Seven-League strides have been made driving the words nigger, kike, spick, wop and broad back to the darkness from which they shambled. (Which is not to say there is any less bigotry and racism in the chopped liver; it's just that even the most slope-browed trog knows it ain't cool to use such catchy appellations in nouvelle society.)
Consigning those words to the dust heaps is one of the small benefits we derived from the heightened social consciousness of the Sixties. One of the uncountable number of good things the Sixties and its action handed down to us struggling through the Eighties.
How ironic, then, that we now have a new epithet to replace the old derogatories used to dismiss those we hold in contempt, a freshly minted replacement for beatnik, old Wobbly, longhair and burnout: Now, from the pens and mouths of Sixties bashers, we discover that those who fought and, in some terrible instances, died for those benefits are "refugees from the Sixties." And the stereotype is a hairy, unkempt, ponytailed buffoon in either tie-dyed jeans or a Nehru jacket, mumbling like Shirley MacLaine about cosmic oneness and offering flowers on a street corner in the Haight.
On a current ABC sitcom called Head of the Class, the character Charley Moore, teacher of a group of high-I.Q. honors students in a New York high school, is summed up by one of his smug, computer-linked nerds as a "refugee from the Sixties." Charley Moore lives in Greenwich Village, wears his hair with a slave-tail lock hanging over his collar, tries to imbue his charges with the subtleties and personalities behind the cold dates of historical events, is humane and passionate and bemusedly dedicated to the nobility of teaching with excellence.
He is a refugee from the Sixties....
As opposed to the prototypical Yuppie in training we see around us as the paradigm of the Eighties, the icon movies and television proffer as the billboard ideal for us all: the self-serving, essentially hollow, mass-consuming, fad-following, cowardly, afraid-to-speak-up refugee of the Me Decade.
It has become accepted wisdom that those who were "active" in the Sixties (actually the period roughly beginning with the Inauguration of J.F.K. in 1961 and ending with the disgrace of Nixon in 1974) gave us nothing of value. That it was a 13-year carnival of clowns. A time of folderol and flapping jaws. That it was a cultural aberration from which the rich and prosperous Eighties, in all its somnambulistic grandeur, derives no noble legacy.
The phrase horse puckey leaps to mind.
Strap me in the chair, turn on the juice and fry my fruit salad: I remember a different Sixties. One the bashers labor mightily to discredit. A Sixties that kids weaned on the drum box and frozen waffles cannot find in their parents' scrapbooks among the shots of blissed-out flower children and vegetable-dye-tattooed Deadheads at Altamont. The Sixties I remember was a time of life being lived at the edge of the skin, one filled with an entire nation of concerned, active Americans throwing off the restrictions of 200 years of cultural hypocrisy and repression, challenging authority, refusing to believe the advertising-promoted lies about life and ethics that had been the hallmark of John Wayne's Fifties.
There was music in this land during the Sixties. Not just the sound of the Beatles or Dylan or Motown but a song that spoke of human involvement. A melody of strength and commitment, of responsibility and giving a damn about the condition of life for everyone, not just those who could make the best bottom-line showing on the year-end annual report.
The horn tooter pauses.
I was not a kid during the Sixties. I was born in 1934 (also not a terrific year). I was on the cusp of 30 when it all started, just about at that "Never trust anyone over" age. But I was a kid in the Forties and I managed to live through the Fifties, if one uses the broadest definition of living. And therein lies the core of why the Sixties were, and remain, so important. The Fifties. Anyone who forgets or never knew what this country was like during those years of the military draft, the war in Korea, the resurgence of the Klan, the free and blithe testing of nuclear weapons, the miasma of fear produced by the McCarthy hearings, the blacklists, the Cold War hysteria, the selling of handy back-yard atomic-bomb shelters ... simply does not remember, if they ever knew, just what an uptight, terrified place this place was. A young Hugh Hefner knew (said the horn tooter, knowing which side his essay was buttered on). And he got a jump on the Sixties with this very magazine, which by the Sixties had already become a powerful anti-Fifties wedge in dislodging a bogus and self-deluding image of the American way.
In the Fifties, anyone who did not subscribe to the idea that going to war was nobler than opting out, emptying bedpans in a hospital and coming on as a conscientious objector ... was looked on as subversive, suspect, cowardly and un-American.
In the Fifties, schools had dress codes.
