Symposium 1968: Vivian Gornick

Symposium 1968: Vivian Gornick

At an SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) conference held in the spring of 1967, Abbie Hoffman, Paul Krassner, and the San Francisco hippie group “the Diggers” burst into the middle of Tom Hayden’s keynote speech, screaming that the people in the room didn’t have the balls to make a revolution, they’d piss in their pants when the violence erupted. For SDS, the arrival of the counterculture wildmen was a disaster; Todd Gitlin later wrote that in its wake the New Left failed to “outgrow the student movement.” For Abbie Hoffman, the conference had been “monumental,” an event he gladly added to his résumé of political action.

The anecdote is significant. If you think that the New Left was the sixties, the disruption is anxiety-provoking. If you think the sixties only included the left, it is alarming but vital. If, on the third hand, you think—as I do—that the sixties was the beginning of thirty years of politics in the street that changed the self-description of people around the globe, you realize that the conference and the outburst together are the meaning of the decade. I know that when it was my turn, in 1970, to respond directly to the verbal intemperateness of exploding feminism—Love Is Rape, Marriage Is Oppression, You’re Sleeping with the Enemy—I could do so as quickly as I did (I still remember the grin spreading itself across my ultra-respectable face as I thought, “Yea-a-ah. Let’s have more of that”) because for so long I’d been hearing Abbie Hoffman chant, “Kill Your Parents, Burn Your Money, Masturbate In the Streets.” The no-more-nice-girls extremity easily struck a welcoming note in my acclimated ear. Then, when I realized that the wildness was coming out of women who had once been in SDS, the initiation was complete.

FOR ME, 1968 is not a year, it’s a symbol of one of the more remarkable “disruptions” in American life: the kind that has acted repeatedly to remind us that the world is what we ourselves make it. Agency, the sixties declared, was the name of the game. To not exercise agency was to be written out of history by those who do exercise it.

It was as though the insight had been newly minted, that’s how powerful it seemed in 1968. Out of this impassioned sense of newness there erupted an explosion of hidden grievance from sections of the body politic—women, gays, students—that had either never, or not in a century, been driven to open rebellion. Again, it was the combination of influences at work that made the outbreak so electrifying. While the conventionally organized left delivered the analysis, it was the over-the-top counterculture brashness that pointed directly at the places where it hurt; made ordinary citizens cry out at other ordinary citizens, Don’t you get it? This is how we feel. And now that we know how we feel, this is how far we intend to go, how many bridges we’re willing to burn

The sixties was never a...

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