The posters went up sometime in mid-April. THE MADISON REUNION, one said. BRINGING THE ’60S BACK HOME, said another. The invitation was made in trippy, Day-Glo fonts, with archival photos of protests splashed across hallucinogenic backdrops and a color scheme that made you think of flower children and Hendrix.
It turned out that, in June, several thousand Baby Boomers would gather at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, a pilgrimage to the birthplace of the student movement—for what, exactly, they wouldn’t say. Brochures promised “a party with a purpose.” The Temptations would play a set, as would the Doobie Brothers. There’d be panels on “Ecstasy and the Meaning of the Blues” and free lessons on making tie-dye. Katherine Cramer would unpack the politics of resentment, while Pulitzer Prize winner David Maraniss would eulogize the fourth estate.
Very quickly I rechristened the event, The Big Chill, Part 2: The Geriatric Years, but my wife chided me and said I should respect my elders. After all, a decade under Scott Walker had depleted our civic energies, rendering our hope dim to nonexistent at best. But maybe a caucus of senescent boomers could lend us some perspective.
At the student union, we attend a panel called “Searching for the Maharishi Within: The Radical Nature of Compassion.” Having not registered for the event, I assumed we could slip into the auditorium unnoticed, that the free-love generation would happily accommodate two older millennials. But as we enter the atrium, a squadron of gray-haired ushers is upon us, demanding to see our lanyards. “Oh,” my wife says, “we thought this was open to the public.” With the studied hydraulics of a retail smile, one usher replies, “Oh, ha, no. But you’re welcome to watch from the overflow seats.” She motions toward the back of the room, where there’s a semicircle of crick-inducing chairs, all of which lack a view of the podium.
The event features a conversation with Richie Davidson, the much-heralded psych professor at UW, a man who has staked his name on the curative powers of meditation, crusading alongside the likes of Deepak Chopra and the Dalai Lama. By way of preface, Davidson offers a thumbnail sketch of his student days in the Sixties, during which he, like so many others, rode a carousel of psychedelic indulgence, a note that inspires much hooting and hollering among the audience, who are still irksomely enamored of their own yesteryear grooviness. But in the face of this generational self-congratulation, Davidson demurs. The most pressing issue of our time is the lack of empathy among voters, and the type of transformative spiritual experiences that we need right now cannot be catalyzed through head-trips.
As to how we might foster goodwill toward our opponents, Davidson recounts that, during the nascent days of the Trump presidency, when Melania and Baron still lived in New York, he often tried to imagine Trump alone at night in the White House, sitting up late in the Lincoln Bedroom, sequestered in the shadow of his predecessors. He says he tried to picture the colossal loneliness of those moments, a man by himself, the heft of a nation on his shoulders.
The audience seems downright flummoxed, with a few coughs mitigating the silence and a few boomers squirming in their seats. Mindfulness is well and fine, they seem to suggest, but recognizing the humanity of the 45th president is clearly a mitzvah too far. After all, hadn’t Davidson read the reports about Trump’s evening routine: swathed in a bathrobe, supine in bed, Trump wolfs down Big Macs and blares Fox & Friends, like some sort of red-pilled Ferris Bueller.
When Davidson leads us on a guided meditation, cooing monotonically about untethered thoughts and mindful bodies, he ventures a more daring sentiment, asking that the audience bring to mind someone who wouldn’t normally receive our sympathy. Peering around for a quick survey of my compatriots, I glimpse one woman with a Wynonna-Judd-ish bouffant arcing her brow with disbelief. Another man yawns, thumbing the Lucite encasing his smartphone. So much of the psychodrama at play in the ballroom feels like an unfun caricature of the soul-searching taking place right now among Democrats: the hand-wringing about whether they should try to win back elusive rural voters, or stay the course by resting on their urban technocratic laurels.
Scarcely will it come as a galloping shock that the Boomers are more apt to talk about themselves. During the Q&A, one questioner, whom I’ll call Harold, tells the story of how he discovered meditation when he was a student at university. Shattered after a breakup, Harold found himself on the cusp of suicide, and every morning he shuffled morosely into his kitchen, yearning to slit his wrists. “But, thankfully, I didn’t have the guts to do it.” Around this time, some friends invited him over for dinner. One guy, a grad student, had just returned from a horizon-broadening trip to India, an Eat Pray Love-esque sojourn that left him intoning mantras like “Everything in the universe is connected.” In a wink, Harold was changed. For the first time in months, he found himself laughing ecstatically, delighting in the company of friends, a new man, a swift and Scrooge-like restoration.
At this point, I’m hoping Harold will describe his eventual turn toward nonprofit work in Biafra or perhaps a long-suffering career in the Peace Corps. But he soon sticks a needle in these glad speculations and avers that his belief in mindfulness boosted his work as a venture capitalist, that he’s been so happy to see corporations come around to the godsend of workplace meditation. Given that we’re in Wisconsin, what with its enfeebled unions, I’m imagining an out-and-out mutiny. Or at least a balkanization along class lines. No way my fellow lefties will accept productivity as the end point of mid-century radicalism. Quite swiftly I’m disabused of this notion. Davidson thanks Harold for his story and parrots his pro-business sentiment, noting that while universities are skeptical of meditation, corporations have been keen to embrace the tenets of Eastern religion.