In the Fifties, there were "good" girls or "tramps" who did it in the back seats of Edsels. Those were the available categories. Women prepared meals, bore babies, fetched the coffee in offices and asserted their interest in serving the commonweal by rolling bandages at the hospital two afternoons a week. Norman Rockwell painted the family unit for the cover of The Saturday Evening Post; and in those paintings, Mom was always smiling ... no doubt as she looked forward to the load of dirty laundry waiting just off stage.
In the Fifties, the voices of America were Pat Boone, Patti Page and Connie Francis. Perry Como was the voice that resided in the perfection of the egg at the center of the universe.
In the Fifties, the lies that had sustained America through the Thirties and Forties began to crumble from ethical dry rot. We began to understand that we could not continue to delude ourselves that we were a nation formed in the melting pot like some crazed Hollywood concept of the typical B-17 crew: one wop, one spick, one kike, one mick—but never any blacks. The supporting roles were all the same, all lovable in a harmless character-actor way; and save for those stereotyped ethnic differences, they were interchangeable. In the Fifties, if you wanted to be a star of the first magnitude, you changed your name from Julius Garfinkle to John Garfield, from Margarita Carmen Cansino to Rita Hayworth, from Walter Matuschanskayasky to Walter Matthau; you didn't even conceive of the possibility of getting a studio to make a picture starring anyone with a name as "unbankable" as Arnold Schwarzenegger, Meryl Streep or Emilio Estevez.
In the Fifties, if your name was Eddie Murphy, you played an Irish cop.
(Look at It's a Wonderful Life, emblematic of all that was good in our postwar view of ourselves—and, as subtext, what was bad—the celluloid embodiment of all the attributes of earlier decades. The immigrants were all noble, all eager to lose their funny accents and foreign ways and stinky cooking, to be Just Plain Folks, invisible and melded with white-bread WASPdom.)
But by the late Fifties, this attitude was seriously mildewed, thanks to Mc-Carthyism, television, juvenile delinquency, alcoholism, Korea and the rapid deterioration of the small communities within great cities that were once called neighborhoods. We snarled in our chains and the Sixties waited, poised, to blow it all away.
But I was no kid as the Sixties came rattling its changes. I do not look back on those times with blinders and sigh for the good old days. Although I was a part of much of it—the civil rights wars, the rise of the feminist movement, the breakouts in arts and letters, the antinuclear protests, the restructuring of political attitudes—I was in it but not of it. Although I marched with King and Cesar Chavez, got myself on Governor Reagan's subversives list, wrote columns for the L.A. Free Press and lectured in hundreds of universities about the changes a new generation was happily forcing on us, I never accepted the bullshit and pettiness, the okeydoke and flummery of much of what individuals were doing, the gaffes and peccadilloes that the bashers now use to dismiss everything of consequence in that 13-year decade.
Like them, I wince at the self-consciousness of protest folk singers; revile the irresponsibility of Timothy Leary, turning so many dips on to LSD; question the efficacy of Allen Ginsberg's trying to levitate the Pentagon; and am simply reduced to porridge at the memory of a Woodstock audience, believing that if it chanted in unison, it could stop the rain pissing on its holy ceremony. I praise the song of the Sixties, but I haven't preserved my bell-bottom Levi's with the appliquéd butterfly in adoration of a halcyon era softened by memory, or in expectation of its return, no matter how big a resurgence paisley is having.
And who gives a shit that the campaign to eat natural-fiber breakfast cereals was led in the Sixties by Euell Gibbons, with John Denver munching along behind in the Eighties?
(continued on page 194)Hail the Light(continued from page 90)
The bashers can correctly ridicule a brainless philosophy like "Don't trust anyone over 30," but the song of the Sixties was also "No war toys," and I'd hate to lose that baby with the bath water of triviality. One truth remains: You judge, at your peril, an entire decade and its activists by the worst of its adherents. All but those who have a secret agenda for making us ashamed of our past understand that a time and a movement are evaluated on the basis of the best, not the dumbest.
Nothin' happened in the Sixties? You really think comedians like Sam Kinison and Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy and Robin Williams and Franklin Ajaye and "Bobcat" Goldthwaite would be working the material they're laying down in comedy clubs and on HBO if there hadn't been shrapnel catchers like Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, Mort Sahl, the Firesign Theater, the Smothers Brothers and Harry Shearer and David L. Lander with the Credibility Gap? Remember, if you will: Monty Python got going in the Sixties. If it hadn't been for jokers like Lenny, Elayne Boosler wouldn't be telling us today that she's picking up CB messages on her IUD; we'd still be picking bits of old Bob Hope routines out of our teeth, and spuds like Buddy Hackett would still be running loose instead of being institutionalized in Vegas lounges.
