“Where do all the hippies meet? … on South Street, South Street.” The refrain comes from an old '50s hit — a dance tune which gave us the synonym for those freewheeling iconoclasts of the “love generation.”
The baby boomers who came of age during the Vietnam War embraced such things as marriage-free “love relationships,” nuclear disarmament and “Mother Earth” spirituality. Along the way, they discarded many of the bedrock values of Christianity, upon which the United States had been built.
According to Roger Kimball, the hippies should have stuck to singing innocuous ballads and dancing the twist. In The Long March, he contends that generation's most prominent figures provoked a culture war which, little by little, did irreparable damage to American society.
Kimball presents a dozen portraits of the key cultural idols who shaped the period and whose output dominated the '60s and '70s. The result is 12 chapters which could be described aptly as “Profiles in Depravity.” Kimball shows how the long-term influence of onetime radical super-stars is only now becoming apparent.
“The destructiveness of their ideas and example may be most severe not when they first appear and, whether they be championed or castigated, are regarded by one and all as outrageous,” he writes. “On the contrary, the really toxic effects of a cultural revolution begin to be felt only laterally, when the revolution is agreed to be ‘over.’ By then, its characteristic attitudes have been so widely incorporated into the mainstream of life that they are taken for granted.”
The ‘new sensibility’ of the '60s and '70s, says Kimball, “set out not simply to lower intellectual, aesthetic and moral standards, but also to undermine the shared intellectual and moral foundations upon which such standards must rest.”
While many of the figures he selects are now barely recognized, others still retain a great deal of prestige.
What they all share is mediocre talent combined with an unrestrained ego. A few who stand out from the pack include the bombastic novelist Norman Mailer, the art and literary critic Susan Sontag and the beatnik poet Allen Ginsberg. All three are still highly regarded and lionized among today's liberal elite.
One of the most pathetic figures of the lot was Black Panther leader Eldridge Cleaver, a man who enjoyed almost mystical adulation and whose autobiography was celebrated by influential publications like the New York Times and Saturday Review. Kimball recounts how, in one critical passage of his book Soul On Ice, Cleaver told how raping women contributed to forming his own “revolutionary consciousness.”
“I became a rapist,” Cleaver wrote. “I started out on black girls in the ghetto … [then] I crossed the tracks and sought out white prey. … Rape was an insurrectionary act. It delighted me that I was defying and trampling upon the white man's law, upon his system of values, and I was defiling his women.”
Kimball is certainly not the first excellent essayist to attempt to locate the essence of the '60s and analyze the long-term significance of the counterculture. But this brief, powerful book manages to capture the movement and its luminaries as successfully as any to date. Those who find themselves looking back wistfully at the Eisenhower years — and wondering how in the world we got here from there — will find many keen insights in Kimball's observations. From these can be drawn smart strategies for the culture wars at hand.
David Peterson, author of Revoking the Moral Order, is a high-school teacher in Chicago.