Dennis Hopper, the actor turned icon, symbol of the anti-establishment ethos of the 1960s, is currently all over the television airwaves hawking the corporate giant Ameriprise Financial.
The latest commercial opens with Hopper standing on a white sand beach, holding a big black book: “‘To withdraw, to go away, to disappear’ . . . that’s how the dictionary defines retirement. Time to redefine! Your generation is definitely not headed for Bingo night. In fact, you could write a book about how you’re going to turn retirement upside down. [Cue the organ intro of the Spencer Davis Group’s “Gimme Some Loving,” then cut to generic financial planning scenes and a voice-over about the importance of making sound retirement investments, then a quick cut back to Hopper on the beach.] ’Cause I just don’t see you playing shuffleboard, you know what I mean?”
If the graying hippies of Hopper’s era don’t wind up playing Bingo and shuffleboard in roughly the same numbers as the generations that preceded them, it will only be because they’re still clinging pathetically to both their long-faded youth and to the inflated sense of the significance of the 1960s that permeates American popular culture. The truth, however, is that the second half of the decade — and that’s what really counts as the Sixties in our collective imagination, or else Frankie Avalon, not Hopper, would be pitching Ameriprise — was an intellectual and moral wasteland whose only worthwhile contribution to Western Culture was a handful of memorable songs.
But what about the civil-rights movement, you ask?
The critical work of civil rights came during the 1950s and early 1960s. Brown v. Board of Education? That’s 1954. Rosa Parks? She refused to relinquish her seat in 1955. For perspective, consider that Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, the crowning moment of the movement, came in August 1963, almost six months before the Beatles first appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show. Even the Voting Rights Act, which outlawed literacy tests and provided federal registration of voters in districts where minority votes had been historically suppressed, passed in 1965 — two years prior to the Summer of Love in San Francisco. Indeed, by the second half of the decade, the notion of “civil rights,” at least among Hopper’s contemporaries, had degenerated into a reflexive supplication before all things black — including, most notably, the Black Panthers, who turned out to be just the Ku Klux Klan with snazzier outfits. (To be fair, the Panthers, unlike the Klan, did operate a lucrative business arm that included drug dealing, pimping and murder-for-hire.) On college campuses, the pursuit of civil rights devolved into a demand for more “relevant” courses — which led to the creation of pseudo-disciplines like ethnic and gender studies whose academic rigor never quite rose to the level of a navel-gazing.
All right, but what about the environmental movement?
The 1962 publication of Silent Spring by Rachel Carson is often cited as the moment environmentalism went mainstream, and by the second half of the decade the book had spawned a full-fledged social movement — which culminated in the first Earth Day in April 1970. The problem was that Carson’s jeremiad about the effects of synthetic chemicals on the eco-system was based on (to be as charitable as possible) shaky evidence and dubious methodology. No matter, because the flower children took her message to heart, and with their signature combination of ill-informed commitment, self-righteous indignation and (as Yeats might have put it) passionate intensity, the movement pressured the newly formed Environmental Protection Agency into banning Carson’s bête noire, the pesticide DDT . . . after almost 30 years of safe and effective use. Much of the developed world followed the American ban. That was great news if you were a bug, but very bad news if you were a human being living in sub-Saharan Africa — where mosquito-borne malaria continued to decimate vast populations. Last September, over three decades after DDT had been pointlessly phased out, the World Health Organization recommended the resumption of DDT use in malaria-ravaged areas, and the United States Agency for International Development announced that it would fund the effort. The cost of the DDT ban, in human lives, is difficult to calculate, but it is certainly in the millions, perhaps the scores of millions — which ranks environmentalism with Communism and Nazism as the three great genocidal causes of the last century.
Ah, but what about the peace movement — surely, that was praiseworthy!
There’s no question that the student protests of the second half of the 1960s hastened the U.S. withdrawal from the conflict in Vietnam — and likely saved thousands of American lives in a war that seemed, and perhaps was, unwinnable. But the logic isn’t quite so straightforward. For if the Vietnam War was indeed unwinnable, it was unwinnable in large part because of the student protests. The consensus of historians is that the North Vietnamese hung on, in the face of catastrophic military losses, in the desperate hope that American public opinion would turn against the war and eventually force the United States to cut and run. That’s precisely what happened, as the peace movement swept across college campuses nationwide, and images of student takeovers of academic institutions alternated in the media with disproportionately dire assessments of the war’s progress. The student protesters managed, in effect, to curb the power of the American military — which the North Vietnamese army could never accomplish on their own — and thus undermine the greatest force for individual liberty, collective prosperity and Enlightenment values the world has ever known. The whole of Vietnam came under communist rule. That, in turn, paved the way for the communist Khmer Rouge holocaust in Cambodia. So in sparing thousands of American lives, the peace movement essentially condemned to death millions of Southeast Asians.
History, of course, is rife with generations of young people who thought they were on the cusp of doing noble and original things only to realize, later in life, that they were merely reenacting the most grotesque errors of the past. What’s so insufferable about Hopper and his ilk, as the Ameriprise ad reminds us, is their continued obliviousness on this score. They still don’t get how futile and how derivative their endeavors were. In truth, there was nothing that was thought and said in America in the 1960s that wasn’t thought more clearly and said more eloquently in England in the 1820s. The English, to their credit, eventually outgrew the age of Romanticism — salvaging from the adolescent sentimentality of the time a handful of memorable poems.
Will America ever outgrow its most adolescent era?