Did Woodstock change America? — with Kurt Vonnegut (1994) | THINK TANK

Did Woodstock change America? — with Kurt Vonnegut (1994) | THINK TANK

Ben Wattenberg: Hello. I’m Ben Wattenberg.
In the summer of 1969, hundreds of thousands of young Americans converged on a farm in
upstate New York for the now-legendary Woodstock Music and Arts Fair. Did Woodstock mark the
end of the ’60s, as some say, or was it the beginning of a countercultural revolution
that is still playing itself out in American society? Joining us to sort through the conflict and
consensus are Kurt Vonnegut, novelist and social critic and author of more than a score
of books, including “Slaughterhouse Five,” “Cat’s Cradle,” and “Breakfast of
Champions”; Martha Bayles, author of “Hole in Our Soul: The Loss of Beauty and Meaning
in American Popular Music” and an editorial consultant for our program; Morris Dickstein,
professor of English at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York and author
of “The Gates of Eden: American Culture in the Sixties”; and Jim Miller, professor
of political science at the New School for Social Research and author of “Democracy
Is in the Streets: From Port Huron Through the Siege of Chicago.” The question before this house: Did Woodstock
change America? This week on “Think Tank.” In 1969, close to a half a million self-described
hippies, flower children, and Aquarians made a pilgrimage to Woodstock in upstate New York.
The Woodstock Music and Arts Festival was called an Aquarian exposition and hailed as
three days of peace and music. And it was peaceful. But the times were not. America seemed to
be dividing. The war in Vietnam went on and on. More American boys were still being sent
to Southeast Asia by newly elected President Nixon. The increasingly unpopular war intensified
a campus protest movement. Burning draft cards and peace marches became daily fare on the
evening news. And not all the demonstrations were peaceful.
The previous summer after Martin Luther King was assassinated, riots broke out in 125 cities.
And at the Democratic convention in Chicago, the anti-war movement tore the Democratic
Party in two. Both critics and fans concede that Woodstock
has become part of the mythology of the 1960s, even if the actual event didn’t necessarily
represent the musical or political taste of most young Americans at the time. Some say
it symbolized the freedom and idealism of the 1960s. Critics argue that Woodstock represented
much of what was wrong with the ’60s: a glorification of drugs, a loosening of sexual
morality, and a socially corrosive disrespect for authority. Twenty-five years later, the debate still
rages about the meaning of Woodstock and, more importantly, about the legacy of those
who attended it in person or in spirit. Martha Bayles, welcome — welcome to you
all. What happened at Woodstock? Is Woodstock a legitimate symbol of the ’60s, of the
counterculture? Martha Bayles: I think Woodstock is laden
with a lot of symbolic meaning, and that’s why we’re arguing about it and we still
talk about it. But the meanings are numerous; Woodstock was a mixed bag. To the hardcore left in 1969, Woodstock was
nothing but a rock concert. It wasn’t a demonstration, and a lot of people criticized
it on that basis. Nowadays when Woodstock is being compared
to the highly commercialized Woodstock ’94, it’s seen as a sort of pure, spontaneous
ingathering of free spirits practicing peace and love, when in fact it was a commercial
venture. It was a rock concert, and without the profit motive and the presence of popular
recording stars, it probably wouldn’t have happened anyway. But there were some very
positive things at Woodstock, things that are positive about the ’60s, and some negative
things. Ben Wattenberg: We’re going to come back
to that. Jim Miller, what about the Woodstock concert? Was that the apogee of something?
Was it the beginning of a slide? Jim Miller: Well, the way I think that myths
get hatched in the United States is always a strange mixture of reality and imagination.
As a concert per se, I don’t even — it wasn’t that important in terms of the large
scale of history of rock and roll. I think that the fact that it happened in New York
City, that the media were close to it, magnified it out of all proportion. And once it had
been so magnified, it became a symbol for all kinds of people. It became an image in the minds of people
who weren’t there of a way that you could experience music as a cultural lifestyle.
