In retrospect, the 20th century in America is more conveniently divided into periods of varying length rather than decades of 10 years each.
The last two months of 1929, after the stock market crash, seem to be part of the 1930s. The late 1940s, after World War II, seem more a part of the 1950s.
Indeed, it can be said that the 1950s, as they are popularly remembered, began in August 1945 and ended in November 1963 with the assassination of John F. Kennedy. The 1960s, in turn, ended with the Watergate burglary in 1972.
Therefore, given that frame of historical reference, we are now in the 40th anniversary year of the end of the Sixties, which was a time of tremendous cultural and social upheaval.
There’s an old joke that if you think you can remember the Sixties, you weren’t really there. But I remember those times well. That period from 1963 through 1972 covered my twenties, from beginning to end. It was my good luck that adulthood would arrive at such a tumultuous time. I thought then — and still do, to a certain extent — that the Sixties and I were made for each other. America experienced profound changes in those 10 years, and I was glad to be a part of it all.
The pace of social and cultural change in the Sixties was dizzyingly fast — and more than a little unsettling to the people who tried to resist it. Liberation movements among blacks, women, gays and other segments of the populace arose. There was social unrest everywhere, and nearly every institution in American society was under siege.
Today, as I look back on that period at the age of 70, my mind’s eye fixes upon the stereotype of what Richard Nixon called the Great Silent Majority, those Americans who feared and hated much of the change that was occurring all around them. Many of them were sure, or at least hopeful, that it was all just a phase and that society would return to what it had been in the Fifties, when women and minorities knew their places and when the conservative white establishment ran things the way they were supposed to be run.
Many of those people still thought that America could win the Vietnam War and that regular folks who dutifully observed the long-prevailing social norms could defeat what they saw as the immoral hippie ethic.
But look what happened! In a sense, the hippies prevailed in the long run.
The two major wars America has fought in recent years turned out to be as unpopular as Vietnam.
Women and blacks and gays have not returned to their stations of yore. Quite the opposite is the case. Women are making professional and political gains all over the place. There’s a black guy in the White House. The gays are getting married these days, and most Americans have no problem with that. The pot smokers are toking-up legally in some states, and marijuana prohibition is increasingly unpopular among the general populace.
And most recently, acceptance of immigrants in this country has become far more widespread than it was only a few years ago. Just today, a poll was released showing that nearly two-thirds of Americans favor legislation that would create a path toward citizenship for the millions of illegal immigrants already living here.
The hippies have won the culture wars. And the losers, members of what once was the Great Silent Majority, are fading away.
Conservative pundit George Will put it succinctly when he said just yesterday with regard to one of these culture wars: “Quite literally, the opposition to gay marriage is dying. It’s old people.”