Monday, August 17, 2009

What if Katherine Kersten planned Woodstock?

Headliners would have included Pat Boone, The Cowsills, The Carpenters, maybe Mama Cass as a solo act, and a sprinkling of edgy Christian rock bands. Attendees would be expected to have their bedrolls rolled and their teeth brushed by 0700.

Each morning would kick off with the Pledge of Allegiance and the singing of the National Anthem by Kate Smith. Imagine how much fun it would be!

Now, roll forward forty years and imagine this conversation:

Man, you’ve taken a humble beginning and done great things with your life! Lookit all the toys you’ve got: boats, SUVs, houses, women, you name it!

I owe it all the Woodstock. It turned my life around completely. If it wasn’t for Woodstock, I’d probably just be a druggie or a gangbanger somewhere. Or dead.

Absurd? Well, of course. But our Katie believes that the reverse is true. In her column on Sunday, where she urges us to remember what a “dark basement of the soul” Woodstock really was, she writes:

In a larger sense, Woodstock -- as a cultural moment -- hasn't ended yet. It symbolizes a generation's embrace of uninhibited self-expression and instant gratification as an ideal.

Is there a happy ending in sight on this front?

It depends. The middle-class college students at Woodstock -- now in their late 50s or 60s -- have largely done OK. They began their flings with "protest," recreational sex and drugs with a built-in margin of safety.

Most reentered the mainstream, buoyed by supportive families and the middle-class virtues they had once belittled -- self-control, perseverance and ambition. Some, like Pareles [who wrote a piece about Woodstock on its 40th anniversary that Katie mentions], got jobs at the New York Times.

But another group of Americans paid a larger price for the cultural transformation that Woodstock helped to usher in. Largely poor and minority, they lacked a strong, middle-class support system. When Woodstock's values invaded their lives -- conferring new approval on "legal and illegal pleasures" -- their communities crashed and burned.

Ah, Katie, always on the hunt for the “larger sense.” She can find the larger sense in damn near anything, the way people can find the image of Jesus on a grilled cheese sandwich: pretty similar phenomena, actually.

Katie moans about the overflowing toilets at Woodstock and all the kids to forgot to bring their toilet brushes along with their toothbrushes; she wails about all of the mud, trash, and ruined sleeping bags, not acknowledging that the organizers — the business people in all of this, remember — were the ones responsible for the preparation for the event.

But to me, the most odious thing about Katie’s hack job on Woodstock is that she is oblivious to its obvious cultural context: the Vietnam war. The festival of peace, love, and music took place the summer after the watershed year of 1968, which was the year of the Tet Offensive, Walter Cronkite’s sober observance that we weren’t going to win the war, race riots in the United States, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy, the police riot at the Democratic National Convention, and the year that brought us the highest number of deaths in the entire war. 1967 wasn’t much better, either.

Do you know what age group paid the highest price in Vietnam? It was twenty-year olds. Followed by twenty-one and nineteen year olds. One wonders what the median age of the people as Woodstock was? The demographics probably matched up pretty well with the casualties.

Katie says there was some great music at Woodstock, but completely misses — or refuses to acknowledge — what the music was about, rather like Tim Pawlenty liking Bruce Springsteen, but failing to understand what the Boss is singing about.

Katie’s flip and insulting gloss on Woodstock is a libel on a generation. The Boomers have some things to atone for, but Woodstock and the agitation to end the Vietnam war aren’t among them.

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