It became a further emblem to the music industry that there was a market that they had yet
to fully tap. And in the immediate sequel to Woodstock, there were numerous attempts
to capture that market. Ben Wattenberg: You have both stressed a certain
commercial aspect to this. Jim Miller: Yes. And the third thing I would
say is that in the long haul, it has become a convenient symbol for people who are hostile
to what the spirit of the ’60s — whatever that represents — it’s become a convenient
symbol for them and a target. Ben Wattenberg: You mean for conservatives,
to be against Woodstock? Jim Miller: Yes. Ben Wattenberg: Morris Dickstein. Morris Dickstein: Well, Woodstock was commercial,
but after all it was a commercial disaster that was only recouped by the movie. And it’s
the movie that — as well as some media coverage, but mainly the movie, I think, that turned
Woodstock into the enduring myth that it later became. So many people think they were at
Woodstock, but they really only saw the movie. And — Ben Wattenberg: That’s like that famous
story of how many people claim they saw Babe Ruth point to hitting the home run. Jim Miller: And how few people voted for Richard
Nixon. Ben Wattenberg: And how few people voted for
— right. Morris Dickstein: But it didn’t really represent
all of the ’60s. It represented those strands of the counterculture rather than the political
side of the ’60s, but it had its own politics because, as your introductory piece said,
it took place in the context of the war. So all those days of peace and love amid chaos
and disorganization really was a way of acting out a kind of lifestyle protest against the
wars, assassinations, and the whole violent side of the ’60s that tends to get stressed
more in media stereotypes. Ben Wattenberg: Kurt Vonnegut, you were one
of the cultural icons at that time — like it or not. Kurt Vonnegut: I never showed myself to my
people. [Laughter.] I had four kids who were the proper age to
go to Woodstock, and they simply were not interested, although they were pacifists and
outraged at the government and so forth. They were attracted to peace marches, to sit-ins,
to teach-ins, and political demonstrations. And we were talking just in the greenroom
about how much I miss Abbie Hoffman. He was a great man. He was a useful man for focusing
attention on the outrages, many outrages, many injustices and nuttinesses in our society.
And Woodstock did none of that, I guess. As you said, it was politically useless. Martha Bayles: Well, one of the reasons why
there’s this flowery, lovely myth about Woodstock is because it was, compared to some
of the other things that were going on in 1969, rather benign. In 1969, SDS had split
into the Weathermen faction — Ben Wattenberg: The Students for a Democratic
Society, which was the hard left of the student movement. Martha Bayles: It was the student political
organization. It split into the Weathermen faction, which was rather — the kind of
terrorist wannabes at that point. I mean, they were very hung up on the idea of whether
they could commit violence, I think partly because they knew people their own age were
fighting and dying in Vietnam and that was a problem for them. And it was partly because
of black movement, which they very much were copying and emulating — was very much out
of its nonviolent and into its violent stage. So Woodstock was a — a lot of kids were
not into that kind of politics, and as a result, they weren’t into politics especially at
all. Morris Dickstein: I think one problem was
that those benign images I think angered a lot of people in Middle America more than
even the images of protest. I think there were some people inspired by images of all
this sex and love and free — especially the peaceful atmosphere of Woodstock. The
idea of childlike innocence I think inspired some people with the desire to kill, you know,
inspired at least other people with — I think it probably is the ancestor of our culture
wars today. Because what we think of as the move towards fundamentalism, the New Right
family values, really did emerge as a reaction to that countercultural ethos in the ’60s. Ben Wattenberg: Well, one of the things I
think that comes up when you look at the — it’s interesting — at the public opinion polls
today is that the American people are afraid — many of the American people are afraid
that Bill and Hillary Clinton sort of represent, quote, “the ’60s” or that part of — Morris Dickstein: But Bill Clinton was the
guy running for class president then. He was not the guy — Ben Wattenberg: Yeah, but he was also allegedly
dodging the draft and doing a few other — not inhaling and a few other things. I mean, you
know, it’s a complex story, obviously. Martha Bayles: This brings up the third thing
that Woodstock was. It was a rock concert; it was not a political demonstration. What
it really was, though, on another level, was that it was something that’s deeply in the
American grain. It was kind of a revival meeting. And there was a quality about Woodstock that
smacked of the outdoor camp meeting, a Methodist camp meeting. Ben Wattenberg: But why has this hung on as
a symbol? Is that how things work? I mean, times get sort of attached to a specific event
and — Kurt Vonnegut: I think it represents a very
primitive need in all of us which is seldom acknowledged. I think at our peril we do without
vitamin C, for instance. At our peril we do without a tribe, without a support system.
