This year, the proper length of time having passed, the 1960s are getting totemized. A feeling is in the air that at last that confusing decade can be puzzled out; its social changes, so controversial abirthing, seem to be either generally accepted (like marijuana or the sexual revolution) or by and large forgotten (like LSD or political violence). Now that all the turbulence has died down, we can sit back and decide what really changed and what didn’t, and fix an enduring image in our minds.

That process, however, easy as it sounds, isn’t producing very satisfactory results. Everyone can agree that a lot went on during the sixties, and that activity can easily be documented. But as to how it bears on the present day—well, that is proving a knotty question indeed.

It’s tempting to dismiss the sixties (which, of course, like the twenties, stretched their calendar boundaries a little) as having been chiefly a great boom time for self-indulgence, brought on by a great boom in the economy. This was, after all, a decade during which the nation’s population went up five per cent while money spent on personal consumption, personal income, and disposable income all about doubled (in real, inflation-adjusted terms). Statistics like that are bound to filter down into people’s lives, especially young people’s lives, by creating an atmosphere of expanded options and choices. The options certainly were taken advantage of, but usually not in ways of great lasting consequence.

There’s no better ammunition for this theory than Sara Davidson’s new book Loose Change: Three Women of the Sixties, a group biography and, implicitly, a “social history” of the decade. Its three heroines go through a conglomeration of experiments, locales, lovers, and philosophies that are exhausting even to read about. They start out as sorority sisters at Berkeley, daughters of the California upper-middle class, and over the next few years move through drugs, radical politics, men, and mysticism, among other things. No wonder they end their odysseys sounding worn out and not greatly concerned with social experimentation. One is now an art dealer, one a writer, one a medical student; all lead quiet, settled lives.

The overall impression is that the sixties were nothing but a temporary upheaval—an impression that is in part intended but that comes through even stronger than Davidson seems to have wanted. It’s annoying to read about women who have so much freedom and do so little that is productive—or even enjoyable—with it. When one character says at the end that she’s slept with more than a hundred men since college, affairs that were all unsatisfying, it seems obvious that she would have been happier keeping it down to one or two. Similarly, it’s hard for the sympathies to go out to lives that follow patterns like this, from one character’s description of a relatively settled year:

“The last year has been so bizarre. I left a spectacular home with a distinguished sculptor and started sleeping on the floor at Rachel and Greg’s. I got involved with a Tai Chi instructor. Then I apprenticed myself to a Hassidic rabbi….”

These women, even the one portrayed as a radical, show no particular concern, with the problems of the world or even of other people. As for their own problems, those are generally dealt with by simply leaving them behind and going on to something new. Their deepest conviction is that their parents’ way of living won’t bring them happiness—but their protracted search for alternatives only makes them unhappy, and in the end they settle down in a way not wildly different from their parents’ after all.

The traces of Davidson’s sixties are clearly present today—the refusal to work difficult situations out, the preoccupation with self, the ideal of a happiness that comes unfettered by complexity or responsibility. It’s easy to imagine members of the Loose Change generation sitting around the living room in the summer of 1977, just back from the bookstore with Mildred Newman and Bernard Berkowitz’s new handbook, How To Take Charge of Your Life, lost in the ardent study of passages like this one:

“It’s… a good exercise to imagine what it would be like if you were newborn at this very moment with no past and no history.

“What would you like to be like?

“What kind of person would you like to be, given a fresh start?”

The fresh start, the ability to be whatever one wants, no matter what—these are the ideals that live on. The recession of the early seventies may have very quickly poleaxed the various lifestyle changes Davidson describes, but a large part of the impulse behind those changes remains.

But the sixties have left us more valuable legacies than that. Particularly in three areas—attitudes toward race, bureaucracy, and sex—Americans have progressed greatly in the last 15 years, and the roots of the progress lie precisely in the affluence and the sense of possibility that created the Loose Change culture. The decade’s boom gave people the luxury of not being forced to accept anything as an unalterable condition of their lives, and hence the ability to reject out-right what was clearly undesirable. This attitude extended past lifestyles to broader political and social questions; just as one didn’t have to get a traditional job for a while, or marry, one didn’t have to accept as given the ills of society. Instead of having to see life as a series of compromises, people could divide it into good and bad and refuse to participate in the bad.

