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The best of times

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…. ” Thus begins “A Tale of Two Cities,” written in the late 1850s by Charles Dickens, who then goes on to observe that the time he refers to was, after all, pretty much like the present. Dickens is suggesting that people of all eras tend to view their own times in terms of exceptional extremes. With the 40th anniversary of Woodstock approaching, however, his words remind us in particular of the 1960s—and of ways in which that time was very much like the current day.

In the 1960s, the central counterparties in the division of society were called “the establishment” and “the counterculture.” The establishment was the military-industrial power complex, characterized by the belief that profits are the goal of human existence, that anything worth accomplishing must be gained through money or physical force and that current societal mores (like the belief that people of color belonged in the back of the bus) were immutable moral truths.

The counterculture was a grassroots movement, composed largely of young people, who challenged these beliefs. They proposed peace instead of war, valued intangibles like personal relationships and communion with nature over material wealth, questioned conventions of behavior from bigotry to prudery and formed a natural alliance with the civil rights movement. The differences between these two poles were so profound that they sometimes erupted in violence, like the shooting of peace protestors by the Ohio National Guard at Kent State, police brutality at civil rights marches and the riots that erupted in Chicago during the Democratic National Convention in 1968.

It was against this background that Woodstock was so remarkable. A huge counterculture crowd converged on a field in the midst of a rural community—typically assumed to hold “establishment” views. They listened to three days of music whose central mission was generally to afflict the comfortable and speak truth to power. Against the conflicts of the earlier ‘60s, one could imagine a dozen unhappy outcomes, from someone calling out the National Guard to drug-induced riots on the grounds. Instead, the organizers let the crowds in for free, the people took care of each other and even the rain was welcomed joyously.

It would be hard to argue that Woodstock by itself had any remarkable impact on what followed. The ‘70s ensued; the wheels of military-industrial complex ground ahead and even music largely abandoned its activist agenda to meditate once more on the angst of love gone sour.

But there was one key theme of the ‘60s that was embodied in Woodstock and has remained absolutely crucial, resurfacing forcefully in our own day: “power to the people.” It is the idea that ordinary people, dealing with each other directly and without the intermediary of establishment organizations, can move mountains. Two of those mountains are represented in the civil rights and environmental movements, both of which continue to bear fruit today.

People power has emerged strongly in the past few years for several reasons. It is partly a response to the increasingly brazen appropriation of the planet’s wealth by multi-national corporations and the top one percent or so of the population that profits most from them. It is partly a response to the plundering of our environment in the process. On a local level, the successful grassroots movement that emerged to stymie New York Regional Interconnect’s effort to route a power line through the river valley is an example of such a response.

The Internet has also helped, allowing ordinary people to inform each other, discuss issues and organize action directly. It played a big role in the election of Barack Obama as President—itself a symbolic echo of the 1960s civil rights marches. For some, election night in 2008 provided a feel-good moment that rivaled Woodstock in expressing the potential for unity and joy in a people-powered movement.

But as inspiring as such moments are, they are not by themselves enough to induce change. There is plenty of evidence that today’s establishment is still firmly in control, from the big-bank bailout, engineered and overseen by industry insiders, to the mob disruptions—orchestrated with the help of insurance-industry affiliated organizations—that are shutting down dialogue about health insurance reform at town meetings.

So let’s take a moment this weekend to salute Woodstock and the potential for celebratory coexistence that it represents. Then, let’s roll up our sleeves and go out to fashion a legacy that today’s people power can be proud of 40 years hence.

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Dr. Punnybone