The nuclear family is not a support system. It’s hideously vulnerable. And so we again
and again join gangs. For most of the seven million years there have been human beings,
we have lived in families of 50 or a hundred. Now, the people who talk about family values
— Dan Quayle, for instance, who’s from my hometown, he has an extended family. He
might as well be an Ibo in Nigeria. He has lawyers, cousins, National Guardsmen generals
— Martha Bayles: You mean that as a compliment. Kurt Vonnegut: Yes. No, everybody should have
what he has. Martha Bayles: We should all be so fortunate. Kurt Vonnegut: And when somebody like Quayle
talks about family values, yeah, we’d like to have families, too. Most of us don’t,
but he’s got one. Ben Wattenberg: And in fact, it was called
— I mean, the whole thing was called “the movement,” and that was an extended family. Morris Dickstein: The funny thing about that
period, though, is there are so many events that mark the period where not just an extended
family, but three, four, 500,000 people got together. And no matter what happened — whether
it was the music being played that very few people could hear because of the bad sound
system or whether it was the political demonstration in Washington where nobody listened to the
speeches — but just being there was the thing. There was a sense of a larger community. We may think of it as a very thin idea of
community, but it was a sense of an alienated part of the culture, a youth culture that
had been building at least since “Catcher in the Rye” 20 years earlier, getting together
and asserting itself with its various generational anthems. And that was a key element in creating
that sense of a support system that Kurt just mentioned. Jim Miller: It strikes me that there’s another
dark side of this — Martha Bayles: Yes. Jim Miller: — that’s worth bringing into
the picture here, which is just a few days before Woodstock, it’s worth remembering
“the family” that murdered Sharon Tate, and that Charlie Manson was a version of what
could come out of this kind of pseudo-tribalism in a drug-addled atmosphere. Martha Bayles: Exactly. Jim Miller: And that there’s a way in which
Woodstock — I wonder how the media would have played it if they had known at the time,
which they didn’t, that Manson was in his own way as legitimate a hippie as anybody
who went to Woodstock. Ben Wattenberg: Let me ask Kurt a question.
I sort of come out of the political arena, and in fact I had — during that Vietnam
War, I had worked on President Johnson’s staff, so we come from rather different backgrounds. How representative of American young people
were the people at Woodstock or even the Woodstock nation? I mean, I’ll just cite a couple
of poll results from the time that I recall, which was that young people were more pro–the
Vietnam War than adults were; young people were more pro–George Wallace than adults
were; and in 1972, in that general era, a majority of young people voted against George
McGovern and for Richard Nixon. So was this typical America, or are we talking
about a thin elite fringe that got the media attention? Kurt Vonnegut: This is a function of education.
It’s ignorant people who — Ben Wattenberg: Like me, right? [Laughter.] Kurt Vonnegut: Who were for the war and so
forth. [Laughs.] No, these were educated people. They were middle class, so I think it could
be attacked on class grounds probably as to who they were. Morris Dickstein: But the counterculture were
middle class also. I mean, there’s a book called “Woodstock Nation” that shows that
93 percent of the counterculture were middle class. I think the fallacy there is the numbers game.
