My earliest memories seem to be of music, and that music was from the sixties. By the time I was 4 years old it was already 1970, but what had happened in the 60’s had been imprinted hard upon my psyche, though being of such a young age I had no way of knowing that. The Beatles, The Animals, Cream, Jimi Hendrix, and countless others had been the music I was immersed in as a child. Psychedelia was in my DNA.
My earliest memories were of war. Not of war as most experienced it, a psychologically scarring experience that changed people’s lives, never for the better. No, I experienced war broadcast to our living room every night. My experience with war was not a visceral one but rather presented to me as a moral dilemma: was it right or wrong? People used to ask such questions back then.
I was a bastard child of the 60’s, too young to be considered legitimate and yet bearing all the distinguishing characteristics. Having four siblings, all at least 8 years older than myself, I considered myself a legacy Aquarian. I was only four, but I knew who Syd Barret was. I had not done LSD, but experienced much of the art that had been influenced by it.
Most of all, I breathed in the winds of change that had been blowing since the doctor forced my first inhalation. Things had changed a hell of a lot in the years surrounding my birth. At home, people were becoming aware of the need for preserving the environment, were confronting racial, sexual, and societal injustices that had so long been imbedded in our society that they were not even mentioned in the mass culture. Fortunately, a sub-culture had sprung up to shine a light on what was going on beyond the bright chrome, neon lights, and Howdy Doody Puppetry that so often blinded us from the subtler aspects of our society.
Elsewhere, far from American shores, people were rising up and sloughing off the yokes of imperialism and colonization and white rule. We were no longer a white planet. The 1960’s led us to the concept that the world was not a world of white actors with a few persons of color strewn about the stage for variety but an actual melting pot and quilt where people of all colors and races could add something new to the world vision.
The world view freaking exploded! A fourth if not a fifth and sixth dimension was added to our way of seeing things. When we saw ourselves we no longer saw merely through the eyes of a white male but of an African American, an Indian, a Hispanic. The possibilities were endless. They were endless doubled, because we could also see through the eyes of women, women of every background, race, and creed. Sure, there had always been the feminine point of view, but it was something foreign, an other, an alternative to the prism we stared through. Now we could look through the eyes of women, now that gap was not merely bridgeable but was insisting to be crossed. Women spoke for women, demanded to be seen for who they were, demanded to be understood, demanded to have a part in defining the group reality.
I was perhaps among the first of American children to grow up on heroes who were not exclusively Caucasian. Bruce Lee, Roberto Clemente, Mohammed Ali, these were the people I wanted to be like when I grew up. Somehow race was downplayed in those days. Everyone had outrageously big, frizzy hair and dressed in bright colorful clothes and skin color seemed to be less of a distinction: everything faded into hippie.
But what I had been born into—or more importantly, what my earliest initial memories were about—was the furthest representation of an already spent force. I do not remember a time where Robert or John Kennedy walked the earth. Malcom and Martin too were gone. The great peaceful gathering that was Woodstock had been and gone and was followed by the violence of Altamont. The Beatles had broken up, and while we still had a few decent years of pop music left to us, the change was coming.
Like I said, I was never part of the 60’s but grew up in its wake. The revolution that so many seemed to anticipate had been diverted, but the appearance of progress had to be maintained for a while yet lest the truth be too unpalatable. The great movement for equality and power to the people was slowly subverted and distracted until what was left was hollowed out and perverted remnants of what once was. Feminism became concerned about women wanting to smash glass ceilings and forgot about those who had to mop their floors. Equality of the races became identity politics, driving us apart rather than allowing us to come together. Capitalism became the magic bullet for helping people out of poverty, pretending to empower people, giving them freedom from limiters without providing the freedom to actually succeed.
And war became an acceptable means towards achieving whatever ends we thought were worthwhile. That was the great betrayal, that violence in both word and deed should become a vehicle for change.
Even more than change, the 60’s were about peace. No American represented this notion of peace better than Martin Luthor King Jr., whose campaign for justice through non-violent means rivalled and echoed Mahatma Gandhi’s struggles in India and South Africa.
Peace was important enough to merit a logo AND a hand gesture. Peace was part of the holy trinity, a triune aspect of god co-existing with love and understanding. Peace was a perspective, a commitment, a path forward from the problems that threatened our planet. People actually protested for peace. People actually wrote songs that preached peace. They were the first generation to grow up in a world that might be utterly destroyed by war, who were taught to cower under their school desks, whose parents built bomb shelters. They knew viscerally that violence was not the answer they were looking for.
But like I said, the movement that very naturally came about was very unnaturally co-opted by those who artfully spin the narratives that big money pays them to spin. A generation that was clued into the importance of peace were subtly led down other paths. Mainly we were sold the idea that such a movement was impractical, impossible, or simply naïve. And gradually the narrative about Martin Luthor King became that he was a man who protested for the rights of blacks and nothing more. As if his life was not a remarkable example of the power of peace, the triumph of “soul power” and agape over violence and hatred. As if the gift he gave was to African Americans alone and not every man, woman and child on this planet.
We need another peace movement in this nation. We need to dust off the one that was abandoned sometime in the early 70’s and wave that banner bravely once more. We are a different culture nowadays, no longer naïve but perhaps we are somehow better able to understand the situation we now face. Perhaps—and it may require a degree of faith, hubris, and commitment to optimism—perhaps we are more uniquely suited towards a more sustained pursuit of the path that leads us to where we need to go. Because there is little doubt of where we need to go. All indicators point to the fact that we are worse off than we were when we first diverged from the path of peace.
Whatever changes we wish to see, to make, in this world, will come about only by walking the path of peace, only by a very real and determined commitment to peace. Perhaps those in the ‘60’s—and I’m referring to the average person and not those such as Martin Luthor King, who knew the depths of commitment it took—had a rather naïve view of peace, a shallow faith that did not survive the hardships they encountered.
But if you call the peace movement of the sixties naïve, I call the lack of one today delusional and chilling. Nuclear war is even more possible today than it was then, the belligerence of nations greater, the structures that were erected between humanity and annihilation left to rust. Peace is never going to happen unless we make it happen. No government will ever create peace, it is up to the citizens to demand it.
Whatever other change we wish to see in the world will flow from that. To work for peace is to find commonality with one another. It is seeing ourselves as part of the world, not in combat with it. It is love not hate, it is the realization that we have to find an alternative to conflict. It is a very clear choice: are we going to commit to the path that leads to a peaceful future or are we going to stray from it whenever it is convenient and self-serving to do so? At some point we have to realize that convenience and self-interest are our enemies. Fear and doubt, too, we must admit to be working against our overall odds of surviving as a species.
It is not as difficult a choice as fear, selfishness, and doubt make it out to be. These are the voices of the child within us that fears to take the steps necessary to reach adulthood. We once believed that the sixties were a time of naivete, now we can see they were the first tentative steps taken by a young species learning how to walk, how to stand on its own without the prop of violence. It is time to take the step forward towards a peaceful future. The steps will be unsteady, like a child’s, but we must take them or else wallow our short lives in infantile fantasies about how the comfort of the world we’ve known up to now can continue to provide us safety.