Good Sixties/Bad Sixties? (part 2)

Paul Goodman died in 1972, after roughly a dozen years as a widely-read and celebrated author. For this reason, he is largely remembered as a sixties figure, even though much of his important writing was published in the forties and fifties. Goodman's salad days as a public intellectual came in the early part of the sixties. Goodman became one of those figures, like Michael Harrington, C. Wright Mills, Rachel Carson, and Martin Luther King Jr., who at this pivotal moment in U.S. history transmitted into the culture ideas that helped bring about dramatic change. His writing helped both inspire and explain the new, radical consciousness of which the youth of the sixties were heralds.

Yet a few years later, in the latter part of the decade, Goodman became bitingly dismissive of the young people and their New Left movement. Goodman lauded the instigators of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement in 1964, but by 1970 he'd given up on a movement that was, in his view, disdainful of history, descending into fits of rage, seduced by grandiose notions of revolution, and blowing its opportunity to push the nation toward more humane values. It wasn't a coincidence that Goodman's acrimonious breakup with the young left took place just as he was mourning the premature death of his 20-year-old son, Matty, in 1967. The final sequences of PAUL GOODMAN CHANGED MY LIFE portray, with some sensitivity, the heartbreak of the author's final years.

I wrote in part 1 of this piece that it's tempting today to look back on the sixties with a similar sense of disappointment and loss or even distaste about how the decade turned out—the type of "good sixties/bad sixties" dichotomy Goodman himself arrived at, presciently as always, in that slim segment of the seventies he got to experience. And it's understandable given the sad things that happened in the late sixties: the assassinations of MLK and RFK, the election of Nixon, the failure to end the war in Vietnam, Kent State, the excesses of radical chic on the left. And then as now, hippies make an easy target.

But here's why this dichotomy is so off base. The passage of so much time makes it clear that the truly meaningful and positive legacies of the sixties are the cultural changes that germinated between about 1966 and about 1972. Visible at the time only in embryonic form, they became pervasive and powerful over the decades that followed. Things like the women's movement, with its transgressive idea that the personal is political, and the gay liberation movement, to which Goodman contributed through the example of his life. Through the proliferating notion of civil rights, embraced in the late sixties by Chicanos, Puerto Ricans, Native Americans, and others, America steadily, gradually shifted to a multicultural concept of what the nation is. It's been persuasively argued that the most influential legislation of the sixties turned out to be the Immigration Act of 1965, which eventually made the nation's demographics far less white. It became that much harder for Americans to ignore the radical idea that there's a world beyond the United States, a world consisting of more than just Western Europe. Goodman was heavily steeped in the classical and Western tradition of letters, but he had a clue—he loved Lao Tzu as well as Aristotle.

The other major contribution of the late sixties was the environmental movement, and the ecological thinking that gave rise to organic farming, health food, recycling, sustainable energy, and concern about the costs of both industrial pollution and everyday consumption of resources. These changes are still filtering through the culture, and they'll save us if anything will. It becomes clear that the hippies, say what you will about their fashions and hygiene, had a lot of the right ideas.

Goodman, who had such a variety of ways of thinking about the mutual influence of human beings and their environments, wrote in New Reformation (1970):
The complement to prudent technology is the ecological approach in science. To simplify the technical system and modestly pinpoint our artificial intervention in the environment is to make it possible for the environment to survive in its complexity, evolved for a billion years, whereas the overwhelming instant intervention of tightly interlocked and bulldozing technology has already disrupted many of the delicate sequences and balances. The calculable consequences are already frightening, but of course we don't know enough, and won't in the foreseeable future, to predict the remote effects of much of what we have done.
To my mind, that's one of Goodman's most valuable quotes, a distilled dram of sixties wisdom with a prescription for how to survive this century. I'd only add, bitterly, that we now know much more about those calculable consequences and remote effects—they're not too remote anymore—yet through strenuous oblivion, and industrial lobbying, they can still be denied...