Friday, February 22, 2008

The Sixties, God Bless 'Em

By Barbara D'Amato

I hate to be Pollyanna. There’s something lame and dippy about being an optimist. However, in her recent blog, Libby Hellmann mentions Jonathan Alter, talking about “older boomers” being less hopeful and this possibly being an effect of “the disappointment of the sixties.”

While the saying is, “If you remember the sixties, you weren’t there,” I was there and I do remember. They were great years. Okay, the sixties dreamed nirvana and we don’t have it. But much of what the sixties accomplished remains with us to this day.

[By the way, when you say sixties, you really mean late sixties and early seventies. The early sixties were just about as repressive as the fifties.]

For example before the sixties revolution:

Race in America:

During the taping of an NBC television show in 1968, singer Petula Clark, who was white, touched the hand of Harry Belafonte. Touched. The. Hand. The sponsor wanted the segment cut. It eventually aired, but to controversy.

Maybe somebody can help me place this memory: Sometime in the fifties or early sixties, entertainer Sammy Davis Jr. was performing at a hotel, I believe with Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin. Davis jumped in the hotel’s swimming pool. After he got out, the hotel drained the pool.

Things are better now.

Being female in the fifties:

When I was in school, girls were not permitted to wear pants [called ‘slacks’ at the time]. This meant walking with bare legs however far you had to, while the boys wore nice warm stuff. I’m talking central Michigan in the pre-global-warming winters. The school I attended was a perfectly normal, public school, not some rigid religious one. Clothing was closely regulated.

Women on the Supreme Court? It would have been considered laughable. There were not even any women news anchors. One of the first national television news anchors was Patricia Harper, who anchored USA Tonight starting in 1980! I remember people saying in earlier years that women could not present hard news because they wouldn’t be taken seriously.

Things are better now.

Freedom of speech:

In 1961 comic Lenny Bruce was arrested in San Francisco for obscenity onstage. Same in 1962 in L.A. In 1962 in Chicago he was arrested for mocking the Catholic Church and obscenity. The jury deliberated one hour and found him guilty. In New York, in 1964, mostly for political remarks, he was found guilty and sentenced to four months in the workhouse. By the way, you can find many of his routines on YouTube. Watch them. In one he discusses his arrests. He’s still funny today.

Remember Senator Joe McCarthy who, beginning in 1950 claimed there was a communist spy ring in the State Department, then expanded his accusation to include the Army and pretty much everybody else? Or the Hollywood blacklist, purporting to find communists in the entertainment industry? Movies were actually screened for subversive content. People lost employment or were tarred by simple suspicion—people like Ring Lardner Jr., Leonard Bernstein, Paul Robeson, Lillian Hellman, Arthur Miller, Dorothy Parker, and Dashiell Hammett. There has been much written and dramatized about this era, so I won’t belabor it, but I ask you imagine living in a period when this kind of thing was acceptable. And it went on for several years.

Things are better now.

There was a reason the 60s happened. The 50s were the reason. Those years were constrictive, authoritarian, and dark.

There are a number of problems that are worse today—and frightening. But not the human rights advances begun in the sixties. There are many more and immeasurably higher-tech ways of keeping track of citizens today. Warrantless wiretapping is one current issue. In the sixties J. Edgar Hoover kept track of his enemies mostly on pieces of paper. We are far beyond that now because of the power of data managing. Overpopulation is scary, but not the fault of the free-sex sixties. People knew how to populate long before the sixties. Global pollution is the biggie. I am afraid it may do us in. The sixties aren’t to blame, though.

Bless the sixties. If you weren’t there—wish you had been. It was a great time.

39 comments:

Sara Paretsky said...

Barb, I so agree. As Wordsworth said--"Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be young then was very heaven." It's popular to be cynical about the Woodstock generation, but we really did put our nerve and muscle where our mouths were.

Libby Hellmann said...

My daughter is jealous that I grew up in the Sixties. I would not have traded the experience. Talk about feeling empowered. And free. Ultimately, though, the "system" absorbed most of us -- maybe it should have... maybe not. I suppose it all depends on the lens through which you're viewing it. When I look back, I see the "could have beens" and "should have beens..."

Except for the music. Stones, Beatles, Buffalo Springfield, Neil Young, it all still gets me going.

John McFetridge said...

It may be too soon to say the "system" absorbed us. It beat a lot of us down but it takes quite a while for these kinds of ideas to make their way through the whole society. Some of those "could have beens and should have beens" are still playing out.

Barbara D'Amato said...

Sara--yes, and it was very satisfying, wasn't it?

