Sixties still divides Americans

April 3, 2011


“That Championship Season,” which opened on Broadway in 1972, was a spectacular success, running for 944 performances and winning the Pulitzer Prize. The play is currently being revived and has been the subject of cultural commentaries along with the usual hyper-ventilating reviews.

The play presents a reunion of four members of a state championship high school basketball team at the home of their coach. It’s a bittersweet occasion that mingles memories of glory with the inevitable disappointments of the aftermath years. Beneath the surface of camaraderie boils a malevolent brew. Phil, an unprincipled businessman, has had an affair with the wife of George, the corrupt city mayor. Phil plans to support George’s rival in the next election. James spills the beans on Phil, and the fireworks begin. Tom, an alcoholic, casts bitter insults at his friends, while the coach spouts racist, right wing cliches: “Communists are at work today … Students burning down colleges … Government gone bad. And there’s no McCarthy to protect us.”

When the play first opened, it was received as a revelation of America’s failures and sins. Most reviews of the revival have been less than enthusiastic. But the interesting thing is the way various critics have used the play as a spring board for venting their own ideologies.

Writing for the conservative Wall Street Journal, Terry Teachout calls it a “moldy theatrical corpse,” a “quasipolitical cartoon whose smugness stinks like dime-store perfume.” He sees it as an expression of the liberal mindset that blossomed in the ’60s — the disillusionment with middle class American ideals brought about by the Vietnam War, the antipathy to the bigotry and hypocrisy of the Eisenhower years.

“I doubt that any other play … has more to tell us about the self-satisfied attitudes of the generation that made it,” writes Teachout

While admitting that the play is a bit corny and melodramatic, John Lahr — writing for the liberal New Yorker — finds it not dated at all, but highly relevant to our times.

“Beneath the constant pep talks about winning is a rueful sense of moral exhaustion, which plays as powerfully today as it did in 1972,” Lahr writes. He seizes on the coach’s crude pearls of wisdom — “You have to hate to win,” “Exploiting a man’s weakness is the name of the game” — as expressions of the cruel ethos of competition, capitalism and individualism. And to drive his point home, he makes a gratuitous association to current events: “The coach’s words, which sound eerily like those of some of today’s Tea Party pols, hang in the air.”

The two reactions nicely represent our ideological divide. For conservatives, the ’60s were when America lost its soul. For liberals, the same period marked the birth of a redemptive American reformation. There seems to be no escape from these polarized mindsets that dominate our national conversation. And it’s endlessly fascinating how intelligent people who seem to have so much in common can consider the same phenomenon and come up with diametrically opposing views.

Paul Johnson — a conservative historian but by no means a mindless rube — actually likes Sarah Palin. Her scorn of “this awful political correctness business” is in “the good tradition of America,” he writes. “Plus: She’s got courage.” Johnson is also a fan of the tea party: “It’s brought a lot of very clever and quite young women into mainstream politics and got them elected. A very good little movement, that.”

How can you square Johnson’s views with the many thoughtful people who foam at the mouth at the mere mention of Sarah Palin and the tea party? Are we members of the same species? Would we be better off if either side won?

Questions about winning and losing bring another matter to mind which also relates to basketball, but not a championship season — alas. Once again, our team lost. Not just lost, but suffered an inexplicable, catastrophic collapse. Why? What happened? There are no answers to these questions except that life isn’t fair and that no one has a birthright to victory. What have we learned? That it’s better not to strut and swagger and beat your chest. Better to retain your dignity, your perspective, your class. Then if you do lose, you’ll have those priceless treasures intact. And you won’t look like a fool.

T.S. Eliot was wrong when he pegged April as “the cruelest month.” That designation belongs to March. March is the month of disillusionment, self-doubt and defeat, when hopes are dashed and fans are exiled to the wilderness while they wait for another season, another chance.

— George Gurley, a resident of rural Baldwin City, writes a regular column for the Journal-World.


Tom Shewmon 7 years, 2 months ago

"How can you square Johnson’s views with the many thoughtful people who foam at the mouth at the mere mention of Sarah Palin and the tea party?"

Easy: fear and intolerance to opposing views. And, I never heard of tea party rallies causing millions of dollars in damage as the unhinged protesters up in Madison caused.

