The Woodstock anniversary demonstrates once again that the past is neither dead nor even past. The sixties, in particular, exist as a kind of transcendental present, a moment ever available to be fought and refought.

Thus David Burchell, venting the fuddy-duddy conservatism that’s taken root in the Oz, explains that Woodstock was “little more than three wearisome, mud-soaked days of musical chaos”. It’s a sentence in which the two words “little more” bear a greater burden than your average hydraulic crane. Try it at home. The Beatles were little more than a skiffle band; the computer’s little more than a fancy type-writer; the atomic bomb little more than a chemistry experiment. And so on and so forth.

Clive Hamilton’s response in Friday’s Crikey is more interesting. Contrasting the original festival to its sad reprise in 1999, he asks: “How did the baby boomers whose rebellion shook the foundations of conservatism in the sixties and seventies end up supervising the most materialistic, egocentric and decadent societies the world has ever seen?”

A fair enough question. But how does Hamilton answer?

“The objectives were noble,” he writes, “but the demand for individual rights in the sixties and seventies released a self-centredness that has grown into full-blown narcissism.”

As he’s done in the past, he focuses in particular on the sexual revolution, through which, he says, “equality came to mean freeing girls to behave as badly as boys.”

Conveniently enough, there’s an immediate example at hand. Over the last few days, Google registered close to three million entries for for “Miley Cyrus + pole”. That’s because, as Salon explains, at the Teen Choice Awards:

The most famous 16-year-old in the world showed up on the red carpet in a high-heeled, bra-flaunting, crotch-skimming ensemble straight out of the spring tranny hooker catalogue. She then changed into shiny short shorts and boots to perform “Party in the USA,” a routine that featured her at one point cavorting around a pole on top of an ice cream truck.

This might seem perfect grist for Hamilton’s mill, a classic example of commodified raunch culture: as he puts it, “binge drinking, indiscriminate sex, and capitulation to every desire.”

Yet Miley, like most of the current Disney moppets, is no libertarian but rather a conservative Christian. “He died for our sins,” she explains. “That’s how awesome he is. Jesus rocks!” Officially, at least, she’s against binge drinking, indiscriminate sex and capitulation to desires.

Naturally, the coverage of her latest escapade — and, indeed, much of her recent career — focuses on whether or not fallen from her pedestal. And “fallen” is the right word, with the whole discussion is framed by the most traditional gender standards.

That is, Disney can present Miley as an American princess only by implicitly contrasting her with all the other shameless hussies out there. The sexual traditionalism embodied in the Hannah Montana brand has a mutually dependent relationship with raunch culture, since the categories of ‘good girl’ and ‘bad girl’ possess no meaning without each other.

Think about the various young women who have sold their virginity online. Yes, these grotesque auctions demonstrate the commodification of sex but they also reveal the commodification of chastity.

Hamilton suggests that the social conservatism of the fifties “held the market in check” but in fact commodification and social conservatism walk hand-in-hand. Take the weird phenomenon of Purity Rings. You buy these ostentatious symbols of virginity (and, yes, Miley wears one) to signal the high price of your virtue — a purity ring says you are not “cheap”.

What’s this got to do with Woodstock? Women’s liberation in the sixties (or, in Australia, the seventies) might have been pro-sex but it wasn’t a campaign for pole dancing. Rather, the goal was to remake society so as to overcome the whole good girl/bad girl dichotomy expressed in the very title of Anne Summer’s feminist classic Damned Whores and God’s Police.

Rather than the rampant individualism Hamilton sees, the sixties represented the great age of collective change. From civil rights to the anti-war rallies, from women’s rights to gay liberation, the social movements of the time were defined by their commitment to change the world rather than simply remake individuals. In Australia, in particular, the new movements built largely from the base rather than the apex, as Jeremy Fisher’s account of the early days of gay liberation powerfully illustrates.

What happened? Culturally, the New Left might have triumphed (the music’s on every station) but politically it was defeated. In the US, the sixties ended with the ascent of Richard Nixon; here, the era closed with the election of Malcolm Fraser.

That was the period in which social change transmuted into individualism, as the liberation struggles gradually lost their radical edge. Instead of the radical women’s movement and its challenge to the madonna/whore distinction, we ended up with post-feminism and … Madonna.

Yes, the Woodstock generation failed. But those years still represent the most sustained recent challenge to the hegemony of the market. That’s why Hamilton’s critique seems misplaced.

Given his own project, it would make more sense if he blamed the baby boomers not for going too far but for not going far enough.

Peter Fray

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