Hunt for Steel


Socratic Men

Wild Heart


Put Up




Memphis Woes

Exalting Towers




Trigger Sapping

Get Her Done!

Optimist Wager

Not for Sale

Elder Anarchy

Preface & Reader Response

The exuberance of the sixties is not the reason for our ills today. The impulse and light of the sixties are why we still have the insight and decency to recognize the persistent ills of today.



Counterculture Lives [1]


by Jerry Murley

Having heard the sixties excoriated and blamed for most of the ills that have befallen us for the past thirty years, I would like to add a counterweight to better right the wrong and balance the story. This account is absolutely a personal perspective based on an individual journey. It is informed as well by some experience reading history, following present-day political debates, pondering religion, and constantly questioning conventional public opinion. There are countless valid perspectives on the sixties, but, alas, I can only account for one.


I am not exactly sure where the story of the youth culture of the 1960s should begin. Knowing that a historical trail leads in many directions and reaches far into the past, I will content myself to start with the communal sacrifices of the Great Depression and World War II. We were as fortunate and generous a people after World War II as we had been a sacrificing people in the two previous periods. Certainly our sacrifices had an enlightened self-interest, even a commercial purpose. But the people who contributed most found themselves in struggles for survival that knew no greater cause than a few elemental ideals and absolute necessity. We were left a tested but prospering people.

Until the 1968 national elections, many young people saw the prospects for prosperity in this country as boundless. Yet, they saw on their own streets and in nearby neighborhoods the need to redress inequities and injustices that they had been groomed and educated to notice and care about. I am grateful that my parents exposed me to most facets of a generally consistent civil and Christian culture which included respect for education, personal responsibility, and independence. I was not unique in that advantage for youth of that time and place.

The 1960s ignited a fire of energy, passion, and exploration. Even today, I cannot listen very often to the music I liked in those days, because the old embers are quickly oxygenated to warm, if not red hot, coals. I would characterize the main contribution of the period as an intensified personal inner light fed by confidence, imagination, high expectations, and the option of farflung exploration. In place of light and energy to describe the feeling of the period, I might use the term exuberance, if that term can be expanded to carry an unusual sense of clarity and thoughtful concern. Many people, young and old, really did expect a better and expanded society of mankind. The light had probably been growing all along, passed through a preceding generation. But once it was magnified by peer and media feedback, the light penetrated deeply into all aspects of life and politics. That light rooted many of us in ways that made it near impossible to uproot us again.

I don't think that today our passion for justice, our interest in conservation and limited energy consumption, our willingness to try other paths of wellness and of growing and eating food, could have blossomed as it has without that light and the small practical experiments that children of the sixties took up over forty years ago. Small individual and collective steps did matter then – they mattered greatly.

Since 1968 most of us have turned toward political realism and practical adjustments, but the light and the ideals remain. Admittedly, the foremost political figures formed from the 1960s have been deeply flawed and have made personal decisions that reflect too much of the self-satisfaction urge that mars ethical judgment. But, too, children of the sixties have served with daily dedication and distinction in the creative arts, in small enterprise, in schools, in hospitals, in protective government agencies, in the military, and in the Peace Corps. They have performed outstanding work as cooks, laborers, teachers, nurses, doctors, engineers, and parents. They have run public-interest law firms, non-profits, and NGOs. And they have infused corporate America with the common-sense idealism that makes some corporate policies far more humane, sensible, nimble, practicable, and advanced than the platforms and policies of hack politicians. Thus the counterculture has transformed itself into an institution-oriented revolution. It has been a very slow and pains-taking revolution of ups and downs, the kind that can be better called an evolution that makes one era different but derived from another, built on worthy contributions, rejecting the faulty, creating its own imbalances, and making its own mistakes.

Those of age who didn't have a conflicted moral lapse or indiscretion during the era should step forward for an outstanding sanctity award – and to have their human frailty thoroughly examined. If the Ten Commandments and the golden rule were that easy to live by, we wouldn't be so hard pressed to remember to do it and fall short of the goal so many times in our lives.

