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Idealism of the '60s Lives On for Some

August 14, 1985|MARK I. PINSKY | Pinsky is a general assignment reporter for The Times Orange County Edition

As a rule, I don't go to '60s parties, read '60s books or play nostalgic board games; living through the decade at full throttle was difficult enough.

I tend to keep my memories of that period--which shaped my adult life--locked up in a trunk, along with other old loves. The music of the period still goes right through me, dragging me back to when I first heard it, so I try to stay away from that as well.

But when a friend now living in Venice invited me to an "appropriate attire requested" publishing party for her first fiction, called "Convictions" and subtitled "A Novel of the Sixties," out came the standard weekend wardrobe of jeans, work shirt and Birkenstocks. And the flashbacks.

The book being celebrated, set on the North Carolina campus where I ran wild in the streets for five years, had a lot to do with my reflective mood, evoking that manic period at the cusp of the decade when bombast gave way to bomb blast.

Fortunately, the party was far less traumatic and yuppified than I expected, with a surprising number of the guests now holding down jobs with small colleges, day-care co-ops, peace groups and free clinics. The conversation was low-key, the drinking moderate, the Kool-Aid non-electric. Most of the talk was contemporary, without much wistfulness, more about the present and the future than the past. Nobody used the term "selling out" and I left free of the high anxiety I had feared.

Although what I heard and overheard at the party sounded encouraging to an unreconstructed remnant like myself, it is becoming clear that for many, the "Me Decade" has melded into the "Gimme Decade." The narcissism and compulsive introspection that characterized the '70s has given way to a certain amount of unabashed, name-brand grabbing. Activism in the '80s may have been reduced to coaching soccer, or to organizing against prisons, public housing projects or nuclear power plants--and only if they're going to be built in your neighborhood.

However, what those at the publishing party and at similar gatherings I have attended recently seem to find most frustrating is the pernicious notion that "you can have it all."

Spread by ubiquitous commercials, this message is the perfect, unrealistic pitch for an indulged generation: That is, whatever mundane or hateful things you may do from 9 to 5, you can always loosen your tie or shed your dress-for-success duds after work and instantly turn back into the same fun-loving, sensitive character you were at school. As a couple, you can have two fast-track careers, raise a family, own a house, take exotic vacations, work out three times a week and maintain a healthy, stable and stimulating relationship. Even those '60s children who now embrace the acquisitive ethos of the '80s figure out before too long that most people can't have it all.

Among other things, the '60s were about making choices, the antithesis of "having it all." Which is one reason it is so troubling to see once-fiery student leaders now running for office by finessing their pasts and pandering to any special interest they can glom onto; or contemporaries, who were once war resisters, now gazing jealously at the combat veterans among their peers--especially those who returned decorated, but physically and emotionally unscarred--and wondering aloud whether they missed something by not having their mettle tested under fire.

Since the '60s ended (and even before) there have been those who delighted in any indication that ours, after all, was a generation just like any other--eager to betray its beliefs for a mess of pottage, a BMW or a development deal. (And, to be fair, there was some talk of the latter in Venice--but after all, this is California.)

But looking at the generation as a whole, there is little cause to celebrate the death of our idealism. For one thing, not everyone from that generation was idealistic.

Statistically, most never made it to a college campus (or the battlefield, for that matter), and a majority of the ones who did sat on their hands or on the sidelines while the fireworks were going on. The social consciousness of those in the action faction was largely a product of events and demographics in a period of plenty--and not of any intrinsic moral superiority on our part. When the fabric of society frays and disintegrates before your eyes, suggesting that, in the words of the Firesign Theater, "everything you know is wrong," it doesn't take much more to begin to question all authority and most assumptions.

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