In the pre-social-consciousness days of Disneyland, kids with long hair were forbidden entrance to the Magic Kingdom, and, some say, those who jammed their hair up under caps and slipped through often found themselves patted down for funny stuff by the security staff. By the end of the Sixties, rock bands had replaced Grinning Young American groups in Walt's domain, and attempts to prevent same-sex dancing were later knocked back so fast it made Tinker Bell's tummy ache.
In 1961, the first real awareness that television was turning us into a nation of functional illiterates, that it wasn't universally a swell thing, was voiced by FCC Chairman Newton N. Minow, who told a National Association of Broadcasters convention, "I invite you to sit down in front of your television set when your station goes on the air and stay there. You will see a vast wasteland—a procession of game shows, violence, audience-participation shows, formula comedies about totally unbelievable families ... blood and thunder ... mayhem ... sadism, murder ... private eyes, more violence, and cartoons ... and, endlessly, commercials—many screaming, cajoling and offending...."
Did that have an effect on us here in the Eighties?
The networks didn't hear the song Minow was singing; and today they've lost almost half their audience. As Santayana told us, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." The bashers of the Sixties, for their own reasons, want us to forget the Sixties—perhaps because the strengths that emerged from that time are counterproductive to their ends here in the Eighties.
Nothin' happened in the Sixties? The rise of black consciousness, black pride, opening channels for all the black versions of Albert Einstein and Marie Curie and William Faulkner who had been denied to us for 200 years. The rise of the feminist movement, for all its Bitch Manifestos and bra burnings, unleashed a tsunami of cultural change by that half of our population previously kept barefoot and pregnant.
Credit cards and credit banking; oral contraceptives that demolished thousands of years of male fiat as to who would get screwed and by whom; space-program technology that gave us not only desktop computers and weather and communications satellites but popularized Tang and Teflon coating for pans. (OK, so not everything was laudable.)
Producer Edward Lewis broke the Hollywood blacklist by defying the conspiracy of silence and hired Dalton Trumbo to write Spartacus ... and gave him credit on screen.
A fascination for the youth culture that has remained undimmed, prompted by the thorough domination of rock 'n' roll, the Beatles and their haircuts, Mod fashions and total cross-country mobility. And all because the baby boomers' demographic bulge swelled into late adolescence and young adulthood. This does not mean I can listen to the Beastie Boys or Prince. But then, that, too, shall pass.
On the plus side, we got Ralph Nader. How many of you out there are alive today because of his kvetching about auto safety, which resulted in the redesigning of cars, the installation of seat belts, frequent recalls of death traps and consumer protection laws? Truth in packaging. Truth in lending. Childproof caps on cleansers, drugs, paint thinners. On the minus side, we got terrorism and skyjacking.
All through the Forties and Fifties, we were told that rampant urban development was progress! Pave it over, tear it down, plow it under. In the Sixties, we learned that we are all part of the planetary chain—remember The Whole Earth Catalog and Frank Herbert's Dune and Denis Hayes's founding Earth Day?—and a magical environmental awareness blossomed. The EPA was created in 1970, the same time America celebrated that first Earth Day.
But by 1966, the Department of the Interior—operating from a saner philosophy of life than that offered by our recently deposed sweetie James Watt, who told us it didn't matter if he sold off the forests for McDonald's packaging, because the apocalypse is coming and we won't be here to enjoy them, anyway—had already gotten the rare-and-endangered-species list to Congress, and in 1966, that act was passed. Millions of acres of land were purchased by the Government for parks and preservation. Tough smog standards were clamped on a heretofore-unchecked heavy industry still trying to convince us (as Coolidge had said) that "the chief business of the American people is business." Leading the environmental movement was the state of California, with higher emissions standards than anywhere else in the nation. From the land of the flower children, the Sixties bashers seem to forget, came the desire to breathe more healthily.
In the Sixties, women got "equal pay for equal work" from the 1963 Congress; the beginnings of success in sexual-harassment lawsuits; the National Organization for Women, founded by Betty Friedan; the removal of "women's menus," sans prices; the topless bathing suit, introduced by Rudi Gernreich, which led to a general abandonment by young women of brassieres staved with metal that produced breast cancer; and, by 1969, panty hose to replace girdles, garter belts and nylons, unless one chose to use them in the privacy of the sexual arena. Martina Navratilova would not today be a millionaire several times over had not Billie Jean King perceived that whipping the crap out of Bobby Riggs was an object lesson for the sons of machismo, and not just a cheap show filled with megabucks.