I mean, there are always a lot of people who are living the way their parents lived and
the way their grandparents lived. It’s just that I think a fairly large part of that generation,
that boomer generation, represented some form of alienation, whether radical or mild and
so on — really represented a sense of having different values from their parents, who were
the World War II generation, or the ’40s and ’50s generation. And it’s that generation
that tried to assert itself at Woodstock. Ben Wattenberg: Let’s try to move on now
from the event of Woodstock to the consequences of Woodstock. And let me see if I can try
it out in a provocative way. What we saw at Woodstock and from the ’60s, among other
things, was the drug culture, was sexual promiscuity, and — we could argue about this — was
pacifism. And I would say that if we had remained a — or became a — pacifist nation, we
would not have won the Cold War, much to the dismay of people around the world. So what
are the consequences of Woodstock? Martha Bayles: I think it was a failed project
because a lot of young people believed in peace and love, but they didn’t have a very
good guide as to what peaceful or loving actions really were. And it was very much about personal
liberation and not very much about how to treat other people. How to treat other people
became a very confused and chaotic issue for a lot of young people. Even if they weren’t
at Woodstock or they weren’t at the extremes, there was a lot of moral confusion. And by
moral confusion, I mean how to treat other people. And if you add in the toxic emotions that
are brought about by drug abuse, you have a recipe for real disaster. And people who
felt mistreated by their friends and their lovers and so forth in the ’60s were always
accused of having middle-class hang-ups, you know. Hey, you know, what’s your problem?
Why do you object to what I just did to you? You know, you’re just hung up on middle-class
morality. And that affected a lot of people. I don’t
know how the polls would measure that, but that affected a lot of people. Ben Wattenberg: Kurt, are we a better country
because of the ’60s today? Kurt Vonnegut: Yes, I think so. The ’60s
taught us that we can build an extended family and unify ourselves with music. Feminism did
not come out of the ’60s. I’ve talked to any number of women who were the right
age to be involved, who were treated abominably, as slaves, as gofers while the men — Martha Bayles: Well, I sum it up this way.
In the ’60s, men liberated themselves from the demands made on them traditionally by
women. In the ’70s, women liberated themselves from the demands traditionally made by men.
And the — Morris Dickstein: On the same model that the
men had used and the blacks had used and so on. Martha Bayles: And the tragedy is that they
both liberated themselves from the demands made by children. Kurt Vonnegut: I would say that the big split
is between the people with senses of humor and people who are humorless. [Laughter.]
As you know — Martha Bayles: That’s always a problem. Kurt Vonnegut: Yes. It all has to go on this
way, you know, and it’s real-world politicking. And we have this example of a country being
able to go absolutely nuts in Germany. And so we could start that way with these military
adventures and — Ben Wattenberg: Are you talking about now? Kurt Vonnegut: No, no, no. I’m talking about
the Vietnam War, which was finally — it had to be brought to an end somehow. Morris Dickstein: I would describe it a little
differently. Woodstock represented a failed utopianism that very easily got commercialized
and I think very easily got turned into style. You know, what happened — I mean, the people
who were in their own way protesting the war and other things at Woodstock were acting
out a criticism, not by going to the ballot box, but by the way they dressed, the clothes
they wore, various kinds of mores that got the label “lifestyle” later on. And the
counterculture — unlike the New Left, the counterculture was very amenable to being
turned into something that could easily be commercialized. Jim Miller: I think I really disagree with
you. I think actually I would put it almost the other way around, that the New Left, which
I’ve written a book about, I think ultimately isn’t that important politically, and it
didn’t have that great an impact, except indirectly by sparking a middle-class peace
movement. The counterculture, precisely because it was
picked up and shoved into the marketplace, spread the ethos of the ’60s in the early
’70s, and in the process of what you’re, I think, denigrating as style or fashion,
actually changed the culture and changed it in ways — Ben Wattenberg: Changed, for example, our
sexual mores. Jim Miller: It changed sexual mores. It changed
attitudes towards authority. It changed a sense of what was permissible to experiment
with, what limits could be toyed with. What drove them home in American culture was the
marketing through rock and roll, among other things, through film, of a certain fantasy
of freedom that to me has connections, say, with Randolph Borne, early progressive Bohemians.
But it becomes a mass artifact. Ben Wattenberg: Martha, what did it do to
our music? Martha Bayles: Well, I think — I agree with
Jim — I think that our commercial system has the ability to amplify, magnify and multiply
and popularize any cultural change, and this does make the counterculture different from
previous forms of Bohemianism. It because a mass phenomenon, which Morris has written
about also. Morris Dickstein: But it’s not just the
marketing. I think what happened is that — it’s in that original reaction to Woodstock and
the counterculture — Middle America looked at that with a combination of hostility and
envy. Martha Bayles: Not young Middle America. Morris Dickstein: Well, no, I think they did.
