Newt Gingrich, during his tenure as House Speaker, declared the Sixties "a momentary aberration in American history that will be looked back upon as a quaint period of Bohemianism brought to the national elite." The implication was that the countercultural and political movements of the era were out of step with the American mainstream.
But forty years after the summer of '69, when a three-day festival of Peace, Love and Music in a muddy New York State pasture celebrated youthful ideals, isn't it high time we Americans face the truth that the ideals of the Woodstock Generation -- ideals once widely mocked, attacked and officially repressed -- have pretty much won the day?
The aberrant behavior to which Gingrich referred was not on the part of young people with long hair playing American folk music in a field at Woodstock. Far from an aberration of past history, the Sixties were the harbinger of the present, but the struggle to get here is best understood in terms other than the misleading labels of Left and Right, Liberal and Conservative.
Why such a struggle, after all? Were they truly radicals, the people who marched for civil rights, demonstrated against the Vietnam War, boycotted lettuce and grapes and carried picket signs advocating women's liberation? Were Che Guevara and Chairman Mao the most admired and influential heroes of America's youth? How many flashed the peace sign to complete strangers? Was Paul really dead?
Those are some of the questions I sought to answer when I crisscrossed the nation with co-writer Deanne Stillman in the late 1970's, handing out questionnaires prepared with the help of professional pollsters to more than 1000 people who responded to a call for "Sixties Vets." The results, published in 1979 as "Woodstock Census: The Nationwide Survey of the Sixties Generation," delivered a contrarian view of what "The Sixties" really meant to people whose experiences defined the era.
Instead of a generation of bomb-throwing anarchists, the majority of the people describing themselves as political activists in our survey -- who marched for civil rights (73%) demonstrated against the Vietnam War (93%), boycotted school classes (69%) -- were motivated less by ideology than by finding common cause with like-minded folks. "There was strength in numbers," wrote one respondent. "Also, I liked the spirit and the excitement and it was nice to see I wasn't alone in my frustrations."
Instead of the wild, Bohemian "Sexual Revolution" described in a sensational 1964 Time cover story as "Rebels of the 60s adrift in a sea of permissiveness," our survey pointed to a more profound change in mores: women taking control of their own lives. With 93% of our Sixties Vets agreeing it was "okay for a woman to initiate sex," the truly radical experience of one ex-hippie said it all: "Sleeping in a bed in our commune one night with four other people (two men, three women) and not having sex."
The most passionate, unifying experiences of the Sixties among the largely white, middle class respondents to our Woodstock Census survey involved issues that fall comfortably within the socio-political mainstream of America: equal rights for women, resolving the lingering racial divide, preserving the environment, defending individual freedoms. "My best 60's experience," one respondent recalled, was when his father, a Marine Corps drill instructor, came to bail him out of jail after an antiwar demonstration. "He told me he thought what I was doing was crazy but he loved me for standing up for what I believed in and told me not to stop."
In fact, our survey revealed that the majority of individual experiences with the countercultural movements of Sixties were shaped not by the radical ideology of a Marxist Left, but by a deep desire for a return to fundamental American ideals. From this point of view, one could say the counterculture was a kind of conservatism, framed in an inflammatory way as radical and "aberrant" by defenders of the status quo.
Headstrong is what you might call the African-Americans sitting-in at whites-only lunch counters, or facing down firehoses and police dogs -- maybe foolhardy -- but not aberrant. "Stubborn idealists" might describe those millions of citizens across the country demonstrating against the Vietnam War, but not out of step with our long tradition of democratic dissent. In the battle over discrimination against women in the workforce and the proposition of equal pay for equal work, whose was the more radical position? Aberrant behavior had nothing to do with wearing love beads (59%), believing in Flower Power (64%), going to a "Be-In" (58%), or flashing the peace sign to complete strangers (81%) -- maybe only a sublime silliness.
The truly aberrant behavior belonged to their tormentors, those flag-waving ranks of ideologues, staunch segregationists, rabid commie-hunters and free-speech-smothering censors, bent on preserving their own quaint period of privilege, even if it meant radical measures. They were the un-Americans, the subversives undermining the principles that make America great, refusing to rise to the challenges set forth by our elite, long-haired Founding Fathers who created an imperfect union knowing it would be struggle but also knowing a day of reckoning must come... and come it did. It was called The Sixties and now even Newt is cool with it, speaking out on environmental issues and pushing a "green conservatism." Welcome to Yasgur's farm, Newtie... see you at the hemp store.
Rex Weiner is a journalist and the co-author, with Deanne Stillman, of "Woodstock Census: The Nationwide Survey of the Sixties Generation" (Viking Press)