Libby and John--to some extent the system absorbed us, but the real thrill is that the system absorbed a lot of the reforms that began in the sixties, too. We're so used to many of them that we don't really see them any more.

Sara Paretsky said...

I did a program last summer at the Woodson REgional Library--it's where the Vivian Harsh collection is housed--biggest archive of African-Am writers & artists outside the Schomburg Collection--and as we chatted, one of the women in the audience wondered where the youth were. It was the young people who drove the Civil Rights movement, she explained: as you get older you get more cautious. Maybe it's because you have bills to pay, maybe it's because the longer you live the less you're willing to risk life and limb. After all, Dr. King was only 26 when he j oined the Montgomery bus boycott, and the SNCC members were even younger.

We all were activists of one kind or another in the sixties--I was doing community service here in Chicago and working for abortion rights, Libby was working the Watergate hearings. We need people in their 20's to be stepping up today and pushing us oldsters into more action the way we pushed the country forty years ago. I know there are great kids out there, but I don't feel "movement" urgency.

Aaltje said...

We're out there, Sara. You just got to start running with us.

We're a different flavor now. We are the movement of the 60s (though I would give my eyeteeth to experience that!). I think we are more focused, more intent.

Libby - You may have been "absorbed" by the system. Then your responsibility is to change it from where you are, not give up. While you are breathing, you can still do some good - unless you give up and focus on the "should have"s and "could have"s. Once you do that, you are as good as dead in my book. I saw from a previous post that I can't expect you to "join in" because you have no hope for the future... What use are you for this world then, other than collecting dust as you sit in reminiscence?

We're out there, and we need your help. Often times, I think we've given up on you because you only talk about how great the 60s were or how you have no hope for change or whine about "the youth" and how we are idealistic. We're busy doing things and making change. You expect us to take responsibility for your involvement too?

Maybe the way that we are doing things is just different from the way you did. I don't think the "60s" would work again now. We are.

If you want to run with me, come. I have a place and a need for you.

Barbara D'Amato said...

aaltje--let me put something out here and hope other people respond with their thoughts. One of the ways Libby does good in the world is that her books illustrate the good and the bad and show the consequences of evil. She has characters who resist bias and stand for independent thinking. Personally, I believe books reach a lot of people right where they live. In their minds. Does anybody agree with me?

Aaltje said...

Barbara - perhaps my point was unclear in that paragraph. I slipped into rhetorical writing, which may have been confusing. Let me try restructuring it in a different way:

"While people are breathing, people can still do some good - unless they have given up and focus on the "should have"s and "could have"s. Once someone does that, then s/he are as good as dead in my book. If I can't expect people to "join in" because they have no hope for the future, what use are they for this world then, other than collecting dust as they sit in reminiscence?"

It was not an attack on Libby. She definitely was serving as an illustration through her words, though I can see how that may have been more of a distraction than help.

Barbara D'Amato said...

aaltje--I totally agree, and thank you for saying it. As a general question, though, do you--do we all?--think that the written word makes a difference? I certainly do. It can be quite suble in fiction. Maybe just the plain fact of taking the reader into another mind.

Aaltje said...

Barbara - I think the interesting question is not "Does the written word make a difference?" (especially since it would be an obviously resounding 'yes' on an authors' blog) but rather:

What is the written word? What counts?
By whom?
What kind of difference?
To whom?
How is this manifest?
Is what is being conveyed what is desired by the author?
What is this written word enabling (or not)?
What is the written word for someone who can't read or get the books for various reasons?

Is this perhaps a clue to the difference between the "revolutions" of the "generations?"

Aaltje said...

Though, thinking about it (of course after I hit 'post'), the actual essence of the question in your last comment really seems to be:

Does my writing make a difference?

Sara Paretsky said...

Aaltje, I'd love some examples of the things you're doing that you'd like to see us running with you--or staggering along with our canes and walkers for those w hose running days are past.

Aaltje said...

Naturally! (I somehow knew you'd ask.)

I'll work on keeping it writing/book focused... or at least stuff I know you can handle (hobble hobble). I don't do as much policy work, but I'm sure I can hook you up that way, if you are so inclined. This is off the top of my head, but should at least give you a good idea. I think many of you already do some of this, but aren't seeing it the way that I do.

From stuff that I'm working on or have worked on:

Come with me to 63rd and Prairie with the Night Ministry Bus. It's a stop full of children, many of whom having difficulties in school. They need supplies, encouragement, and tutoring.

Help me start literacy programs or support groups on the Westside. Most of my clients there never got past the 11th grade and can't read, but are too embarrassed to say so at the age of 50 or 60.

