What is it in us that makes some of us inclined to be conservative, others of us focused on the things that need to be fixed or changed? It’s a naïve question, of course. I know we are all subject to different experiences that form our opinions and that we are all conservative in some ways, progressive in others. We’re not born born one way or the other; it’s the whole of life’s experiences that goes into whether we incline toward the status quo or look forward to a new and better world, and debate the how and where.
It’s a never-ending fascination to watch conservatives and progressives argue with each other over their values and their world views, a constant reminder that, much as we’d like to think of ourselves as independent thinkers, we are so much a product of our accidental histories.
I tuned in the other day to one of those many talking head programs I like to watch on German television. This one was Hart Aber Fair (Tough but Fair), and this particular program carried the title: Unter grauen Haaren der Muff von 50 Jahren – Streit ums Erbe der 68er, which I would translate something like “The musty smell of fifty years (now) with grey hair – debate over the legacy (of the protests) of ‘68. I take it that the reference is to the motto of the student movement of those days, “Unter den Talaren: Muff von 1000 Jahren” - "Under the university gowns, the musty smell of 1000 years," which in turn was a reference to Hitler’s 1000 Year Reich.
Before I get into the discussion, first a little background. It’s now an open question how many in the German audience are still familiar with the mass student movements that were part of what was quaintly called the APO (Ausserparlamentarische Opposition), the “Extraparliamentary Opposition”. The leading movement, most would agree, was the one led by Rudi Dutschke of the SDS, the Sozialistischer Deutscher Studentenbund, the Socialist German Student Union. It was analogous to the American SDS, the Students for a Democratic Society, active in the United States at the same time with different goals but similar values. In America the focus was voiced in the Port Huron Statement. It singled out the Arms Race and the Cold War, but also racial and economic inequity, advocating civil disobedience as the means for increasing participatory democracy. In Germany, students were united against the Grand Coalition of the day, the administration of Georg Kiesinger of the CDU and the SPD, not coincidentally the same coalition of socialists and conservatives running Germany today, fifty years later.
In Germany one of the major criticisms of the movement was the failure of the ruling class of the day in their parents’ generation adequately to address the crimes of National Socialism. In doing this, they tied themselves to Americans protesting the Vietnam War, to Che Guevara and others seeking a revolutionary change in the world status quo. Each saw itself not merely as progressive, but in fact as revolutionary. Each sought to overturn the status quo. Conservatives, they maintained, were trying to paper over fundamental national character flaws to keep the power structures in place.
In America, the mentality of this group of young people was captured in a book by Charles Reich called The Greening of America. Reich posited that there were three distinct ideologies (the words “ideology” is for all practical purposes interchangeable with “mentality” and the third term, which Reich used, “consciousness.” Americans were either “frontiersmen” – cowboys, independent folk who hunted their own dinner and didn’t need no damn government to force them to pay taxes and take away their rights; or “systems men” (today we’d add “and women”) who believed you made a better world through education and the training of experts to run the world. A third group, the idealistic young folk, had come to realize that the answers lie within, that one doesn’t fix the world until one has first fixed him or herself.
At the heart of the German movement was the foundation of a commune – Kommune 1 – by Fritz Teufel, Rainer Langhans and Dieter Kunzelmann, set up on principles put forth by philosophers such as Ernst Bloch, Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse and Jean-Paul Sartre.
And – back now to the German TV program - who’s that sitting on the panel on today’s Tough But Fair? – Rainer Langhans, fifty years older now, with wild grey hair flying out from his head in all directions. Langhans could be described as the hippie who never stopped being a hippie. Today he lives with five women, maintaining that he is modelling a way to break down the traditional couple-centered nuclear family, which, he still maintains, is the foundation for fascist authoritarianism. We don’t have time to explore how it is Langhans with his five female hangers-on is fighting the patriarchy, but trust me, he would have an answer.
The admirable thing about Langhans is that, unlike his partner in the foundation of his commune, Fritz Teufel, he put his focus on making love and not war. Teufel ended up going to jail for eight years. Langhans went into writing books and making movies, and into putting his belief that “the personal is political” into practice by forming a family unit with what is known as “The Harem,” a collective which is still going strong today.
On the surface, the conservatives may be seen to have won out. Langhans isn’t taken seriously by the majority of his countrymen and women, and the Grand Coalition they fought in the 60s is back stronger than ever. For a brief period after the 2016 election, it looked as if Merkel was going to be making a coalition with the Greens, i.e., the representatives of the old left now in the establishment, but that attempt fell through, and she had to go back to working with the Democratic Socialists.
That seems to be the way with progressives. Their fire burns hot for a time, but it eventually burns out. Embers may remain, but much of the energy is diverted. And that raises the question that this panel took up: is the 60s mentality still relevant today? Or was it just a flash in the pan?
Predictably, progressives will tell you the world has become a better place thanks to the energy of those student and other protesters of the 60s. All the major social changes, the Civil Rights laws and the battle for racial equality, the women’s movement, and ultimately the rights of LGBT people all owe their existence to the folks who took to the streets in the 60s for an expansion of democratic freedoms to more and more people.
