A while back, we were on a radio talk show about former Sixties radicals. At one point, the host asked us what we thought was the “summary moment” of the decade. The question begged a certain kind of answer: Selma, the Free Speech Movement, the March on the Pentagon, Chicago. But we had discussed the issue before and agreed that the interesting truths about that era were to be found in the small moments rather than in the grand ones. We told the interviewer about one such moment that took place in the summer of 1969.
It was that magic instant when the auguries all seemed to point toward revolution. Tom Hayden, a leading Movement figure facing conspiracy charges in Chicago, was calling for the creation of “liberated zones” in American cities. Weatherman, the faction that had seized control of the Students for a Democratic Society, was planning to begin “guerrilla warfare” before the year was out. But most radicals had fixed their attention on the Black Panther Party, which Hayden had called “America’s Vietcong.”
Others were talking, the Panthers were doing. Their membership had been involved in shootouts with the police which were widely regarded by the radical community as dress rehearsals for the coming Armageddon. Because the Party leadership had been decimated (Huey Newton was in jail for killing a policeman, Eldridge Cleaver in exile, and Bobby Seale under indictment), “Field Marshal” David Hilliard had taken charge of the effort to keep the Party together and build support among whites. Learning that the celebrated French writer Jean Genet was infatuated with the Panthers, Hillard convinced him to come to the Bay Area to speak in behalf of the Party.
One of the stops was an appearance at Stanford University sponsored by the French Department, whose higher-ups had convinced eminent historian Gordon Wright to host a cocktail party before the speech. The Panthers arrived early in the afternoon in their uniforms of black leather jackets and sunglasses, looking like some lost Nazi legion whose skin color had changed during their diaspora. The small Frenchman with bad teeth and shabby clothes spoke through a young woman translator on loan from Ramparts magazine. He praised the Panther’s authenticity (a characteristic he said he also admired in the Marquis de Sade, whom he called “the greatest revolutionary of all, greater even than Marx”). The Panthers milled around in sullen incomprehension as he talked. Discovering that Wright’s son, an Army draftee, had brought a black Army friend home with him on leave, Panther Elmer “Geronimo” Pratt confronted the young man in the kitchen, spitting in his face and calling him an “Uncle Tom” and “enemy of the people.” When Geronimo reappeared in the living room, the white guests pretended not to notice.
Not long after the cocktail party began, an unexpected guest dropped in. It was Ken Kesey. He had been on the fringes of the Stanford scene since getting his start as a novelist in one of Wallace Stegner’s creative writing seminars. Oblivious to the Panthers, Kesey, his eyes cloudy with drugs and an out-of-plumb smile on his face, said that he had come because he had heard that a great French writer was there; since he was a great writer too it seemed a good thing that they should meet.
The guests sensed that a portentous moment was approaching as Sartre’s St. Genet, deracine homosexual outlaw, and Tom Wolfe’s St. Kesey, picaresque hero of the acid test, shook hands. In what seemed an act of semiotics, Kesey flashed a smile which showed that one of his front teeth had a cap in the form of an American flag. Genet, self-conscious because of his own chipped and discolored teeth, was delighted by the desecration and laughed out loud. Kesey pointed down at his feet. “I’m wearing green socks,” he said with a beatific look on his face. Genet frowned uncomprehendingly as Kesey kept on talking: “Green socks. Can you dig it? Green socks. They’re heavy, man, very heavy.” Trying to keep up, the young woman translator rendered the remarks with awkward literalness: “Les chausettes vertes, dies sont trds, trds lourdes.” Genet looked down at Kesey’s feet with the beginnings of sympathy. But before he could commiserate with him over the fact that he had somehow been condemned to wear heavy green objects around his ankles, Kesey’s attention had lurched off in another direction. Pointing at the Black Panthers, he said to Genet: “You know what? I feel like playing basketball. There’s nothing better than playing basketball with Negroes. I could go for a little one-on-one with some of these Negroes right now.”
So taken aback by the boyish innocence of Kesey’s manner that they momentarily failed to assess the implications of the words, the Panthers stared at him. Then one of them moved forward threateningly. David Milliard stopped him: “Stay cool, man. This motherfucker is crazy.” He repeated the words to everyone else in a louder voice: “This motherfucker is crazy and we’re getting the fuck out of here.”
The Panthers left, pulling Genet along with them. The diminutive Frenchman turned and glanced at Kesey, shrugging slightly as if to indicate that left to his own devices he would just as soon stay with him and exchange bizarre comments through a translator. Kesey watched him go. “Wonder what’s wrong with those Negroes?” he asked, as the entourage moved away. “Don’t they like basketball? I thought Negroes loved basketball.”
In another era this would have been seen simply as an odd moment—two men from different worlds trying to communicate across a vast cultural divide and winding up in a fatuous contretemps. But this brief encounter, widely discussed in Bay Area Movement circles, was regarded as an “epiphany.” Self-identified radicals like ourselves were fond of this word during the Sixties because it tended to elevate life’s commonplaces and to infuse a sense of portent into situations whose heaviness, like that of Ken Kesey’s socks, was not otherwise discernible to the inquiring eye.
Epiphanies: they made the world worthy of us. We searched for them like stargazers. This was part of the decade’s transcendental conviction that there was something apocalyptic lurking behind the veil of the ordinary, and that just a little more pressure was needed to pierce the last remaining membrane—of civility, bourgeois consciousness, corporate liberalism, sexual uptightness, or whatever else prevented us all from breaking through to the other side.