Nothin' happened in the Sixties, O my bashers?
Well, howzabout in addition to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, we got the Gideon decision in 1963, providing legal counsel for indigent defendants, and Miranda in 1966, ensuring a suspect's right to remain silent, right to have an attorney present during questioning, right to have his brains left unscrambled by cops straight out of a Spillane novel? Don't say it has nothing to do with the Eighties: In addition to turning arresting officers into crybabies because they can't use the truncheon as freely as they might wish, Miranda has made the writing of cop shows on TV much harder. They actually have to resemble the real world now. Sure.
The first community for older citizens, Del Webb's Sun City, opened outside Phoenix, 1960. L.B.J. signed the first Medicare bill, 1965. The Gray Panthers were founded, 1970. That's what the old folks got from the Sixties. And homosexuals fought back in the late Sixties, chiefly as a result of the constant police harassment of the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in New York; that led directly to the formation of gay rights groups, lobbies, newspapers, a forceful movement. Now, that may not be a very positive result of the Sixties sensibility, in the view of the bashers; but as one who had a good friend, one of the best men and best editors I've ever known, blow his brains out because he'd been driven nuts living in the closet most of his life, I submit that the freedom of choice championed in that 13-year decade has resulted in hundreds of thousands of decent men and women's being able to live in the Eighties in a somewhat saner atmosphere, Jerry Falwell and his "wrath of God" interpretation of AIDS notwithstanding.
Now we're on a roll. Kids became a subject of concern in the Sixties. Not just leaving the tots to the tender mercies of parents who used them as cheap labor and whipping posts but beginning to consider them as people, with rights. In 1969, they got Sesame Street. Prayer was banned in schools in 1963. Traditional restrictive images of little boys and little girls, and what was acceptable for a boy or girl to aspire to, were thrown up for grabs. Anti-child-brutality laws became a prime concern of city and Federal courts.
You want to talk responsibility? Consider something as trivial as celebrity. Apart from those who, in any era, would be frivolous dips even if we were sloughing through a nuclear winter, in the Forties and Fifties, the social involvement of celebrities was largely manifested by their narking on one another in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee or Tail Gunner Joe's All-Purpose CornmieSymp Inquisition. In the Sixties, we saw a dawning awareness of the power of celebrity, coupled with a sense of personal worth and responsibility on the part of showbiz personalities and sports heroes. Muhammad Ali laid it all on the line rather than serve in a war he felt was wrong, a war he had the nerve, the gall, the chutzpah to point out was dedicated to killing his people and people like his people. He was busted, jailed and stripped of his title. And some schmucks were so dopey on John Wayne—ism that they suggested he was afraid to go. Tell that to Joe Frazier.
The faces we knew from the covers of the National Enquirer and TV Guide were the faces we saw in daily newscasts, marching through Alabama under the gun sights of rednecks and state troopers, being schlepped across the pavement like sacks of millet during antiwar protests, working for Greenpeace and Native American rights and The Southern Poverty Law Center. Marlon Brando, Jane Fonda, Paul Newman, Joan Baez, Burt Lancaster and even Vanessa Redgrave (like her position or not) demonstrated that merely taking the gravy and giving nothing back was a Fifties aberration.
In 1968, Paul Ehrlich founded Zero Population Growth, Inc., and for the first time a great many fast-breeding Americans learned the ultimate horror of the Malthusian theory of geometrical population increase. Pave it over, tear it down, plow it under: filing cabinets for humans, color-coded structures for cars, and brother, can you spare a maggot sandwich?
Does it all jumble, one fact over another, one event atop the next? Does it have a breathless crazy-quilt quality that leaps years and squinches history into a bewildering cube, like something burped out of a car compacter? Paraphrasing Whitman, "Do I jumble? Very well, then, I jumble. The Sixties were large; they contained multitudes." It all happened at once, so it now seems. Not a day passed that the fabric of American society did not get redraped on a general consciousness being raised from its Quasimodolike bestial slouch.
