So. . . Did the sixties make a difference?
SO. . . DID THE SIXTIES MAKE A DIFFERENCE?
iN NOVEMBER, NEWSWEEK PUBLISHED AN ISSUE THAT saluted "1968: The Year That Made Us Who We Are," complete with psychedelic cover art by Peter Max. It got me to thinking. (For one thing, I wondered why they published it in 2007 instead of 2008.) The issue wasn't that profound, and its analysis of the importance of 1968 didn't entirely explain my introspection. So why did I keep going back to it?
Maybe it was because I was nineteen in 1968, a sophomore at Cornell, and my son is now nineteen, a sophomore at Boston University. That parallel makes me grateful that 2008 isn't more like 1968—I wouldn't want him to live through events like the ones of that year: the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, the Vietnam War (and the draft), the riots at the Democratic National Convention, the election of Richard Nixon as President of the United States, the constant campus unrest. It's not that 2008 looks as if it's going to be easy—we've got another war that won't end, economic jitters, and a presidential race that seems to be focused on trivialities rather than substance. But maybe 2008 will mark the kind of turning point that we had thought 1968 would be. I hope so.
"The Sixties were not necessarily, as some baby boomers would have it, America's defining moment," Jonathan Darman wrote in that Newsweek issue. "But they were an era when a generation held sustained argument over the things that have always mattered most: How should America show its power to the world? What rights were owed to African Americans, to women, to gays? What is America and what does it want to be?"
Those of us who grew up then are often accused of being narcissistic, of thinking that what we did during that infamous decade was somehow important—so we vastly overrate the significance of the Sixties out of personal vanity. Maybe so. Or maybe it's just too soon to tell. Much of what's happening now, it seems to me, is still evolving from changes that were set in motion in the Sixties, from profound shifts in the social fabric of the U.S. to the expression of truly revolutionary ideas about politics, science, economics, and culture.
As is often the case, the arts seem to be taking the lead in the kind of analysis that will ultimately influence historians to decide if the Sixties were a time of significant change or just an anomalous blip. I'm thinking of some of the fascinating artistic reconsiderations that have surfaced recently, such as Love, the Beatles "soundscape" assembled by George Martin and his son, Giles Martin. (It was created to accompany a Cirque du Soleil show but stands alone as a musical work.) If you haven't listened to the Fab Four in a while, give it a try—you'll hear the music in a new way. And if your reaction is anything like mine, you'll be amazed at how fresh and smart and relevant (to use a good Sixties word) it sounds today. Other examples of this genre would include the recent films Across the Universe, another Beatles-based mélange, and I'm Not There, inspired by the life and music of Bob Dylan, as well as much of what has been written about The Armies of the Night since Norman Mailer's death.
Whether the best political, economic, and social ideas of the Sixties will be revisited in a similar way—bringing a positive influence to bear on those "things that have always mattered most"— remains to be seen. I don't think I'll find out in my lifetime, but maybe my son will.
— Jim Roberts '71