Sixties' conservatives and liberals alike were chock full of error. No one had a monopoly on foolishness or goodness. Many flower children and radicals were as scary as the most racist and pigheaded conservatives of the day and for the same reasons: they wanted theirs without reckoning with the fairness, rightness, and practicality of their objectives or the ramifications for everyone else. Some were downright looney – as looney as our radicals on the right today. Yet there was still the light. The light that would not go away even with years of adjustment to practical exigencies. The values of the light, the foundation of all else, always said there should be a better way and that better way should ever remain a focus of our thoughts and our actions – and our adaptations.


The sixties were not Christian per se. But I am a Westerner, an American, a Southerner. I am interested in the thoughts and practices of the East, but I am not of them and they are not mine. By the 1960s the hypocrisies of everyday Christian practice in America did not jibe with the Christian principles that I was persuaded to learn, respect, and incorporate into my everyday life. This had nothing at all to do with being perfect or being anointed or being saved or living an unknown existence in an eternal life. It had to do with ethical lessons of decency and social responsibility. The best of the sixties intensified the best of Christianity for me. It continues to provide a source of energy and undreamt-of joy. It informs every opinion and undergirds every value that I have.

There have been countless unexpected – and undeserved – kindnesses and generosities directed towards me and mine over the years. It is a bounty that boggles the mind. I am grateful to this day for those actions of selflessness and generosity. That behavior of others obligates me to do likewise. Countless actions like them obligate all of us to do likewise. That generosity is akin to the personal spark passed from person to person during the 1960s. It seems so small a transaction, but its product is huge, its motivating power unstoppable, its goodness unassailable.

Since the 1960s, like many of my generation, I have been involved in practical responsibilities that reasonably focused more on sacrifice for my family than on dedication to mankind. That is not a bad thing, it is as it should be: that is one of the essential steps in learning how to serve mankind as a family member. A sufficient portion of my sixties was dedicated to finding a path for living a balanced life. Three primary objectives emerged by the early 1970s: to survive with some dignity; to attend more to the appreciation of beings and systems of the universe than to the denigration of them; to give to life as much as, if not more than, I got in life. These modest intentions have not been prevalent in the political and religious animus of history. Service to unknown humanity – without demanding conversion of loyalty, habit, opinion, or belief – is an honorable objective but a very difficult one to achieve in daily living. In my youth, all of this started to become a relevant, though not all-consuming, personal calling. For me, this calling was a direct result of my 1960s, which were in turn a direct result of the Christian principles, the civil American creed, the Southern grace, and the simple workingman's ingenuity, common sense, discipline, humor, gratitude, and courage that I ploddingly grew up learning to respect. The 1960s revealed the world to me on a larger scale. In the process of my path-finding, I encountered unsettling unknowns. Witnessing real and varied highs, lows, and hidden corners brought more of life into relief. The 1960s helped open up the unknown and permitted me to venture out and embrace the unfamiliar rather than fear and loathe it.

True, too much gentleness and open-hearted generosity could weaken a free, independent, energetic, and innovative people and make it vulnerable. But if we as a people made as much song and effort in praise and well-wishes as we do in defense and rancor, I bet all I possess that life on earth would benefit. Yes, Christ taught it and the 1960s confirmed it: love is the answer – or at minimum a large part of it. My love might not be your love. My generosity might not be your generosity. But who are we as individuals to judge the personal application of principles by our fellows. In love, as in fiscal responsibility, most people are for it, but the hard part is finding the right balance and sustaining it.

Thus first and foremost, the 1960s were in fact about a shared set of values, many of which were derived from Christian teaching. These values were and are as true, as powerful, and as firmly held as any of the values expediently espoused to cudgel people in the culture wars of the last decades. Lying was a deeply repugnant human weakness in the view of the 1960s generation, particularly in the political realm concerning the war. Lying is deeply repugnant today as well, because it is a destroyer of trust and truth-seeking. It is a destroyer of principle and civilization. It is a destroyer of human relationships and personal sacrifice. I was less engaged in the outside world for several decades until lying and a disrespect for learning and a transmogrification of Christian principle somehow came to appear truthful enough and patriotic and became commonplace and acceptable social practice. With that, the spirit of the 1960s was inflamed anew. I am not alone in this revived impulse of revolt, and I am sure the abhorrence of lies will long live beyond the sixties' generation. Lying holds no honored place in the civic temple.


