Happy New Year! Yes, it’s been a while since my last post here at Y and T, but I’m still around. This blog has mostly been focused on nineteenth century history because that has been my primary focus of study for the last several years. These past weeks though, I’ve moved a hundred years into the future to the 1960s and ’70s. Since I was born in 1955, these were the years of my own youth. Demographically, I am part of the ”baby boomer” generation, usually defined as those born between 1946 and 1964. Somehow though, I’ve always felt just a little behind. My parents were children during WWII, so they don’t fit the “returning G.I.” explanation for the baby boom. I was the first born, so I had no older siblings through which to learn about the world. I was only eight when JFK was shot; thirteen when his brother and MLK met the same fate. Sixties culture affected me, but only superficially. I loved the music, especially the Beatles, but I was only nine when they first appeared on Ed Sullivan, and they broke up when I was still in high school. I listened to the Monkees along with Creedence Clearwater Revival; the soundtracks of Mary Poppins and the Sound of Music along with the Rolling Stones. I loved the clothes; the bell bottomed pants, the paisley billow-sleeved shirts, and the leather fringed jackets and vests. To my parents chagrin, as a young teenager I started letting my hair grow and combed it down across my forehead. Some of the kids at school called me “hippie” but the real hippies had already come and gone by the time I graduated from high school in 1973.
At fifteen I was very focused on obtaining a driver’s license and a car. Maybe it was because I lived in Southern California, or maybe because the town I lived in was a long freeway drive to the “city” and to the beach, but to me “freedom” required a car. I guess a lot of kids in those years figured out ways to roam the country without a car, but not me, and a car required money, which required a job. I worked hard for that first car, and every car I’ve owned since. In 1974 I enlisted in the Marine Corps. Obviously, the “peace movement” hadn’t affected me. The war in Vietnam was a defining issue of the baby boom generation, but it was basically over by the time I enlisted.
So, for me, memories of the sixties and even the seventies is like “looking through a glass darkly.” So much happened in my junior high and high school years, but I was growing up in the far out suburbs of Southern California. The tumult of the Watts riots in Los Angeles in 1965 might as well have been on a different planet. And if Los Angeles seemed far away, Chicago and Newark and Detroit and all those other places that exploded in the sixties over race and poverty and war I don’t think ever entered my young consciousness. Last night I watched a movie about the Chicago 8. All these years I didn’t know that the line from Graham Nash’s song Chicago, “Though your brother’s bound and gagged and they’ve chained him to a chair” was a reference to Bobby Seale, because I knew nothing of the Chicago 8 trial. I have to wonder, if I, a “trained historian” who actually lived through the past fifty-plus years can’t remember everything that happened, then how is the average citizen, more and more often younger than I am, supposed to make sense of today? The 1960s might as well be the 1860s for many people.
Today, the baby boom generation, my generation is in charge. It sometimes feels like the country is so divided that surely it will all come crashing down any time now, but I have to remind myself that it’s always been this way.
The heated discussion conducted in recent years by press and platform on the merits and demerits of liberalism and conservatism causes the student of American history to search his mind concerning the effects of these opposing types of thought on the past history of the United States. In such an inquiry, an initial difficulty presents itself: what do the terms, “conservative” and ” liberal,” mean? Popular usage has tended to rob these expressions of exact meaning and to convert them into epithets of opprobrium and adulation which are used as the bias or interest of the person may dictate. The conservative, having mapped out the confines of truth to his own satisfaction, judges the depravity and errors of the liberal by the extent of his departure from the boundaries thus established. Likewise the liberal, from his vantage-point of truth, measures the knavery and infirmities of his opponents by the distance they have yet to travel to reach his goal. Neither conservative nor liberal regards the other with judicial calm or “sweet reasonableness.” Neither is willing to admit that the other has a useful function to perform in the progress of society. Each regards the other with deep feeling as the enemy of everything that is fundamentally good in government and society.
The above quote could have come from 2013. It’s actually from Arthur Schlesinger’s 1922 book, New Viewpoints in American History. (I did substitute the word “liberal” for Schlesinger’s label “radical,” but the point is the same.) People want to use “history” to support their particular world view, but then pick and choose which pieces of history they want to remember. They also often make the mistake of believing that somehow, somewhere in time there was a “consensus;” a golden time when everyone knew what was right and what was wrong, and, oh, if we could just get back to that time… That way of looking at history just doesn’t work for me.
At any rate, I just wanted to relay where I’m at right now and that this blog is not dead and no, I haven’t left the nineteenth century for good. By the way, I think the video above raises some very interesting questions about “my generation,” and yet I can’t see much of my own life experience in it.