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Decter – California and the Legacy of the Sixties

California and the Legacy of the Sixties

Midge Decter, The Heritage Foundation

The Philadelphia Society Regional Meeting

Los Angeles, October 16, 1999


I hope you will not mind if I begin with a personal story. I bother you with it
because for me it has by itself gone a long way toward explaining youth culture
back in those dark days that are known as the 60s (but, of course, include at
least a good part of the 70s and that in modified form are very much with us
still). And, not coincidentally, my story happens also to be a story about
California.

Back around 1977 or so (I have reached that point in life when "around" is
about the best I can do with dates so let us just say in 1977), I happened to be
spending a week in the Bay Area on publishing business. The weather was
particularly beautiful. As you may remember, in Berkeley the hippies were by
then for the most part off the streets. They were now selling cookies and beads
and sandals and incense from little kiosks instead of lolling around on the
sidewalks stoned to their eyeballs, and they had begun in a spirit of proper
self-mockery to call themselves "the hipoisie."

So, my point is, the place was much cleaned up from the real 60s and
consequently even more pleasant than it had been only a few years
before–which despite the various manifestations of student disruption and
faculty collapse, was still pleasant indeed. Well, after a day or two, I began to
feel a gnawing discomfort, a sensation that took me some time to give a name
to. Then I suddenly realized what this discomfort actually was: namely, I was
simply walking around hungry from morning to night‹a very unusual condition
for me. I found myself almost involuntarily buying and scarfing down one after
another of those gigantic cookies that were, and are, a leading indicator of the
60s generation. Now, everyone I had come to meet was even more pleasant than
the locale, and as soon as such work as we had to accomplish was done, the
question would immediately arise: what should we do now? Ride a horse, play
golf, go for a sail, drive up to the wine country and see if we can find ourselves
a tasting? Available pleasure was being heaped upon available pleasure in a way
that was truly disorienting for a hard-bitten old New Yorker like me. And finally
I understood the source of my hunger: It was California: California was the land
of heart¹s desire. You love mountains? We have them. Ocean? The Pacific is
just around the next corner. Are you a desert-lover? Look a few degrees in the
other direction and you¹ll find yourself one. Rolling hills? Just a little east. Rich
farmland? Easy. Anything you dream of is right there, and with only a small
amount of time and effort it is available. I came to believe that California was the
Garden of Eden, and no wonder man had been overcome by sinful temptation.

I had a very good friend, now dead, a psychoanalyst who had been shrinking
people¹s heads in San Francisco for a number of years before he took himself
off to New York. When I told him about walking around Berkeley hungry, he
understood immediately and said the reason he had left San Francisco when he
did was that he could neither stand nor resist the sybaritic impulses that were
gnawing at him all the time. The decision to run away was made one fine
morning as he was working in his study. He looked out of his window, he said,
and saw a weed growing in his lawn; and as he found himself putting down his
book and rushing out the door to pull up that weed, he said to himself, "My
God, you had better get out of here!"

Well, I cannot say that my own brief experience sent me fleeing in fear for my
sanity; on the contrary–I gorged on every minute. As it happens, I really prefer
Los Angeles to San Francisco (an opinion, I have discovered, that can earn you
a good deal of contempt in many circles). I prefer it because LA is not so
damned conscious of its own esthetic superiority‹in other words, it¹s more like
just a big city. Nevertheless, on that occasion I felt no pressure, except of the
familial kind, to leave the Bay area. Not only because I was floating in the Land
of Heart¹s Desire, but because I felt that I had begun as never before to
grasp–with my very senses, you might say–what had been eating the famous
children of the 60s: in other words, what it was that had really been lying
beneath their infantile and make-believe radicalism in those years of high
excitement, and now that they have finally grown up and acquired economic as
well as political power, what is going so wrong with American culture today.

Those who had in the 1960s come to be known as "our young
people"–meaning the children of America’s privileged and educated
classes–had been brought up, to state the matter simply, on the principle of
heart¹s desire. You might say they were all instant honorary Californians. Small
wonder, I said to myself, that so many of them flocked here, declaring that
work was mere enslavement to an unjust system and that true love was
achievable by hanging out on the sidewalks of welcoming places like
Haight-Ashbury or pretending to storm other welcoming places like the one that
came to be known as the People¹s Park.

