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  • The ’60s: Feh (Counterpoint on Hunter Thompson)

    Posted by Jonathan on February 26th, 2005 (All posts by )

    James, Captain Mojo and Lex have weighed in with eloquent posts about the late Hunter Thompson. I encourage you to read them if you haven’t. Lex is particularly insightful about where Thompson fit in the big social and political picture of the 1960s.

    I confess to reading one of Thompson’s books and maybe a few articles, and to having read quite a bit about him over the years. He was brilliantly insightful in his day but didn’t seem to change much subsequently. I found him personally unattractive (and I seem not to be alone). It’s too bad he died but the muted burst of ’60s nostalgia that accompanied his passing got under my skin. ’60s nostalgia is a bit like humidity: frequently present, usually cloying and we’d be better off without it. It comes with qualifiers — yes, the war was bad, but the music was good; yes, the riots were bad, but people really got in touch with each other; yes, the drug culture was destructive, but there was real freedom of speech without today’s stifling political correctness. And so on. I always thought that most of this talk was either after-the-fact rationalization or coded nostalgia for high and licentious times. I think it was generally a lousy period. Many people disagree.

    Lex and I were going back and forth on this topic by email. He announced that “it is time for post-revisionsism on the 60s,” and asserted that it was an age of “glorious music, terrific economic performance, beautiful automobiles, heroic achievements (space, civil rights) disastrous public policy, riots, our worst war.” This got me riled up and I responded that the ’60s were

    More negative than positive. The music and pop culture were crap (sorry), the economy that boomed in the early 60s ended in a major and prolonged recession, stock market crash and inflation. The cars were stylish but far inferior to modern ones. The clothes and other fashions were ugly. Moral confusion was epidemic. The seeds of today’s academic anti-intellectualism were sown. The hippie drug culture was a shadow of earlier youth cults. I can’t fucking stand hippies, or for that matter anybody who would rather dope up and look in the mirror than learn about the world. The 60s were full of that kind of thing. The hubris of the hippies was at least as bad as that of the technocrats and generals. I think you are excessively nostalgic for that which you almost experienced. I am a few years closer to having experienced it, or at least to having seen some of it, and I think it mainly sucked.

    There were some pretty bad wars too, not just Vietnam: India and Pakistan, the Nigerian civil war. Not to mention the Soviet suppression of the Czechs. And as I mentioned in a comment on the blog, most of the civil-rights progress was made before the 60s. During the 60s the civil-rights organizations started their long march to the leftist fringe, having achieved most of what could be achieved by govt.

    [Tom] Wolfe was being kind to his old friend — de mortuis etc. Thompson was washed-up long ago and only stayed in the public eye because of boomer nostalgia and his outlandish behavior, not his ideas, which were tired and foolish.

    Lex was apparently still in ’60s mode when he read this, because he responded that it was “raw and vital” and that I should post it on the blog. OK. That was a couple of days ago, and as I reread my email it seems a bit overdone, but only a bit. The 1960s were not as destructive as the 1930s, but they were a period during which the nation lost ground in many ways. We are still repairing some of the damage. (Would Saddam Hussein have invaded Kuwait in 1990 if we had not abandoned Vietnam in 1975 after mishandling the war in the 1960s?) Most people don’t think of cars and music first when they think of the 1930s. Part of the problem with some people’s opinions about the ’60s is that their nostalgia for the funky lightweight stuff overrides more-serious appraisal of the period.

     

    15 Responses to “The ’60s: Feh (Counterpoint on Hunter Thompson)”

    1. ginny Says:

      Enjoyed your argument and the way both of you are expressing yourselves. I’ll throw in not thought but anecdote:

      I arrived in south Chicago two weeks after Martin Luther King had been assassinated. I suspect you two remember your university days as exciting. All I knew was by the next spring I wanted as far away from there as I could go.

      Prime Example (of many): Eating my lunch down the corridor from the reserve room and watching the police carry out a stretcher with SDS founder Flacks (up for tenure that year – he didn’t get it); he was covered in blood from some guy going at him with a machete in his office and his eyes looked at me and didn’t register. And half that year, a group sat in the hall chanting about tenure choices and Viet Nam.