Nothin' much happened in the Sixties that influences us in the Eighties? Countries granted or claiming independence in the Sixties, with which we now have to deal as part of the universal economic chain, include: Somalia, Ghana, Upper Volta, Senegal, Nigeria, Rwanda, Syria, Algeria, Jamaica, Uganda, Malawi, Zambia, Biafra, Guyana and Botswana, not to mention the 25 others I don't need to make the point. The bashers seem unable to make any connection between the rise of black power in this country at the time, the riots, the demands for an equal share of that mythical American dream that blacks saw on television every day, and the assumption of responsibility for their own destinies of black people in far places. It took the French 13 years after America declared its independence to get the message. But then, maybe black folks ain't as slow as Professor William Shockley and Al Campanis think they are. Maybe there was one of those sudden biological leaps in intellect; after all, Amos 'n' Andy had been pulled from syndication in 1965, and there's no telling what that did for universal black intelligence. It certainly did a lot for blacks' self-image.
Even our obese citizens benefited from the Sixties: Weight Watchers was founded in 1963—the year that gourmets realized Hydrox were better than Oreos.
We came to learn in the Sixties that one person could make a difference: Mario Savio's stand in defense of free speech began campus unrest at UC Berkeley in 1964 and culminated in the Kent State massacre of 1970, thereby bringing to full, hideous circle an object lesson we needed desperately to learn, that the cost of civil disobedience in the service of the commonweal can end up being tragically more than a failing grade in civics; Martin Luther King, Jr., dedicated, and finally gave up, his life that part of a nation might see out of the eyes of the other part; Rachel Carson almost singlehandedly raised the alarm that we were killing the earth beneath our feet, alerting a generation to its responsibility to something as arcane as a planet; John Kennedy, for good or bad the youngest President we ever elected, killed antipapist bigotry where the highest office in the land was concerned and brought to his constituency a love of literature and the arts that not even Reagan can wholly flense from our priorities, try though he may; Ralph Nader went at the corporations again and again, like some mad Quixote, till they clapped their hands over their ears and screamed, "Enough already! We'll make it safer, cheaper, better, saner!" Those were the positive icons. We had, as well, the classic Jungian archetype of the trickster—madcaps like Ken Kesey and Hunter Thompson and Paul Krassner and loony Abbie and that nameless vigilante who called himself The Fox and appeared in bright sunlight to dump garbage in the pristine lobbies of Dow Chemical Company and the Rand Corporation, to bring the public's displeasure with war games to the very doorsteps of the sightless masters on far glass mountaintops.
And we had our negative images. Men and women who gave us pause at the depth and inventiveness of their ability to make the world a drearier, deadlier place: Charles Manson, Anita Bryant, Mayor Richard Daley, Spiro Agnew, John Mitchell, Lieutenant William L. Calley, Jr., the mad bombers of the Weathermen, Lee Harvey Oswald, Jack Ruby, James Earl Ray, Judge Julius Hoffman. Forget their names. They made us feel bad, and many of them are, thankfully, now worm food. They were that part of the learning experience of the Sixties that produced in us the occasional unworthy thought that maybe we ought to simply pack it in and let the cockroaches take over the ball game. But they had their place: They showed us what we'd be like if we continued to operate off the status quo.
The jumble coalesces. The great Bayeux tapestry of the Sixties, from J.F.K.'s joyous Inauguration to Nixon's ignominious fall from power, solidifies into one unseamed memory. The good times and the bad times, the rivers of blood and the brave winds of change. All the names that mostly mean nothing to high school kids today, as distant and chill as the Norman Conquest. But definitely not the revisionist horse puckey of the bashers.
Is the current prevalence of reactionary attitudes a product of the baby boomers' hardening of the liberal arteries? Where has all the passion gone? What happened to the great starts made in the Sixties, now backslid with erosion of civil rights, feminist imperatives, environmental concerns, humanistic philosophies?
Even Rolling Stone has sold out. Consider its recent ad campaign. A ten-page, slick-paper explication of the magazine's stance as a journal oh, so au courant announced, "If your idea of a Rolling Stone reader looks like a holdout from the Sixties, welcome to the Eighties." On the left we see a hippie in jeans and Mexican wedding shirt, festooned with love beads, an elephant-hair bracelet on his wrist, auburn locks fit for a Biblical prophet hanging to his elbows, the beatific look only enhanced by the beard and the poached-egg eyes.
