It happened today - August 15, 2015

Woodstock posterThey say if you can remember Woodstock you weren’t there. And indeed I did not attend the giant countercultural rock festival that began on August 15 1969. So I’m allowed to remember it. And I do, mostly in a good way.

Indeed, as I tell my students in modern American history, Woodstock is the high point of “the Sixties”, the moment it looked as though it might all actually work. In the eyes of “the squares” a gigantic free rock concert, with people taking strange drugs and doing casual sex, would end in murder and rapine.

It didn’t. On this occasion there would be no “I told you so” from Nixon’s comically orthodox VP Spiro Agnew. It looked as though it really would be possible to find a new and better way, based on love not hate, peace not war, giving not taking, a genuine dawning of the "Age of Aquarius” (the festival was billed as “An Aquarian Exposition”).

Even Jimi Hendrix’ iconic closing performance of The Star Spangled Banner was splendidly affirmative and inclusive. No quoting Mao here, no Che Guevara.

Of course it didn’t work. All sorts of dark forces were getting loose, from the Manson Family to the disaster at Altamont a month later to the drug-overdose deaths of musicians including Hendrix. I think nothing better underlines the fundamental unworkability of the dream than the endless calls of “Show us your tits” at a festival billed as “Woodstock ’99”.

Young women persuaded by feminists that desexualizing your body by doing exactly that is the key to liberation might want to reconsider whether raucous cheers from the frat house backbench really spell empowerment. It turns out there are sound reasons for “repressive” social institutions that restrain our baser impulses including men’s. But there are also things wrong with a society divided, frantic, bitter, overly mechanized and processed.

In the end the stars they could reach in August 1969 were, indeed, just starfish on the beach. But for all that, there was something beautiful and noble as well as fragile about the original Woodstock idea of finding a better way. So without losing our judgement, or our sense of human depravity, we should try to remember what they thought was wrong and cherish what was good about their ideas for making ourselves and our society better.