      Then there was the student worker who was taking Mircea Eliade’s course and was supposed to write about the soul. He wanted advice (I was his quite immature boss) about that five-page paper. He said there was no way he could write it because he hadn’t used LSD yet. Eventually he did get the paper in and his elusive discussions about it led me to believe he had done the necessary preparation. (I don’t think these were Eliade’s instructions – but the teachers were often as crazy as the students.)

      Okay, nostalgia from an earlier period, but I think I pretty much side with Jonathan. We were young and it was good to be alive (and considerably thinner and with considerably more energy), but no, it is not a time I wish for my children.

    2. incognito Says:

      I hate hippies too. I hate how the left always refer to the 60’s and Vietnam. For people who urge others to move on, they sure could use a healthy dose of their own advice. I like the 90’s and all, but you don’t see me walking around saying, “Geez Jonathan, back in 1998…” The sad part is that the 60’s was the left’s crown jewel of achievement. And as you say, we’re still living with the consequences. Thanks to LBJ’s social engineering, we will be in debt as far as the eyes can see. Thanks to LBJ, a whole generation and swath of the population became enslaved to the welfare state.

    3. Yehudit Says:

      I have to disagree about the music and the fashions. The world was due for a bit of color and bachinalia. And of course the cars were worse than what we have now – we’ve had another 40 years of techological development.

      But I could never see the point of Hunter S Thompson. In some ways he was the DH Lawrence of his time. And i could never see the point of him either.

    4. Steve Says:

      Incognito, let go ‘a yer hate, man. A lot of California hippies I know grew up, shaved, got jobs, bought guns, had children, and are what some call Bohemian Republicans now.

      Some anonymous wordsmith has taken the liberty to paraphrase Winston Churchill: “If you’re in your twenties and you are not a liberal, then you don’t have a heart. If you’re in your thirties and you are not a conservative, then you don’t have a head.”

      -Steve
      *This comment was Photosynthesized. Get off on off-grid!*

    5. dick Says:

      I read all the nostalgic comments about the 1960’s and I wonder if those people really lived during that period or not. I spent most of that decade living in the middle of Baltimore about 3 blocks from where the flower people would hang out. Most of them were a waste of space. They spent all their time ripping each other off for the stash. Some of them would follow the postmen around and steal the SSA checks. They were mindless and totally inconsiderate of anyone who disagreed with their position. The music bored me stiff. A bunch of little kids would sit there and drone on and on and on about how this or taht drug was “groovy” when they were too stoned to know whether it was or not.

      Later a lot of them grew up and sobered up and became productive. A lot of them did not do any of the above. We are still paying the price for that every day with our welfare and other governmental inanities. We are also still paying for them because so many of them never bothered questioning their beliefs and are teaching them in our universities today. They didn’t work then and they still don’t work but the academics won’t admit that; that would mean that they would have to admit that 40 years of their life was wasted.

      We are also still paying for the LBJ attempt to have both guns and butter without actually trying to figure if we should have both at all. I hear about Bush lying. Bush would be a piker if he were lying. LBJ was the king of that practice. If he didn’t get his way at first, he would just let the people stopping him know that there were bodies buried there and he knew who and what they were. The result was that we got all these hairbrained schemes for remaking the society in ways that were idiotic then and still are.

      We are also still paying for the practice of throwing out everything that meant anything to our parents. If it was believed by the generation older than 30 then it was wrong and had to be discarded. Everything our parents worked and slaved and hoped and saved and thought about was worthless to them. Now when you ask people what time period they would like to live in, chances are they would say the 40’s or the 50’s. Strange that the young people of today are more interested in that period than the heyday of the Boomer parents. Their politics are also more that of their grandparents rather than their parents. The kids are doing fine. They know what to value and what not to.

    6. Sandy P Says:

      Me be Jonesin’!

      I’m a tail-end boomer.

      50’s the new 30.

      They’ll never grow up.

    7. leslie Says:

      From: rumaggi@comcast.net

      The End of the Counter-Culture
      Hunter S. Thompson, 1939 – 2005.
      by Stephen Schwartz
      02/22/2005 12:00:00 AM
      ?

