This article orginally appeared in the Kingston Whig-Standard, June 15, 2007.
The decade known as "the Sixties" continues to perplex, infuriate and inspire. Even after four decades, the period in world history running roughly from 1963 through 1975 contained enough sturm und drang to remain a benchmark for activists grown long in the tooth but still fighting the good fight for political and social justice, democracy and equality on myriad fronts; for conservatives, who find evidence of the devil's work throughout the era at every turn; for aging hippies, who cling to visions of back-to-the land Valhalla (and have moved on to environmentalism and development); for university history students, who wonder what all the shouting was about; and (not least) for their teacher-scholars, who seek to explain and bring to life what probably was the most complicated age in American history since the Civil War.
These and other meanings have come to the fore this week at Queen's University, where more than 250 scholars from the four corners of the globe began a four-day conference to assess the tremulous period, to render intelligible its intricacies and to determine what is still important in its achievements and failures. More important, how does the totality of the 1960s - a totality possibly beyond clear measure - promise a brighter, more democratic 21st century?
Contrary to usual conference populations at Queen's, these attendees are a study in ethnic, racial, gender and global diversity. Delegates hail from Cuba and the Caribbean, Africa, Asia, Europe and Australia. Blacks from the western hemisphere are well represented, as are gay and lesbian critics of heterosexism. Activist filmmakers and musicians sit beside community organizers and poets. These scholar-activists bring with them perspectives that differ significantly across space and time. They are invariably progressive, and they healthily disagree on many points. Activists from the 1960s converse with current graduate students who, not surprisingly, often have very different takes on the meaning of the events that so affected Canada, the United States and the world 40 years ago.
Indeed, as Rick Perlstein wrote in Lingua Franca magazine (May 1996), the big question of the coming years would be "Who owns the sixties?" Perlstein noted a widening academic generation gap, with younger scholars questioning and undermining much of the conventional wisdom that came out of those years.
Perlstein's well-documented essay was of a piece with the popular film The Big Chill, which fictionally portrayed former campus radicals years later, far removed from their idealistic attempt as members of Students for a Democratic Society to bring about participatory democracy. They had given up on the experiment and either copped out with drugs or, like '60s radical Jerry Rubin, become insurance salesmen. Young radicals become conservative after dinner, the American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson observed.
Yet to an extent not appreciated at the time, young political radicals and their cultural counterparts - the hippies - became whipping boys for the political right. The transformation of the crusade for civil rights into the more menacing black power movement paralleled the shift among antiwar activists from non-violent civil disobedience to active challenges to military and political power.
Until the late 1960s, a loose umbrella coalition known as "The Movement" united in the hope that peaceful change was possible. This expectation shattered in late 1967 and early 1968 with the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy, the disastrous Tet Offensive in Vietnam and the gnawing recognition that the United States could not win the war in Southeast Asia without doing terrible damage to its social and political fabric.
If for many 1960s activists liberalism had failed to live up to its promise of democratic equality, and if both the United States and Canada (complicitly) were frittering away national treasure and lives in Southeast Asia, the inescapable conclusion was to stop the war by all means possible. Antiwar violence sparked a conservative counterattack spearheaded by Governor George Wallace of Alabama, Richard M. Nixon and Ronald Reagan. Indeed, one wagers that without the student movement that burgeoned at the University of California at Berkeley in 1965, Reagan would never have left California politics and become one of the three most influential presidents in the 20th century.
The dominance of the political right since the 1980s reflected its ability to tar the progressive left with all that was wrong with the country in the 1960s and 1970s. The activists' turn to violence through groups such as the Weathermen, and the antiwar demonstrators at the Democratic party's national convention in Chicago in 1968 (many of whom were beaten within an inch of their lives), symbolized the centrifugal nature of the movement. As the liberal political consensus broke down after 30 years of pre-eminence, many centrist Democrats - anti-communist and devoted to the mantra of competitive opportunity - moved to the Republican side of the aisle, where they remain today.
The Movement, which historian Todd Gitlin characterized as "tremendously (at best wondrously) complex and self-contradictory," splintered into numerous fragments by 1970. By then, cultural and political radicals co-existed uneasily, if at all. The Kent State Massacre of May 1970 - in which the National Guard opened fire on protesting students, killing four of them - Nixon's hard-hearted and hypocritical emphasis on "law and order" and the Republicans' tarring of 1972 Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern as head of the party of "ass, grass, and amnesty," made The Movement a pariah in mainstream Canadian and American politics. This negative image persisted and was a political truncheon wielded by the right against the Democrats, especially after the end of the communist "evil empire," which conservatives construed as connected somehow to the '60s reformers.
Now, of course, it's not communists but terrorists whom antiwar warriors find themselves linked to in political debate. Nevertheless, with the U.S. errand in the Middle East sand trap going as badly as Lyndon Johnson's attempt to bring the Great Society to Vietnam's Mekong Delta 40 years ago, the American triumphalism that so dominated the recent past is now crumbling and progressive forces are again making themselves heard. Comments at the early plenary meeting of the Queen's conference stressed the positive and looked for links.
There is not yet a progressive consensus visible on the big question of "What is to be done?" But there is hope and lots of positive energy. In the conference's first plenary session on Wednesday, participants included Jaime Veve, a veteran Puerto Rican anti-Vietnam war leader and New York transit worker organizer; Dimitri Roussopoulos, a Montreal-based community organizer who stressed the need to see and link issues in global, regional, national and local contexts; David Austin, another Montreal resident, the founder and trustee of the Alfie Roberts Institute and a scholar of Caribbean/Canadian histories; and Alanis Obomsawin, a member of the Abenaki Nation, a famed documentary filmmaker and a director of the National Film Board of Canada.
The "New World Coming" conference prides itself as a progressive and subversive event. A series of films today and tomorrow includes Roz Payne's Newsreel series, Emil de Antonio's In the Year of the Pig and Mort Ransen's You are on Indian Land. Here is grist for subversive metahistory, "from the bottom up," from voices not usually heard in citadels of power.
There are no commerce majors here, few lawyers and - as ascertained at the door - no RCMP or Canadian Security and Intelligence Service agents, only the National Post. The conferees share a vision of a just world, and many participants at Queen's are gaining perspectives from people and areas new to them. Early comments about the conference have been positive and underline hope for a more democratic future.
The conference continues today and tomorrow, wrapping up with a summary plenary session tomorrow in the Biosciences Complex, Room 1101, from 4 to 6 p.m.
Geoff Smith participated in the Free Speech Movement at the University of California at Berkeley in 1964-65 and the civil rights and antiwar movements in St. Paul, Minnesota, and Kingston. He is a professor emeritus at Queen's University.