This attitude infused the politics of the sixties; the “radicalization” people went through at the time often meant being able to condemn something as just plain wrong and then trying to stop it, rather than working within the slow process of compromise, consensus, and gradual change that envelopes most of politics. The idea of drawing the line somewhere is a good one, and it should not be lost with changing times.

A great fringe benefit of line-drawing is its ripple effect, which causes the drawing of more and more lines, and much of the political history of the sixties can be understood in terms of this phenomenon. Once people have decided to work at stopping something that is just plain wrong, their perception of other just-plain-wrongs is heightened, and eventually movements to put a halt to them develop.

Tribal Hatred

The first line of the sixties was drawn in the South, over segregation, and its results have had a lasting significance. Of course, the gap between black and white opportunity and prosperity, which the civil rights movement set forth to close, has remained depressingly constant over the past decade, and consequently the movement’s accomplishments aren’t as clear as they should be, especially to Northerners. To Southerners, even if the schools are still largely segregated and incomes still widely disparate, it’s obvious that a change of great importance took place. I spent the sixties growing up in New Orleans and I saw it happen. To put it in its proper context, there was formerly in the South a condition of tribal hatred such as stubbornly exists in places all over the world, and during the sixties it somehow ceased to exist.

Civil rights was the central social upheaval in the sixties in New Orleans. It was an obsession. I can hardly remember any length of time between 1965 and 1970 when I didn’t hear or participate in some discussion of race relations, nearly every one involving the most heated of feelings. These discussions by and large didn’t concentrate on such delicate issues as busing or affirmative action; it’s now hard to believe, but among whites the issue at hand, day after day, was whether blacks were in fact human beings and therefore whether they deserved treatment as such. New Orleans changed later in this respect than most of the South; until 1969 or 1970, among the whites I knew, the human-being camp was a decided minority. It was really impossible to discuss the issue in terms more complex than that. To the best of my knowledge, this was the prevailing attitude of the Southern white professional class, and among other whites, I can only assume it was the same.

By 1971, in my little corner of the world, all this had changed completely. Not only was integration generally accepted as a desirable goal; not only did respectable people keep their racist views wholly to themselves; but what out-and-out segregationists remained were widely regarded as unbalanced kooks. Now and then the newspapers would write stories on the old segs, presenting them in a where-are-they-now tone as comical, pathetic figures. Say what you will about lingering injustice and muted appeals to racism—it’s all true. Nevertheless, a sea change had taken place.

In 1969 New Orleans elected its first mayor who openly appealed to the black vote. In 1970 City Hall, previously all white, was filled with black political appointees. In 1971, for the first time in years, no openly segregationist candidate for governor made it to the second primary. In 1972 the first articles were written about rich and powerful black political bosses, men no aspirant to office could afford to ignore. The city buses were completely and casually integrated by then. Black families could move into a neighborhood and the whites wouldn’t move out. Race, so long an obsession, continued to be an obsession—one overheard blacks and whites discussing it casually with one another all the time.

One part of the impetus for this change—of the other parts, more later—was the efforts of the white Northern college students who came South in the early sixties to work for civil rights. Most of them did so thinking they were reforming an aberrant section of America. When they went back home, with their heightened moral sensitivities, they started to draw more lines and attack a host of other ills. The connection between the civil rights movement and the student movement is plain as day. In the Port Huron Statement, the first document of the Students for a Democratic Society and of student radicalism generally, the prime cause of student disaffection with the American consensus is listed as “the Southern struggle against racial bigotry”; it was this, the signers say, that “compelled most of us from silence to activism.”

