For several decades, conservatives have been tilting our lances at the 1960s. The decade of street protests, psychedelica, kooky environmentalism, Eastern religious experimentation and rock-and-roll is, in many conservatives’ view, the lodestar of all things bad. What did the sixties give us? Addiction, promiscuity, social justice warriors and New Age bunk.
Many of these arguments are valid. But at this point, fifty years after the Summer of Love, it may be time to forgive the sixties—and even celebrate what was good about them. The decade gave us some fantastic music and incredible journalism, movements for civil rights, and perhaps most importantly, curiosity about different religions.
In a brilliant lecture she gave at Yale University in 2002, critic Camille Paglia outlined what was gained and lost in the years after John F. Kennedy was assassinated. There were the social justice movements, which were not all political marches that ignored the evils of communism. The civil rights revolution came in the sixties, as did great leaps forward in environmentalism and the treatment of gay people. Paglia argues for the soundness of these movements while maintaining her belief that they became tarnished when their advocates imported into the movement drugs and sex and a dogmatic politics that ended up making them as coercive as the conservatives they sought to replace.
Indeed, the most compelling thing about the sixties was the religious experimentation that came out of the decade. Paglia makes a crucial point—that Westerners who got interested in Eastern traditions such as Buddhism and Hinduism often misinterpreted or outright abused those traditions by embracing the use of drugs or promiscuous sex as part of their spiritual journey. Yet this mistake did not make the original curiosity invalid. “The American sixties brought East and West together in a progressive cultural synthesis,” Paglia writes. “Its promise was never completely fulfilled…. But the depth and authenticity of that spiritual shift needs to be more widely acknowledged.” She goes on:
Liberals have forgotten the religious ferment on the Left in the sixties, so that progressive politics has too often become a sterile instrument of government manipulation, as if social-welfare agencies and federal programs could bring salvation. Memories of the sixties have been censored out of embarrassment, since the flakiest of sixties happenings seemed to delegitimize the period’s political ideals.
Paglia laments how the new spiritual curiosity, led by serious scholars like Carl Jung, was replaced by politics: “Jungian thought had little impact on post-sixties American academe, thanks to the invasion of European theory. French poststructuralism, the Frankfurt School, and British cultural studies all follow the Marxist line that religion is ‘the opiate of the masses.’” The end result was that “by the eighties, the claim that great art has a spiritual meaning was no longer taken seriously—and was positively perilous to anyone seeking employment or promotion in the humanities departments of major American universities.” As Paglia argues, the original spiritual legacy of the sixties is worth reconsidering—especially at a time of declining religious observance. As millennials, the generation that is more likely to call itself “spiritual not religious,” considers how it will (or will not) grapple with faith and free speech and free thought in the years to come, it’s worth recalling the sixties’ openness to new ideas. That, at least, is a legacy worth passing on to future generations.