God Bless.

Scott Drummond 7 years, 2 months ago

And the "evidence" of the damage is a one page, hand written note written by a member of Governor Scott Walker's administration.

cato_the_elder 7 years, 2 months ago

The headline of this column is eminently correct.

The 1960s were one of the two worst decades in American history, the other being the 1860s.

The scars of each are still with us.

Scott Drummond 7 years, 2 months ago

Progressive weren't, conservative were (and are.)

cato_the_elder 7 years, 2 months ago

Unless it's Thomas Sowell or Michelle Bachmann.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 7 years, 2 months ago

"Paul Johnson — a conservative historian but by no means a mindless rube "

If the quotes that follow are accurate, then he is indeed a mindless rube.

devobrun 7 years, 2 months ago

The 1960s kicked out the jams. Youth questioned authority with a vigor and intensity that shocked the WWII generation. It was great.

But what followed, George, was not great. The drug thing didn't work out. The casual sex thing promulgates disease and disappointment. Single moms are not as good as having a dad around. Sorry to tell you that, but it is true. I could go on, but for all the new freedom released by the 1960s, humanity really hasn't gone very far ahead in its quest for advancement.

And now, 45 years later, the old hippies are engaged in the same behavior as their fathers. Rules, regulations, bosses, plans protocols and persnickety guilt trips. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. Only now it isn't God that will slay you for your free and loose behavior. Now it is Nature. You are guilty of sin against the environment. Repent and be saved. Recycle.

Tea Party is the rage against authority. Palin is the outsider challenging the "man". The hippies won and are now in charge and they don't even know it.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 7 years, 2 months ago

Yea, but look at it this way-- now that hippies are building all those windmills, there is a never-ending supply of targets for you to tilt at.

yourworstnightmare 7 years, 2 months ago

Devo, I pretty much agree with your post. The social upheaval of the 60s did advance freedom for blacks and for women. However, some rather unfortunate hitch hikers came along, the biggest being a loss of any sense of personal and social responsibility.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 7 years, 2 months ago

" the biggest being a loss of any sense of personal and social responsibility."

You mean on Wall Street, that bastion of old hippies?

devobrun 7 years, 2 months ago

Yes bozo. On Wall Street. On Main street. On the wrong side of the tracks. In the halls of the university and congress. Everywhere, bozo. With that loss of personal responsibility comes more laws to make people be responsible. Doesn't work as well as socialization. Better that individuals feel the benefit of their good behavior rather than feel the sting of the law. It just works better. So we pass laws regulating business. We pass laws regulating speech. We pass laws and each new law is an acknowledgement that we have moved away from a society that knows what is right and wrong and toward a society that negotiates laws to punish. And society isn't better because over 50% of African-American babies have no responsible father. And people who run investment firms who fail their fiduciary responsibility toward their clients. That goes for Madoff and Goldman-Sachs. And all those loan officers in California who would loan a three-legged dog money for a mortgage if it could sign its name.

Sleaze bags. All of 'em. We don't need laws. We need shame. Shame on Bernie Madoff. Shame on all those black bucks making babies and leaving. Shame on the investment bankers who packaged all those worthless loans and hid the lousy loans. Shame on them.

There, I feel better. But Charlie Sheen and his ilk aren't listening. And they vote too.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 7 years, 2 months ago

Ah, for the good ole days, right, devo?

This world would be much better off if we had a few more Al Capones and Pendergasts, the KKK, and internment camps for Japs, when everyone was law-abiding and had impeccable personal-responsibility bonafides. Back when you could dump anything you wanted into a nearby creek.

Too bad the evil hippies destroyed all of that.

devobrun 7 years, 2 months ago

We have all those and more today, bozo. We have Italian mobs. Mexican mobs. Vietnamese mobs. We have people skimming tickets from the university, and we have student athletes taking money on the side.

We have racist groups like the KKK and racist groups from blacks, Hispanics, Chinese and every other identifiable group.

Heck we're all racist and looking for a fight. It was only the KKK 60 years ago.

No we don't intern enemies. We survey them. Phone calls, internet and e-mail records, surveillance cameras. We don't put them in camps, bozo. We let them run free and see who they contact. Then we build a dossier on them and then we track them to their meetings and round them up. It is the same thing, bozo. It is just way more efficient. Such technology didn't exist in WWII.