The first target of that activism was the universities. The sixties saw a doubling of enrollments in institutions of higher education, and the increase didn’t mean that small colleges were springing up all over America; the big universities were getting bigger. The bureaucratization of American life was widespread during the sixties—in the business world, for instance, corporate receipts rose 125 per cent, receipts of proprietorships and partnerships only 25 per cent—but nowhere was it more pronounced, or more sharply noticed, than on the campuses. Godfrey Hodgson, in his sixties book, America in Our Time, points out that the early student demonstrations, like the one at Berkeley that started the women of Loose Change on their journeys, were really antibureaucratic rather than political. He cites a convincing theory that the students of the sixties grew up in an extremely personalized home setting, thus making the transition into extremely depersonalized universities especially pronounced.

During the fifties the bureaucratic life in big corporations was criticized in books like The Organization Man and The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit; in the sixties the net was cast much wider—to universities, to the government, to other institutions of the public sector. The students’ understanding of what moral and personal dangers lay behind the bland faces of large institutions eventually worked its way into the population at large. Today, it’s hardly possible to pick up a newspaper without seeing some evidence of a deep public mistrust of these institutions and their effects. Fifteen years ago that mistrust wasn’t widely held in America, just as the assumption of racial equality wasn’t widely held. Thanks to the sixties, it now is.

New-Complete Quiescence

The civil rights movement also, in a slightly different way, helped produce the women’s movement of the late sixties and early seventies, which itself has produced another positive, lasting change. Feminism in America had been in a state of near-complete quiescence for more than 40 years. Women were urged from all corners to devote their lives solely to the noble pursuits of housekeeping, cooking, and childraising, and until the publication of Betty Freidan’s The Feminine Mystique in 1963 there was no wide disputation of this vision.

What really fanned the flames was civil rights, which made the women involved in it start thinking seriously about sexism. Like other sixties political movements, civil rights was no more sexist than the mainstream of American life, but it was, perhaps, more fierce about it. Women were relegated to minor supportive chores while men made all the decisions. The ethos of the movement was summed up when someone asked Stokely Carmichael what the position of women in the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee ought to be, and he answered, “Prone.” When it was muted and took place in the consensus atmosphere of most of American life, this attitude was tolerated; open, and taking place in an atmosphere of absolute opposition to wrong, it was not. In 1966 two female civil rights workers, Casey Hayden and Mary King (now deputy director of the federal agency ACTION) published an attack on SNCC’s treatment of women that was a seminal document in the movement. Over the next few years, the feminist cause was continually spurred by women’s disillusionment with the attitudes of the political causes they had been working in, like SDS and the antiwar movement (where “Chicks say yes to guys who say no” was a popular slogan).

(The connection between civil rights and feminism is long-standing, not limited just to the sixties. The generally accepted launching date of the American women’s movement is 1848, when the first women’s rights convention was held at Seneca Falls, New York, organized by women abolitionists who had gotten fed up with their repeated exclusion from meetings of the American and World Anti-Slavery Societies. Apparently it’s a home truth that ills that are invisible in the texture of everyday life stand out in sharp relief when they are carried over into reform movements.)

Today, although some of the wind has gone out of its sails, it’s clear the women’s movement’s effects have lasted. It’s not that discrimination against women has been eliminated so much as that it is now firmly and widely recognized as discrimination. This was simply not the case 20 or even 15 years ago.

The Climate of Freedom

All this adds up to a powerful sum of good carried forth from the sixties, and all of it sprang from the decade’s general climate of freedom to behave unusually, to right wrongs, to take strong, absolute stands. But that climate has its trickier and potentially unworthy side too, a side that it’s necessary to understand in order to do right by the seventies.

The drawing-the-line political mentality has its great strength in situations that are not morally or procedurally ambiguous, but when the pressing problems have that ambiguousness it has its shortcomings. When a complex understanding of the obstacles to reform is called for, when it’s necessary to comprehend the other side fully in order to bring it around, when it’s imperative to hang in there for the long haul—these are the times when passing absolute judgments and acting on them quickly doesn’t work.

The antiwar movement, for instance, has had its good side extensively documented, but it had its weaknesses too. Its reliance on mass protests that focused on simple home truths certainly helped awaken broad opposition to the war, but also left the movement open to diversionary actions by the government—like stopping the bombing when that was the clarion call—that allowed the war to continue. The war thus dragged on well past the peak of the antiwar movement, and it’s not at all clear that similar governmental errors in similar situations won’t happen in the future—the apparatus for them certainly remains in place. The movement was far better at passing correct moral judgment on the war than at understanding why it had come about.

