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The Worst Years of Our Lives

The Woodstock Sixties brought everlasting harm to our politics and culture.

By From the October 2009 issue

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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.

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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About the Author

William Murchison is a Dallas-based columnist for Creators Syndicate. His latest book is The Cost of Liberty: The Life of John Dickinson.