My generation - Page 2
From Griffith REVIEW Edition 13: The Next Big Thing
© Copyright Griffith University & the author.
Written by Creed O'Hanlon
EVEN IN 1967, WHEN BRITAIN'S REPRESSED POET LAUREATE appropriated the title of a seventeenth century John Dryden poem for his own celebration of a year of miracles – in which the commercial introduction of the oral contraceptive pill in the USA coincided with The Beatles' first hit records there – it was impossible not to be struck by the irony that, as in the Dryden poem, the year in question was as remarkable for its awfulness as for its chronicle of achievements. Nineteen-sixty-three was the year 70,000 British supporters of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament marched from the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment in Aldermarston to London, and American networks shocked their prime-time TV audiences with footage of a Vietnamese monk setting fire to himself in a Saigon street. It was the year British spy Kim Philby sought asylum in Moscow, and the Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman to voyage into space aboard Vostok 6. It was the year Betty Friedan published the first feminist best-seller, The Feminine Mystique, revitalising the American women's movement, and Richard Neville, Martin Sharp and Richard Walsh published the first issue of the Australian satirical magazine Oz. It was the year Martin Luther King, delivered his most famous speech – I have a dream – to more than a quarter of a million people from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC. It was the year one of the most popular US Presidents in history, John F. Kennedy, was gunned down in the back seat of an open-topped limousine during a motorcade through Dealey Plaza, in downtown Dallas, Texas.
It was a year of lost innocence, in every sense. The last of the Silent Generation turned eighteen, not then old enough to vote or to drink, but old enough to be drafted into the military.
It was probably a Baby Boomer who came up with the hoary old line that if you can remember the '60s, then you weren't there. The Silent Generation and the Baby Boomers shared their cheap alcohol, cannabis, psilocybin and LSD, but the context of their experience of those years was different. "There was a pissed-offness about the '60s that gets covered over by flower power now, but it was an angry time," American playwright and actor Sam Shepard recalled in an interview with The Guardian this year. Today, the NRMA resorts to nostalgie de la boue to advertise its insurance policies to aging Baby Boomers – speckled monochrome newsreel footage of us dancing in the mud at some long-forgotten rock festival – but that decade began not with peace and love but with France testing an atomic bomb in the Sahara, the U.S. deploying 3,500 American troops in Vietnam, the Soviet Union shooting down an American U-2 spy plane, and the East Germans beginning the construction of the Berlin Wall. For the Silent Generation, whose childhood and adolescence had spanned a prolonged economic depression and a world war, the escalation of the Cold War and the imminent threat of nuclear annihilation tainted their perception of the early '60s and incited a dark, jittery sense of déjà vu.
As it turned out, 1963 was a pivotal year. It marked the beginning of what would become an acute divergence between the attitudes of the Silent Generation and the Baby Boomers. By then, the Silent Generation had had enough. When their best-loved poet – a geeky Jewish kid from Hibbing, Minnesota, Robert Zimmerman, who had reinvented himself as Bob Dylan and earned enough agit-prop credibility to sing for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, the occasion for Martin Luther King's memorable address – scored a commercial and emotional hit with his generational anthem, The Times They are A-Changin', the times already had.
By the early '60s, the Silent Generation had the economic clout – not to mention a determination inspired by a childhood in which their parents' attention had been distracted, if not lost completely, in the pervasive tensions of the war – to change the existing order of society, to make it different if not necessarily better. If any generation could be said to have given the late twentieth century its social conscience, it was the Silent Generation. Over the next twenty years, its influence on public attitudes to issues such as the proliferation of nuclear arms, the war in Vietnam, civil liberties, racial and sexual equality, gay rights and the abuse of political power (specifically, the Nixon presidency and its collapse under the weight of the Watergate scandal) was so constant and deeply felt that we took it for granted.
