is right. I have sometimes wondered who I would be or what I would do if I lived during the Civil Rights Movement; the Women’s Liberation movement; the early gay rights movement; the early ecology movement; the peace movement. And we are living in that time, RIGHT NOW.

I hope I’m doing okay. It’s really fucking hard.

*(It’s not an ancient Chinese saying, by the way.)

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Greta Christina is author of four books: Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing to Do with God, Coming Out Atheist: How to Do It, How to Help Each Other, and Why, Why Are You Atheists So Angry? 99 Things That Piss Off the Godless, and Bending: Dirty Kinky Stories About Pain, Power, Religion, Unicorns, & More.

Living in Interesting Times, and Letting Go of Sixties Envy

8 thoughts on “Living in Interesting Times, and Letting Go of Sixties Envy

  1. 1

    It’s very frustrating to see the degree to which big money and the politicians have locked up the debate so that “the menu today is fish” – topics we really should be making choices about are the choice of “no choice” What do you do when most americans favor a reduction in military spending, yet that topic simply is not allowed to come up? What do you do when laws are enacted to rein in the president’s ability to start wars, and the president redefines ‘war’ so they can do what the laws were expressly written to prevent? And the cops… ugh. In the 60s they called them ‘pigs’ but now they’re milspec pigs with networked surveillance (which still doesn’t actually help do anything to reduce crime or terrorism) it’s out of control.

    My dad appeared briefly in “The Electric Kool-Ade Acid Test” as a bit player in the Columbia ‘occupy low library’ and I was able to ask him about it a few years ago. He’s a historian; his specialty is the history of the French revolutions (there were a cascade of them leading up to the big one) apparently the critical question he asked the student radicals was, “OK, if you overthrow the government how will you replace it without it turning into a dictatorship?” That’s the problem with saying “burn it all to the ground!” because when the flames die down, there will still be authoritarian creeps who want to be cops (and they’ll want sniny jackboots and guns lots of guns) and authoritarians who want to tell big lies and authoritarian lickspittles who want to believe the lies and follow them. Right now we’re treated to a line-up of them on disgusting display.

  2. AMM

    I don’t have any nostalgia for the 1960’s. It was a nasty time.

    Actually, it was a lot like now, except that there were some additional awfulnesses:

    – The Vietnam War. Until the Tet offensive, all the major media and most of the population, especially the WWII generation, were supporting the war and regarding those who opposed it as traitors. Opponents to the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and (coming soon!) Syria have not been getting anything like the hate that opponents of the Vietnam War got.

    – Generation gap. There was a real sense among the older generation — WWII and Korean War — that the younger generation had abandoned all morality and that they were bringing about the end of civilization. And many in the younger generation considered the older generation to be hopelessly corrupt. Again, there was a level of hate that I just don’t see today.

    At the time, we worried that the divides would become even worse and the country would fall apart or slide into a kind of civil war. Actually, I’ve noticed that ever since then, people have been wary of demonizing the people they don’t agree with to quite that extent. Fringe groups, like the Westboro Baptist Church and the leaders in the Tea Party, say some pretty extreme stuff, but I don’t get the impression that most of the population, even the “silent majority”, is willing to go anywhere near as far. Horrible things still go on, but on all sides, most people aren’t prepared to tear the country apart to attain whatever goals they think need to be achieved.

  3. 3

    I was born in 1949 in the San Francisco Bay Area. I was 19 years old in 1968. I was in the thick of it. As all the battles dwindled and morphed toward the mid 70’s I thought, we’ve left an awful lot undone. I thought the revolution would reawaken long before now. But I always knew, unfortunately, that there would be blood in the streets again. I am sorry to be right. I have no predictions on just how bad it will get. But I wonder how much we will get accomplished this time. And the next time, and the next time. If there is still a planet by that time. I am sorry not to be more hopeful. But I will never stop fighting.

  4. 4

    – Generation gap. There was a real sense among the older generation — WWII and Korean War — that the younger generation had abandoned all morality and that they were bringing about the end of civilization. And many in the younger generation considered the older generation to be hopelessly corrupt. Again, there was a level of hate that I just don’t see today.

