189 pages

Pasatiempo - - IN OTHER WORDS - All Fall­ing Faiths New York Times Mag­a­zine,

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

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