Idealism and Hedonism

This summer CNN has been running a series of documentaries on the sixties. The decade ended with my having my first child. It was the decade my generation attended high school and finished college. In the seventies they entered the working world, married, and started their families. As I look at that footage of protests, hippie communities, and the youth culture of popular music;  I arrive at my own conclusions at what produced this outpouring of love, free expression, and political activism.  The generation that came of age in that era is an odd mixture of idealism and hedonism. While rejecting the materialism of their parents, they enjoyed the fruits of that affluence. They ascribed to an essentially hedonistic philosophy that if it felt good and hurt no one, well then, do it. That thinking is solipsist, because, of course, our actions affect others. Behavior can scandalize. It can destroy the innocence and faith of those younger than ourselves, creating cynicism and skepticism that there are no verities in life. It can be nihilistic.

Yet the generation of the sixties wanted to change the world for the better. They claimed to want to make peace not war. They wanted the blight of poverty, hunger, illiteracy, and racial prejudice to be eradicated. They wanted inspiration and honesty from politicians. They wanted democracy to work. Utopia has not arrived. When my generation inherited the reins of leadership, did they create a better world, reduce, if not eliminate war? In 2014 listening to news reports from around the world, the answer is “no;” and sadly, I have to ask myself what part this hedonistic and idealistic generation played in the rampant greed that destroyed the strength of the middle class and in the continuation of war after the lessons of Vietnam were not learned.

Supposedly, more of us had a college education; but we knew nothing of other cultures or religions beyond the comfortable suburban existence we embraced after we threw away our love beads and flowers and donned business suits and ties. We gutted the unions; we destroyed the educational system with theories that learning should always be fun and games. We, in fact, outdid our parents in materialism, acquired more than one television, bathroom, and automobile.

The day I dropped out of idealism and hedonism and pursued my bizarre path of multi-culturism was June 4, 1968–me, who had marched on Washington in October 1967 to protest the Vietnam War, and where I saw, as a child of a blue collar worker, I did not belong with the children of the Eastern Establishment. That day marked my disillusionment. That day I left my idyllic childhood in which I believed I lived in the best country in the world.  I wrote a poem a few days after Bobby Kennedy’s assassination.  Here it is:

June 4, 1968

I am young

but want

a rocking chair.

I wonder where

I can find

a rocking chair.

 

The old lady

who lives with

the Negro maid

has one hid

in her attic room.

I’ll go steal it.

 

Today he was hit

right in the head.

No more tears to shed,

no use to protest

just give me a chair

a place to rest,

a place to rest

and sneer at the rest—

the students and all.

I lived in a country where good leaders were assassinated. How could this be? I had recited the Pledge of Allegiance in my classrooms and had sung “God Bless America.” Violence and anti-intellectualism were revealed to me that day as part of American history just as idealism was. The assassinations scandalized me and seared my vision, changing my consciousness forever. Innocence was lost.

Maybe this poem written in the 80s expresses my disillusionment better:

Life Is a Blast

Life is a blast—

A blast of bombs

Over Bikini

Polka-dotting

The beach we named

Our swimsuits for

We wore for Funicello,

Avalon, those Beach Boys—

The one who drowned

Pacifically in the end.

 

We surfed into

The sixties

Believing the good guys

Always won.

Why couldn’t we win

The war in Vietnam then? 

 

The sixties went out

With a bang.

Molotov cocktails

To your draft board.

Bring the war home!

Dump the Hump!

Today is the first day

Of the rest of our life!

 

M-I-C-K-E-Y, M-O-U-S-E

Forever let us

Hold your banner high!

Why must all our heroes die?

Kennedy, King, Kennedy?

Annette sells peanut butter.

Jerry Rubin joins the stock market.

 

It was a blast!

While it lasted.

There are no

Good guys.

If they exist

They finish last.

 

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