When, inevitably, the Silent Generation grew tired of the fight, no other generation stepped up to take its place. Quite the opposite. Nowadays, in a post-9/11 world, Baby Boomers appear to be almost complicit with the erosion of civil rights, the increasing, covert surveillance of public and virtual spaces, the rejection of accountability by elected governments and the oppressive atmosphere of intolerance that are the antitheses of everything the essential spirit of the '60s – its vibe – was supposed to be about.
Except it never was.
AS THE HARDENED EX-CON PLAYED BY AN AGED '60s ICON, Terence Stamp, in the 1999 Steven Soderbergh film The Limey recalls: "Did you ever dream about a place you never really recall being to before? A place that maybe only exists in your imagination? Some place far away, half-remembered when you wake up. When you were there, though, you knew the language. You knew your way around. That was the '60s. [Pause] No. It wasn't that either. It was just '66 and early '67. That's all."
The so-called Summer of Love in Haight-Ashbury, San Francisco in 1967 embodied the hippie ethos of "turn on, tune in, and drop out" – a phrase coined by the psychologist and high-profile advocate of better living through psycho-pharmacology Timothy Leary – but the idyll was less than the season itself.
In 1966 as a million people gathered along Sydney's streets to welcome Lyndon Baines Johnson, the first US president to visit the country – they had been exhorted to "Make Sydney gay for LBJ", which, from the perspective of today's sexually more enlightened age, gave a whole new meaning to Harold Holt's infamous election slogan, "All the way with LBJ" – 10,000 anti-war protesters fought a pitched battle with the city's police, prompting the NSW Premier Rob Askin to order his chauffeur to "drive over the bastards". Neither peace nor love were to be found anywhere by 1968. When a performance by a rock group, The MC5, at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago degenerated into a full-scale riot, the then mayor of the city, Richard J. Daley authorised "whatever use of force necessary" to quell the situation. Much the same orders had been given (at about the same time) to the commanders of the Warsaw Pact tanks that rolled into Prague in Czechoslovakia, to suppress what Moscow portrayed as an uprising (even it was really just a badly managed attempt at social and economic reform) and, three months earlier, to French riot police, les Compagnies Républicaines de Sécurité, when over a million striking students and other protesters took to the streets of Paris.
In 1969, the Woodstock Music and Art Festival, held on a dairy farm in upstate New York, billed itself as "three days of peace and music" – and it was, probably, for most of the half a million people who turned up there – but four months later, at a festival at Altamont Raceway Park in Northern California, a gang of Hell's Angels hired as security by the Rolling Stones stomped an eighteen-year-old African-American boy to death in front of the stage.
Whatever illusions we still had about the live-and-let-live, love-the-oneyou're-with attitude of the '60s were lost or abandoned at the bitter end of the decade. Peace and love were as dead as Wyatt and Billy were after the rednecks shot-gunned them off their motorcycles in the final frames of Easy Rider.
In 1970, a company of National Guards opened fire on 2,000 students protesting the American invasion of Cambodia on the campus of Kent State University in Ohio. Four students, including two women, were killed and nine were injured. Ten days later, police, supported by the National Guard, opened fire on protesting students at Jackson State University in Mississippi. Two were killed and twelve were injured. It appeared that the emergence of a cohesive, politicised youth counter-culture had shaken up the status quo enough that the first reaction of those charged with maintaining it – the vestigial guardians of the Great Generation, the unambivalent defenders of the moral high ground and the guys who had fought the last "good" war for us – had been to try, quite literally, to kill it. "They're worse than the brown-shirts and the communist element and also the nightriders and the vigilantes," the Republican governor of Ohio, James Allen Rhodes, said of the Kent State protesters in a fit of indignant hyperbole at a press conference, just twenty-four hours before the fatal shootings. "They're the worst type of people that we harbour ... I think that we're up against the strongest, well-trained, militant, revolutionary group that has ever assembled in America."
The oldest of the four Kent State students killed was twenty, the youngest nineteen. Unsurprisingly, two of these Baby Boomers had had no part in the protest at all. They were walking from one lecture to another.