And conservatives will tell you it all would have happened without their efforts, that all they did was create disorder and slow down the evolution of slow but certain change.
Alongside Langhans on the panel was a representative of Germany’s conservatives, Dorothee Bär, a member of the Christian Socialists, the Bavarian sister party of Merkel’s Christian Democrats. It didn’t take long for Langhans and Bär to come to blows.
What got Ms. Bär’s blood boiling was Langhans’ attack on the family (as she defined it). “You need to show more respect for those who work to pay your pension in your old age,” she told Langhans. What set the whole battle off was a quotation by another member of her conservative CSU party, Alexander Dobrindt. As he stated it, “The majority of people in this country live a middle class life, but they are dominated everywhere by the leftist elite among us. It’s time we had a conservative citizen’s revolution.” Trump’s base couldn’t have said it better.
It’s sobering – not to say depressing – to watch this all play out, the same battle between conservatives and progressives that took place internationally in the 60s and today. The bigger picture is complex and is not adequately addressed by simple divisions into left and right, progressive and conservative, much less hippy and bourgeois. You can’t tell the story of the fight for equality in the 60s without recognizing that the women behind the men in the 60s student struggles were not included, and had to postpone the fight for women’s rights to another day. Gay rights were not even on the horizon, and even today, this same Alexander Dobrindt shows what he means to include and exclude in his conservative revolution: he is an outspoken opponent of same-sex marriage in Germany. It’s less a fight between two fairly balanced sides and more a seething struggle over what to change and what to maintain.
And at the same time, to point out that the same Grand Coalition (between Democratic Socialists and Christian Democrats/Christian Socialists) the students of the 60s were fighting is the same coalition in power today would be to overlook just how radical the progress has been. Germany today is a land of immigrants. Women are represented on all political levels, right up to the chancellor’s seat. Dorothee Bär would have to admit that if her conservativism had had its way, she’d be out of a job. Until October of last year she was Germany’s state secretary for transport and digital infrastructure. Since then she has jumped to food and agriculture. The switch among ministries, one assumes, suggests she’s being groomed for even higher positions in time. Without the efforts of those she dismisses on the left, she’d more likely be home with her three kids today.
Which brings me to my problem with conservatives generally. I’m talking about the fact that so many of them are brought kicking and screaming into the modern era. “You didn’t need a student movement to have a feminist revolution,” Bär says at one point. No, but how would it have come about without the same energy that drove that student revolution, is the question.
At every historical juncture you can find “conservatives,” as they are defined by the circumstances of the day, defending the status quo. Change always comes, and they are forced to update their stance, now settling for less but still dragging their heels and throwing a monkey wrench into the machinery to slow things down. Conservatives once defended raiding gay bars and throwing the denizens in jail. When they could no longer do that, they argued that gays should be allowed to do what they want, so long as they didn’t “rub our noses in it.” When that became understood as too restrictive, they found it in their hearts to defend the right of gays to live and work where they wanted, but there should be laws preventing any depiction of a “gay lifestyle” or discussion of the gay liberation movement in schoolbooks. When that became socially acceptable, they argued that gays should be allowed to live together but not to form partnerships. When society came to accept those partnerships, conservatives came to defend them but held out against gay marriage. When forced to recognize that gay marriage had become socially acceptable elsewhere in the world and in some places in the U.S., they argued that it should be a states’ rights issue and there should be no federal support for same-sex marriage. Today same-sex marriage is the law of the land, and there are still conservatives trying to take back those rights. One can understand why, to the majority of gay people in this country who vote overwhelmingly for democrats, gay republican is an oxymoron for people with no sense of history.
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One of my earlier memories of the 60s in regard to Germany was the 1961 film with Spencer Tracy, Burt Lancaster and a host of other famous stars – Maximilian Schell, Judy Garland, Marlene Dietrich… – Judgment at Nuremberg. Getting rid of Nazis. Putting them on trial. What one often failed to notice was that to many – and that includes many on the left today – these were show trials. What was really going on was that many Nazis were being incorporated into the new Germany under Adenauer. The excuse was that these were the people who understood how to make the wheels go round – they were too useful to be discarded. The fight between left and right was what you’d predict: conservatives argued for “letting bygones be bygones – put these people to work and say no more”; progressives argued they needed to pay for their crimes against humanity.
And what the far left was doing – and this is Langhans point – was saying, “You’re all missing the point. What we need to root out is not just the bad guys among us; we need to root out the Nazi in the German DNA.”
The parallel to the American context is obvious. The far right is arguing we need to “make America Great” again – bring back the good old days, defend those who are being forgotten by this new push to bring all the blacks, Hispanics, other non-waspy types now taking over into power positions. The establishment left put Hillary Clinton up as their candidate to keep up the good fight to bring about greater equity, greater distribution of wealth. And somewhere in the back of the room are voices arguing that it’s time for white America to face its deep-rooted racism, for men to face its deep-rooted patriarchal sexism, for America to face up to its history of slavery and genocide and stop pretending that all that is needed is for more people to vote democratic. In the news today is the opening of the new Lynching Museum in Montgomery, Alabama, recognizing and honoring the more than 4000 black men who were lynched for the flimsiest of reasons – and sometimes simply for nothing more than being black. And what are the conservatives saying, “Let bygones be bygones. No sense in stirring up old animosities.”