      THE SUICIDE of Hunter S. Thompson, aged 65, according to the New York Times, or 67, according to the Washington Post, at his home in Aspen, may definitively mark the conclusion of the chaotic “baby-boomer” rebellion that began in the 1950s and crested in the 1960s, and which was dignified with the title of “the counter-culture.”

      continued here

      [I snipped the rest of the article and substituted a link because it’s copywrited material, and also for brevity. Thanks for pointing it out. JG]

    8. incognito Says:

      Steve,

      I like that quote as well. But there is a whole new generation of hippies. They’re now called collectively as the far left, led by leftovers such Dean, Kerry, et al. Prime example would be the brainwashed drugged out kids they recruit from college. They’re trying to impose a whole new set of drug induced policies that will screw the next generation.

      One of my pet peeves is this drive to be non-judgemental that has embedded itself in the pop culture. Times were when being judgemental was seen as being able to tell right from wrong. Now everything is equal. I think being judgemental makes people responsible human beings. If my kid wants to do something stupid, it is my responsbility as his parent to stop him before he hurts himself. Because he is a kid, and doesn’t know any better. I think it’s a major reason that the left wants “kids rights” etc. You see it in the drive to take responsbilities out of people, and put it in the state. Being Judgemental is a good thing.

    9. Ken Says:

      Good things from the ’60s movements:

      1. End of the draft. We should have stayed in Vietnam without the draft, but at least we ended up getting rid of the damned draft. Not that anyone on the so-called anti-war left seems interested in giving any credit to Richard Nixon, under whose leadership the draft was actually ended…

      2. Colleges ended up abandoning the whole in loco parentis bit, and stopped trying to be surrogate parents to their students who either had outgrown or needed to outgrow the need for parenting.

      3. An increase of tolerance for nonconformity and generally “weird” people is on balance a good thing. Most geniuses are at least a little bit weird, and it’s better for all of us if they direct most of their efforts toward working miracles rather than trying to pretend to “fit in”. Most nonconformists, of course, are not geniuses, but so long as they remain peaceful, we’re better off overall letting them be. A few of them even occasionally turn out to be right where what “everyone knows” turns out to be wrong…

    10. Ginny Says:

      Well getting rid of the idea that mental illness was a positive thing might also have been good – but I’m not sure we can thank the sixties for that. I suspect in the future somebody is going to look at our century and notice how central our myths about mental illness were. Freud, mental hospitals, the beginning of deinstitutionalism, therapy, naval gazing, street people who are essentially schizophrenics, Hitchcock and Dali – I can’t make sense of it. But it was important and relates somewhat to Ken’s remark. In the fifties eccentricity was equated with artsiness – that all became really politicized as the decade wore on. Actually my impression was that eccentricity was cultivated and admired, cosseted and applauded during those years. (Look at the cult of Sylvia Plath.) Just because the “in” crowd appears to be counterculture to someone of a later age doesn’t mean that conformism isn’t going strong post-fifties.

      I have mixed feelings about the locos parentis thing. We read several essays on college binge drinking – one was really libertarian and one was from a priest who was an administrator at a Catholic school (he said if he was expected to do anything about that drinking he needed the old in locus parentis system). My students had never heard of the words – or really the concept. Their response wasn’t sympathy for me in my restrained youth. Instead, they asked, which did I think was best – and they weren’t kidding. They really saw advantages–saw problems with today.

      I also liked the idea of doing something with guys in those transitional, needing a good initiation, years. Their hormones are speeding and classes aren’t always (or often) the best places for them. Put that energy to work, tame and discipline it, and the result will be accomplishment rather than classes flubbed. The draft in its classist and unfair application in the sixties was wrong. It was the very all-classes-in-this-together deal that made it do its socialization.

      The army is probably better now as a profession; I can see that. It probably would cost more than any gain if we reinstated the draft. Still getting guys out of high school, mixing with people from different geographic areas and different classes and challenging them physically, then letting them go back to school would improve my life – and I suspect that of a lot of the guys in my classes. Yes, I think girls should have to serve however long guys do. But, frankly, they mature earlier and need to “find themselves” in different ways than guys.

