Wearisome familiarity

<strong>The Sixties Unplugged: a Kaleidoscopic History of a Disorderly Decade

</strong>

Gerard

Gerard DeGroot was born in 1955, which was too late. So when a tiny, clamorous minority of often very stupid young adults was electing to return to childhood he was still an actual child, denied that choice. He is very likely suffering Sixties envy. Nonetheless he undeniably lived through the decade. He was presumably sentient. This, however, is hardly apparent, for he absents himself, treats the epoch of his childhood and early teens as far distant and curiously alien, as though he possesses no first-hand knowledge of it even though he admits he was there.

He is wilfully unconnected as well, as in his embarrassing locution "unplugged", which he uses captiously as a synonym of unmediated. He might as well be writing about the equally belligerent and much more narcotically beholden 1860s, save that the popular songs of the 1860s are forgotten and thus cannot be alluded to in such clunky constructions as: "By paying so much attention to what was happening on Maggie's Farm, we failed to notice the emergence of Maggie Thatcher." (An assertion, incidentally, which quite fails to acknowledge that Margaret Thatcher's Manchester Liberalism and the rogue, piratical capitalism of hippiedom were hardly antithetical.)

DeGroot is certainly energetic and versatile. His method is various or promiscuous according to taste. The book comprises loosely conjoined short essays. In his introduction, he expresses the hope that they will form a pattern according to the way "the reader manipulates the kal eidoscope". He also nervily asserts that his is "more global than any book previously published", that it eschews American insularity. It sets about doing so in a singular way - only 40 of the 67 essays are devoted to the United States, its cults, protest kids, assassinations, reckless foreign adventures, and so on: this leaves 27 for the rest of the world. Insularity is evidently relative. The bias may, of course, be at the behest of American publishers.

So, here we go again, led down a mostly well-travelled road by a gung-ho guide who is as tirelessly fluent in his dissemination of certain received ideas as he is in his ridicule of others. The familiarity is wearisome: Sharpeville, the Kennedys, King, Malcolm X, Dylan (ad nauseam, ad vomitum), Tet, Che, Altamont, Kent State University, May '68, alternative this and radical that. Although DeGroot acknowledges that the subcultural phenomena he addresses were peripheral, he addresses them nonetheless. It is, of course, the atypical which is forever mediated, which gets passed down one way or another from generation to generation, which gradually becomes accepted as the typical, the norm. DeGroot, professor of modern history at St Andrews, knows this, but hardly acts to counter it: he contributes to the process of setting the ephemeral in stone.

He is equally a consumer of modern history. Although he quotes E P Thompson's unexceptionable estimation of the soi-disant counter culture as "psychic mutilation . . . self-absorbed, self-inflating, self-dramatising", he still tends to accept hippies, yippies, folkies, Diggers, Panthers, pavé-chuckers and the rest at their own distended estimate, rather than treating them as obedient sheep flocking to follow ever-mutating fashions.

Still, DeGroot's juxtaposition of the milieu of cosseted western "revolutionaries", cause-whores and Hanoi groupies with the horrors of the regimes they idolised is salutary. One can have nothing but contempt for the relativist children of Mao and Chomsky, with their casual characterisation of anyone to the right of the Tribune Group as "fascist". Casual and wrong: DeGroot's account of the Cultural Revolution reminds us of Mao's proximity to Hitler. And his version of Kennedy's lurch into what would prove to be Johnson's nemesis suggests imprescience, misjudgement and poor-quality intelligence, rather than moral illegitimacy.

The New Left conveniently overlooked the fact that Ho Chi Minh was more Stalin than Gandhi, a genocidal tyrant with a taste for agricultural reforms that led to famine. Whether it also overlooked Eldridge Cleaver's describing his rape of a white woman as "an insurrectionary act" is moot; it may even have revelled in it, as misogyny, moral inversion, antinomianism and psychopathic criminality were chic.

It is unastonishing, then, that the Latino fruit pickers' labour leader César Chávez, whom DeGroot portrays with unsentimental admiration, was never considered chic. He is among the very few of the people described in these pages who appear uncompromised by events over which they had no control and unsullied by whims and appetites over which they did. John F Kennedy, the greatest "martyr" in a decade of "martyrs", was forever plotting the assassination of other heads of state, among them Sukarno, the method of whose overthrow, orchestrated by the unsuccessfully invisible CIA, was "a model for future operations" in Chile, Angola, Uzbekistan, Nicar agua, Lebanon, and so on.

That will be what's meant by a "legacy" - along with the triumphs of populism and the free market, which insidiously combine to give us a "culture" of reality TV and ubiquitous pop music, the false companionship of address by given name, the tyranny of communitarian special pleaders, the bleeding heart on sleeve, rights, tokenism: entropy.

This article first appeared in the 11 August 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Spies for hire