Similarly, the student protest movement completely died when the recession set in. No longer was the luxury of refusing to accept the universities’ flaws without some personal economic risk possible; and since the movement had left open no middle ground between beating the universities and joining them, students joined. It now looks like the feeling of permanent social upheaval on campuses in the sixties was so great partly because both those in favor of it and those against it exaggerated what was going on. Like the U. S. Communist Party and the FBI, both the radicals and the guardians of the gates had cause to enlarge the scope of the menace; it made each side look good. Thus while Abbie Hoffman was proclaiming the birth of an all-new “Woodstock Nation,” Midge Decter was agreeing with him wholeheartedly as to the nature of the phenomenon, if not its virtues. The young, as Decter put it to them, were “…displaying an incapacity to get on with your lives in an orderly fashion, …creating a new kind of order….” Why, she wondered, “have you, the children, found it so hard to take your rightful place in the world?”

It’s now clear that everybody can relax. Ninety-five per cent of my own mid-seventies college class, the studies show, will go on to graduate school and get an advanced degree. As undergraduates we studied furiously just to keep up our professional parents’ pace; the knowledge that in a meritocracy you’re not protected against downward mobility, especially in bad economic times, had finally sunk in. There were few discussions of how to avoid selling out. Professors worried about how to get the students to stop worrying about grades so much. Being able to live the way our parents live, or better, will make most of us happy—as, I suspect, it will make happy most people who went to college in the sixties. As Playboy magazine likes to point out in its advertisements, most “retired radicals” have turned to consumerism. That such an utter turnabout was possible is strong proof of the dark side of absolutist, all-or-nothing politics.

Improving The World

A related shift has taken place in the women’s movement lately; there, the sixties’ strain of obsession with self has grown stronger as the strain of extreme sensitivity to wrong has weakened.

To speak of the sixties women’s movement in general terms is misleading, because it was made up of so many disparate, often warring groups—from Freidan’s legislation-oriented National Organization of Women to Valerie Solanas’ Society for Cutting Up Men, which was what the name implies.

But there was clearly a concern with improving the world generally, a feeling that women were more interested than men in peace and equitable distribution or wealth. Possibly because they were accustomed to bearing the personal brunt of men’s flaws, women in the movement could see what happened when those flaws were writ large. The self-conscious “toughness,” the need to dominate, the fear of seeming affectionate or gentle—all these were central to men’s day-to-day treatment of women, and also to the way they ran the world. The women’s movement was especially perceptive of these flaws when they abundantly showed up in Vietnam policy and elsewhere, and criticized them as part of a general attack on the macho ethic.

Ms. magazine, for instance, launched by New York in 1971, had in its first issue a rating of presidential candidates according to feminist standards. One of the categories by which the candidates were judged was, of course, “Taking women seriously,” but two others had to do with the state of the world rather than of women per se: “Opposition to militarism and violence,” and “the courage to challenge the status quo.” The impression was that women not only wanted to enlarge their slice of the pie, but that they also wanted to change the pie.

This spring New York launched a second women’s magazine, Savvy, which is written for women professionals and contains not a breath of criticism of the state of the world. Instead, like the two or three other post-movement women’s magazines that have sprung up, it seems aimed chiefly at duplicating in women the more baroque flaws of men, like caring about corner offices and where you’re seated at lunch. The editor of another of these magazines, Working Woman, sounds for all the world like a young George Meany when, in the May issue, she urged that an upcoming National Women’s Conference not concern itself with politics generally: “…men are against war and poverty and oppression and bureaucracy too, and it serves no purpose to take a ‘woman’s’ point of view toward these broad social issues.” At one time it served great purpose for women in America to comment on broad social issues, the same way it now serves great purpose for a group like the Women’s Peace Movement to exist in Ireland, where it’s virtually the only native organization pushing the cause of peace. It’s a tragedy to lose that kind of perspective.