      This was certainly not a libertarian comment. But libertarians tend to pride themselves on a certain toughness of spirit. The “goods” you see have led to a softer, less aware, and therefore less happy generation. We are encouraged to grade on the curve but we are an open admissions school where it seems to me almost impossible to force failing kids out. The fact that better schools give A- averages doesn’t impress me with the industry of the kids but rather the softness of the standards. This seems to stretch from a school like ours to the Ivy League. With locus parentis, they were flunking out 60% of the kids at most universities. Without it, the averages are A- and B+. Do you honestly think they have learned to study better without such rigid rules? And do you really see this as a tough-minded libertarian approach to life? Now, as my students remarked in reading those essays, no one thinks of themselves as rseponsible for much that goes on. In the fifties we all felt responsible (and I was just a kid).

    11. Ken Says:

      “I also liked the idea of doing something with guys in those transitional, needing a good initiation, years. Their hormones are speeding and classes aren’t always (or often) the best places for them. Put that energy to work, tame and discipline it, and the result will be accomplishment rather than classes flubbed. ”

      The transitional, needing a good initiation, years are (should be) the years that they spend going to high school instead. Those hormones you speak of are a signal that it’s time to leave childhood behind and get ready to be productive and start families; tacking on several extra years of childhood is exactly the wrong response.

      Working one’s way through school seems a good way to “put that energy to work and discipline it”, and also to ensure that people will take seriously the classes that they bought with their own hard-earned money.

      “This seems to stretch from a school like ours to the Ivy League. With locus parentis, they were flunking out 60% of the kids at most universities. Without it, the averages are A- and B+. Do you honestly think they have learned to study better without such rigid rules?”

      Not when they lowered standards at the same time. In loco parentis did not cause the schools to flunk 60% of their students, and abandoning such policies did not force colleges to begin passing nearly everyone.

      There comes a time when we have to let people fail and let them grow up. That means not only not following them around, enforcing curfews and chaperoning dates (which practices were ended) but also bailing them out, subsidizing them, and holding them to lower standards (which practicies were unfortunately perpetuated and intensified). We’ve got to accept that some people will fail, and babying them doesn’t prevent it so much as postpone the day that such failure becomes manifest and meanwile give them more time to ingrain their bad habits more firmly. The sooner that such people fail, the sooner they can pick themselves up and recover from their failures with the wisdom of experience.

    12. Ken Says:

      What it all boils down to is that, while there is much that went disastrously wrong in the 1960’s, there were some instances where the cause of liberty actually advanced, and I would hope that we don’t see these instances rolled back if we ever set about correcting the mistakes from that period.

      The whole softening of standards seems to me like the bastard child of psychological theories about the importance of self-esteem and the fragility of the ego on the one hand and the idea that grades, evaluations, and such were imposed by “the establishment” out of their perverse desire to impose “conformity” rather than an honest evaluation of one’s performance and capabilities.

      Yeah, the pressure to conform was turned up a little too high in our culture beforehand, but academic skills are still damned useful, and honest evaluations of same should still be available without such evaluations being confused with irrational groupthink.

      It’s interesting how cultures sometimes attempt to correct one flaw and merely substitute another in its place…

    13. Robert Schwartz Says:

      A bunch of comments on “The ’60s: Feh (Counterpoint on Hunter Thompson)”

      Jonathan G ewirtz:

      “The music and pop culture were crap (sorry),”

      Yes and No. In the begining, 60s music was white kids discovering and playing black urban blues. Chicago had a role in this. Maybe you ought to add a picture of Paul Butterfield zt’l to the gallery. Later — Sgt. Peppers circa 1967 — they tried to get artsy and began the downhill slide toward slop.

      In pop culture, such as movies, there was liberation which produced some fabulous creations Like Blow Up and MASH. Television created some very influential material such as Star Trek. OTOH, the rejection of boundaries has led to porn and trash more often than has to art, which seems to thrive on limits.

      “the economy that boomed in the early 60s ended in a major and prolonged recession, stock market crash and inflation.”

      The policy decisions that created the economies of the 60s and 70s were made at those times. Blame Nixon and Carter for the 70s not the 60s.

      “The cars were stylish but far inferior to modern ones.”

