where have all the flower children gone?

I spent a bunch of time this weekend reading Union Dues, a 1977 novel by John Sayles that was recently re-published by Nation Books. (BTW, I’m not actually sure what the title refers to. There are unions in this book, but not really at the heart of it.) It’s about a father and son from West Virginia who live in coal country until the son decides to take off to Boston, in search of his older brother (recently returned from Vietnam). The father takes off after him and ends up working in a variety of blue-collar jobs, while the son ends up living in a house with a bunch of young radicals in a group called the Third Way.

I was barely alive during the sixties, but the book, with its descriptions of young white kids who spend all of their time developing political positions and arguing with each other about whose ideology is more pure was still strangely familiar to me. Partly that’s because I know a lot of people who worked as organizers for various lefty groups, or who were student activists, or who burned their draft cards or their bras in the sixties. Partly it’s because I’ve been one of those crazy middle-class white kids, living in a collective house and arguing against any compromise with the military industrial complex, in my own young adulthood. And partly (and perhaps even more strangely to some of the people that I lived collectively with, back in the day), it’s because I’ve become a parent, and I can now imagine dropping everything to go find my teenage kid who might be going in the wrong direction.

It’s one of the few books I’ve read in a long time that made me wish it had a sequel. I wondered what happened to all those young activists, in particular. I know that not everyone who was politically active in the 60s and 70s still is, but I know some pretty cool people who cut their teeth doing actions then–I’d lke to see Sayles write a novel where they went on to be NOW state presidents, or university professors who are active in their union, or whatever.

So in the spirit of the sixties, let’s all go out and protest the 3rd anniversary of the Iraq War’s beginning, this weekend. If you’re looking for info on events, here are some good sites to check out. (In the spirit of anti-sectarianism, I’m being inclusive.)

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March 13, 2006. books for grown-ups.

6 Comments

  1. moonface replied:

    3 years already and there doesnt seem to be an end in sight still…

  2. MetroDad replied:

    Hmm…maybe someone else besides John Sayles should write the sequel? After all, this is the man who gave the world three of my favorite films (Matewan, Eight Men Out, & City of Hope) but, according to your imdb link, is now writing Jurassic Park IV? Hard to believe! Perhaps if he wrote the novel now, all those young activists would have grown up to be investment bankers or corporate lawyers? Let’s hope not. I’m still a huge John Sayles fan. I’ll have to check out the book. Thanks for the rec, LM.

  3. Library Lady replied:

    I had a friend in college who epitomized the Billy Joel song: “Angry Young Man”. (Which was fairly current at that time and we used to play a lot in a film group I worked in). He was heavily involved with NY Public Interest Research Group, politics, the whole 9 yards.

    His family was running a computer software business out of their garage. This was at the start of the pc revolution and they hit it big. The last time I saw him he was driving a Lincoln Towncar or some such, and while I doubt if he started voting Republican , you have to wonder…..

  4. chip replied:

    I went to the huge protest in DC in Oct 2002 against the then-planned invasion of Iraq. What struck me about it was a) how absolutely huge the crowd was — I’ve been to other DC protests but this was by far the largest; b) the range of people — this was not just “the usual suspects” but truly a cross section of American society from all over.

    I think it can be discouraging to be part of an energetic and idealistic movement and to see those with power just run roughshod over not just your ideals but over the ideals that they claim to stand for, and to have minimal reaction among the wider population. It’s hard to keep going and not get cynical when we see Bush and company dismantling every check and balance on the power of the presidency; pursue policies regardless of the impact on the majority of the population, democracy, etc. I think part of the answer to your question is that, which might explain the “can’t beat them, join them” path that all too many of the flower children” seem to have followed.

    I think real change comes from everyday people taking action; that challenge for activists is to make the issues real for non-activists. As you know from your work the key is to get people to see and understand that they can make a difference in their own lives, that change is possible, and that it comes from people working together in solidarity. And the main strategy that the “oppressors” use is to get people to not believe that, to believe all is hopeless.

    Okay, time to go and plant some flowers…

  5. Comfort Addict replied:

    Perhaps John Sayles should make the sequel a film. After all, he is the director of Lone Star, one of my favorite movies.

    I, too, was a little young for the sixties although I do remember the SDS hanging outside our junior high and the remnants of a hippie and activist culture in the mid-seventies when I started college at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. I used to regret not having been a little bit older so that I could have been a part of the major movements. I always felt more aligned with them and their times than the ones I lived.

    I do think that a lot of hippies and activists in the sixties let go as they grew older, got families and jobs. However, I do occasionally see some who haven’t lost the fire.

  6. emma goldman replied:

    First off, Sayles has long written scripts for less-than-A movies (“Piranha,” anyone?). It’s one of the things that has enabled him to make movies outside of the movie-industrial complex, which he has decided to do after his experience with “Baby, It’s You.” Second, go find a copy of “the Anarchists’ Convention,” a collection of Sayles’ short stories that’s really wonderful. Somewhere I have a tape of Jerry Stiller reading the title story, and, of course, the story itself reminds me of my grandfather the anarchist.

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