It is easy to romanticize about the glory days of youth in the sixties. It doesn't hurt to watch the sun go down while listening to the old music and to feel the energy and expansiveness one felt then that carried one through the best and worst of times in the sixties. But after spending a cold day inside recently with a thick, icy white snow surrounding me from every window, as I scanned old black and white negatives from the late sixties, I was reminded of just how innocent and ordinary most of us were. We were polite young people from nice middle-class and working-class families. We worked in the summers and some during the school year while in high school and college. We weren't arrested and we didn't yell much about politics or anything else. We were young people set adrift with fresh opportunities for experimenting in a life a bit different from the conventions that we had know for fifteen or twenty years. It was an exciting and an intimidating time socially. The war and civil rights touched everyone in one way or another. There were difficult questions without easy answers. Some paid dearly for the wrong choices or for the options pressed upon them by accident, parents, friends, and governments. Most survived with some regret and a lifetime worth of stories whether of war or peace. Now we see more clearly our error. But we have surely lost our principles and goodness and verve if we have lost the communal ambition from that time. We did not all love our brethren – not all of them – and we still don't. But the impulse was there even in the most jaded and hard amongst us. Those who were balanced then are balanced today and for the same reasons.

No, the exuberance of the sixties is not the reason for our ills today. The impulse and light of the sixties are why we still have the insight, decency, constancy, and courage to recognize the persistent ills of today – why we are not so completely lost in our acquisition of gadgets and the desire to live beyond our means and our rights as denizens of the planet to address these ills though they discomfort us. They are why we continue to labor optimistically and tirelessly for incremental improvement. Some few have lost their way, but plenty have not. And then we add our children: the parent lives in the child as much as ever before – not so much in dogma as in spirit and optimism. Reality should have worn us down by now, but the bite of reality lost its fangs long ago in many a setback in many a campaign.

While lying was disparaged in most quarters by sixties' youth, pretending was not. And boy did we pretend: Some feigned popular sensibilities to enhance their love interests. We pretended we were independent or that we cared little for mammon when the hippest spent much effort chasing the dollar and hangers-on were none too proud to return to the parental larder on occasion – if their parents would have them. We pretended that we had broken from the hold of our parents. However, no one I knew well was fully estranged from parents. Parental ties, and the middle-class comfort to which most of us had become accustomed, were sufficient reason why the sixties were not a cultural revolution at all but rather an ethical and aesthetic reformation. We called ourselves purifying the standards, casting off the trappings of the mother church of exclusivity, conventional wisdom, humorless rigor, and fabricated niceness and returning to firmer ground. We did not completely delude ourselves about creating an order from nothing: to a large extend, we were driven to return to something.

One forgets that adults of the so-called greatest generation, and the generation that followed it, were also drawn to some of the new ideas and ways. The support of fair-minded, erudite observers and generous-hearted parents gave the youth of the sixties their real strength and impact. The secret society aspect of the counterculture was intriguing, reassuring to its participants, and basically childishly excessive: in the long term, counterculture exclusivity and paranoia were corrosive of its relations with those outside – those it most needed to befriend and persuade in order to be effective and have lasting impact.

There is a simple irony in the fact that the sixties were a time for many of us to look to the dirt again no matter the allure of an emerging synthetic world. Many of us returned to the dirt from which our parents endeavored to lift us. And in doing so, we blazed a path unknown to our parents yet to heights that they had envisioned for us. They just had not reckoned on the journey that we would need to take to get there.


The popular conception is that the 1960s were rife with drug abuse. If truth be revealed, the popular media of the late sixties and thereafter promoted for entertainment purposes the image of widespread and frequent experimentation with exotic drugs. Rather than substance abuse, we more likely than not abused ourselves with too much substance – an inordinate level of concern and engagement with artistic, political, economic, and ethical substance with which we were inadequately equipped to deal in the heat of youthful passion and confusion about the war and civil rights. A studied view should reveal that it was after the despairing events of 1968, as the country moved from backlash to corruption in the early 1970s, that drug abuse and addiction became most evident. This was also the time when the vast majority of mere dabblers of the 1960s moved into responsible adulthood and work for pay.