Those so-called kids had been brought up on a diet of perpetual-motion
enrichment without the least striving on their part–and not just by their
comfortable educated upper-middle-class parents but by the whole comfortable
educated upper-middle-class society around them. Their minds had been
stimulated to a fare-thee-well as they sat inert and passive, and their characters
had been formed on the principle that pain and sorrow were simply an
intolerable injustice against them.

Take the case of drugs, a major solvent of both their inner and outer existence.
Walking around Berkeley that time, I came to understood far better than I ever
had before just what role drugs had been playing in their lives–in other words,
just what drugs had been doing for these kids and why for so many of them
drug use had proven to be so very difficult to put away. And it also seemed to
me that I was beginning to understand why so many of the adults in their lives
had refused to offer any resistance to the glorification of the drug culture with
which we were constantly being entertained in song and story. (Speaking of
which, just the other day, I saw a TV commercial for Gap pants and shirts that
featured a group of beautiful young male and female models singing a song
called "Mellow Yellow," an old 60s hymn to marijuana. So the beat goes on.)

The secret is that drugs, as the very word suggests, are medicine–not for
illness, of course, because illness may be cured, but for all manner of incurable
spiritual difficulties. Drugs are–or let us say they begin as–instant unearned
feel-good, a counteraction to whatever already does or simply might cause
inner discomfort. Moreover, the heavy drugs, like heroin, do better than that;
they instantly create the experience of pure, and entirely effortless, ecstasy.
Nothing on earth makes life feel so sweet–at least for a couple of minutes. It
seems to me important for those who set about to combat drug use to
understand that. (The ecstasy produced by heroin, of course, comes only at
first.
People sampling the hard stuff quickly begin to require more of it in order
to achieve that longed-for effect, and soon after that the drug becomes
necessary simply to still the sick longing for it–sometimes, as we know, a
longing unto death.) But for the most common kind of casual use, drugs are, as
I said, instant feel-good. That, in my opinion, is why they were massively taken
up by a generation of kids whose childhoods had been kept virtually painless:
with immunization and antibiotics and other miracles of the pharmaceutical
industry these kids had grown up, as it were, physically wrinkle-free–as well as
under the sway of the ambition of their parents that they be psychically
wrinkle-free as well. In short, they were growing up with no patience for
difficulty and very little if any wherewithal to overcome it.

To state the case another way, drugs assuaged the need to become a genuine
adult. And they no doubt continue to do so–down there on Wall Street and out
here in Hollywood and, let us not forget, in that great junior high school called
Washington, D.C.

But if the problem afflicting American culture were only drugs, it would be easy.
After all, those who use narcotics heavily usually one way or another eliminate
themselves from consideration and become merely objects of public policy.

The real difficulty for us is what I have called the California problem, and the
truth is, the 60¹s provided only its earliest and gaudiest–but hardly its most
serious–manifestation. The cultural problem I am referring to found real
expression not so much in the 60s political radicalism–which was ugly and
nasty while it lasted, but lost most of its constituents when Mr. Nixon ended the
draft. Nor is the real source of the trouble to be found in that oversized
mud-pile called the counter-culture: after all, even the most unruly children grow
weary of making mud-pies and sooner or later come home for supper. In short,
neither of these phenomena would have had so lasting an effect as to leave the
country with the spiritual crisis it now finds itself in.