The Issues At Hand

So despite the great gains of the sixties, old perils from the decade— oversimplification, self-indulgence continue to haunt us. Avoiding those perils is particularly important now, when the issues at hand are immensely complex ones like health care, the nature of work, income redistribution, and others, the solutions to which all will require lengthy, determined effort and a willingness to cast aside self-interest.

A case in point can be drawn from the sixties’ strides in race relations. The changes in attitudes in the South are of great potential importance, because the South is virtually the only one of the many places in the world in which tribal hatred exists where the situation has gotten significantly better. Figuring out how the Southern experience can be repeated elsewhere is a worthy goal, but an extremely difficult one to achieve; it’s clear that the change was produced by an intricate tangle of factors.

Certainly the old saw about blacks and whites in the South having had years of daily contact—especially as children—as a sort of preparation for integration holds considerable water; they knew each other. Certainly the strength of the organized church there, and its emphasis on love and healing and mercy, was a factor, for out of the church (especially the black church) came much of the impetus for integration. Certainly the federal government’s coercion of the South, particularly as regards voter registration, had a wholly good effect, for once blacks were enfranchised they had to be attended to by politicians. The efforts of other minority groups, like Jews, who had general interest in ending discrimination, helped greatly.

Another important factor was no doubt the sixties boom. The wave of racism that the civil rights movement was combatting was born around the end of Reconstruction, a time of great poverty and frustration for the South. Hate and resentment and scapegoat-seeking and economic exclusion flourish when people are competing bitterly for scarce resources. In the sixties, while the nation was doing well, the South was doing very well, and the possibility that blacks and whites might be competing for the same few dollars faded away.

Which of these many reasons were the most important, and which are broadly applicable, are issues that need a careful and protracted sifting out. Similarly, and perhaps even more importantly for Americans, the same sifting out needs to be applied to what might be the only product of the sixties that poses a lasting danger: the knotty issue of class.

A Widening Gulf

It was hard to perceive during the sixties that the gulf between classes in America was widening—after all, wasn’t the world being changed for the better?—but it’s now clear that it was. While the college students were protesting the war, the members of their generation who weren’t in college were fighting in it—a phenomenon that went almost unnoticed at the time, and that has left great residual bitterness.

Perhaps even more important in terms of its long-range consequences, the public school system was being completely reorganized along class lines. That change began in the fifties, when Sputnik created in American educators a strong impulse for an educational catch-up program. The catch-up was most often accomplished by dividing the public schools into “tracks”: college, non-college, and remedial. The college track took in the children of the white-collar, affluent class, and these people—who went on to the universities, who protested, who later gave up on protest—practically never saw their schoolmates. Thus the present blindness of the sixties generation to class issues is easily understood—all along, through protests and calm, through demonstrations and meditation, they had almost no contact with people unlike themselves. Now, when the search by affluent people for self-confidence and fulfillment is presented as a grave issue, it’s more because of inbred blindness than willful refusal to see.

One telling case in point as to the strength of class differences in America today is the story of Columbia, Maryland, a sizable new city built in the sixties between Baltimore and Washington amid visions of clean environment, racial harmony, low crime, and federal housing funds. A few years after its opening, moving steadily toward its population goal of more than 100,000, Columbia has proven that a city can be pleasant, clean, and grassy, if not very charming. The news on race is very heartening: Columbia’s developers claim to have the most integrated community in America. It’s about 20-percent black, spread through every neighborhood, with relations extremely harmonious. There’s only one great falling short of original goals at Columbia: Economic integration, a part of the plan from the beginning, has been stubbornly impossible to achieve. Despite elaborate plans for low-cost housing, there is practically nobody there who isn’t middle class.

There’s obviously a severe wrong here, and the sixties willingness to point out such wrongs bluntly, rather than accepting them, could help. That nobody is doing so is disturbing—but even if someone were, what’s the solution? Mix-the-classes marches? The experience of the sixties have neither brought about awareness of the problem nor suggested its solution. Those tasks remain to be done with a persistence, an understanding of complexity, and a selflessness that are the seventies’ own.

Nicholas Lemann

Nicholas Lemann is a professor at Columbia Journalism School and a staff writer for The New Yorker. His most recent book is Transaction Man.