Anyone who was a child in America during the 90's will tell you how he was repeatedly molested by stories about the 60's. It was everywhere, back then; the 68'ers having all grown up and many of them gone into film to tell about how things were in the good old days of radicalism and free-spirits and new ideas and easy lays with pretty women. The recollections were more sad than anything else, and every picture you saw had the miserable tint of nostalgia; not as though you were experiencing the 60's themselves, but as though you had missed it and it had been lost forever, along with somebody's youth.
It was almost all a dirge; set to the miserable tune of California Dreamin' or Get Together or that song by Buffalo Springfield -- none of which are now played with any of the hope that originally accompanied them. The songs themselves sound dusty and foreign. And so many of the films that these old and passing men were making had the same upward feel to them in the beginning, culminating in the train wreck of the 70's and (God forbid) the 90's themselves, when everyone was not only older and crankier because they were no longer young, but miserable because so many of their dreams had been ruined. Whether it was Forrest Gump or Mr. Holland's Opus or even just Hunter S. Thompson's monologue in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, it all had the feeling that somebody thought things were starting to go right before everything suddenly went wrong. The latter film is the only one I can think of which never portrayed anything rosily, in fact; and Hunter S. Thompson may have been the only one of these to have realized, before ending up with unwanted children and too many dead friends and lost causes, that the dream had gone wrong before the historians could officially say it was a dud.
Now, of course, we know it was a failure; and when we say that it was a failure we don't mean it in the sense that nothing the 68'ers wanted was accomplished. Sex may never have been free, but it has certainly become cheaper, and you can tell it on a newlywed couple's face when they don't have a glow because they got tired of sleeping together years before she finally tied him down. Illegitimacy may not ever have become entirely accepted (even by the single mothers who admit that it's terrible), but it is certainly more common. Racial relations, if they aren't perfect, have changed in many ways for the better (on the part of whites, anyhow, if a one-sided improvement can really be said to be worth anything); and if we consider things like pollution and workers' rights, a conversation with anyone from the 60's will prove that LA was covered in smog and at present it isn't, and some of our states have laws to keep people from bring treated like absolute garbage.
But what people always portrayed in the 90's about the 60's was its sincerity and naivety; the innocent-eyed youngsters really living for a cause beyond themselves and trying to change the world for the better. Mad Men, in fact, twenty years after the hazy recollections in the 90's, was the first representation of the 60's which I found to be negative; not insofar as everything in the decade was negative (even if it was tumultuous), but as though the people we praise or we blame for the vibe of the 60's were actually less saintly than ugly. The truth in the eyes of the creator of Mad Men was that the beatniks and the hippies weren't the frolicking garland-haired saints portrayed by the 68'ers, but a generation of sanctimonious and robotic ideologues no less restrictive and obnoxious than the worst of the Christian fundamentalists. The introduction of anything like Mad Men into the mainstream means that the 68'ers have gotten so old that they no longer control the public narrative; and that a new generation has risen up which sees things in a different light; not so much in the self-worshiping remembrance of the spirit of the 60's, but through the eyes of a cynic whose parents' and teachers' idealism annoys him.
As far as contemporaries of the 68'ers go, there's one voice I've heard which is more damning that Hunter S. Thompson's, and it happens to belong to someone who wasn't a square or a conservative, the inimitable Joan Didion. Her Slouching Towards Bethlehem, widely considered to be a masterpiece of journalism, portrayed not only the youthful idealism of the 60's (as seen through characters such as Joan Baez), but a dirty, boots-on-the-ground look at the shallowness and fraudulence and (perhaps worst for someone pretending to be rebellious) banality of the common revolutionary. And the brutality of her observations, of idiotic half-baked beliefs and conversations, and the kids with track marks all strung out on speed, and the free-lovers pretending to never get jealous, and the individualists who are all fitting an archetype, and the planning without looking like they're making a schedule, and the talking of love while they're actually being rude, all add up to a picture of something less than a dream, and something more like a farce.
