The Woodstock Sixties brought everlasting harm to our politics and culture.
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Sterling’s successor as president proved too timid for the new, non-academic environment the academy had become. Trustees soon forced him out. Lyman became acting president, then president in his own right. The war in Southeast Asia raged on, lacking the permission of as many as 200 protestors who took over the Computation Center, egged on by a radical English prof. Lyman called in the cops—and not just this once. Order he was going to have. Order he procured, if at some cost, inasmuch as when an institution of any kind finds the old rules insufficient to preserve an atmosphere constructive to discourse, odds fall that constructive anything is likely to occur.
So it went in the ’60s and in their aftermath, the early ’70s. It was, in retrospect, especially for those of us old enough now to remember the whole horrible cycle, as if the gods had set out to madden those they were bent on destroying. In his final chapter Lyman—who left the Stanford presidency in 1980 in order to run the Rockefeller Institution—tries to make sense of the whole mess. He notes with gratitude that Stanford’s ascent to the top ranks of academia wasn’t slowed by what took place during the Troubles. “Civility returned, but formality did not.” Rationality “suffered setbacks. It has never entirely regained its place in its supposed Temple, the University.”
No, and probably won’t in our lifetimes. The old system was founded on general consent to the idea of rational discourse. A teacher would teach. Others would discuss. There would be back-and-forthing that might put to sleep a number of listeners. But the right just to listen was something, as was the right to reflect on what was heard. It turned out, around the time of Woodstock, that rational discourse was the last thing on the minds of the moral vandals. Who—scary thought—still live among us. Bill Ayers and Bernadine Dohrn come to mind, thanks to last year’s small flap over their palship, or whatever it is, with the incumbent president of these United States. How many mob members, from Stanford and a thousand other campuses, how many members of their cheering sections, live down the street, or, worse, occupy places of prominence, as in the media? Neither they nor the scars and wounds they left have gone away.
Woodstock! Ummmm, so gooey warm: the feeling of interlocked arms and communal dips in ponds of uncertain sanitary properties; rain pouring down; people not ripping off or haranguing others as at so many other contemporary gatherings; traipsing around Max Yasgur’s dairy farm, listening to Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix—always provided they could get near enough to hear them. (A few Woodstock attendees writing for newspapers and blogs have noted that they themselves never heard any of the fabled sounds for which they had bought tickets or gate-crashed in the first place.)
Myth—the good kind and the bad kind—has a softening effect on reality. So with Woodstock and the Sixties. Woodstock was a discrete piece of the Sixties: the Applied Electronics Laboratory at Stanford was another, uglier, messier, more destructive part, like Berkeley’s Sproul Hall; like the buildings and laboratories on countless campuses seized or burned down so that society and its norms might be forced to change, ready or not.
In the Sixties, angry people—who seemed to be everywhere—didn’t ask permission of people from whom they had decided to withdraw their respect. They served notice, issued orders, made blunt and peremptory demands. Those who didn’t like what they did could just, y’know, like, take a flying leap. All of which had consequences, as is the case with repeated actions. As Lyman would write:
Without falling into the trap of blaming the 1960s for everything that has gone wrong since, one can argue that American politics has never recovered from the blows it suffered at the hands of the Sixties radicals. Of course more recently it has been the Right that has made disillusionment with, even contempt for government its stock in trade. But the New Left of the Sixties got there first. Their contempt for ordinary politics, with its compromises and evasions, has by now become epidemic in the United States, to the point where many people believe that the only way to deal with any really important question of public policy is somehow to take it “out of politics.” Students of the rise of fascism in Europe may be forgiven for finding this worrisome.
Ah. Even civilized Dick Lyman finds it necessary in the new century to draw left-right equivalences. Supply-side economics and stop-the-war outbursts—different sides of the same coin? Not precisely. He acknowledges, accurately (being a very honest man), that the New Left with its creed of individual autonomy as the touchstone for thought and action led the way, I, me, my, mine—the creed of the first person singular, against a world of some order, some taste, some traditions, dignity, tolerance, and intellectual integrity.
There wouldn’t be a lot of that left when the Woodstock Era passed, to the extent we can regard it as truly having passed. The damage it inflicted on institutions and moral understandings alike was enormous and lasting; not just the understanding that you win nothing in the end by pushing others around but also that you don’t earn encomia for shunning anarchy. You shun anarchy because that’s what civilized men and women do if they know what’s good for them, yes, and for the things they honor, including peace and love as defined by the wisdom of the human race, not by mere passing fancy, as expressed at a morass of a rock concert.
Oh, those Sixties! May we come some day to figure out what they really were about.
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