Saturday, August 24, 2019

The Erickson Report, Page 2: Woodstock: the political life around it

The Erickson Report, Page 2: Woodstock: the political life around it

Okay, there is another reason besides aging hippie nostalgia that I wanted to bring this all up. Because Woodstock did not exist, did not occur, in a social or cultural vacuum.

For one thing, the Vietnam War was at its most intense levels. Casualty figures for the Indochinese are hard to come by, even overall totals of how many millions died are estimates. But for Americans, we have year-by-year totals and in 1968, 16,592 US soldiers were killed in Vietnam; in 1969. the figure proved out to be 11,616. But look at that 1968 figure. Those 16,600 killed are more than double the number of Americans killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars combined, across the entire history of those war, right up to the present.

Opposition to that war was also becoming more and more intense. There were major demonstrations on college campuses across the country throughout 1969. A few months before Woodstock, in April, there were mass antiwar demonstrations in New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C. and other places. On October 15, two months after the festival, the National Moratorium against the War generated thousands of local actions across the country including mass rallies, some of them quite large, along with parades, teach-ins, forums, candlelight processions, prayers, and the reading of the names of the war dead, with the estimates of total participation ranging from two to five to seven million. A month after that, on November 15, a half-million turned out in Washington, D.C. to protest the war with 100,000 more in San Francisco.

But that wasn't the only issue. Civil rights had seen some legislative successes in the preceding years, such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, but the inadequacies of those gains was clearly demonstrated in what became known as "the long hot summer" of 1967, when riots driven by frustrations and economic desperation broke out in black neighborhoods in 159 US cities. At the time of Woodstock, the phrase "black liberation" and a discussion of what that meant was a part of every conversation about civil rights or race.

But in turn it was the very strength of those two movements - peace and civil rights - that gave strength to, gave extra vigor to, a third, as women in the movement began to get fed up with being always expected to keep to the background, to do the work but get little or none of the credit. The expression "male chauvinist pig" came into circulation, sometimes as a teasing warning when preceded by "don't be a" but also as a sneering dismissive putdown of deserving targets.

And speaking of being fed up, less than three weeks before Woodstock, in Greenwich Village in New York City, some patrons of a gay club and dance bar known as the Stonewall Inn decided they had had it with being hassled, assaulted, and arrested by cops for essentially nothing more than being gay or lesbian. What become known as the Stonewall Riots - more properly the Stonewall Uprising - continued on and off for five days, giving birth to the modern LGBTQ rights movement, with the first gay pride marches occurring just a year later.

Meanwhile the long-standing movement against nuclear weapons was beginning to expand into opposition to nuclear power, merging or at the least overlapping with the environmental movement, which continued to gain strength - recall the first Earth Day, in some ways the only real occasion of that now corporate- and government-approved event, came just eight months after Woodstock.

All this and more was swirling around and through the culture in the summer of 1969. That was the atmosphere, the if you will cultural milieu in which Woodstock happened. Woodstock was by no means intended as a political event, but it was a cultural event, as it proved, a major cultural event, and as such did not and could not stand apart from the political currents of the time. What Woodstock was, what it became, was affected by what was going on around it.

Now, I am certainly not saying that all those at Woodstock were dedicated political or cultural activists who went straight from the festival to the frontlines, even less that people went to Woodstock with the idea that the act of going was itself a conscious political statement. In fact, I expect most of those to be seen in tie-dye t-shirts, jeans, and sandals in 1969, whether at Woodstock or anywhere else, had no more interest in the world at large other than how it immediately impacted their personal lives than those sporting whatever hipper-than-thou gear is currently fashionable do today.

But at the same time, going was by its nature a statement of sorts. Semiotics is the study of sign process, that is, it is the study of signs and symbols as a significant part of communication. That includes the way cultures and subcultures sign themselves. Ever since Monterey Pop in 1967, you pretty much knew that by going to a big rock festival, you would be surrounded by people with long hair dressed in colorful clothes and yes, tie-dye t-shirts, jeans, and sandals, people who were thereby signing that you and they shared a set of cultural values, that you were with your tribe.

The point here is that while you can't say Woodstock was a consciously political event nor can you say that those attending were all political or cultural activists, you can say that those political and cultural activists who attended the festival shared a number of cultural assumptions with those around them, certain cultural principles that had become emblematic of what had become known as the counterculture, cultural principles such as sharing, rejection of competition, and embracing of exploration and discovery, both physical and spiritual.

