The Sixties is the decade that won’t go away, and for good reason — its aftershocks are still being felt, and every new re-interpretation of that tumultuous time (I hesitate to say “decade” because the boundaries of the whole idea of “the sixties” are endless) helps us better understand where we are now—even if some of the cliches of the period have become hopelessly trivialized, mostly by right wing ideologues.
Enter Clara Bingham, a former White House correspondent for Newsweek, who’s previous books include a history of the first sexual harassment lawsuit in the United States. This book — an oral history over 500 pages long — sets its sights on the 12 months between August 1969 and August 1970, a novel concept considering the events that transpired in that period, from Woodstock and the Manson murders, to the FBI killing of Black Panther Fred Hampton, the Altamont festival (Woodstock’s dark side), the first Earth Day, the breaking-out of Timothy Leary from prison, the Weathermen blowing up their own New York headquarters, Kent State, Nixon’s secret bombing of Cambodia, student strikes, protests, feminism, and the ascendence of once-mortal rock gods like Neil Young (who wrote the time period’s anthem, “Ohio,” on the heels of the Kent massacre in the best tribunal spirt of bards and balladeers alike). Obviously it was an extremely fertile period for social unrest, making Witness a great concept. But why now, and why Bingham?
According to her: “I realized what was going on now — Black Lives Matter, Occupy Wall Street, Moveon.Org — had a precursor and we needed to know what the history really was of all these important political and social movements. The Sixties had been sort of misunderstood — criticized, glamorized — and it was time to look back. The participants are getting older, and I interviewed as many as I could to try and make sense of the sixties. The more we know about the sixties the more we’ll be able to understand where we are now.”
With the interviewees running the gamut from the usual radical flame-guns like Mark Rudd, Bernardine Dohrn and the much-maligned Bill Ayers, to people who were in the Nixon White House and celebrities like Jane Fonda, the cast is diverse and well-rounded. Oral histories are tough, especially when having to fit into a pre-ordained timeframe like this one, which works against the open-ended nature of the format. It’s obvious what Bingham really wanted to do was a summing-up of the decade. So why didn’t she? (Answer: because it’s been done a thousand times.)
The Kent State massacre on May 4, 1970, is the turning point of the book — and some would argue the entire anti-war movement. By the time you get 400 pages in, and the hard-hat construction workers — proud union members all — are wailing on the hippies — weeks after Nat’l Guardsmen mowed ‘em dead on the Ohio campus — you don’t really know which side you’re on. In the end, the culture dictates — and in the Sixties freedom and rebellion was in the air. It wasn’t that big of a leap — especially if you didn’t want to get drafted. And as Rudd comments: “The draft forced people to pay attention, and that’s why they eliminated the draft.”
He has a point — in the ensuing years, the government and media has basically adhered to a “keep ‘em stupid” policy, short on sacrifice and long on mindless self-gratification because, of course, they are determined to not let what happened in the sixties happen again today. So the major question that a book this reverential to the period raises is … could it? In an era plagued by Right Wing Tea Party zealots on one side, and Islamic kooks on the other, we could actually use a shot of good old God-less Left Wing radicalism — as opposed to Right Wing extremism. Not recommending bombs and mortar necessarily — which even the Weathermen denounced (Obama haters take note: that includes Bill Ayers) but in those days, it was the Left who were making the noise.
According to Tom Hayden: “The denial of our very impact, the caricature of who we really were, the questioning of our patriotism, the snide suggestion that we offered no alternative…has cast a pall of illegitimacy over our memory. Rather than admit their war was a failure, it is more convenient to lay blame on the peace movement.”
Displaced followers of Bernie Sanders take note.