I think that in one sense that traditional values were threatened by the new mores represented
by the counterculture; in another sense they thought, God, I wish I were young now, or
I wish I were involved in this. There was a kind of a deep sexual fantasy and fantasy
of freedom involved. That was part of the marketing and so on. And what happened is that gradually this was
shorn of any political context it might have had and entirely personalized and turned into
the kind of transformation of cultural mores that you describe. Ben Wattenberg: Let me return to that political
context for a moment. The component parts of “the movement” — one could say it
started with civil rights and that it accumulated feminism and environmentalism and consumerism
and — Martha Bayles: No. The Vietnam War would be
the — Ben Wattenberg: And the peace movement. Who
would accept here the idea that there was some good in each one of those movements? Martha Bayles: I would. Morris Dickstein: We all would. Ben Wattenberg: Wait a minute, wait a minute
— but they each went too far? Morris Dickstein: Everything that makes an
impact goes too far. In other words, things that are moderate and easy and so on do not
really make an impact. What happens is that there’s some transformational push, and
eventually a lot of it drops away and doesn’t really have its effect. But some of it sticks
and becomes part of this permanent cultural change that Jim was describing. I think every
one of those movements that you described had that effect. Ben Wattenberg: Kurt, did it go too far? Did
these movements go too far? Kurt Vonnegut: No. I would like to see them
all, so many of them go much farther —environmentalism, for instance, which you mentioned. And so I think you’re right, a movement
is a failure, really, if it doesn’t go too far. [Laughs.] Martha Bayles: If I look back on what I think
is good about the ’60s from my own perspective, that of a white person with a privileged background,
okay, one of the nice things about the ’60s and positive things about the ’60s was it
encouraged you to pay serious attention to what life was like for the people on the other
side of the tracks. The way it went too far was that a lot of
the radical political part of the movement had fantasies about those people and never
really understood them very well. And particularly with blacks, this incredible fantasy of blacks
as violent and super alienated, this Panther fantasy that the left had, I think has been
extremely destructive. Ben Wattenberg: Try to sum up for us and for
our audience. What do you all agree upon, and what do you disagree upon? Morris Dickstein: I think everything that
we look back to the ’60s and think about, including the counterculture, has its upside,
its positive side in terms of the liberation, the easing, the relaxing of American mores
that many of us grew up with in the 1950s, and also had its side in which it went too
far — in other words, the sense that it unleashed all sorts of demons that we see
today in the culture wars. Ben Wattenberg: Kurt, what do we agree upon?
What do we disagree upon? Kurt Vonnegut: Well, I think that probably
an important movement was going on invisibly in the universities, in the coffee houses,
among intelligent people prepared to do political work. And so concerts really had nothing to
do with it. But it seems after the fact, an awful lot
of important, devoted thinking has come out of the ’60s relative to rescuing the planet,
to questioning authority on military adventures, and so forth. And so we — Ben Wattenberg: As we prepare to invade Haiti. Kurt Vonnegut: Yes. I’m ready. I’m going. Morris Dickstein: There is a skepticism that
can’t be put aside. Kurt Vonnegut: Yeah, but the — I think it
happened in the souls of many of us, and of course those are invisible. Ben Wattenberg: Jim. Jim Miller: Above all else, an experiment
in living that was shared and collective — not shared by everybody. Like a real experiment,
we learn through mistakes, but to speak just for myself, I would do it all over again. Ben Wattenberg: Martha, you’ve got the last
shot. Martha Bayles: I think we agree there were
angels at Woodstock and also devils. And we may not — we may disagree somewhat about
which was which. Ben Wattenberg: All right. Thank you, Martha
Bayles, Jim Miller, Morris Dickstein, and Kurt Vonnegut. And thank you. We are very happy to hear from
our viewers. Please send any comments or questions to the address on the screen. For “Think Tank,” I’m Ben Wattenberg. Announcer: This has been a production of BJW
Inc., in association with New River Media, which are solely responsible for its content.

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