For those of us who came of age in the 1960s and identify with the music, the politics, and the whole zeitgeist, it may be a surprise to learn that some of our classmates and contemporaries regard the nation’s current state of affairs as a direct consequence of that unruly decade — as if the road to Mar-a-Lago originated at Woodstock.
If J. Harvie Wilkinson III’s — which centers on the unraveling of traditional American values — were a film instead of a book, Max Yasgur’s farm in upstate New York would make an ideal setting for the place where the social fabric came apart, where the “Me” generation celebrated its freedom from the ties that bound us, “family, church, school, country,” as he writes. By the end of the ’60s, Wilkinson, who has been a federal judge since 1984, writes, Americans were “left no star to steer by,” just a heedless disdain for foundational principles, for “duty, honor, country, character.”
Wilkinson blames the “the toxic stew of the 2016 election” in part on the “contempt with which the young elites of the Sixties dismissed the contributions of America’s working classes.” He adds that “it was left to demagogues to stir the resulting resentment.” (Wilkinson and I were classmates at Yale University in the ’60s, though we did not know each other.)
Wilkinson doesn’t name the demagogue in chief whose vile rhetoric came as close to fomenting mob violence as any public figure in the ’60s, including George Wallace and Malcolm X. If the rise of Trump is related to ’60s-era class antagonism, we need look no further than the attacks by New York City construction workers on students protesting the Vietnam War. But as historian Rick Perlstein wrote recently in the the seeds of Trumpery were planted in the 1920s and ’30s, long before the Vietnam era, by the Ku Klux Klan and the pro-Hitler Christian Front.
For Wilkinson, the thuggish tenor of our politics is only the latest symptom of our weakened state. “From the family that nourishes us, the school that educates us, the community that welcomes us, the conventions that guide us, the laws that govern us, the patriotism that inspires us, and the faith that sustains us. All these forces were weakened in the Sixties.” Wilkinson is a Southern conservative with a deep affection for his native Virginia. Appointed to the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals by Ronald Reagan, he is a lifelong Republican, and his book is both memoir and social commentary. Ostensibly, his critique of the ’60s is free of regional or partisan bias. He deplores segregation and police brutality (then and now), and denounces the Vietnam war and Richard Nixon.
“To understand the Sixties,” he writes, “one must distinguish what came first from the decade’s later years. The early days of the civil rights movement were not only just — they were lyric and beautiful.” But the social consciousness turned into an allconsuming rage. “The power of nonviolent resistance could not withstand the welling anger of the age.” White racism begot black fury. Cities burned. “It was impossible not to feel that America had run amok.” Or had something else happened? You cannot blame a decade any more than you can hold a volcano accountable for the pressures that cause it to erupt. I was a young reporter in Washington, D.C., when the rioting broke out after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. The violence was like a volcano exploding from 400 years of pent-up pain and loss.
Wilkinson acknowledges some of the good things that happened during the ’60s, the strides toward racial and gender equality. But he does so dutifully. He has nothing to say about the extraordinary burst of creativity in the arts and sciences that put a man on the moon and charged our spirits with some of the most evocative American music ever composed. Wilkinson admits he didn’t have much fun in those days. The first time he found himself alone with a girl in a hotel room, he felt his father’s disapproving glare boring a hole in his libido, and he fled.
Wilkinson and I were at different ends of the political spectrum in college. He was president of the Republican Club, I was an editor at the left-leaning campus newspaper. I remember little of the politically correct shenanigans he recalls in his book. He makes no mention of professors I had who challenged liberal dogma. Likewise, his description of hedonistic campus life omits mention of the faith-based tutoring, mentoring, and missionary work that many students engaged in.
Wilkinson deeply regrets the decline of religion in American life, and in chapters titled “The Destruction of Commitment” and “The Fall of Faith,” his book takes on an admonitory tone, like a sermon. The British author G.K. Chesterton once remarked that America was “a nation with the soul of a church” formed around a set of core beliefs that Chesterton referred to as “sacred texts.” That’s the America Wilkinson mourns, but it was never so — someone was always blaspheming. Barely a decade after the Puritans landed, they banished Roger Williams because he denounced them for punishing religious dissidents and confiscating Indian land. So many defining events in our history, from the Revolution to the Civil War to the civil rights movement, began with someone breaking faith, defying the authorities, or violating the law.
Heresy is the handmaiden of innovation. It’s what made America and what nearly destroyed it in the 1860s. Now, we’re in the middle of another insurgency, one that threatens to reverse the social progress made in the 1960s. It has already fostered an angry resistance. Whatever its outcome, the seeds weren’t planted in the Age of Aquarius. They are in our DNA. — Frank Clifford