Believing In Magic
Annie Gottlieb claims that she has been obsessed with the 1960s for years. "For people of my generation the question was, 'What happened to our lives?'" she said in an interview yesterday. "Why were we 35 years old before we thought of ourselves as adults?"
In an attempt to answer this question, the 41-year-old journalist has just published Do You Believe In Magic?, a collective biography of over 100 "diverse survivors of the 60s," according to the author. "I talked to friends, who led me to their friends," she said. "And I found some of them almost by magic."
University of Pennsylvania alumnus Jeremy Rifkin, 1966 senior class president and Interfraternity Council vice president, was among those interviewed by Gottlieb for her book. Riflin, "a real straight, Establishment guy," according to Gottlieb, left the University a left-wing reformer after a demonstration against University chemical warfare experiments in 1966.
Rifkin claimed that "things started to change" for him after he witnessed his fraternity brothers "beating the living crap" out of the demonstrators. He became a political radical and has recently been instrumental in preventing field testing of genetically engineered microbes, notably in the case of the Wistar Institute's testing in Argentina.
Gottlieb found Rifkin's values representative of those of many former 60s radicals. "He says we need to move away from the utilitarian 'Let's exploit everything' mentality," she said. "We need to go back to believing that things have intrinsic value, not only profit value."
Gottlieb observed that many students during the 60s chose to forego conventional schooling, studying instead esoteric topics not taught at colleges. "The brightest kids were educating themselves," the history of literature major claimed. "They weren't taking their classes, but they were reading history and philosophy -- Marx, Engels, you name it -- and trying to rethink everything. There was this feeling that you'd been brought up and schooled to this point to take over society."
Gottlieb stressed the role professors played in the liberal growth on campuses. "Many college professors were sympathetic to the students," she said. "I think professors inspired a lot of kids, because a lot of them were radicals from an earlier era."
Expressing her hope that college liberalism will be passed on, Gottlieb added that "a lot of the professors now grew up in the 60s. So tradition gets handed down inside the universities."
Although she said she expects to see a growing liberal trend among youths, Gottlieb has seen the radicalism of her own generation fade in recent years. She said she feels that this trend represents an acceptance of responsibility rather than a sellout.
"I think it depends on whether they become yuppies in their souls or only in their closets," Gottlieb laughed. "There are a lot of people in banking jobs, lawyers and doctors who do a lot of volunteer work, contribute to causes that they believe in."
"The problem with the 60s is that we didn't know how rich we were," Gottlieb added. "A lot of the idealism was unconsciously based on the affluence and security our parents represented. We didn't look out for ourselves and our careers, we got very poor, and all of a sudden we said, 'Oh my God! We do need money.' It was a very important thing to learn."
Gottlieb said that she does not find money and idealism incompatible; she is distressed, however, by greed for its own sake. "People need certain status symbols to feel secure, because they don't have anything inside themselves which is a basis for security," she said. "The wonderful thing about the 60s was finding out there were pleasures much higher than material."
The surprising selfishness of her contemporaries troubles Gottlieb. "People get troubled over the plight of the homeless, but they're selfish regarding their relationships, particularly with their children. They want to experience childbirth for themselves, not the child."
Asked if she thinks social conscience will experience revival, Gottlieb replied that she perceives a desire for renewal. "I think people want [more idealism]," she said. "I think a revulsion is building up against cold self-interest."
"But people need power and clout," she continued. "You've got to be in there making laws and changing the conduct of corporations you're a part of. We need some realistic activism. People need to know they have to make a living, and they need position and clout to make an impact. But activism is useless without values."
Although she said she is optimistic about the future, Gottlieb said she sees many unresolved issues which cause worry among her peers. "The media has promoted a negative world view," she complained. "TV always shows the catastrophes, never the rebuilding."
Gottlieb worries that many of her contemporaries who have children share this negative attitude. "I met a woman yesterday who said, 'I don't think we're gonna make it.' I'm scared to have children, because I don't want to have children and feel that the world may be ending."
Gottlieb said that she would not want to be young today if she could. "I've found that I'm happier as I've gotten older -- getting old is not a bad process so far," she noted. "In spite of all the difficulties and the war, there was more hope in the 60s. People didn't see so many of the problems as stemming from human nature."
"What's scary is that we're learning that if we can't change human nature, we're really doomed," she added. "We have to overcome the tendency to get tribal and lock horns, and find a way to live in a global community."
In spite of the difficulties of survival after the 60s, Gottlieb remains optimistic. "I still believe in magic," she winked.
This interview originally appeared in The Daily Pennsylvanian, 1987.