Reading Todd Gitlin's history of the 1960s is like navigating in a blizzard. Details, rich, funny, tragic details, by the thousands. But it's hard to see the big picture.
In part, the blizzard is a function of the scope of Gitlin's effort, his attempt to embrace not just the politics of the '60s (which he is eminently qualified to write about), but also the counterculture in all its splendor.
In lesser hands, the details would be oppressive, but Gitlin is a wonderful writer, and he wins you with the realization that this is not the work of some aloof academic buried beneath stacks of 3x5 cards (though he is a professor of sociology at UC Berkeley). Gitlin was there. Gitlin was a leader, president of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). Lucky for us, Gitlin observed.
For most of the book, the swirling, thundering blizzard of detail left me frustrated. What's the point? Get to the point! Then I realized that for better or worse, Gitlin was giving me the '60s just as I had experienced them myself, not in neat categories, but as a storm, with first sex, and first dope all mixed up with long hair, Vietnam and all-night meetings. So the frustration is not simply with Gitlin's book, but with the decade itself. About the only orderly thing about the '60s was that they began remarkably on time with the student sit-ins in Greensboro, N.C., and ended tragically a decade later with the town house explosion that killed several members of the Weatherman underground. In between, what a storm.
Was dropping acid as important as dropping bombs on Indochina? Was it as important to understand the lyrics of "Yellow Submarine" as it was to understand Camus, or SDS's Port Huron manifesto? Was it possible to understand it all, to create a massive, cosmic order out of people and places and events that were so new?
History presented the generation of the '60s some walloping new realities to digest, more perhaps than any American generation has been asked to cope with before. The Depression and World War II were staggering, but they didn't change the world view of an American teen-ager as much as birth control pills, drugs, rock 'n' roll, and a vicious Third World war that left our belief in American democracy in ruins.
Beneath all the chaos--suffering from it and contributing to it--were young people. The '60s celebrated youth, and the decade took on the exaggerated character of the young. What is most compelling about Gitlin's memoir is the slow and almost grudging transformation of young idealists into desperate outlaws. Imagine Gitlin, shuttling from Harvard to Washington in 1962 to witness Kennedy's Camelot. No alienated rebel here. Gitlin was a believer. The torch had been passed to a new generation, and he would be part of it. "At the highest levels of Camelot, the idea was that will and intelligence would be united and placed at the service of a reinvigorated superpower." Gitlin was not attracted to SDS because the students were tough ideologues, or devoted "anti-imperialists," but because they were "unabashed moralists" who "cared about one another."
But will and intelligence both began to fail: in Mississippi and along the Mekong, at the Bay of Pigs and finally on the streets of Dallas. Will and intelligence could be corrupted, or they might simply not be enough. It wasn't just events that created chaos. Betrayal created chaos. This was not a generation prepared for betrayal. These young idealists were not protected, emotionally or intellectually. They pushed hard for the truth, and when their pushing left them face-to-face with it, they were shocked by its mean profile, whether in the form of the FBI that spied on civil rights workers while it kept the secrets of the Klan, or a White House that promised peace and fanned the flames of war.
Here the storm begins: drugs and sex, and ruptures with your parents, and classes that seemed irrelevant, and romantic bearded revolutionaries, and always the feeling of betrayal, that the government had betrayed those who wanted most to serve it.
By 1968, the "Movement" had moved from hope to despair, from reform to resistance, from a faith that problems could be solved, or at least managed, to a rage that the Establishment had no interest in solving problems. And all the time, the war in Indochina dragged on.