      Got me on this one. I remember 60s cars as pedestrian. the Muscle Car era opened in the late 60s, but the first ones were boxy sedans with big motors. 50s cars, now there was something.

      “The clothes and other fashions were ugly.”

      It was certainly the end of dressing nicely on a routine basis.

      “The seeds of today’s academic anti-intellectualism were sown.”

      By the marxist take-over of the humanities and social science departments and the creation of —- studies departments deicated to multiculturalism and counter-hegemonic activism.

      “The hubris of the hippies was at least as bad as that of the technocrats and generals.”

      We thought so at the time.

      “most of the civil-rights progress was made before the 60s. During the 60s the civil-rights organizations started their long march to the leftist fringe, having achieved most of what could be achieved by govt.”

      Well. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights act of 1965 were pivotal. The leftward march opned in the second half of the 60s.

      “Thompson was washed-up long ago and only stayed in the public eye because of boomer nostalgia and his outlandish behavior, not his ideas, which were tired and foolish.”

      You are giving him too much credit. He was a one trick pony. His idea was to rant about Nixon while stoned out of his gourd. Not much of an idea, huh.

      Ginny:

      “I arrived in south Chicago two weeks after Martin Luther King had been assassinated.”

      I was living in an apartment on Woodlawn south of the Midway (6033 I think ), Sunday morning after the assassination we were cleaning the place as we did every once in a while. We heard a great noise. The south side gangs were marching up Woodlawn and Blackstone (in back of us) chanting black power slogans. We stayed in and studied the rest of the day. It was a scary time.

      “Then there was the student worker who was taking Mircea Eliade’s course”

      He was a big deal on campus back then. I tried to read a couple of his books. They were incomprehensible. But what really bothers me is what I learned in later years. Back in Romania in the pre WWII period he had been a leader of the fascist movement. Yet he was even invited to Hillel to speak.

      It is only now that we are begining to call the intellectuals out for their complicity in the atrocities and tyrannies of the 20th century.

      “Okay, nostalgia from an earlier period, but I think I pretty much side with Jonathan. We were young and it was good to be alive (and considerably thinner and with considerably more energy), but no, it is not a time I wish for my children.”

      Oh! pleasant exercise of hope and joy!
      For mighty were the auxiliars which then stood
      Upon our side, we who were strong in love!
      Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
      But to be young was very heaven!–Oh! times,

      The French Revolution as It Appeared to Enthusiasts at Its Commencement
      William Wordsworth

      And we all know what disaster that was.

      Incognito:

      “Thanks to LBJ’s social engineering, we will be in debt as far as the eyes can see.
      Thanks to LBJ, a whole generation and swath of the population became enslaved to the welfare state.”

      Blame FDR, besides its over now.

      Yehudit

      “But I could never see the point of Hunter S Thompson. In some ways he was the DH Lawrence of his time. And I could never see the point of him either.”

      Lawrence wrote porn. Thompson ranted incoherently. Porn has a point if you are in the mood. Incoherent rants loose their charm quickly.

      Steve:

      “Some anonymous wordsmith has taken the liberty to paraphrase Winston Churchill”

      Disraeli I think.

      Ken:

      “Good things from the ’60s movements: 1. End of the draft.”

      It was not what they willed. They willed the victory of communisim. It was a tactic Nixon undertook to undermine them, which demonstrated how shallow their motivation was.

      Ginny:

      “Well getting rid of the idea that mental illness was a positive thing might also have been good – but I’m not sure we can thank the sixties for that.”

      The sixties idea was that mental illness was a learned response to the enviroment. If not Feudian, it was still functional. Organic theories based on biology and genetics did not come into favor until the 80s.

      “We read several essays on college binge drinking -”

      Prohibitionism is a post 60s thing also. In the 60s the emphasis was on lowering drinking ages. We had “Sherry Hours” in the dorms when I was a 1st year in 1965. Unthinkable 40 years later.

    14. Val Says:

      Great post, Jon.

    15. PenGun Says:

      As hippy from the 60s I must say I largly agree with you, however the cars were awesome.

      My 69 Olds with a 502 and a bit of thought and money in the suspension will just kill almost anything made today.

      PenGun
      Do What Now ??? … Standards and Practices !