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In his memoir “Woodstock Nation,” Abbie Hoffman paints a telling portrait of himself at the festival’s end, staggering aimlessly around the deserted, trash-strewn field, stoned out of his mind and crudely propositioning every female he encounters.
That image comes to mind when I try to figure out what happened to the optimistic peace-and-love vision of the hippies, and why 50 years later we find ourselves in a world that seems, in many ways, the exact opposite of what they were hoping for.
Part of the fault was our own, of course. (I am lumping myself in with the Woodstock generation here, though I was a little bit younger—still only in junior high when Woodstock happened.) To put it succinctly, I think we were right to claim the freedoms we claimed, but we forgot... or neglected... or refused to accept the responsibilities involved.
But there was also a backlash. The conservative establishment responded to the social unrest and cultural upheaval that marked the 1960s with a campaign that was breathtaking in its depth, scope and audacity. It was also, we must begrudgingly admit, largely successful.
We can start with August 28, 1971, just two years after Woodstock. A corporate lawyer (and soon-to-be Supreme Court Justice) named Lewis Powell writes a memo to his friend Eugene Sydnor, Jr., director of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Powell decries what he sees as a concerted attack on American economic institutions—indeed, on the American way of life itself. But he’s not particularly worried about Communists or leftists:
“The most disquieting voices joining the chorus of criticism come from perfectly respectable elements of society: from the college campus, the pulpit, the media, the intellectual and literary journals, the arts and sciences, and from politicians. In most of these groups the movement against the system is participated in only by minorities. Yet, these often are the most articulate, the most vocal, the most prolific in their writing and speaking.”
So he recommends that a series of countermeasures be taken within each of those spheres: education, religion, the media, and so on. And though I can’t say that all these developments below sprang directly from Powell’s memo, we can note the creation of a vast array of new institutions and organizations, and changes in existing ones, within the next few years.
(This was not a “conspiracy,” mind you; this was all done quite openly, right out in front of God and everybody.)
1973: Jesse Helms of North Carolina forms the “Congressional Club,” noted for its development of negative and race-based campaign ads.
The NRA is taken over by hard-liners led by Harlan Carter in the “Cincinnati Revolt”; this creates one of several diehard voting blocks that Republicans can rely on for votes and donations.
1979: Jerry Falwell, along with others, starts the Moral Majority, explicitly linking Christianity with patriotism and capitalism.
1987: The FCC under Reagan lifts the “Fairness Doctrine,” enabling the explosive growth of conservative talk radio; Rush Limbaugh goes national the next year.
There are many more examples I could cite, of course—from the establishment of think tanks like the Heritage Foundation, from FOX News to the Koch brothers, from ALEC to the Citizens United case. My point is this: these people worked long and hard to bring us to the present situation. Whatever happens to the Trumps and their supporters and enablers, it will take at least as much time, money, effort and dedication to undo the damage they have caused.
Maybe by the Woodstock centennial, we’ll be able to really celebrate.
(Read the Powell Memo here.)