Above the photo is the single word perception. On the facing page is the photo of a gently smiling, self-assured, clean-shaven, neatly coiffed Yuppie in linen slacks, pinstripe buttondown shirt, loose-fitting Giorgio Armani jacket and a look of such consummate smugness that we know with the certainty of those who were never invited to pledge his frat that this demographic rep of the 18-34 wedge is wondering whether there'll be a ticket on the windshield of his Porsche when he gets finished with this photo sitting. Over his head is the word reality.
On succeeding spreads, we get as perception the Day-Glo-painted hippie VW bus and as reality that smirking Yuppie's burgundy-toned, mag-wheeled import with the rear-deck spoiler and the back seat only Billy Barty could love; you get the idea. The final spread for perception is that weary disappointment George McGovern, arms outspread as he makes his speech, his hands open and a trifle pathetically imploring; on the right (oh, yeah, on the right) we done got the reality: Ronald Reagan, a grin as wide and as deep as the Cayman Trench, arms lifted and thumbs up in his best Gipperwin gesture.
All that this little appeal to Miami Vice manqués lacks is a left-hand shot of backyard-grown marijuana perception with a dozen fat lines on glass of the best un-stepped Peruvian nose candy as reality.
What a sorry pass it all seems to have come to. Technology pioneered in the Sixties to better our condition of life has been co-opted by the recidivist Eighties not only to abet the Me Decade selfishness and lethargy of an increasingly conscience-dulled electorate—pocket calculators, so no one has to be able to add or subtract; digital watches, so no one has to figure out what it means when Mickey's big hand is over his head and his little hand is in his crotch; cable TV and video cassettes, so no one has to read a book that ain't interactive or a newspaper that doesn't sport a headline informing us that "300-pound mother trades Twins for Cookies"—but that same technology has totemized the post—Me Decade sensibility. It has given the semiliterate, smug know-nothing a cachet. To rely entirely on the purchasable gadget is the mark of Homo superior. And since the President himself is all style and no content, a man who may not be a know-nothing but who doesn't seem to know what he knows, or when he did or didn't know it, that cachet looms large as reflected in the top man of the U.S.
How did it happen? No big secret. No codex needed to fathom it. Activists got weary after 13 years on the barricades. Took a breather. The whole country took a breather. Out went Nixon, and we thought we'd bought some surcease. But, as we keep forgetting, the price of freedom is eternal vigilance; and in that vacuum of power, with the balming hum of Gerald Ford's motor in neutral, Torquemada returned with Reagan, Meese, Schlafly, Watt, Falwell, ollie North and all that little gang of knuckle-brushing shamblers from the 15th Century. We snoozed a few years too long.
Now we have the sorry spectacle of that Brightest Hope for the Future, the young of this nation, littering in a way that would have been unthinkable in the Sixties, spazzing out for the benefit of MTV exploiters during spring break in Fort Lauderdale and Palm Springs, coming out of school only slavering to work in airless cubicles for a corporate pension; we have Ramboism, vigilantism, racism redux, Bernhard Goetz as Zorro, inhumane TV interviews with people saying of murderers who've drawn life sentences, "He should oughtta burn in hell forever"; we have millions gulled in every aspect of their lives by televangelists who tell them that everything they do is wrong or dirty, movies geared to the mentality of a 12-year-old (a retarded 12-year-old); and we have the bashers of the Sixties. A decade, we are told, not worthy of our respect.
There is a scene in The Big Chill, written by Lawrence Kasdan and Barbara Benedek, a famous dinner scene that is the perfect example of Newspeak about the Sixties. In that scene, we have seven characters who have gathered to attend the funeral of one of their Sixties group. The time is more or less today. The seven are Sam, a successful TV actor known for his popular Magnum like series; Sarah, a successful doctor; Michael, a successful People-style gossip journalist; Nick, a successful drug dealer; Harold, a successful manufacturer of running shoes; Meg, a successful lawyer; and Karen, a successful suburban wife and mother.
At the funeral, a disingenuous Peck-sniffian minister who didn't even know Alex, the dear departed, lays down the first paradiddle of the song of revisionism sung by the Eighties about the Sixties: "a brilliant physics student at the University of Michigan who, paradoxically, chose to turn his back on science and taste of life through a seemingly random series of occupations."
Let us rewrite history through the innocent medium of the nostalgic movie. Let us dismiss the symbols and the reality will scintillate into nothingness, for the oxen are slow, but the earth is patient. And memory fades. And youth knows not.