Just as in all periods of history, the sixties indeed had their darker side. There was the usual minority of predatory posers plying their malicious crafts, finding it easy to work their way in an open, trusting, adventurous youth culture. Drug dealers were viewed by most as an insipid, if not detestable and outright criminal, lot.

Drugs were not the be-all of myth. We were looking for new clues, new paths to truth, enlightenment, and joy – paths that we suspected were being neglected if not hidden from us. Regarding the vaunted – and ridiculed – imagination of the time, it need not be attributed mainly to drug use but rather viewed as being enabled by developing channels and methods of seeing the past, reality, and the future. A diminished inhibition and fear of the unknown made exploration of possibilities infinitely easier and more risky.


Any financially active generation – large, educated and with substantial leisure time – would have grown to a similar sense of exceptionalism given an equal amount of media attention to its unconventional social and political ideas and ways of interaction. Prior to the financial disappointments of late 2008, a trace of sixties' exuberance could be detected in the hearts and heads of many of today's youth as we waged another decade of wars. But the sixties were not all exuberance and feelings of exceptionalism. Much of an individual's time back then was absorbed in the same daily tedium and grind as has been the case in every decade before and since. What we began to experience was a sense of possibility that was far different from what we had expected, given our experiences in the previous decade. What we ended up with was not compellingly different, except for the persistence of an engaged spirit that was more collective then would have been otherwise.

Any young person today who experienced the heady elation of promoting and seeing the election of our fresh, new president in 2008 knows a bit of the feeling of what the sixties felt like. Though fleeting, many of the sixties' generation caught a glimpse of victory while young as well. Even those who recently felt a tad heady at the denouement of the Massachusetts special election know a variant of it. But this must be said about the difference between the two kinds of delight: the day of reckoning for those of the sixties – the day they faced reality – was when they realized it was not enough to be free against something: one had to be free for something. And that something had to forward and sustain the living conditions of human kind, earthly beings, and beautiful ecosystems to the extent possible for individuals also trying to balance a personal and family livelihood and achieve a modicum of personal play and joy. Others, conservation, balance, and joy – all these sometimes contradictory considerations, and the actions based upon them, are what make a yes life instead of a no paralysis of spirit and collective development.


Activism, any kind of activism, was admired by youth of the sixties. In my circles of acquaintance and relationship, imagination and involvement were not just permitted, they were presumed. I for one was not a standout on either count. But just being average seemed light years away from the decade before.

There was a growing new conformity in the sixties. Not all people of interest fit that mold, though. In fact, some were attractive because of their unparalleled originality. Others were so deeply engaged in a particular activity, one was almost compelled to pay attention to them if not admire them. Others were so open to people of vast differences that they too were embraced by those who either tended toward a close-knit, low-key conformity or inhabited a persistent state of bewilderment about the new patterns of behavior and opinion.

Maybe it was the sense of self-confidence induced by the music, or maybe it was the mobilization of the war and the concurrent multitude of college students. Maybe it was a manifestation of the role reversals of the time. But the period experienced an enticing and effective fluidity. Like mass movements at other times when there was great opportunity, calamity, or confusion, young people moved all about the country. In fact, during this period, whole families were moving multiple times for economic reasons. The interchange was perhaps most evident in the middle class, but there was exchange between the middle and working classes as well. One was exposed to many, many different people. I can vividly remember that as the sixties turned into the 1970s, youthful first-time migrates to California felt as if they were visiting another planet upon returning home again.

Veracity and authenticity made awkward bedfellows in the social flux of the late sixties. People had varying degrees of involvement in the changing culture and its shifting standards. For reasons of self-protection and self-development, individuals cultivated different masks to don for different groups and situations. This multi-level, accelerated mobility rendered the social scene contradictory and confusing to the young people coming of age within it and to their elders.

