Why the Sixties Never Went Away

The Sixties are back. Patronized for the last quarter-century as "crunchy," then shown up as pathetically irony-challenged by the bebop-hatted members of the Gawker generation, we are suddenly invited to be in their thrall again. This weekend, The New York Times Book Review is featuring five books about the radical passion of the era -- two novels and three memoirs -- and there's a respectful, even yearning, tone to some of the reviews, not to mention to some of the books themselves. This, of course, follows two weeks during which we saw the Kennedy era return with an almost Originalist fervor and spontaneity: one family member after another, even the most private, standing up and re-invoking JFK and Bobby (who, had he lived, might have made "soulful" and "chief executive" a non-oxymoronic adjective-noun combination). At this same time, the Times's fashion pages decreed that spring '08 would be all about Camelot-era clothes: ladylike sheaths, as felinely taut as was the start of those ten years that took us from housewives kissing their refrigerators in magazine ads to the clamorous time-has-come-ness of the women's movement. In a sense, a string of recent semi-flop movies has paved the way for this re-embrace of the decade, which Barack Obama has sailed right into the center of, like some fated avatar. We had: Emilio Estevez's wistful love poem Bobby; the vastly underappreciated Factory Girl; Julie Taymor's bravura, heart-on-sleeve Across the Universe; and I'm Not There, as dazzling (Cate Blanchett's Dylan = Richard Burton's Hamlet) and as tragic (the brilliant promise that was Heath Ledger) as the era itself was.

As one who has spent the past five years re-living those times for a book I've just completed, I have a few ideas on why the Sixties have been hiding in the tall grass of public ridicule, just waiting for the right moment to try to wander home again.

1. We believed in the melodramatic gesture and the literal imperative, and that is irresistible. As Todd Gitlin put it in his authoritative The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage, "The link between feeling and action was a short fuse. Actions were taken...to `dramatize convictions'...[T]he movement's rites became epiphanies....We collected these ritual punctuations as moments when the shroud that normally covers everyday life was torn away and we stood face to face with the true significance of things. Each round was an approximation of the apocalyps[e]." Why should the Right, with its Rapture, have co-opted all the searing emotion all these years, when the Left coined it and could return to it?

2. Status hierarchies were reversed. It's hard in these days of Lipstick Jungle and gangsta-rappers-on-the-Red-Carpet to recall that materialism and publicity-mindedness were once hopelessly corny. Yippies threw dollar bills from the balcony of the New York Stock Exchange; rock stars flocked to "freaks'" meccas in the Mediterranean to live in caves without toilets and fincas without showers. The beginning of the end was when Debbie Harry (so hip, Madonna has never stopped wanting to be her) was reduced to singing the truly awful lyric "Roll me in designer sheets." Perhaps we're unrolling the era where, as the way-cool '60s guitarist Danny Kortchmar put it, "people write love songs to their jewelry."

3. You could become the opposite of what they were born as. The late social critic and leading second-wave feminist Ellen Willis once made the point that "identity politics" -- all the rage from the early '80s on -- was initially secretly baffling to many coming across it in their 40s. Why? In identity politics, you become what you were born as, only more so, and...who would want that? If you came of age in the '60s you got to derail your fate and giddily reinvent yourself -- become a Berber or a Navajo, a Medieval princess or a James Gang member. (Walking around in clothes from other centuries was, for 19 year olds in 1966 what making sex videos on camera-phones was to 19 year olds in 2006: exhibitionism as social statement.) Suburban kids morphed into Om-ing mystics, bleeding-madras'd sorority girls into bomb-making revolutionaries. The dream of possibility can certainly be misused (and was then), but it's awfully nice to have it. And, ultimately, the dream of possibility -- so sorely needed now, in a time of so many dead ends -- may be why we've come hobbling back to The Sixties.