We should be thankful for the hoopla over the 30th anniversary of Woodstock. First, it provides nostalgia-drenched MSNBC the opportunity to run clips of the edentulous Wavy Gravy explaining how pot-smoking and playing tonsil-hockey with strangers is some sort of political manifesto.
But it also provides an opportunity to study another example of myth-making in America. After all, the Census Bureau announced this weekend that for the first time the number of aging, SUV-driving, liberal suburban orthodontists and accountants claiming they attended Woodstock surpassed the number of Frenchmen who claim to have fought in the resistance.
I loved the bonfires, vandalism, and looting at Woodstock this weekend. Not that I condone the violence: If I had been a vendor whose goods had been looted the first words out of my mouth to the cops would have been, “Might I suggest you use your night stick officer?” (What movie?)
But what is great about the mayhem is that it peels off another layer of myths symbolized by the original event. Woodstock was not a particularly important concert in the history of rock and roll. Woodstock became Woodstock for two reasons. First because the kids of New York society attended the event. Second, because they made a movie about it.
Of course we hear all sorts of drivel about how the event was an attempt to change the system, when in reality it was an excuse not to change your underwear. But even deeper in the mix was the notion that “youth” is shorthand for a certain kind of politics.
This was perhaps the most common article of faith among media baby-boomers — that being young means you care more about real issues and “changing things.” Of course, this proved untenable because many of the most successful young people of generation X didn’t in fact care about politics. So they changed it a bit and we got this notion of slackers. The boomers believed that since young people weren’t behaving like they did when they were young, the deficiency must somehow be on the part of the young’ns. Of course that’s not true either, but it helps boomers remain smug in their notions of generational superiority.
The reality is that, according to Hannah Arendt, every generation Western Civilization is invaded by barbarians. We call these barbarians “children.” In the 1960s the kids had a certain style of barbarism that was quite effective. In most, but certainly not all, they used slogans instead of torches. But the aim was the same: tear down the civilized world. Laws and rules and traditions were just various kinds of guilt trips. Religion was a hoax. Marriage, a prison. Capitalism, a con.
Sociologists have devoted careers to explain the Sixties, which Francis Fukuyama calls a mini-Dark Age. Some people say that it was because the children of the greatest generation felt they couldn’t live up to their parents generation, so they figured they should change the rules by which they were judged. Many cite this as the explanation for why there were so many Jewish kids in the counter culture (SDS was 60% Jewish). The children of Holocaust survivors, their religious faith was supplanted by a faith in liberalism.
Others think it’s because the boomers grew up richer and more pampered than any generation in human history and so their sense of entitlement wasn’t being satisfied by having to work, let alone fight a war. But these kids who had been told they were so smart, so special, so exceptional, couldn’t just say, “Look I’m living this way because free sex and really good dope are fun.” No, they had to come up with political theories. Needless to say, that became very difficult because that too required work. The ones who did the work, like Herbert Marcuse, were rejected as squares. Marcuse, a devoted Leftist who advocated the “great refusal” of Western Culture, thought it was important to first learn about what it was he was refusing.
What passed for arguments from the hippy Left were just as dangerous as any Molotov cocktail. More dangerous perhaps, because the damage was more lasting.
The kids in Woodstock this weekend was far more honest. They didn’t want to destroy anything more than a few food trucks and some port-o-potties. They did. It felt good. They knew it was wrong. No big explanations, no grand theories. Just pay the fine, do the time, and learn from your mistakes.
Jane Fonda Bashing; combing through my Kennedy hate mail.