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Which Way to Woodstock?


Last week I sat alone one night and watched a documentary on Woodstock released to celebrate the three days of “music and peace” that took place on a sometimes-soggy hillside in Bethel NY 50 years ago. I sometimes view the past with a pair of rose-colored glasses perched firmly on my nose but I consider that contemporary film footage to be irrefutable evidence that life really was different in the America of my youth.

It was a turbulent era when young people were crying out for peace and change, pleading for a world where people would “try to love one another right now.” The plea was made against a backdrop of massive social turmoil over the Vietnam war, racial discrimination, oppression of women, political assassinations and images of our own military killing protestors on our college campuses. Just days before Woodstock a group of drug-befuddled cultists in California had carried out unspeakable murders at the behest of Charles Mason.

Clearly, American society was in a state of upheaval not seen since the sectarian violence of the Civil War. But what amazed me in watching the Woodstock footage was the intrinsic civility of the audience and the organizers who were scrambling against almost insurmountable odds to meet the needs of an assemblage almost five times the number expected.

Shelter was non-existent, roads were clogged, food ran out, medical care and sanitation was inadequate but everyone on the field—and eventually in the surrounding communities of conservative farmers and businesspeople—came together to provide succor and support. No one pushed, no one grabbed at the limited supply of food sent in by townspeople as a pop-up city spontaneously established rules of behavior that benefitted all. As one local woman told a reporter, “We do as the Bible tells us. We welcome strangers. We don't say, 'Get out.' That's not our communities. They're hungry, so we feed them.”

I wonder what Woodstock would be like today. Perhaps one of the greatest ironies of modern times is that the generation that descried the materialism of 1950s America, who rejected the perceived bourgeoisie attitudes of the establishment and deplored the military complex, went on to become one of the most egocentric, avaricious generations in the nation’s history. We amassed wealth in significant proportions, forgot about sharing, raised children who put “me” before “us” even as we saw our civilization lose touch with the virtues of respect and civility.

By the 1980s, demographers were reporting that the Boomer generation had lost its idealism in a “highly competitive, calculating and discriminating struggle for life’s finer things.” But the same demographers were predicting that the age cohort would eventually uncover its earlier idealism.

So far, I haven’t seen it happen. Civility and its inherent message of tolerance and understanding was sacrificed on the altar of the very materialism we once professed to abhor.

Television, the social arbiter of that day, soon discovered that conflict made money and capitalized on it. What Father Knew Best by the late 1980s was that, if the likes of Morton Downey Jr., Jerry Springer and Geraldo Rivera incited their motley collection of “guests” to throw slurs, punches and chairs, viewership—and money—would follow.

When I saw this phenomenon and the glee with which audiences cheered on the combatants, I thought there was a profound malaise in our country. I likened it to the Roman Empire when the Emperors kept the proletariat content by staging bloodbaths in which slaves, criminals and Christians engaged in death struggles with wild beasts. Watching someone considered lower than themselves being thrown to the beasts provided “a feeling of shared empowerment and validation …,” according to historian Garrett G. Fagan in his book The Lure of the Arena.

Watching our own society devour people in the name of entertainment made me fear that we, too, were on the brink of our society’s demise.

It has not gotten better. In 2010, Weber Shandwick and Powell Tate started an annual survey of Civility in America. It found that 94 percent of the population believed there was a problem with the way we treated each other. Six years later in 2016, 94 percent still believed that, with the only change in survey results being that those who considered incivility a major problem was up by six points. There can be little doubt that the heightened concern reflected the vicious 2016 presidential campaign.

The Trump campaign that insulted women, the handicapped, different ethnic groups—heck, just about everyone—was in itself an escalation of incivility not seen in American politics in many decades. In 2009, when Republican Representative Joe Wilson shouted “You lie!” during President Obama’s Congressional speech on health care, the nation was shocked. Republican leaders demanded that Wilson apologize to the president and he did. Nevertheless, the House voted to censure him and the American public fussed that the country had abandoned civility and good manners.

In retrospect, the incident seems mild and that is the pity. Have we become so inured to rude behavior we can no longer see it for what it is. And what danger does that foretell for the country? Professor P M Forni, cofounder of the Civility Project at Johns Hopkins University, has said, civility means being a good citizen. “Civility and good manners are not about which fork to choose for the salad. They’re about how we treat one another in everyday life. And how we treat one another determines the strength of our society,” he said.

He blames the Boomers for creating a society in which self-esteem is instilled in younger generations without the corresponding virtue of self-restraint. “To survive, a society needs an amount of goodwill—people willing to treat others with respect and to give of themselves to the community. Civility is the lifeblood of a society,” he has said.

So, what to do? As with many issues, the answer is simple enough but difficult to live. Civility simply requires us to think about the other person first, to acknowledge their humanity and vulnerability. To curb the impulse for the cutting rejoinder. To actually listen to the other person’s point of view and, unless their intent is truly evil, to value their right to that viewpoint. To make respect for others the most basic human instinct.

I was not at Woodstock 50 years ago (I passed the weekend up to get married) and I don’t know how I would have responded to the challenges the crowd of nearly a half-a-million people experienced. But I believe that if that group could live the truth of their beliefs for three days under such challenging circumstances, we today can find a way to right our course to become the inclusive society those ragtag kids envisioned.

So, “Come on people / Smile on your brother / Everybody get together / Try to love one another / Right now.”