This weekend marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Woodstock rock festival, a significant turning point in American culture. In many ways it represented the collapse of what was left of Western Civilization in America.
The festival took place on a farm near the little town of Bethel, NY in the Catskill Mountain region. The organizers of the event aimed simply at putting on a rock concert highlighting some of the biggest names of the day – Janis Joplin, Joan Baez, The Grateful Dead, and Creedance Clearwater Revival, among others. They expected maybe 50,000 people or so would show up. Instead, nearly 400,000 arrived. Facilities were overwhelmed and it was a logistical nightmare.
The local police were unprepared, and so a spontaneous community was created. It was a Hippie love-in, a Counter-Culture “happening” on an unprecedented scale, and traditional norms were thrown to the wind. It was a celebration of sex, drugs and rock-n-roll.
What caused such an extraordinary event? There were several factors that led up to it. The Civil Rights Movement of the 1950’s and early ‘60’s demonstrated the presence of racial injustice in America. And then came the Viet Nam War, an ill-conceived foreign adventure that sparked massive protest demonstrations back home. All of this gave “the Movement,” the New Left, with a program of radical social reform.
Political tensions reached a boiling point during the summer of 1968. That August the Democratic National Convention was held in Chicago. The incumbent President, Lyndon B. Johnson, had decided not to run for reelection, and his heir-apparent was Vice-President Hubert H. Humphrey. He, in turn, was challenged by Eugene McCarthy and Robert F. Kennedy, but Kennedy was assassinated in June of that year. The anti-war movement rallied behind McCarthy. Nevertheless Humphrey won the nomination and was then defeated in the general election by Richard M. Nixon.
A profound sense of disillusionment set in. Many young people became convinced that the “Establishment” and the “System” were hopelessly corrupt and beyond reform. The only alternative, as far as they could see, was to “drop out” and pursue a vision of one’s own personal freedom and happiness. It all came to a head the following summer at Woodstock.
There were undoubtedly serious problems in American society that needed to be addressed. America was not a perfect nation, and never was – the Civil War was a lasting monument to that fact. But by the 1960’s America had become much more secular in its outlook. Earlier protests movements – the Abolitionist Movement of the mid-Nineteenth Century, the Progressive Movement of the early Twentieth – saw themselves as operating within a more-or-less Christian framework, and often used religious rhetoric to promote their causes. (“Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord . . .”
But America in the 1960’s was different. Prayer and Bible reading had been removed from the public schools, unprecedented numbers of college-age people were attending thoroughly secularized state universities, and even the mainline Protestant denominations had ceased to accept the authority of Scripture unconditionally. And the New Left had been at least partially influenced by Marxism.
But this meant that there was no clearly defined moral framework in which to discuss the issues. On the one hand the “Establishment” had difficulty producing a rational defense of traditional norms and values; and, on the other hand, the “Movement” had no clear sense of moral direction either. Young people simply rebelled against the standards and norms of their elders, but without having a clearly defined alternative. It became a matter of experimentation – if it feels good, do it. It was long hair, free love, acid trips and communal living.
In the end the “Movement” led to tragedy. There were drug overdoses and violence. Women felt that they had been sexually abused, and dangerous cult leaders emerged. As the Viet Nam War wound down and college graduates were faced with the challenge of earning a living, the Hippie movement largely faded away. Many Hippies became Yuppies – Young Upwardly Mobile Professionals.
But the legacy of the Counter-Culture did not entirely disappear. The Sexual Revolution permanent changed the way many Americans think about sex. Radical Feminism has made a major impact on American society. Public discourse had degenerated into identity politics, and in intellectual circles there is widespread skepticism then universal truths and moral absolutes even exist.
The underlying cause of all of this is secularism, the refusal to acknowledge the existence of a Supreme Being whose moral law is normative. In the end it became impossible to establish firm, binding moral norms, and social chaos was the result. Life became a matter of power politics – might makes right, and to the victor go the spoils.
What has disappeared is Western Civilization, an advanced human society founded on certain core principles – the belief that we live in a rationally ordered universe created by an intelligent Supreme Being, and that there are certain universal standards of justice, compassion and humanity that are binding on all.
The Counter Culture of the late ‘60’s threw all of this overboard and essentially had nothing coherent to replace it.