It must be really irritating to have come of age in the 1980s or ’90s to find your decade—your very own historical moment—persistently overshadowed by The Decade That Will Not Die, the 10 years that have stolen the show of the 20th century and hogged the cultural limelight for as long as you can recall. Not only are the 1960s a hair (a long hair) in your generational soup, but if you’re a thinking person you’re aware of both the fallacy of decadism and how dangerous and dumb it can be to embalm yourself in the attractive amber of the past.
In most of our lives, for better or for worse, there occurs a period of peak experience, a time when we are at our best, when we meet some challenge, endure some ordeal, receive some special recognition, have some sustained, heretofore unimaginable fun, or just feel consistently happy and free. There’s a tendency then to become psychologically frozen in that glad ice, turning ourselves into living fossils for the remainder of our existence.
For females, the retrograde flypaper is often summer camp or high school. For far too many American males, it has been the armed services; the one time in their lives when, relieved of parents, wives, children, dull routines and responsibilities, their every need supported, they could enjoy camaraderie, travel and adventure. An awful lot of America’s leaders never outgrew their wartime exploits, and these old padnags—waving red-white-and-blue cattle prods and farting the low notes of the “Star-Spangled Banner”—have over and over again insisted on military solutions to economic disputes, a manifestation of arrested development for which the world has paid a hard and ugly price.
Gray-haired flower children, while infinitely more benign, can seem almost equally foolish. Yet it would be a mistake—a smug distortion—to dismiss the ’60s as just an ordinary fucked-up decade with a good press agent. Not only did the ’60s differ from the ’50s, the ’80s and the ’90s, they were in several significant ways superior to them; superior, for example, in the expenditure of both passion and compassion, superior in the number of romantic seekers and idealistic questers (bless them each and every one) searching for something more substantial than material success. From the perspective of the so-called counterculture (for a time, the “counterculture” functioned as the dominant culture), music was less superficial then, authority less respected, violence less tolerated, love less fettered, wealth less worshiped, power less coveted, guilt less shouldered, depression less indulged and fear less shivered with. In the ’60s, beauty had not yet been voted out of office by the art community, flirting hadn’t been demonized as sexual harassment by the cops of correctness, and tickets to any number of nirvanas could be easily obtained at any number of outlets, ancient or futuristic, although as Hermann Hesse once cautioned us, “The Magic Theater is not for everyone.”