We wrote Destructive Generation in the mid-Eighties because of the way that Sixties radicalism was continuing to influence how America thought and felt twenty years after the fact. Today, another twenty years further on, the Sixties is still the undead decade. Far from being yesterday’s news, as it should be, it is still the white sound of our intellectual life, decanting its poisonous old wine into new bottles, fomenting our culture wars, and picking the scabs off the angry social wounds that have been with us now for a generation. A new edition of this book, which some commentators have been kind enough to refer to as a “classic,” seems entirely appropriate.
How deeply are we still haunted by this radical decade and all its clanking ghosts? Consider the 2004 elections, when America seemed to be time-warped in a grotesque Sixties encore. The country was once again involved in a controversial war. Radical armies of the night—less puissant, perhaps, than those forty years earlier, but more open in their anti-Americanism—were in the streets again. The old Marxoid vulgarities about American policy being dominated by American economic interests had returned with a new and stricter formulation: No Blood for Oil. The flip side of the Sixties Left’s heroization of tyrants such as Mao and Ho Chi Minh had reappeared in the assertions that George W. Bush represented a greater danger to humanity than the genocidal Saddam Hussein. Sixties veterans such as Noam Chomsky recycled the intellectual nihilism of the prior era when they charged that 9/11 was just payback for America’s historical crimes. Sixties wannabes such as Michael Moore rediscovered the moral imbecility of the era when they compared Iraqi beheaders to the Minutemen of the American Revolution.
But it was when the Democrats’ presidential nominee, John Kerry, mounted the podium at his party’s convention, gave a military salute and announced that he was “reporting for duty” that the Sixties suddenly went from subtext to text. At this moment, the past was not only prologue to the present, it was the present. Attempting through a clumsy gestural politics to be both for and against the war, having the cake of the Sixties without having to eat it, Kerry discovered that Vietnam, far from being forgotten or assimilated or having acquired a settled meaning, was still a toxic subject. His political bipolarism on the issue led the country into another quagmire—this time about the meaning of the war and service in it and about patriotism itself. As Kerry’s campaign devolved into an invisible referendum on the Sixties, the question became less whether he should be judged as a war hero or an antiwar hero than whether America, in its past and present, was a good or a blameworthy country, not only in its efforts in Vietnam, but in the burdens it had undertaken in Iraq. Blue states versus Red states was presented by the media as a new phenomenon, but in fact it was just the latest incarnation of a struggle that had been going on for forty years. The postmortem on the Kerry campaign was simple and brief: it was the Sixties, stupid!
– from the 2006 edition of Destructive Generation, co-written with Peter Collier
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