Donate your older clothing to organizations that give it out to those in need. Buy nice fancy clothing and donate it. Organizations that give out the nice clothing can help people get interviews and jobs. I've been there. It's a beautiful sight.

Offer resume or tutoring services in a local public library.

The humane society (I think it was) takes animals to nursing homes as part of therapy.

Lobby with me for affordable housing, mixed income, funding for the schools here, no increased transit fares.

Be speakers for schools and organizations that need help to sustain themselves. (I know, many of you already do. Welcome.)

Hook up with an organization that does Women's Furlough at the prison and do a presentation.

These are how we are making changes - it is no longer a big revolution. The 60s drew people's attention to problems through blunt force marches often times. We can't do that now. Those in power - your generations - ignore the marching. We can't march in protest of the Westside. The change now takes time. Person by person. Generation by generation.

I may never see the change. I don't expect to. But I do know that if I can one person get off drugs through support, encouragement, and options, that person may develop a better relationship with her son... Change cascades. Don't be discouraged, but don't expect dramatic results instantly like the 60s had.

In short, us in our 20s are sneaky. To make the change we want, we have to get to the roots of the problems. We are networking and digging.

I think we are more like the change that Pete Seeger talks about. Us and our teaspoons.

Barbara D'Amato said...

aaltje--

Can you give me some addresses? I've had some negative experiences trying to give away good clothing. Nobody there, been made to wait, people throwing stuff in piles on the floor. I have a lot of good clothing that -- okay, Tony and I gained weight -- would do somebody good.

Also the Night Ministry Bus -- what do they need exactly, and what should people do to get it to them?

Aaltje said...

clothing is always an interesting thing. A lot of people donate clothing that is only good for the bin or rags. I've sorted through stuff with holes, dirty, stained (and some of that underwear!), but I've also gone through some really amazing stuff that I'll never even begin to be able to afford, especially not given my professional track. :) Men's clothes are especially needed because apparently, men don't really donate clothing much, especially not larger sizes. Good shoes are also usually welcome. And socks. Lots of socks.

For clothing, I send my clients to Elam Davies Social Service Center at 4th Presbyterian Church downtown, an agency where I interned last year. The address is 126 E Chestnut. Fabulous place. Just give them to receptionist. If they don't need the clothing or it is out of season, they send it on to the Salvation Army, who gives some away and sells some. EDSSC is not very well known as an agency but is one of my favorites (and not just because I worked there). Very accessible by transit too.

Sarah's Circle, a women's center, can usually also need clothing, but you might want to call them first to see and make sure. Their location is 4750 N Sheridan Road and their number 773-728-1991.

Finally, if you happen to be down in Gary, Indiana, Sojourner Truth House takes all sorts of stuff for homeless and at-risk women (including appliances).

The Night Ministry is one of my favorite organizations. Their primary focus is Rapid HIV testing, but they do a bunch of other stuff. Around the beginning of the school year, they collect supplies (or at least did a few years ago when I was there) - bookbags, paper, pencils, pens - and pass them out. They (and most places) can always use "hygiene" products, travel-size items, such as soap, shampoo, washclothes, toothpaste, toothbrushes... And socks. White athletic socks. EDSSC takes these last couple items too. the Health and Outreach bus also appreciates people providing dinner on the rounds. The Night Ministry is located at 4711 N. Ravenswood Ave. They can also always use volunteers at any of their programs, though that's a bit more of a commitment.

I can get more, if you want, but these are the ones which whom I have worked and know the best.

Barbara D'Amato said...

Great. The 4th Presbyterian Church is four blocks from me. I'll take my wheelie cart and go tomorrow.

Sara Paretsky said...

Aaltje, I had to work this afternoon and had family obligations--all things that happen to you as you age, so I haven't been back to the blog, or to the schools where I did volunteer work for 37 years, or the clinics where I worked, etc==my point being that these are great things to do, and we need your youth and energy to keep them going as we lose energy and lose time. But these on the ground things that are so important have to be augmented with ways of changing the big picture, too. I'm not makaing acase for the 60's as the best way to make big picture change--I'm not sure we did--and we were part of a worldwide youth dynamic--the first time in history that on a global level young people rose up--not always very intelligently--sometimes very destructively. That's what's missing on the landscape, though--the back-and-forth between movements that bring people together to energize them, and then send them back to do grassroots work. The 60's weren't all about life on the streets, but life on the streets fueled our commitment to the many programs we started--and kept going. That's the energy that I'm not finding, but maybe I don't know where to look.

Libby said...