From its earliest battle cry—”You can’t trust anyone over thirty”—until the end of its brief strut on the stage of national attention, the Sixties generation saw itself as a scouting party for a new world. The “cultural revolution” it was staging would free inmates from the prison of linear thought. It was the social horticulturalist whose “greening of America” would allow the post-industrialist age finally to break through the crust of the Puritan past. It was the avenging angel that would destroy the evil empire of “Amerika” and free the captive peoples of the world.
It is hard to believe in epiphanies now, and it is hard not to wince at these homemade hankerings for Armageddon. Yet while the Sixties, that age of wonders, is over in fact, it is still with us in spirit. Nostalgia artists have made it into a holograph that creates beguiling images of the last good time—a prelap-sarian age of good sex, good drugs, and good vibes. For unreconstructed leftists, the Sixties is not just an era of good fun but of good politics too—a time of monumental idealism populated by individuals who wanted nothing more than to give peace a chance; a time of commitment and action when dewy-eyed young people in the throes of a moral passion unknown in our own selfish age sought only to remake the world.
There is truth in the nostalgia. It is the memory of the era that is false. The vision we see when we look into the glass of Sixties narcissism is distorted. It may have been the best of times, but it was the worst of times as well. And by this we do not simply mean to add snapshots of the race riots at home and war in Vietnam to the sentimental collage of people being free. It was a time when innocence quickly became cynical, when American mischief fermented into American mayhem. It was a time when a gang of ghetto thugs like the Black Panthers might be anointed as political visionaries, when Merry Pranksters of all stripes could credibly set up shop as social evangelists spreading a chemical gospel.
The Sixties might have been a time of tantalizing glimpses of the New Jerusalem. But it was also a time when the “System”—that collection of values that provide guidelines for societies as well as individuals—was assaulted and mauled. As one center of authority after another was discredited under the New Left offensive, we radicals claimed that we murdered to create. But while we wanted a revolution, we didn’t have a plan. The decade ended with a big bang that made society into a collection of splinter groups, special interest organizations and newly minted “minorities,” whose only common belief was that America was guilty and untrustworthy. This is perhaps the enduring legacy of the Sixties. The political philosopher Michael Walzer expressed this adversarial sensibility when he confessed, in a recent article in The New Republic, “It is still true that only when I go to Washington to demonstrate do I feel at home there.”
The Sixties are still with us, therefore, as a nostalgic artifact that measures our more somber world and finds it wanting, and also as a goad to radical revival. It has become the decade that would not die, the decade whose long half-life continues to contaminate our own. The Sixties are the green socks around our ankles: heavy, man, very heavy.
This book is about the Sixties and also about that phenomenon—there’s really no name for it—that might be termed the Sixties-within-the-Eighties. It is also about the two of us and our understanding of the weight of Kierkegaard’s observation that life may be lived forward but can only be understood backward.
By the mid-Seventies, our own path had begun to diverge from the one taken by other New Leftists who wanted to maintain the struggle and keep the faith. For both of us the withdrawal from radicalism involved an interplay between the personal and political which we have tried to describe in detail in the explicitly autobiographical part of this book. Broadly speaking, however, if there was one event that triggered our reevaluations (and those of others who began to have second thoughts about the Leftism of the Sixties), it was the fate of Vietnam. There was no “new morning” as radicals had predicted, no peasant Utopia. Instead, there was a bloodbath greater than the one we set out to oppose and a government worse than the one we had wanted to replace.
Coming out of Southeast Asia in bits and pieces (the flow of information impeded by the Left itself), these facts slowed our forward political motion rather than throwing it immediately into reverse. That was accomplished a few years later when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan and the reformed Left reacted not by denouncing the genocide but by denouncing tenuous U.S. efforts to impose sanctions on the U.S.S.R. and to help the mujahideen as the beginning of a “new cold war.
By the early Eighties, we felt it was time to try for an honest inventory of our generation’s impact. Some of the accomplishments were undeniably positive. There was an expansion of consciousness, of social space, of tolerance, of prospects for individual fulfillment. But there was a dark side too. In the inchoate attack against authority, we had weakened our culture’s immune system, making it vulnerable to opportunistic diseases. The origins of metaphorical epidemics of crime and drugs could be traced to the Sixties, as could literal ones such as AIDS.
As we began to write episodically about some of the people we had known and events we had experienced, we encountered considerable resistance from our former comrades. They made it clear that for them there were two categories of truth —the”progressive” truths which aided the cause, and subversive truths which were best left unsaid. We watched them pick up the mothballed banners once again and revive the old slogans, these middle-aged activists with gray sideburns and sagging bellies now agitating for a new anti-Americanism despite the change in what we had once called the “objective conditions” of global power. And we began to realize that one of the strongest holds the Sixties had on our generation was its promise of eternal youth, a state of being that would never require a balance sheet of one’s prior acts, let alone a profit-and-loss statement. It was as Lionel Trilling had written in his classic novel of ideas The Middle of the Journey: “To live the life of promises was to remain children.”
The contents of this book, then, mirror our attempt to understand the movement of which we were a part, to understand the lost boys and girls of the Sixties who never grew up, and to understand ourselves as well. Our approach utilizes memoir, documentary reconstruction, commentary, adumbration. But the overall spirit of these pieces is interrogatory— of ourselves and our past, of our old comrades who chose to keep to the revolutionary road. “Pieces,” that journalistic codeword for essays, is indeed an appropriate term for the chapters of this book. Not the “picked up pieces” that usually comprise collections of occasional writings but pieces of the past and pieces of the present that past has influenced; pieces of the puzzle of the way we were and the way we have become. Writing this book was an act of discovery for us which is not over yet.