The real symptoms–I should say "symptom" because in fact they are both
evidence of the same condition–the real symptom of the disorder that the
wonders of California most put me in mind of and that we haven¹t come close
to imagining a cure for is the two major liberation movements: first women¹s
liberation and then homosexual liberation (sometimes called "gay" but is
anything but). The reason these movements resemble the seductions of
California–though unlike student radicalism and the counterculture, neither
movement came into existence here–the reason they resemble the seductions of
California is that both movements, women¹s lib and gay lib, grow out of the
longing for a life unbounded by the old limitedness: women not bound by the
limits of their own natures and homosexuals freed from the ultimate limit of
having been born of woman. What I mean by limits in these two cases is that to
be a woman is to be given by one¹s very nature the task—or if you will the
many tasks–of seeing in a daily way to the survival of the human race. She may
be and do any number of other things, including, for instance, be a great Prime
Minister, but whatever she does, she will always be bound by nature to the
dailiness of life. (Indeed, for a certain recent woman Prime Minister much
admired in precincts like this, that was precisely the source of her greatest
strength.) And to be born of woman, of course–the inescapable affliction from
which homosexuality seeks the pretense of relief–means that one must
inevitably die. It is my belief–hardly a popular one these days–that
homosexuality, both in men and in women, grows out of the longing to escape
the finally inescapable muck of human existence. Both movements are based in
the demand not to be bound: not to be bound by womanliness and not to be
bound by mortality.

Not that the student radicalism of the 60s does not live on. It does, of course,
not so much in politics as, in somewhat altered form, in the trash that has so
widely been made of education, especially university education. Many different
intellectual fads have fed this development–ethnic studies, gender studies and
deconsructionism, to name the most mischievous–but what is sometimes
forgotten by their critics is that more than anything else the success of such
teaching results primarily from the fact that it relieves students of the demand to
sit down and read hard books. This demand, for example, was in the end a
major factor in the student radicals¹ assertion that what they were being taught
was "irrelevant"–you remember "irrelevant"–"irrelevant" meant hard books.
Just as the more recent term of opprobrium, "dweem"–dead white European
males–also basically means hard books. Like drugs, then, deconstructionism
leads to the instant and effortless feel-good of make-believe profundity.
(Nobody in this place, I¹ll warrant, can produce that in students.)

But as I said, lasting as some of the effects of the 60s student rebellion have
been, they are minor, they are bush league, compared with the combined effects
of the women¹s and gay liberation movements. For those are truly deep and
inescapable and with us everywhere.

Why do I, as I do, connect the meaning of these movements to California?
Because they represent the search for the return to Eden, as I said, and
California keeps whispering in one¹s ear that it could so easily become that
forever-lost garden. Small wonder that so many new-fangled therapies have
originated here and that youth and beauty number among the state¹s leading
exports.

The question is, will we Americans or will we not recover from our unholy
hungers and ambitions? It is, after all, no mere happenstance that we have as a
community lost our moral compass. We are richer and healthier and more
cosseted and privileged than human beings have ever been or ever dreamed of
being before. Moreover, day by day we are unlocking new thrilling secrets of
the universe. So there is perhaps no great wonder in the fact that so many
among us believe they have transcended the hard and bloodily earned wisdoms
of the past. Touched as we are by so gentle a pinch of reality, the first question
before us is how to bring ourselves back down to the reality we share with all
mortal beings who are now, or have ever been, on this earth.

When I am in grimy old New York, I¹m inclined to believe we are on the brink
of finding the way. After all, I say to myself, in the end you can¹t fool mother
nature. And look: the girls are beginning to long for real old-time husbands and
babies, the homosexuals show signs of longing to get back out of the streets
and into private life, and the radical young–those who have not become
out-and-out conservatives–can think of nothing more daring to do with their
Wall Street dollars than write checks made out to Bill Clinton.

But being out here–that¹s a different story. Almost as soon as we touch ground
in the great LAX airport, I once again begin to dream of that old California
ambrosia and nectar and the day-long nibbling on gigantic oatmeal cookies.

After all, there is so much thankless work–so many arguments, so many books,
so many seemingly unanswered prayers–involved in undoing the spiritual
damage that has been visited upon us in what is by now close to half a century.
Wouldn¹t it be so much nicer, California whispers in your ear, just to take a
drive up to Santa Barbara, or perhaps down to San Diego, instead?

The Californians in this room obviously resist. But that they do is a mark of
genuinely earned moral strength. If California were one day to export that, what
could America not achieve?

 

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