I would like to think that the enhanced social fluidity among sixties' youth was due in large part to a new appreciation of intelligence, sensitivity, originality, and openness. The discovery of a wider range of worthwhile human endeavors also accompanied an interest in, an admiration for, and a pursuit of craft and manual labor among young people who had not valued such activities before. This was a seismic culture shift that held critical ramifications for the future. This particular influence of sixties' culture has not abated but been amplified through every succeeding generation. What is taken for granted now, in terms of respect for the earth and those who serve in all walks of life, was not prevalent prior to the sixties – or if it was, it was a heritage in danger of fading further during the sixties had there not been a dramatic shift in attention and priorities. We came so close to losing so much in our genuine relationship to the earth and respect for the varied heritage of mankind. This contribution of the generation, while not wholly attributable to the counterculture or to young people (the growth of science education helped tremendously), can hardly be viewed as pernicious: it is in fact fundamentally positive and may yet save the planet and its inhabitants from the related deadly sins of complacency, indifference, and sameness.

Under the guise of uniformity there really was little behavioral cohesion and certainly no binding ideology, other than decided opinions about the war and varying degrees of broad-mindedness. One of the chief misunderstandings about the heyday of the counterculture in the late 1960s, is that it was egalitarian and that there was a significant degree of solidarity. The youth culture of the time was not egalitarian: each circle had its own inexplicable pecking routine. The youth culture was in no way organized, except in regards to a focus on a few specific national issues, a few marches, a few music festivals, and a few communes. None but conservatives were fooled by the mass of unruly hair, jeans, T-shirts, and clownish jargon. I am not asserting that the 1960s were primarily about fashion, but the period was in large part about fashion – no different from every generation, even today. On a superficial level, the 1960s did not differ much from the 1950s, except that our crewcuts were allowed to grow and we no longer wished to follow the absurd directives to duck and cover. Today, many old warriors differ from the 1960s only to the extent that they have returned to their crewcuts as they lose their hair and want to protect their investment portfolios while they do some little bit of good, knowing full well that they too will be swept away by a burst of imagination and the similar foolishness of succeeding generations.


My powers of analysis do not enable me to distinguish clearly between what of the times, and my memories of them, were primarily symptoms of the timeless glories of youth and what were unique manifestations of the zeitgeist. To be honest, since the 1960s coincided with my prime years of youth, I don't care to differentiate between them and be dispirited by my findings. These were my times and I claim them. I will not renounce them. And I will not give them up without a fight.

* * *


1. I wrote most of this personal essay prior to the Massachusetts special election. Soon after that perplexing phenomenon, I read an interesting observation in The New Yorker magazine (1 February 2010) in an article by Ben McGarth entitled "The Movement": "...Tea Party seems to derive much of its energy from the members of the generation who did not participate in the cultural revolution of the sixties, and are only belatedly coming to terms with social and demographic trends set in motion fifty years ago." I am not sure that I buy this explanation in whole, but it does contain a fragment of what feels like truth. I cannot really make myself mad at out-of-work people doing what they can to involve themselves in government – as long as that government actually governs for the welfare of all. I really don't expect much more of what passes for conservatism either. But I can and do get mighty frustrated with the bickering factions of the liberal persuasion whose internal horse-trading overpopulates options and devours the opportunity for concrete action, making a mockery of the spirit of the sixties and pointing up the era's worst defects: disorganization, periodic arrogance, and the inability to manage complex systems in the face of screaming mobs.

2. Reactionary is a very strong, ugly term – I apologize for mentioning it. But liberals of the 1960s and today must face the facts: we are witnessing the rebirth of reactionary political thought and behavior, aided by economic disruption and fomented by elite ultra-conservatives. Fortunately it is still in its infancy, which is characterized by infantile expression rather than mindless brutality. Liberals have got to shake off their stunned befuddlement at the obvious prospect that even educated, well-fed Americans can be overfull of irrationality and inconsistency. Again, liberals must wake up to harsh reality: unless they can muster the determined, cooperative communal common sense to overcome ineffectiveness, there is but an unlikely short hop into the black hole of reactionary brutality and the collapse of much that we hold dear.


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