    That was the tragedy. The farce is playing out today as hate between “millennials” and “boomers”.

  5. 6

    I like to take the long view. CYCLES OF AMERICAN HISTORY describes some cycles of American history as described by historians Arthur Schlesinger I and II. AS II also has a collection of essays in a book by that name.

    AS I and II proposed that US history alternates between liberal and conservative phases. The liberal phases have big bursts of social-change activism, while the conservative phases have lower-key activism. Each kind of phase burns itself out after a while. Liberal phases burn themselves out because intense activism can be hard to sustain, and because the activists sometimes seem to go too far. Conservative phases burn themselves out because society accumulates problems that society’s elites are unable or unwilling to recognize.

    Here are those cycles, with approximate dates:
    1776-1788 L: Creation of Constitution, 1788-1800 C: Hamiltonianism, 1800-1812 L: Jeffersonianism, 1812-1829 C: Retreat after War of 1812, 1829-1841 L: Jacksonianism, 1841-1861 C: National gov’t dominated by slaveowners, 1861-1869 L: Abolition of Slavery and Reconstruction, 1869-1901 C: The Gilded Age, 1901-1919 L: The Progressive Era, 1919-1931 C: Republican Restoration, 1931-1947 L: The New Deal, 1947-1962 C: The Eisenhower Era, 1962-1978 L: Sixties Radicalism, 1978- C: Gilded Age II

    Normally, each era lasts about 20 years or less, but the two Gilded Ages have lasted much longer. Each one follows a period of major national trauma, triggered at least in part by racial issues.

    I remember thinking that Bill Clinton’s Presidency would be a new era of liberalism. But he wimped out of it, despite the right wing hating him as some left-wing ogre.

    The present day? Barack Obama often seems like Bill Clinton II, but at least he succeeded with Obamacare where Bill Clinton had failed. We’ve also been seeing lots of indications that the end of Gilded Age II is long overdue. Increasing economic inequality and student-loan debt, police brutality, increasing imprisonment and privatized prisons, you name it. There have been some efforts to reverse it, like the Occupy movement and the Wisconsin Revolt, but so far, they have not been very successful.

  6. 7

    Morgan in #3, you are quite correct about unfinished business of the Sixties era. This includes
    – The Equal Rights Amendment. It was defeated because the Religious Right kept it from being ratified in the last few states that it needed.
    – Abortion. Roe vs. Wade was decided at the end of this era, and ever since, the Religious Right has been fighting it.
    – Renewable Energy. Jimmy Carter supported it for a bit, then Ronald Reagan de-emphasized it.

    That suggests another reason that liberal ages burn out: the activists achieving a lot of success or perceived success. Let’s see…
    – Somewhat trivial for Constitution adoption, Jeffersonianism, Jacksonianism, the Progressive Era, and the New Deal.
    – US black people suffered a big setback after Reconstruction. There was a Southern-white counterrevolution called “Redemption” that pushed blacks back into servile status, and the North did not bother to try to stop it.
    – The first wave of US feminism faded after women got the vote. The second wave had to start almost from scratch.
    – The Sixties era had a lot of successes: the civil-rights movement, feminism, antiwar efforts, environmentalism. In retrospect, they look like partial successes, but they seemed like great achievements at the time.

  7. 8

    For US history, biologist and historian Peter Turchin has collected several indices of societal well-being, and he has found some interesting correlations (links to sources got spamfiltered). Increased index is good: +++, bad: —
    Social strife (riots, lynchings, terrorism, …) —
    Largest wealth / median wealth —
    Average wage / GDP per capita +++
    Physical height (health) +++
    Life expectancy (health) +++
    Age of first marriage (social optimism/pessimism) —
    The overall curve has an interesting shape.
    A peak around 1825 (the Era of Good Feelings), then a trough around 1905 (Gilded Age / Progressive Era), then a peak around 1960 (Eisenhower / Kennedy). We are headed for another trough. So we should expect trouble ahead.

    He has also pointed out a two-generation or “father-son” cycle of spikes of social strife. This accounts for spikes in 1870, 1920, and 1970, though there wasn’t one in 1820. This suggests that another spike is coming around 2020. More reason to expect trouble ahead.

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