The Woodstock Sixties brought everlasting harm to our politics and culture.
Mannnnnnnnnn, oh, man! The return of Woodstock! Peace, love, all that good ’Sixties stuff! It’s, like, soooo…
Wacky, and more than a little sad, to contemplate?
The 40th anniversary of Woodstock hit America in mid-August, duly heralded by the usual bugle corps: the baby boomers and sub-boomers who run our instruments of communication. Lay it on us, man! Tell us how it was, like, when a tie-dyed headband and a VW van with sprayed-on peace signs and psychedelia of one kind and another signified the new age of harmony and understanding.
Tell us about it? They couldn’t stop. The New York Times obliged with a front-page feature in the Arts & Leisure Section titled “A Moment of Muddy Grace: For a Generation, Woodstock Remains a Community in the Consciousness.”
“Baby boomers,” wrote the Times’s pop music critic, Jon Pareles, “won’t let go of the Woodstock Festival. Why should we? [Note that unsubtle ‘we.’] It’s one of the defining events of the late 1960s that had a clear happy ending.” It was “three days of peace and music…a holiday of naïveté and dumb luck before the realities of capitalism resumed.” The festival “gave virtually everyone involved—ticketholders, gate crashers, musicians, doctors, the police—a sense of shared humanity and cooperation. Trying to get through the weekend, people played nice with one another, which was only sensible.” Alas, all this peace and love “couldn’t stand up to everyday human nature or to the pragmatic workings of the market. But 40 years longer the sensation lingers.” The Times thoughtfully invited Woodstock attendees “to create a video of your memories or to send in photos from that weekend.”
That wasn’t all, of course. A couple of weeks after the anniversary dates (Aug. 15–17), theaters began screening director Ang Lee’s movie about the occasion, titled Taking Woodstock. Lee said he was tired of making depressing movies. He wanted to mediate joy for a change. What likelier source of joy, and revenue, than Woodstock?
There were dissenters. Even before the movie opened, the Times ran a letter from a 30-year-old whose father had been at Woodstock. “I say, please, Boomers,” the writer implored, “let it go…Woodstock was a concert, nothing more. It was peaceful. It was fun.”
Good luck with that. The Sixties have their own aura, as do the events of that time, which changed the course of life in ways that continue to affect and, especially perhaps, afflict us.
That Woodstock should in some measure, and to many minds, symbolize a worse-than-low, dishonest decade can’t presently be helped, perhaps, given the generational affiliation of its bards and minstrels. Not a whole bunch of teenage Nixon-Agnew flag-waving types, in other words, entered the communication professions in the ’70s and afterwards and thereby gained title to tell the story: this being one reason to note with respect and appreciation the appearance this year of a book on the campus turmoil of the late ’60s and early ’70s, written by a major player in these events. Not a player with the usual credentials, to be sure—a Todd Gitlin, a Bill Ayers, a Mark Rudd.
Richard w. lyman was provost and, subsequently, president of Stanford University during that laudable institution’s worst period since the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. Wait—the comparison is inapposite. From physical disaster you may always recover. Far harder, far more challenging is moral recovery of the sort prescribed by Stanford’s condition, not to mention the condition of virtually all American colleges and universities as they arose from their own discrete, Sixties-era earthquakes.
My interest in Richard Lyman—author of Stanford in Turmoil: Campus Unrest, 1966–1972 (Stanford General Books)—is partly personal, a function of my acquaintance long ago with both the author and the campus, as we stood poised, unknowingly, on the brink of awfulness. As a history graduate student in the early ’60s, I studied under Lyman in his pre-presidential phase. He was 38 or 39 then: a very good professor indeed; a gentleman and a scholar, as people used to say, when those terms mattered to many. I took him to be a well-meaning liberal in the sense that most professors even then were liberal, especially at top-notch schools like Stanford. In neither of the classes I took from Dick Lyman—both of them in modern British history—did I hear him proclaim a political viewpoint: not even on the Kennedy assassination, which occurred during my first quarter at Stanford. He taught a course on the British Empire with never a censorious word about Western imperialism or the oppression of native peoples. I both liked and respected the man—a lot—and was happy to see him advance a few years later through the administrative ranks.
All—well, most—was peace in those times before Vietnam heated up. Civil rights was the big deal. I still smile at the protest style of the moment. To demonstrate their own commitment to the cause, a group of students, pressing to open grocery checker jobs for blacks in Palo Alto stores, went to a couple of supermarkets, loaded up baskets, then…walked out, ’bye-’bye, have fun: obliging, I expect, the checkers of whatever race, at extra labor and inconvenience, to restore the baskets’ contents to the shelf. Some activism! don’t recall a single organized protest on the Stanford campus. If there was one, I missed it. Chief Justice Earl Warren was our commencement speaker. I lodged my own, one-man protest by asking the authorities to mail my sheepskin. I was headed back to Texas.
Soon enough vietnam protest began to wash over the once-placid campus. Things were never as bad at Stanford as at Berkeley, Columbia, or Harvard. Nonetheless, they weren’t good. This isn’t the place for a chronological recounting of the student uprisings that took place on the good old “Farm,” as Stanfordites call the vast acreage wherewith Leland Stanford, the railroad magnate, endowed the school he founded to commemorate his teenage son’s, and namesake’s, memory. Always the tone of protest was raucous and unreasonable—here as just about everywhere else. For Stanford, as for so many other institutions, the crunch came during the international bout of insanity that may have begun with the assassination of Martin Luther King, or might have started anyway, so combustible was the whole of academia. There were unreasonable demands by black students, centering on claims to black entitlement and black separatism. Stanford tried to accommodate the students without surrendering its integrity as an academic institution.
As Vietnam heated up, things began to fall apart. A dispute over student disciplinary policies precipitated a march on the house of the university president, J. E. Wallace Sterling, the pivotal figure in the university’s march toward greatness. There was a sit-in in the building that housed the offices of the dean of students, the registrar, the admissions director, and the financial aid department. Contemporaneously someone burned down the Naval ROTC building. A subsequent fire destroyed Sterling’s office just as he was retiring. Demonstrators that fall demanded a halt to “all military and economic projects with Southeast Asia”—a slap at the university’s cooperation with the country’s national government and defense establishment. A meeting of the board of trustees got rudely disrupted. Attempts by the new president to placate demonstrators failed to dissuade 400 of them from taking over the Applied Electronics Laboratory.
One night in April 1970, after a faculty garden party at his home, where guests had been harassed by protesters, Lyman “was talking with my wife, Jing, in a bedroom at the back of the house when there was a loud crash. Someone had hurled a big Coca Cola bottle full of red paint through our kitchen windows, narrowly missing the head of a security guard who was taking an ill-timed coffee break in the kitchen and smashing against the refrigerator.” That was just before some of Stanford’s elite burned two wings of the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, a dollar-a-year tenant of the university.
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