- - Sunday, October 8, 2017


Virginia Tech, Newtown, San Bernardino, Orlando, Las Vegas … a roll call of carnage so familiar that we can almost repeat it in our sleep. We read the number of dead and wounded. But these are really tragedies beyond reckoning, as the tears of loved ones wash upon the shores of illimitable grief.

If the chaos of contemporary life sometimes seems overwhelming, those of us who lived through the 1960s at least understand its origins. The threat to the rule of law began in earnest that decade and, after a period of remission, has now reemerged in full force. Understanding that threat, and the divisions the 1960s created, is essential to restoring respect for law today.

Derangement then, as now, seemed on the march: two Kennedy brothers and Martin Luther King assassinated. Riots flaring in Watts, Detroit, Rochester, and Newark.

Birmingham sheriff Bull Connor unleashing dogs and shooting hoses at civil rights demonstrators; Chicago police clubbing Democratic convention protesters with billy clubs; National Guardsmen killing four Kent State students protesting the War in Vietnam; the NYPD raiding a gay community gathering at Stonewall Inn. Campus disturbances forcing cancellation of classes. Fanaticism dominated headlines then, as it does today.

Why is this, and what can we do about it? For starters, we can recognize that the law cannot go it alone. It must rest upon a foundation of other healthy social institutions, many of which the 1960s left in tatters. Deep social divisions posed unparalleled threats to the rule of law in the 1960s, as they do with rising force today.

Unless the divisions in our country are healed, there will be more and more outbreaks of unpardonable violence justified in the minds of those who visit it by the hatred and even contempt with which Americans have come to hold one another. Those who stone their fellow citizens with demeaning words and cheap insults will be complicit.

The origins of our divisions began in the long-ago decade of my youth. Too often education became all about politics and the acrimonious clash of ideologies, all of which made it more difficult for people of different views to form those lasting bonds of friendship which carry into adulthood. The pervasiveness of political conflict on campus left less room for youthful joy. We are reaping the fruits of those Sixties animosities in the polarized politics of our leadership class today.

The 1960s demeaned the private sector. The late-19th century and 1920s were taught to students as periods of corrupt business rule; the Progressive Era and New Deal as the apotheosis of enlightened public management. Careers in government and public service are most certainly worthwhile, but realtors and insurance agents and stockbrokers and dentists also help to make society work. Such professions were seldom appreciated by those who taught us in the 1960s, and even today, higher education fails to recognize the private sector’s worth.

A relentlessly negative view of American history also reigned in the 1960s. We became bit by bit the oppressor nation. Goodness knows, America has its flaws. But it is a nation of vast virtues as well, and if we neglect the great good in the American story, our Bill of Rights, the practice of self-governance, the dynamics of capitalism, and those marvelous Federalist Papers, we have presented a one-sided view of our country which strips us of a shared feeling of belonging and deprives us of the sense of a nation to call home.

The 230th anniversary of our Constitution is a cause for celebration, and as we lament the racial prejudice that regrettably persists, we should also celebrate what John McCain recently called “the country that led the free world to victory over fascism and dispatched communism to the ash heap of history.”

The Vietnam War further eroded our shared sense of identity as those who fought that war and those who protested it on campuses back home began to seem two alien cultures. The scorn heaped by privileged students upon short hairs and hard hats in the Sixties has left us a nation divided by class. The class divisions that manifested themselves in the elections of 1972, 1980, and 2016 today play out against the ravages of opioid epidemics and jobs perceived lost to automation, globalization, and robotic replacement of workers once the sinews of America’s manufacturing might.

In my memoir of the 1960s, “All Falling Faiths,” I have tried to explain softly and personally why the rule of law that was placed in such peril in my youth is endangered even more by the persistent divisions in our country today. Those divisions have sanctioned hatred and intolerance as a means of working through our differences. To walk further down our present path is to court a cycle of recriminations that will have no end. The challenge for upcoming generations is to avoid the mistakes of my generation and to recover for America what the 1960s stole away.

• J. Harvie Wilkinson, a U.S. circuit judge serving on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in Richmond, Virginia, is the author of “All Falling Faiths: Reflections on the Promise and Failure of the 1960s” (2017).

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