We can cluck and say, “it was ever thus.” People wronged at some point in history want their wrongs put right. People who would have to concede guilt in wrongdoing insist we can’t fix the past. But what’s going on in Montgomery these days reveals the wrongheadedness – not to say hypocrisy – of the conservative cause. If it were in fact just about the past, “letting sleeping dogs lie” might be the best course of action. The problem is the mindset that existed in the past is still alive, and without focusing on the wrong, the rot in the system doesn’t get rooted out.
Langhans wants to root out the nazi in all of us. He sees fascism in the two-person family unit and puts his own life on the line by broadcasting his distain for such a unit. This “progressive” fails to connect with the overwhelming majority of people today who see him as pissing in the wind.
But is he? Is he just another example of a blind idealist who has failed to keep up with the times? You know the saying, “if you’re not a communist at 20, you haven’t got a heart; if you’re still a communist at 30, you haven’t got a brain.” Is this Langhans’ problem. What about the need for rooting out, for “deep cleaning”? While folks in Alabama protest the monument to the black men lynched by the thousands, in other parts of the state – including Montgomery itself, they are still holding on to monuments to the leaders of the Confederacy, the folks who fought to the death for the right to hold black men and women slaves. There is still a powerful lot of rooting out to do. And the fact that the neo-nazis are back in some strength in Germany suggests that Langhans is much more than a superannuated hippie.
Personally, I cannot deny I find Langhans with his harem and his white Afro an unpersuasive figure. The man who speaks to me from those days is Rudi Dutschke, the leader of the German SDS. I think it's one of the tragedies of history that Rudi Dutschke was put upon by a right-winger and died some years later as a result of that attack, having spent much of that time regaining his facilities and learning to talk again. Dutschke's goals, to rid the world of war and hunger, are not trivial goals. And I love the fact that his desire for world revolution was grounded in his Christianity. I wish he were around today. His youngest son, Marek, born after his death, is active in the Green Party. His American-born wife put out a documentary recently which I recommend if your German is up to it. For me the question of whether the legacy of the 60s lives on is an idle question. Most assuredly it lives on.
But that fact will probably never stop being contested. Nothing came of the 60s movement, says Dorothee Bär. Not feminism. Nothing. Her views are echoed by the other conservatives on the panel. A big lot of noise by the likes of such as Rainer Langhans, but then Germany came to its senses. 60s radical Joschka Fischer, once known for having joined the violent faction of the 60s and 70s and for having clubbed a policemen, later joined the establishment and even became Germany’s foreign minister and vice chancellor as well as one of the founders of the Green Party. A sell-out, as far as Langhans is concerned, proof of the ineffectiveness of the 60s radicals, as far as Bär and other conservatives are concerned, proof that the utopian "revolutions" of the 60s were never more than a flash in the pan.
What makes conservatives? I asked at the outset. What makes people want to hold on to the illusions of any given age? Is it the folly of overzealous progressives like Langhans, who would rid the world of loving family units with a sweep of his hand? Is it the blindness of unenlightened democrats who got behind Hillary Clinton and gave the conservatives a reason for throwing their weight behind a pied piper that is to blame?
I have the benefit of the internet. I can look back on these events of the 60s and fill in so many blanks. Learn so much about the what I missed as a figure living that history, all the events playing out all round me in Germany and in the United States. I can wallow at will in my memories of the 60s and fight off the urge to cry like a baby. If I could go back in time with the mindset I hold today I'd be far more engaged, I'm sure. No doubt I'd be no more effective the second time around than I was as somebody on the periphery the first time. I'd be just another voice urging people to avoid deceit and violence, just another body in the crowd of demonstrators "marching through the institutions" as Dutschke phrased it - or trying to, so what would be the point of time travel? Anything I might have done then I can still do now.
I was present in the demonstrations against the Vietnam War. I'd shout louder and longer if I could go back and do it again. I'd join with progressives earlier on to fight for gay liberation, but I'd also join the conservatives among the gays who would hold out for the right to marry, despite the fact that the "progressives" of an earlier time considered marriage a heterosexual institution that only the unenlightened would aspire to. I'd try to avoid the dualisms of right-wing and left-wing, conservative or progressive, but would embrace, as I do now, the dualism of open and closed, and choose open. Open to change, open to possibility, open to a redefinition of truth as new information comes in.
There’s a German saying from the 60s that is being remembered these days, “Wer zweimal mit derselben pennt, gehört zum Establishment.” – “Sleep with the same person twice and you’re a member of the establishment.” Has more of a punch in German, where it rhymes.
Hyperbole, to be sure. Not a piece of history that I feel the need to claim.
But that doesn’t take away from the good advice to
“Make Love, Not War.”
photo credit - the iconic Thomas Hesterberg photo of the German protests of the late 60s - folks lined up against the wall naked - shouldn't require explanation, but for details, check out the source linked here.