One can only wonder if this is what happened at the beginning of Christianity, when persecution began to slacken and Christ became fashionable. When putting on a good face in church is your penance for the week, and then you can go back to doing whatever you want. And it makes us wonder if this is humanity's lot. That somewhere, at any given moment, someone is really inspired to do something he believes in, and a few others go wild for it, and the bigger it gets the faster it drowns -- entirely in itself*. And everything beautiful anyone ever dreamed, if it doesn't become nothing, becomes something worse than nothing; a something ruined by people who never really believed it, and who were only copying it loosely so they could fit in, or to try something new. This isn't to say that the hippies were right, or brilliant, or even honest. They may have been the stupidest reactionaries the world has ever seen. But what we have to wonder after reading Didion's account is whether any movement is worth worshiping, when in the end, every movement eventually looks ridiculous because it actually became a movement.
*Macaulay has a very interesting passage concerning the Puritans in his History of England, which proves the fate of even the most successful and sincerest of movements. He writes,
"Before the civil wars, even those who most disliked the opinions and manners of the Puritan were forced to admit that his moral conduct was generally, in essentials, blameless; but this praise was now no longer bestowed, and, unfortunately, was no longer deserved. The general fate of sects is to obtain a high reputation for sanctity while they are oppressed, and to lose it as soon as they become powerful: and the reason is obvious. It is seldom that a man enrolls himself in a proscribed body from any but conscientious motives. Such a body, therefore, is composed, with scarcely an exception, of sincere persons. The most rigid discipline that can be enforced within a religious society is a very feeble instrument of purification, when compared with a little sharp persecution from without. We may be certain that very few persons, not seriously impressed by religious convictions, applied for baptism while Diocletian was vexing the Church, or joined themselves to Protestant congregations at the risk of being burned by Bonner. But, when a sect becomes powerful, when its favour is the road to riches and dignities, worldly and ambitious men crowd into it, talk its language, conform strictly to its ritual, mimic its peculiarities, and frequently go beyond its honest members in all the outward indications of zeal. No discernment, no watchfulness, on the part of ecclesiastical rulers, can prevent the intrusion of such false brethren. The tares and wheat must grow together. Soon the world begins to find out that the godly are not better than other men, and argues, with some justice, that, if not better, they must be much worse. In no long time all those signs which were formerly regarded as characteristic of a saint are regarded as characteristic of a knave.
"Thus it was with the English Nonconformists. They had been oppressed; and oppression had kept them a pure body. They then became supreme in the state. No man could hope to rise to eminence and command but by their favour. Their favour was to be gained only by exchanging with them the signs and passwords of spiritual fraternity. One of the first resolutions adopted by Barebone's Parliament, the most intensely Puritanical of all our political assemblies, was that no person should be admitted into the public service till the House should be satisfied of his real godliness. What were then considered as the signs of real godliness, the sad-coloured dress, the sour look, the straight hair, the nasal whine, the speech interspersed with quaint texts, the Sunday, gloomy as a Pharisaical Sabbath, were easily imitated by men to whom all religions were the same. The sincere Puritans soon found themselves lost in a multitude, not merely of men of the world, but of the very worst sort of men of the world. For the most notorious libertine who had fought under the royal standard might justly be thought virtuous when compared with some of those who, while they talked about sweet experiences and comfortable scriptures, lived in the constant practice of fraud, rapacity, and secret debauchery. The people, with a rashness which we may justly lament, but at which we cannot wonder, formed their estimate of the whole body from these hypocrites. The theology, the manners, the dialect of the Puritan were thus associated in the public mind with the darkest and meanest vices. As soon as the Restoration had made it safe to avow enmity to the party which had so long been predominant, a general outcry against Puritanism rose from every corner of the kingdom, and was often swollen by the voices of those very dissemblers whose villainy had brought disgrace on the Puritan name."