The Corner

Re: What I Saw at the Revolution

Charles – Very interesting observations. For what it’s worth, it brought to mind this passage from my book:


And then there was the quest for community. The Red Diaper Babies of the 1960s inherited from their parents the same drive to create a new community organized around political aspirations. According to Todd Gitlin, the former president of the SDS, “There was a longing to ‘unite the fragmented parts of personal history,’ as The Port Huron Statement put it—to transcend the multiplicity and confusion of roles that become normal in a rationalized society: the rifts between work and family, between public and private, between strategic, calculating reason and spontaneous, expressive emotion.” Gitlin continues, “At least for some of us, the circle evoked a more primitive fantasy of fusion with a symbolic, all-enfolding mother: the movement, the beloved community itself, where we might be able to find in Yale psychologist Kenneth Keniston’s words, ‘the qualities of warmth, communion, acceptedness, dependence and in- timacy which existed in childhood.’ ” Mark Rudd likewise remi- nisced about the glories of the “communes” set up at Columbia: “For many it was the first communal experience of their lives—a far cry from the traditional lifestyle of Morningside Heights [at Columbia], that of individuals retiring into their rooms or apartments. One brother remarked to me, ‘The communes are a better high than grass.’ ”

The SDS’s original mission wasn’t radical; it was humane: community outreach. The first significant project the group undertook was the Economic Research and Action Project, begun in 1963. SDS members fanned out like knights from the roundtable in search of the grail of self-fulfillment by moving into inner-city ghettos in an earnest effort to politicize the poor, the oppressed, and the criminal underclass. It should tell us something that the most compelling catchphrase for liberals and leftists alike in the 1960s was “community”: “community action,” “community outreach,” “communities of mutual respect.”

As Alan Brinkley has noted, most of the protests and conflagrations of the 1960s had their roots in a desire to preserve or create communities. The ostensible issue that launched the takeover of Columbia University in 1968 was the encroachment of the campus into the black community. The administration’s appeasement of Black Nationalists was done in the name of welcoming blacks to the Cornell community, and the Black Nationalists took up arms because they felt that assimilation into the Cornell community, or the white community generally, amounted to a negation of their own community—that is, “cultural genocide.”

The Berkeley uprising was sparked in large part by the school’s expansion into a tiny park that, at the end of the day, was just a place for hippies to hang out and feel comfortable in their own little com- munity. Hippies may call themselves nonconformists, but as anyone who’s spent time with them understands, they prize conformity above most things. The clothes and hair are ways of fitting in, of ex- pressing shared values. Peace signs may symbolize something very different from the swastika, but both are a kind of insignia instantly recognizable to friend and foe alike. Regardless, the Berkeley pro- testers felt that their world, their folk community, was being de- stroyed by a cold, impersonal institution in the form of the university and, perhaps, modernity itself. “You’ve pushed us to the end of your civilization here, against the sea in Berkeley,” shouted one of the leaders of the People’s Park uprising. “Then you pushed us into a square-block area called People’s Park. It was the last thing we had to defend, this square block of sanity amid all your madness . . . We are now homeless in your civilized world. We have become the great American gypsies, with only our mythology for a culture.” This is precisely the sort of diatribe one might have heard from a bohemian Berliner in the 1920s.