1928 - Alderson High School - 1968



David Shields - April 14, 2011

Is the country polarized today? Yes it is. Is it something that happened like yesterday? No it isn’t. Should we be alarmed? I don’t know. Yet, it’s hard to believe that all the divisiveness and outright hatred bodes well for the nation. But then maybe we’ve been through it all before and are none the worse for the wear. That remains to be seen.

I’m thinking it would be useful to talk a little about how we came to this point. At least to this point this time. Some of what I’m about to say will, I believe, ring true to those who were born during or shortly after WW II. The “boomers” they call us. To those born in the 1970’s and afterwards it will comport only with some things they may have read or an occasional documentary they may have seen on television. To the many who don’t read, have no lasting interest in history or ever watch anything on television apart from sit-coms and reality shows it will likely strike no chord of familiarity. Nevertheless, I am of the opinion there’s some merit in saying it.

The severe polarization we’re experiencing in the country today is far more complicated than the differences in political ideologies. It cannot be captured in labels like liberal or conservative. It cannot be reduced to Blue States and Red States or described as secularism or evangelism. It is not the intelligentsia verses the commoner, the aristocracy verses the proletariat. Yet, all of these dichotomies have a certain utility and have had since this current revolution began. And, yes, it is a revolution, a cultural revolution that began in the 1960’s with the ‘flower children’, the hippies and the anti-establishment trends, not, as some seem to believe, with the election of George W. Bush or, to put it another way, with the defeat of John Kerry.

Arguably the 1960’s may have been the most eventful decade in American history in terms of its cultural and political future. Without a doubt the era gave birth to some of the most passionate debates and political controversies over the meaning of the American past and the direction of the nation’s future, debates and controversies that are continuing to this day and is, in my view, the unquestionable source of today’s sharp polarization. Making any sense of the Sixties is a daunting task and beyond the scope of my talents and the limitations of this space and I lived it! But still I feel any understanding of the present requires more than a cursory examination of the past 50 years and most especially the decade of 1960-1970.

Some say it was during that decade that America’s young lost their ‘core values’ and set the nation on the present course of decay and ruination. That America changed then cannot be disputed; but set on a course of ‘decay and ruination?’ Who knows? There is little doubt that they stripped naked, found new gods in the drug culture, discarded sexual inhibitions, discredited old religions and founded new ones, rejected authority wherever they found it, grouped all institutions into one ‘establishment’ and set fire to it in the name of claiming their rights and elected John Kennedy as their King Arthur and proclaimed ‘Camelot’.

While this army of free-loving idealists was changing America and seemed to be dominating the landscape, Richard Nixon’s ‘silent majority’ was still out there but not proving to be a formidable force. In fact, they were horrified at what was happening in America, but feeling pretty helpless. There was a good reason for that. They were helpless. Even Kennedy’s assassination did nothing to change the course of events. It took Lyndon Johnson and his Great Society and Vietnam to put the first chinks in ‘Camelot’ and this brought great confusion and societal agony and the first real evidence of a polarized society began to show up, for the flower children never went away, either: they just grew older and began to assimilate into the society.

They populated the faculties of our colleges and universities, heavily ensconced themselves in the mainstream media and publishing industry, took over completely the film and television industry and have since been hell-bent on shaping a public opinion more receptive to their way of thinking. Just less than half the nation appears to be in their corner and the other half stands across from them staring them down.

All through the administrations of Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George Bush the first, the old hippies themselves, Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton, George W. Bush the son and now the stunning Barack Obama there has been no sign of a unified national will comparable to that which existed from 1776 through 1959. It was lost during those ten years between 1960 and 1970. Some argue that a semblance of that national will may have ensued following the attack on our country on 9-11-01, but if it did it clearly did not last long, indeed may have been a pretension to begin with and certainly is not present today. The aging hippies have seen to that. And Obama even went around the world apologizing for the nation's sins.

What we have today is an uncompromising battle of wills. And the fighting is getting dirtier on both sides of the deep, deep chasm that divides our nation. It may be no longer possible to unite again behind any purpose. This, in my view, makes us far more vulnerable than we have ever been in our history, something the rest of the world has duly noted and begun to exploit. Divide and conquer has always been a fundamental prescription for bringing a country down. The current divisions in our people and in our institutions and in our culture are plain to see. This is the legacy of the 1960’s. And if the USA crashes and burns I’m satisfied that history will cite that peculiar decade as the beginning of our end.

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