They sit at the dinner table, these seven (and Alex' "now" generation girlfriend, a model of pragmatic sensibility and sweetness, not a mean bone in her body, but also not a passionate one, either), remembering what Harold had said at the service: "Alex drew us together from the beginning; now he brings us together again." Alex as symbol of the Sixties. Time gone by, and the bashers have told us that friendships were transitory, so we know it now by these seven; they have grown apart. Alex as symbol of the fruitless Sixties—lost hope, misspent life, protracted irresponsibility, frustration, self-loathing, suicide.
The song Karen played at the funeral: the Stones' You Can't Always Get What You Want.
And here is the dialog:
The doctor: "I feel I was at my best when I was with you people."
The TV star: "When I lost touch with this group, I lost my idea of what I should be."
The journalist: "There was something in me then that ... made me want to go to Harlem and teach those ghetto kids."
The lawyer: "And I was going to help the scum, as I so compassionately refer to them now."
The doctor: "I hate to think that it was all just fashion ... our commitment."
The lawyer: "Sometimes I think I've put that time down, pretended it wasn't real, so I could live with how I am now."
And the running-shoe magnate sums it up: "We were great then and we're shit now?"
How sad if Larry Kasdan and Barbara Benedek really believe that ready-made tract for the bashers. They portray these seven "refugees from the Sixties" as cynically hollow, confused, ambivalent, duplicitous, betraying, distrusting, self-absorbed, settling for mediocrity, overly analytical but at heart simply shallow—profligates, has-beens, dopers, figures better suited to Hemingway's Lost Generation than to the activist Sixties.
But that's the bashers' view. That's the revisionism proffered by people who have settled into way-over-30 guilt at having become part of Reagan's America, the Yuppie generation, the survivors of the Me Decade. And like those who drink till they puke on your shoes at a party, they cannot stand to see those who came out of the Sixties with their souls and humanity intact not drinking. So they will ridicule sobriety. Rambo teaches us that going to war in 'Nam was somehow morally superior to staying out. Environmentalists are fuzzy-headed idiots who care more for the snail darter than they do for the sensible development of watershed land for a new shopping mall. Anybody who ain't looking out for number one is simply a wuss whom we will not see lodged in upper management.
They pose the question: Was it all just fashion?
And they reassure themselves that they've made the right choice, joined the winning side, played it smart, outgrown all that kid stuff, by answering, negatively, with the skepticism swamping Reagan right now. Like Rolling Stone, in for the ride when it was fashionable to follow the dissenters (from a safe distance behind the typewriter), they try to convince us that the sexual revolution ended up in herpes and AIDS, that the creative ferment, questioning of authority and outpouring of simple concern for others lead to the Big Chill.
But we live with the benefits of the Sixties, the large and small treasures enumerated here. In the din of the bashing to justify personal moral flaccidity and floating ethics, they try to drown out the song the Sixties sang.
They despise themselves and what they have settled for; and so they seek to make us join their zombie death march to the nearest point of purchase.
But here are the vocals accompanying the song, remastered and digitalized, pure in their melody:
Martin Luther King, Jr.: "I have a dream. I have a dream that one day, on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slaveowners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood...."
Ronald Reagan: "If you've seen one redwood, you've seen them all."
Muhammad Ali: "I ain't got no quarrel with them Viet Congs."
Barry Goldwater: "Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice ... moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue."
Eldridge Cleaver: "You're either part of the solution or part of the problem."
Neil Armstrong: "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind."
Richard Nixon: "I am not a crook."
Anonymous, 1965: "Save water; shower with a friend."
Bob Dylan: "Don't follow leaders; watch your parking meters."
Pogo: "We have met the enemy and he is us."
Martin again, and last, and always: "Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, I'm free at last!"
I thought I'd buy it at the age of 14, but I've done the Thirties, the Forties, the Fifties, the Seventies and most of the Eighties. And although the sky is no darker and although the friends have gone to dust and although the killers of the word are still with us, I must tell you that those who bash the Sixties out of present shame and self-loathing flummox you about a time that this country can be proud of. They are merely trying to devalue Boardwalk and Park Place so they can get you to like living in one of their hotels on Baltic or Mediterranean.
Hotels in which every room is numbered 101.
Screw 'em. The Sixties were exactly as good as you remember them. The Eighties suck because viewers couldn't handle Buffalo Bill. And God don't hear the prayer of the Swaggart.
Cup your hand behind your ear. Listen hard. The song is still being sung. Not as loud, perhaps, but just as sweet. It'll all be better in the morning, kiddo.