paul starr on the ambiguous place of the sixties between history & contemporary affairs.
Someday the 1960s will belong entirely to the historians, but we are not there yet. — Paul Starr, “The Sixties at 50,” American Prospect
Paul Starr’s brief essay on “the Sixties at 50” proposes that the infamous decade is not yet completely one for the history books. Of course, perhaps no history is every quite in the history books—that’s a false divide between past and present. Nonetheless, underlying Starr’s comment is the idea that when something becomes history it is dead and gone. He wants to argue that the progressive struggles from the sixties are still very much with us in contemporary culture and politics.
His remark made me, as a historian of the sixties, wonder about history from the other side of the equation: not what the history of the sixties might mean for culture and politics today, but rather what it means to write historically about the period while it remains alive in the present. After all, many, such as Starr himself, lived through and were shaped by the sixties. They are not only still going strong, but are also still fighting versions of the battles they began to wage back then. Certainly, the baby boom generation that came of age in the sixties still dominates the tenor and dynamics of public life, at least in the United States. So while this may mean that the sixties still shapes contemporary life, how does it affect the telling of sixties history?
For many younger historians writing about the sixties, the urge has increasingly been to say brusquely to baby boomers “you’re history!” instead of saying I am exploring your history. Others have inherited a nostalgic yearning to return to the sixties—how strange to have nostalgia for a time one did not live through! Still others seek to view the decade through the lens of what came next by shifting from the narrative of the sixties as a time of left-leaning activism to the moment when the New Right came of age. And still others try to treat the 1960s as if it were as far gone as the 1760s, to ignore representations of the decade that still course through popular memory and write as if all that’s left is the past.
In all these cases there is an effort to fit the 1960s into existing models of what history is and how it works. But perhaps Starr’s comment suggests something else, something even he did not intend: maybe something happened to the very idea of history in the sixties, something that asks us to rethink assumptions about past and present and how we draw connections between the two. Maybe the question is not when will the sixties belong entirely to historians, but rather will the 1960s ever belong entirely to historians—and if not, how then should historians write about the decade?