It would be difficult to think of a more depressing piece of news, but there you have it: The Sixties are back. Not merely are we observing the 20th anniversary of the "Summer of Love" in Haight-Ashbury and of the debut of "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band," but we are undergoing a revival of interest in the decade's artifacts and, if this is the word for it, culture. Sixteen-year-olds are wearing tie-dyed T-shirts, sporting the peace symbol and flocking to concerts by the Grateful Dead; the Sixties, suddenly and inexplicably, are In.
The psychiatrists and psychologists, to whom we journalists invariably turn when in search of the quick and facile explanation, are having a field day telling us what all of this means. Most of those consulted have expressed sentiments similar to those of the one who favored The New York Times with the comment that there is renewed interest in the Sixties because "it was a time of ideological commitment and a sense of purpose, all of which are very important to adolescents."
And all of which is baloney. The Sixties had almost nothing to do with genuine ideological commitment or sense of purpose, and neither does the revival. The Sixties were adolescent rebellion masquerading as a political movement, while the current popularity of the decade's symbols and totems seems to be almost entirely a matter of commercial exploitation. Like most exercises in nostalgia, the Sixties revival is an effort to rewrite the past, to see it through the tinted glass of sentimentality and longing.
The plain truth is that the Sixties were a period of unfettered self-indulgence on the part of the privileged children of the American middle class, and that the decade's legacy is, with the rarest of exceptions, lamentable. During the Sixties -- which actually began around 1965 and ended about a decade later -- little of lasting value was accomplished either politically or culturally; for all their noisy rhetoric and noisy music, the Sixties contributed nothing to the national heritage, at least nothing anyone in his right mind would care to treasure.
It needs to be emphasized that because "the Sixties" did not take place during the precise confines of the decade from which the period's name has been taken, it is easy to become confused about what did and did not happen then. Apologists for the time like to claim, for example, that the civil rights movement was part of the Sixties, when in fact it had begun long before then; the great legislation that the movement produced, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, had nothing to do with Tom Hayden and Mario Savio, everything to do with Martin Luther King Jr. and John Lewis, neither of whom was in any sense a "Sixties" figure.
When we speak of "the Sixties" what we really mean is the tidal wave of immoderation that swept through the colleges and universities, a wave upon which were carried the white and the middle class. Certainly it was powered by what the psychologists would call the "needs" of adolescents and postadolescents, but those are utterly unrelated to "ideological commitment" or "sense of purpose." Boiled to their essence, those "needs" are to break away from parental supervision and discipline, and to experience the freedoms of the adult world unfettered by external constraints.
What happened during the Sixties was simply that this explosion of adolescent "need" coincided with several phenomena that conspired to produce the particular and peculiar culture of the period. Among these were the determination of a generation that had suffered the deprivations of depression and global war to provide its children with comforts and privileges it had been denied; the attainment of college age by the first baby boomers, the largest "youth culture" in history; the unprecedented expansion of American higher education and the commitment to make it available to all; the gradual relaxation of sexual mores and the easy availability of drugs; the creation, first by southern blacks, then by working-class southerners and British youths, of a new form of popular music; and the decision by Lyndon Johnson to commit American troops to Vietnam.
Put all of this into the kettle, stir it a few times, and -- presto! -- you have "the Sixties." We seem to fancy it now as we fancied it then, as a period of "idealism" and "commitment," but the unpleasant truth is that it was a period of the most intense self-indulgence. Certainly the Vietnam war was a colossal mistake by the American government, but the movement that rose up against it on the campuses had far less to do with principled or reasoned resistance than with the avoidance of military service. Yes, the war was stupid and quite possibly morally wrong; but just because it was bad is no reason to call the movement against it good.
The real legacy of the so-called "antiwar" movement of the Sixties is not the occasional gesture against war that many politicians now seem obliged to make, but the revulsion against national service that was institutionalized with the termination of the draft. Those who express surprise that the "idealists" of the Sixties have metamorphosed into the yuppies of the Eighties quite miss the point: The Sixties were every bit as much about selfishness as are the Reagan years; it's only that the greed now takes a different form.
A further deleterious legacy of the Sixties is the decline of the American university. As a direct consequence of the demands made in the Sixties for "relevance," higher education underwent a fundamental restructuring in which requirements shifted from what students needed to what students wanted. The wholesale capitulation of university faculties and administrations to the demands of the Sixties' "rebels" was one of the truly unedifying spectacles in American history, and its repercussions are still being felt. If anything, this repudiation of traditional educational standards seems so thoroughly legitimized that it is most unlikely to be reversed within our lifetimes.
To which the standard objection invariably is, "But there's always the music," and there is a degree of truth to this. Unlike Allan Bloom, he of "The Closing of the American Mind," I decline to take refuge in a hysterical antipathy to all things rock 'n' roll. From Joe Turner to Van Morrison, LaVerne Baker to Janis Joplin, the Drifters to the Beatles, Fats Domino to Joe Cocker, rock has produced music that is much more than the noisy expression of adolescent libido. But as soon as the music fell into the hands of white middle-class imitators, it lost both its originality and its heart; the decline of the Beatles from the innovative to the saccharine precisely mirrors the process, the notable exception being that the Beatles had the intelligence to see what was happening -- and the integrity to quit.