The Sixties: From Counter-Cultural to Cultural Counter-Revolution

on Oct 03 in Flotsum & Jetsam by

At the height of the counter-cultural revolution in the Sixties, in what was meant to be an act of protest, a bomb planted by Fergus Keane, a character in my first novel Backward-Facing Man, literally blows up in an innocent young man’s hands. Keane, who is forced to flee society and live underground, surfaces seven years later in a safe house where media heiress and kidnap victim turned urban guerilla, Patty Hearst, is hiding out with the tragic and ridiculous Symbionese Liberaton Army. Like many real-life radical leftists of that era, Keane is exhausted, trying to make sense of his life, discouraged by the lack of effect that he and other radicals are having on society.

It is a novel, and as any novel does, it aims to tell a story. There is a love triangle, unrequited in three directions, the betrayal of family members, a daughter without parents, and a man at midlife facing financial ruin – difficult stuff – yet everything seems to loop back to events that occurred in 1968, and the events and causes that these characters, when young, attached themselves to or avoided.

In radio and print interviews, reading from the book and telling the story of how a serious kid, twelve years old in 1968, memorizing the world, was drawn to this period, I explain that what seemed hopeful turned gnarly and violent. I observe that mostly every business and government leader in power today is, at least demographically, a child of the Sixties, and then conversation turns from fiction to reality.

If our society today is more stratified, more repressive, and less hopeful, people ask, unable to extract itself from a war that seems as unwinnable as the one in Southeast Asia did — what happened to them? Where did all the love that was in the air go? How did these people get from Be-ins and protests, manifestos and commitments to fairness and gentleness toward mankind…to this?

One of my characters has a theory: that the most radical leftists of that era became unwitting foils to ultra-conservative leaders of the time, who used them to demonstrate to the rest of America – the Silent Majority, as Nixon called them — that leftwing politics and black militancy would result in no good.

I picture a giant parquet floor with Abbie Hoffman and J. Edgar Hoover, members of the Weather Underground and Richard Nixon’s cabinet, George Jackson, Eldridge Cleaver, and Donald DeFreeze from the SLA, their arms around George Wallace, Barry Goldwater, Strom Thurmond and the most conservative legislators in Congress, all waltzing, the radicals unaware that their violent tactics and rhetoric would help bring about the exact opposite of what they are willing to die for. In this scenario, it is logical that Americans, appalled by the violence, the extremism, and the destructive tactics would embrace a conservative, or neo-conservative agenda.

I know radicals insist on their right in a democracy to express themselves, even violently, to end what they see as a violently wrong, state-sponsored actions. And who could have foreseen in the early years of democracy, the profound impact of capitalism combining with media technology – the power of rich people and their institutions to introduce images and ideas to shape voter’s ideas?

It’s important I think to stress the word, unwitting. You can see why Bill Ayers, author of Fugitive Days, a diary of his days as a Weather Underground Leader calling for the violent overthrow of the U.S., would not want to admit this. And yet how could he deny what followed? What are the ethics of behavior whose effect is exactly the opposite of what is intended?

Backward-Facing Man is a novel and as such, is about people, not politics and economics. There are twists and surprises, and it does not end happily. To do so would have been inconsistent with the characters choices and alas, the era.


  • Bob Shea says:

    The characters in your novel, for me, represent some elements of what went “wrong” for some of those who were “radicals” back in the day…the “60s”. Psychosis is not restricted to right-wingers —fascists, royalists, etc.
    No connection to reality masking as idealism is the same for those believing in “the revolution” or ‘the Rapture”.

    That the Civil Rights movements for minorities and women, as well as the anti-war actions of many would prompt a backlash from the ever-present fascist/royalist faction in American politics…now in power…is consistent with history’s push and pull within our society.

    Your novel does a fine job of portraying some characters caught up in this tidal wash.

  • Don says:

    I liked the coupling of rapture and revolution as ideologies embraced by the fringes thirty-five years apart! What still perplexes me is all the people in the middle — the soccer moms and the Nascar dads, the people in the heartlands and the South and especially the poor — weirdly comfortable now with leaders on the far right. In this light, I understand the muted response of our elders back in the Sixties, as if to say, “yeah, yeah, this will pass, and the same people singing folksongs and waving banners to end the war and give power to the people will wind up selling chemicals and burgular alarm systems and voting for arch conservatives with zero tolerance.” As we deify Bob Dylan on PBS this month, it’s worthwhile to note that although the times may have once been a’ changing, they appear to have long ago changed back. No doubt it’s human nature as we get old to ossify and protect what we’ve earned. Maybe it was middle age and a little hardening of the arteries that had the old bard singing bitter love songs and not protest ballads for the past 30 years. Then again Bob, I’m a geezer now too. How come I’m not OK with the course the country’s on?