Boy.. stay off the computer for a few hours, and you miss everything! Sorry I wasn't here for most of the conversation... Aaltje, you make some excellent points. And thanks for the suggestions. I will take you up on some of them.

You seem to have tremendous energy.. and as Sara just said, that might be one of the things that's lacking today in me as well as others of my generation.

I do agree with you and Barb and Sara that sweeping changes are probably not going to happen, despite the excitement among young people during this election season.

I think you're right for focus on grassroots efforts. But I do confess I'm thrilled when I hear about someone's son or daughter or niece or nephew joining Teach America or Vista (or whatever they call the Peaces Corps now).

I'm also proud that my own kids are beginning to give back -- my son will be working at the public defenders office in Santa Clara, CA this summer.

But maybe that's the way it should be... Younger people with more energy and determination take our place, as you are so clearly doing.

In any event, thanks for the kick in the butt... I probably needed it. :)

Aaltje said...

Kick in the butt. That's what I do. Someone's got to keep you old folk in line. :)

The energy is there, but it is just a different kind. We're a networking generation. We form webs of change and work. We're changing the big picture, but it is subtle. We connect and suddenly, it will pop. It just takes time. We talk to each other and build. You did the big movements. We network. Facebook and the like aren't just fluffy gossip centers. (Usually.)

Also, remember that I'm more micro level - for what that counts these days. My focus is more psychotherapy and individual work. But I work with a lot of more macro level people. We work to more efficiently use our energy and time. I know people all over the country and world - people I can rely on. We get together. We're in different fields; we energize each other through that. I call up my old agencies and refer people there. I call up my friends and send them there. Those agencies now have a relationship outside of me. We now have policy power.

We'll gather the momentum, but we need time - and not the discouragement or cynicism. We're cynical enough because of the current generations in power. :)

I also think that it take more energy to drag people along who are resistant and discouraging (calling us "naive" or "dippy" or "delusional") than it is to get the energy to rebel against an obvious opponent.

Sorry to take over the threat... I get a bit excited about this. Especially when it means I can avoid my other writing work.

Sara Paretsky said...

I missed the post that said the Millennium Gen was dippy or delusional. What I do see is isolation--people attached to the earbud and the cellphone, and that cuts across generations--and self-segregation. The current make-up of razor sliced market segments encourages people to be be closed off into their own pods, so that getting into the pod or crossing pods doesn't seem to be happening. My nerve-damaged hands are cramping up, no more on this thread tonight.

Maryann Mercer said...

Wow. Let me add my two cents by volunteering the fact that most large cities have something akin to what aaltje has detailed. We have volunteer opportunities listed in the daily paper, on boards at the supermarkets & libraries, even on the local morning news. In most cases, all it takes is a phone call. Or a trip to the local Salvation Army.

And if we talk about writing affecting social change, just think back to Thomas Paine, Charles Dickens, Harriet Beecher Stowe and Darwin. What they wrote made a difference. So does what is written today. People read and form opinions from what they read. A well-written book can be a catalyst, even if only to plant a seed in someone's mind about right and wrong.

Barbara D'Amato said...

Maryann--thank you for bringing us back to the issue of what good stuff writing can do. I hinted earlier at one of my almost daily questions--how much of my political opinions should come out in a a book of fiction. You don't quite want to be what Nabokov called "a purveyor of illustrated ideas," but you want to reach people. Any ideas, anybody?

Sara Paretsky said...

Barb, this was such a good post. I loved Aaltje's involvement--great to hear from such a dedicated young activist.

The point you raise--I wrestle with it constantly. I don't want write Socialist Realism (Gribachev's "Spring in the Victory Collective Farm") but I have to write what's in my heart, where I feel passionately. I know it costs me readers--many readers--that my point-of-view is so present.

What Libby wrote about I think is what I also wrestle with--is writing enough? I don't have the energy to do as I used to, tutoring, working on clinic safety, but then I feel guilty--I'm not doing enough. Or is that the female disease, one is never doing enough?

Anyway, thanks for the great exchange.

Barbara D'Amato said...

Sara, you are quite welcome and thank you very much for your wonderful posts here.

Aaltje--is there any way other than posting here to get in touch with you and let you know what we're doing or to ask for further suggestions on what we might do?

Sarah Wisseman said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sarah Wisseman said...

What a great post, Barb. I often think about my mother who was a young, stay-at-home wife in the fifties. She exulted over the freedoms we had in the late sixties--but she often said she was jealous, too.

She began her intellectual rebellion when "The Feminine Mystique" was published. Oddly, she hid that book from me until I asked about it. Probably it's time to reread it!

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