That is, they pursued a political activism rooted both in cultural, not just intellectual or traditionally political, concerns as well as in a lifestyle that knew the words “others” and “future” as emotional touchstones, not merely statistical measures - the precise difference between the so-called "New Left" of the '60s and the "Old Left" of previous generations, whose adherents could quote chapter and verse of political theory and chant slogans with the best of them but too often sounded as if they regarded the people on whose behalf they were trying to speak more like exhibits in a court case than living, breathing people.

Indeed, a significant part of ‘60s activism was almost purely cultural: The “live your life as an example to others” idea and the "conscious" or "intentional" communities that set out to prove that there are juster, fairer ways to organize our social relations.

Beyond that, one positive result of that footing in cultural as well as more traditional political concerns was the (relative) ease with which the movement became multi-issue: Whenever those distressing, depressing arguments about the issue or the tactic arose, a significant portion of the movement just couldn’t see what all the fuss was about. “You work on what you think is important and I’ll work on what I think is important and whenever we can make the two overlap we’ll work together. Simple! We’re all after pretty much the same end, anyway, right?” The “same end” bit wasn’t always (maybe not even usually) true, of course, but it was true enough to keep things bubbling along without the movement getting bogged down in endless, unresolvable disputes about the relative importance of the arms race vs. feminism vs. the environment vs. racism vs. economic issues vs. and so on.

In short, I firmly believe, I argue, that a main - perhaps the - core energy source for the movement of the ‘60s was that area where political involvement and cultural/spiritual concerns overlapped to form a politically-involved counterculture.

That energy gave us the sense that you could make a difference, that your dreams could be lived out, that they really could come true, that the future was wide open and all things were possible. And it enabled us to keep trying. For all the sexism we came to acknowledge in the counterculture and the peace movement, people kept trying to live more egalitarian lives. For all the undercurrents of racism we dug out of white activist’s relations with black groups, people kept trying to work it out and live more justly. For all the awareness of our umbilical cord connections to the consumer society, people kept trying to live more simply, with greater ecological awareness. There was a sense that you could make it better both in yourself and in others by both your social example and your political actions.

It was that sense, especially when slammed up against the reality of the chasm between the America we saw around us and the America we were taught to believe in, in school that produced the anger and the joy, the tough determination and gentle compassion, the bitter awareness and sweet dreams that marked a movement that over a several-year span was powerful enough to end the draft, limit and finally stop a war, force one (and maybe two) Presidents from office, shake the foundations of a society’s judgements about half its population, open millions of eyes to the reality of racism, force the nuclear power industry to a virtual halt, set in motion other movements for justice, and change - perhaps not by much but clearly permanently - that society’s sense of its relationship to the environment.

And it's good to have that record of success, of progress, because it is of course true that ultimately, in many ways, we failed. Our dreams could not be lived out, at least not full force, the future was not wide open, and not all things were possible. Sexism and racism persist. Poverty and hunger still haunt us. Climate change is a Sword of Damocles over us. Yes, we stopped one war - but the changes we made weren't enough to prevent new wars and more wars, wars that, just like Donovan sang in 1970, "drag on." We got hemmed in, in some cases weighed down, by commitments and obligations of a different sort, commitments and obligations not to the whole community, but to the narrower community of spouses, of children, of aging parents, and the jobs and careers that sustained those commitments.

That doesn't mean we simply surrendered; the '60s generation went disproportionately into what are called "helping" or "caring" fields, fields such as health and medicine, education, social work, public interest law, and so on. But it does mean that the task we set for ourselves was bigger than we ever let ourselves imagine. Our community, our tribe, came together so easily, so naturally, that we just assumed it could stay together just as easily - which, and in retrospect it's easy to say "of course," it couldn't. The result was that when those other commitments arose, we didn't do the work, we didn't put in the effort, to maintain that community in part because we had fooled ourselves into thinking that effort wouldn't be necessary.

So we lost our tribe, we lost the sense that we were all part of the Movement, the Movement with a capital M, that vaguely defined but still somehow an organic whole of which we were part. Between that and the end of the Indochina War, which for a non-insignificant number had been the whole reason for their political activism, that core energy was gone - and so was, I would say, the '60s as a political movement.

No comments:

// I Support The Occupy Movement : banner and script by @jeffcouturer / (v1.2) document.write('
I support the OCCUPY movement
');function occupySwap(whichState){if(whichState==1){document.getElementById('occupyimg').src=""}else{document.getElementById('occupyimg').src=""}} document.write('');