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Optimism of the heart, pessimism of the intellect

Posted on September 23, 2017 by Ben Boyce

This month’s column was prompted by Katie Byrnes’ article, ‘Why the 1960s matter’ in the Aug 21st edition of the Sonoma Sun column.

It was a rather melancholy column that captured a mood that is in the air now. “It was an inspirational, luminous and searing time…The summer of love gave us unprecedented unity.” She identified the source of her sadness, and lamented: “And maybe the feeling of hope at that time is just too painful to remember. Maybe now despair is too thick in the air…I don’t know why our huge dreams and wishes halted.”

I replied to her in the on-line comments: “Katie, this was an excellent article with a burning question at the heart of it. How did the revolutionary impulse that was the 60’s cultural phenomenon get so thoroughly subjugated?

That’s a question I might have some answers to in my next column.”

I was moved by Katie’s heartfelt sense of the loss of a horizon of hope that was the animating spirit of the great Cultural Revolution of the 1960’s. Those of us who lived through that transformative time share her grief at the failure of our revolutionary movement and the subsequent downwards drift of American society into a callous, greed-driven culture of vulgarity and cruelty. Our paradise was lost and we lament its passing, even as the calendar reminds us that half a century has passed since the mythic Summer of Love.

The total eclipse passing through the middle of America last week matched my present dark mood. What the hell happened to summer? The constant 24/7 Chaos Theory multi-channel assault on our democratic institutions and sense of common decency has worn down our adrenals to the point that summer has lost its charm. The fun has left the building.

So, why did we fail, and more importantly, what is to be done? This is a serious question for my fellow veterans of the cultural revolution. Here’s a down payment on that project. This inquiry might seem quaint or nostalgic for those whose consciousness was formed in another era. Those who lived through that massive global awakening understand exactly what I’m talking about.

One of the humiliating ordeals that ’60’s revolutionary war veterans have to endure, as a price of defeat, is the rampant mainstream media historical revisionism about the ’60’s culture and politics.

No one I ever met wore the garish, polka dot bell-bottom pants and serape hemp dresses featured in mainstream depictions of ’60’s couture. And, no, Students for a Democratic Society and the New Left were not a bunch of bomb-throwing anarchists who had no agenda beyond political disruption.

Deep thinkers like Tom Hayden, author of the famous Port Huron Statement, charted out a new path for progressive politics that synthesized the evolving cultural attitudes towards race and gender and the historical democratic socialist economic project.

A small vanguard of public intellectuals have continued to refine the socialist dialectic to adapt to the narrative of history. That torch is lit and available. And it’s not a damn Tiki torch!

On social media and in conversation with peers, I often hear some version of “What’s the use? We’re screwed no matter what. We’re going down and nothing can save us now.” To which I reply, ‘Poppycock’! The human situation has been dire for tens of thousands of years. Our ancestors faced down bigger threats than a clown fascist regime and a climate crisis with a multi-decade deadline.

You can’t scare me with those threats, after living through the daily expectation of nuclear annihilation through my formative years, faced with an implacable mortal enemy like the Soviet Empire. I’m actually amazed that we’re still here, given the knifes edge that humanity lived on for three decades.

I subscribe to Albert Camus’ maxim: “Practice optimism of the heart and pessimism of the intellect.” See the movie ‘Dunkirk’ for a bracing reminder of the dire existential crisis our grandparents faced down not all that long ago. Succumbing to despair is premature. We are still writing history. Buck up, lads and lasses!



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