The intersection of public events and the internal world has been a primary interest of mine, especially since I have begun blogging. While I have written a fair amount about the immaturity of the post-war baby boomers and their enhanced narcissism, it is also worth noting that the descent into the "Summer of Love and Psychedelia" of the late 60s was the outcome of a particularly difficult time in America.
The 60s opened with great hopes and idealism. John Kennedy and his glamorous wife Jackie, were American royalty. This was before the painful intrusions of reality, when Presidents and other celebrities were better able to manage their image to preserve their function as idealized transference objects. No one knew about the tawdry and salacious details of JFK's infidelities. He was the beautiful and wise leader who would usher in a magical time. Adolescents who came of age in the 60s expected that their magical carpet ride would continue. The hints of troubles in a distant and unknown Southeast Asian country, Vietnam, were rarely mentioned or noticed. We were bestride the world and all possibilities were open.
It is difficult for people who did not live through the event to realize what a visceral blow JFK's assassination was. Our President was cut down in his prime and it was devastating to the nation's psyche. Those of us who were the most impressionable, those adolescents who had, developmentally, the greatest tendency to idealization, were crushed. How could the world be so cruel?
When idealization collapses, devaluation follows, and it followed with a vengeance. If the world which we had been brought up to believe owed us everything good (and many, perhaps most, well to do baby boomers grew up in a world with minimal material wants and never experienced material deprivations) had just exchanged light for darkness, we would reject and repudiate that world which had so disappointed us.
What followed was a descent into renunciation. We would seek salvation in everything that opposed the cruel, sadistic reality that had failed us.
The drug use championed by the Timothy Learys and Aldous Huxleys was designed to find inner enlightenment. It was not for us to struggle to survive and thrive in a hostile world. We had no use for such a world and were going to find a better world and then bring it to fruition. Adolescents are notoriously poor at reality testing and the 60s were, if nothing else, a celebration of adolescent wishes and desires. We would free ourselves from the constraints of convention that only led to violence. It was America itself that killed JFK and got us into the war that had burst, flaming, into our consciousness by the middle of the decade.
When the dream began to curdle, as the casualty count began to grow (Jimi Hendrix dead of an OD, Janis Joplin dead of an OD, Graham Parsons dead of an OD, Jim Morrison dead of an OD, the list is very, very long) the shift from seeking enlightenment, doomed as it was to disappointment (sorry, we have not yet developed enlightenment-in-a-pill) slid into nihilistic hedonism. After all, without enlightenment, drug use was just getting "stoned." At the same time, "Free Love" was as empty as it sounded and inexorably and predictably mutated into "Free Sex"; often, the sex was passionless, perfunctory, and relatively anonymous. Feminists and Minorities were progressing from reasonable and appropriate demands for equal opportunity to angry and nasty demands for submission to their agenda. The civil rights movement, followed by the Feminist movement, lost all contact with the humanity of the people they were attempting to sway and turned white men into the enemy. Love, Love, Love had quite quickly curdled into something much more akin to hate, hate, hate.
Most of us who lived through that time moved on. Unless you had parents willing to indefinitely subsidize a dissolute life style, when college ended, reality began. The ending of the draft and the winding down of the Vietnam war removed the last personal motivation for carrying on the "Revolution" and it became time to get to work. Many never did accept the mantle of responsibility but most did. Many held onto their adolescent ideals, the Utopian fantasies that fueled Socialism and Communism, and graduated into politics, journalism, and academia. (Interestingly, a good case can be made that such professions relatively insulated their practitioners from the demands of reality, but that is a different discussion.)
For the post war baby boomers, there were many firsts:
• It was the first generation that grew up in an age of abundance, with relative freedom from material want.
• It was the first generation that grew up with the near universal expectation that children would survive childhood diseases.
• It was the first generation that grew up with its parents knowing that the government would guarantee their support in old age.
• It was the first generation that grew up, in large numbers, in small families in which parents made much larger emotional and financial investments in their smaller number of children, a recipe for heightened narcissism.
And, at the very height of their youthful and enthusiastic idealism, they were crushed by the two pronged trauma of the JFK assassination and the misguided war in Vietnam. By the time Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King were assassinated, all that happened was that those two tragedies merely confirmed what so many already believed: America had gone dangerously wrong.
It would take a very long time for many of my cohort to come to terms with the vagaries and disappointments of reality. Those who could never do so retain their Utopian and regressive wishes and the derivatives of those wishes continue to influence their politics and policies.
As one of the late developing casualties of the time once remarked: What a long strange trip its been.