It’s easy in this hyperpartisan age to watch the political talk shows on cable and get the impression that our nation is savagely, hopelessly divided.
Fox News commentators rail against the latest foibles of the Obama administration, while MSNBC liberals decry the do-nothing Republican-controlled House of Representatives or plans to impeach President Obama. There are so many angry voices screaming back and forth on both sides that it paints the picture of a nation coming apart.
Fortunately, it’s taken CNN to offer a different concept, namely that the country appears far more united today than in past decades. This comes not through CNN’s coverage of Obamacare, the 2014 congressional elections or President Obama’s foreign policy, but rather through something else: the network’s excellent ongoing series “The Sixties”.
The series actually does a remarkable and convincing job of demonstrating how much more turbulent, divisive and violent that earlier decade was – it makes sense that the documentary series’ tag line is “Explore The Decade That Shaped America.” The documentary series does have voice over narration, and it does interview people who lived through and were a key part of the decade. But what it does best is simply revive striking film and television footage from that era – and allow the images to speak for themselves.
Not all of the episodes focus on issues that divided the nation – some look back at the race to put a man on the moon, for example, or the rise of the Beatles, Motown and other musical trends that are still influencing artists today.
But at the same time, “The Sixties” truly does chart a decade that opened up a wide generation gap – from a socially conservative and tradition-minded 1950s Eisenhower generation to the hippie movement, student anti-war protests, drug culture and sexual revolution of “free love” that exploded midway through the decade. It truly was a time of radical change.
It’s hard not to look back at television coverage of the Summer of Love in 1967, when hippies from all across the nation flocked to the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood in San Francisco, or the casual use of LSD to expand the mind, to see a younger generation fully rejecting the values of their elders. The same is true in the anti-war protests against the Vietnam War, the rioting in poor black neighborhoods in cities across America, and the subsequent law-and-order political campaigns that 1968 Republican Presidential candidate Richard Nixon and Alabama Gov. George Wallace exploited to end the Democratic party’s hold on power. Ironically, all of this was going on even as the United States was enjoying one of the longest economic booms in decades. Prosperity, it seems, did little to ease the political divide.
To see just how much more radically divided the nation was – and how traumatic the ongoing violence continued to be – no episode illustrated this better than one that “The Sixties” devoted simply to the year 1968. It started with the Tet Offensive on Jan. 30 1968, a surprise attack by North Vietnamese troops against military and civilian commands in U.S.-supported South Vietnam, a bloody attack captured on American television screens that led so many Americans to conclude that the administration of President Lyndon Johnson had lied when he said the U.S. was winning the war in Vietnam. Johnson would decide by March that he was not running for a second term, and that would be followed by the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., riots in black neighborhoods in cities across America, the assassination of Sen. Robert Kennedy, and the violent and bloody clashes between anti-war protestors and the Chicago police during the Democratic National Convention in the Windy City that August.
Watching the footage today, it does almost look like a nation completely unraveling.
And today? It’s hard not to feel that the hippies won the culture wars. From sexual freedom we now have a culture where millions of women work, have careers and run businesses, as well as an issue that wasn’t even around in 1968: gay marriage. Today’s twenty-somethings – the grandchildren of the 60’s hippies? – are among the strongest supporters of allowing gay couples to get married. Even prominent conservative Republicans like Ohio Sen. Rob Portman are on board.
The casual use of marijuana and LSD in the 1960s led to the War on Drugs in the Nixon and Reagan administrations in the 1970s and 1980s, but today young people are the leading voices in the decriminalization, and even legalization, of marijuana. Voters in three states have already decided to legalize marijuana, and Florida may join them in November with a ballot measure to support medical marijuana.
It isn’t that these issues are not controversial, and there is clearly a divide between young people supporting gay marriage and legal pot and older Americans who don’t. But there are also a growing number of older Americans moving in that direction as well – almost as if the libertarian leanings of the youngest voters is influencing their elders.
This is a far cry from the 1960s, and absent the scene today are violent protests and clashes in the streets. Today we mostly take our anger out through those shrill talk radio and repetitive cable talk shows. Most of the rest of American moves on.
It may be that the liberation movement of the 1960s hippies has eventually evolved into the libertarian, live-and-let-live values of today’s younger generation. Even a prominent Republican candidate for president, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, is calling for a new approach to drugs that abandons the heavy criminalization that Reagan and Nixon championed.
If there’s one thing that “The Sixties” so brilliantly demonstrates, it’s that regardless of how many divisive “culture war” issues we have today, the nation seems a bit closer to being on the same page now than we ever did back then.
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