The hippies didn't change the KKK. They allowed Charlie Manson to build a hippie version thereof. And the Black Panthers. And the Crips, and the Arian Nation, and the Hell's Angels. I could go on all day here, doncha think, bozo?

The hippies didn't stop the KKK. They just added to them.

devobrun 7 years, 2 months ago

I think that the loss of MLK in 1968 has harmed more Americans than anything I can think of over the past 45 years. Initially, I wrote "people", then I changed it to "Americans" because Cambodia, China, Rwanda and a few other genocides are hard to miss.

Well, back to the topic. Martin Luther King challenged not just Jim Crow laws, but challenged all white America to be better. His emphasis was on the quality of character and what that means. In the 20 years post-WWII, white folks knew what that meant. Black skinned people fought, died, and lived lives in war that were every bit as noble as those whose skin matched their white skin. It just flat didn't make sense to segregate black folks. And so it happened. The civil rights amendment was terrific. But Martin died too soon.

His message of character got lost.

I wish I could judge his daughter not by the color of her skin, but by the content of her character.

But I can't because Martin died too soon. She is to be judged by her skin now. Alas, his message got lost.

And we don't shame bad character anymore. Because we will be called racist. We can't judge Wall Street sleaze bags anymore because we will be called liberals. We identify liars in congress, science, business and call them out as liars. And that makes us the.......opposite. We are deniers if we challenge bad science. We are tea baggers if we oppose endless government increase. We are ....what if we challenge Wall Street? Socialists?

Here's an alternative: First, most people need to back off on knowing anything. Scientists, politicians, clergy.....mostly don't know. As a result, individuals must make their own decisions. Be an individual. To heck with all those pundits, pols, and wise people. They don't know.

Watch "Life of Brian".

Grow up and be somebody.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 7 years, 2 months ago

"First, most people need to back off on knowing anything."

Except you, of course. Because you clearly know everything.

devobrun 7 years, 2 months ago

No bozo, I don't tell you what to think. I don't know where we came from. It might not be evolution or God. I don't tell you what to think.

Just look at the above entry about King: 1) I characterized Martin Luther King. It was short and the man wasn't without his iniquities, but I said what I thought was his message.

2) I lamented his early passing and the loss of his message.

3) I characterized other irresponsible people. And I lamented King's demise.

4) Finally, I urged people to be individually responsible for themselves. Be themselves.

In all cases I did not say what they should be, other than responsible to themselves.

Am I wrong, bozo? Really?

jhawkinsf 7 years, 2 months ago

"If you're young and a conservative - you have no heart. If you're old and a liberal - you have no mind." For we baby boomers, those of us who grew up and really saw the 60's (and are now in our 60's, I might add), the above quote describes many of us. We evolved because it is normal, it is natural, it is correct.
It's also normal that we have trouble remembering who made the quote; Winston Churchill, I think.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 7 years, 2 months ago

Yea, if we can just distill things down to a few more supposed aphorisms like that, the more superficial the better, all the problems of the world will just melt away.

jhawkinsf 7 years, 2 months ago

Well, I don't know if the problems of the world are going to melt away. I do suspect that someone like Winston Churchill accomplished more toward that goal than you or I sitting on our couch and posting in the LJW. I also suspect his quote was made with some levity in mind. And levity was certainly in my mind when I repeated it. :)

yourworstnightmare 7 years, 2 months ago

Devo, I pretty much agree with your post. The social upheaval of the 60s did advance freedom for blacks and for women. However, some rather unfortunate hitch hikers came along, the biggest being a loss of sense of personal and social responsibility.

Christine Anderson 7 years, 2 months ago

Devo, I love the comment "old hippies engaged in the same behaviors as their fathers". The things that make the 60's stand out in my memory are "Romper Room", the debut of "Sesame Street", and some stupid guys landing on the moon that preempted my tv shows. And a nun that could fly. Did live in a college town for the part of the 60's I actually remember. There were these strange people with long, straight hair, funny clothes, and my grandma would never let me play with them. Oh, if she only knew...

beatrice 7 years, 2 months ago

The '60s were great, if for no other reason than they gave us The Beatles.

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