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Jeffrey Shaffer Headshot

Right Wing, Wrong History

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As someone who experienced the 1960s in America firsthand, I feel compelled to push back against a growing trend of snide generalities and outright fiction that's being passed off as the truth about what happened in that remarkable period.

The latest example came in a recent New York Times column by David Brooks which attempted to compare tea party followers with the New Left. In the opening paragraph Brooks made this amazing claim: "About 40 years ago, a social movement arose to destroy the establishment. The people we loosely call the New Left wanted to take on The Man, return power to the people, upend the elites and lead a revolution."

First of all, 40 years ago puts us in 1970, which I think all historians will agree is NOT when student opposition to the Vietnam war and other protest movements got rolling in this country.

Brooks continues down the fabulist highway when he makes these comparisons between the New Left and tea party-goers: "One was on the left, the other is on the right. One was bohemian, the other is bourgeois....One went to Woodstock, the other is more likely to go to Walmart."

In a following paragraph Brooks mentions Saul Alinsky and calls him "the New Left's leading tactician." I've noticed that conservative pundits have suddenly decided that Alinsky, a name rarely mentioned in any newspaper or magazine during the past three decades, was actually wielding tremendous influence over vast numbers of arrogant, rabble-rousing malcontents.

This is clever and entertaining stuff. The problem is that too many statements Brooks breezily asserts as accepted fact are utterly preposterous. "One went to Woodstock?" Does anyone seriously think all those people who gathered in a big meadow for a rock concert were acting on their political convictions?

I would happily bet money that not one person in a thousand listening to the music on that August weekend in 1969 could have explained the difference between Saul Alinsky and Mort Sahl. Conservatives want to mash all the disparate elements of the '60s into one continuous story line and it doesn't work. Hippies, draft resisters, the Weathermen, rock bands, college radicals, feminists, and peace marchers were not all siblings in one big anti-establishment family.

To anyone who thinks Brooks is correct, and the audience at Woodstock truly was just a bunch of New Left bohemians displaying their collective contempt for The Man, my question is: how do you explain Altamont?

Ah yes-- the OTHER gigantic outdoor concert that year. It happened in early December and wasn't mellow and dreamy like Woodstock. Altamont was intense. For reasons that are still in dispute, members of a local Hells Angels chapter were hired and given vague instructions to guard the stage.

It was a bad scene, numerous fights erupted, and several deaths occurred from various causes. Many things went terribly wrong, but none of them had anything to do with the New Left. Altamont is a story all on its own. Anyone trying to drive it into a larger storyline hits a dead end.

I grew up in the Bay Area and was navigating my way through 11th grade in 1969. And while Altamont wasn't a proud moment in my home state's history, it was another vivid example to me that California in the 1960s wasn't following anybody else's script. We were writing our own.

As a teenager, my interest drifted toward environmentalism, or as we called it then, the ecology movement. The focus wasn't on overthrowing anybody. I was concerned about air and water pollution, and the reckless waste of natural resources.

Another major trend that conservatives can't fit into their New Left storyline of the '60s was the human potential movement. It was based on introspection, and people asking questions like, "Is making money and buying lots of stuff the way to get happy?" along with "How much do we really control our own lives?"

For all the conservative hand-wringing about New Left ringleaders and their long lasting influence, here are two names from the human potential movement who became well during the period 1966-74 and whose impact on American society makes Saul Alkinsky look like a gnat: L. Ron Hubbard and Sun Myung Moon

Scientology and the Unification Church are both going strong these days. Every year there are complaints from former members who have quit the organizations. Many of them make allegations about emotional and sometimes physical abuse, but the stories never get much traction in the media.

The Unification Church still conducts mass weddings, and those men and women are all entering into arranged marriages. Whenever I see the video on a TV newscast the anchors usually make some lame attempt at humor like, "Yes, they¹re still doing it--those big weddings by the Unification Church, that is..." Yeah, that crazy mind control stuff is always worth a few chuckles.

Conservative commentators have nothing to say about Sun Myung Moon's influence on present day America. I wonder what they'd say if Saul Alinsky's followers pooled their money and bought the Washington Times?

Anybody who really wants to know something about the 1960s won't get it done by reading op-ed columns. You've got to crack some books, and three I recommend just to get started are The '60s Report by Toby Thompson, Please Touch by Jane Howard, and Ringolevio: A Life Played for Keeps by Emmett Grogan.

If people ask me to name one lesson from those years I've carried with me, my answer is, "Think in all directions and don't be afraid to challenge conventional wisdom." It was a big decade. There's no simple explanation for it. But these days there are plenty of simple-minded ones.