Around lunch, my wife and I veer outside, in need of fresh air. But at the foot of State Street, we look east toward the capital and see a flesh-colored disturbance on the horizon, a swarm that gets larger as it gets closer. Faintly I perceive distant cowbells amidst the roar of a vast multitude. Is it possible I just heard the minor-key lament of a kazoo? Folks around us unholster their smartphones, cuing up Instagram and Snapchat in preparation.
“Oh, wait,” my wife says. “I think it’s—”
“Yeah,” a bystander says. “It’s World Naked Bike Ride Day.”
Approaching us at a creaky, fixed-gear velocity is an interminable cascade of shriveled genitalia lost amid Gretel-length pubic hair, plus brow-raising case studies in eczema and psoriasis, wrinkles and cellulite. From where I’m standing, I am made to look upon the rectum of a blanched, cadaverous man as he pedals up a steep hill in the buff, whistling the melody of a Steely Dan song. The lone exception to the pageant of disrobed bikers is a rangy old-timer on a skateboard, whose penis, according to my wife, looks like a mushroom laid carefully upon a garnish of old sprouts. He exhorts us to join him. “Come on, come on!” he bellows. “You have everything you need!”
One frat guy on the corner holding a laundry hamper yells, “Take it off,” which perplexes both nude biker and clad bystander alike.
It turns out the jolly nudists are not without cause. Upon closer inspection, their chests are stamped with environmental bromides mourning the use of petroleum. Their chosen aesthetic reminds me of those lusty tree-huggers from Fuck for Forests, a recent documentary about the anarcho-environmentalists who want to stall climate change by bumping uglies on the internet, raising funds for the Amazon one wolfish click at a time.
If nothing else, the nudists’ antics seem to valorize the spirit of the Sixties, which twinned political activism with personal expression in ways that yielded spectacular unrest. And yet it’s difficult not to see the bikers, in their nakedness, as prelapsarian innocents—unaware that the nonconformism by which they seek to redress injustice has become hopelessly entwined with a consumption ethic. As early as 1934, Malcolm Crowley anticipated the power of depoliticized rebranding when he examined the bohemians of Greenwich Village, for whom “living for the moment meant buying an automobile, radio, or house, using it now and paying for it tomorrow.” This logic is merely common sense to people of my own generation, who grew up when Spencer’s and Gadzooks hawked the merchandise of bygone rebels—the dog collars of punks and goths, the incense and muumuus of hippies. One can find a contemporary analogue on the shelves of Urban Outfitters, where the dissident spirit of street art has been repackaged as the faddish couture of Obey.
Across town, at the UW Cinemateque, we enter the refrigerated darkness of the theater to watch The War at Home. The documentary (made in 1979) offers lots of grainy archival shots of Madison in the Sixties, including footage from the Mifflin Street Block Party, a shindig that was meant to honor the French student/worker uprising of 1968. Guys with zealot beards strummed guitars on rickety porches while skirted women in dandelion crowns swayed languidly to the music. The recordings show how police officers soon appeared on site, allegedly checking out a noise complaint, and promptly began to arrest people. At first, the scuffle was relatively tame. A couple of people were bludgeoned. A couple of students were dragged away, making peace signs or shouting dissident bromides. But as word spread through the festival that the cops had arrived, the clash intensified and eventually lasted three days, with insurgent students pelting officers with rocks and bottles, while the officers responded with billy clubs and curtains of tear gas.
The block party has remained an annual campus event, its popularity fueled by a sense of embattlement with authority. But what the documentary doesn’t mention is that Mifflin soon began to follow a familiar trajectory. Since the mid-Nineties, it has functioned as a roaring weekend revel, an end-of-year bacchanal that often culminates in sprees of carnage and ruin. This was the case in 1996 when it garnered over ten thousand people and ended in conflagatory riots. Then there was 2011, when the festival saw two life-threatening stabbings and a rash of assaults, costing the city of Madison over $130,000 in policing. It turns out that in the five decades since its inception, the relationship between the cops and students hasn’t much changed, although the event has now been sapped of its subversive political energy.
As it happens, I attended Mifflin last year to see what had become of the fabled soiree and found several companies using it as a venue for guerrilla marketing. Red Bull and Pepsi handed out free samples, and the social-media start-up Huggle hosted a raucous party. For several minutes I spoke with the Huggle’s representative, a young British woman named India, who hadn’t heard of Mifflin’s political history but averred that it was a great way to meet new clients. She removed her sunglasses and pointed to undergraduates boogie-ing to Miley and Two Chains. “Look!” she yelled over the thrum of the bass. “It’s all happening!”
One irony that goes unmentioned throughout the weekend is that the dissident spirit of the Sixties actually went some way toward hastening the university’s corporatization. Since the beginning, Wisconsin has prided itself on cultivating a strong bond between the academy and the state, motivated by the idea that the quest for truth would ultimately serve its citizenry. During his tenure as university president in the 1890s, John Bascom, a theologian and rhetorician, established these moral commitments as “The Wisconsin Idea,” which viewed rational debate and objective inquiry as agents of the public good that could redeem society and bring about “the kingdom of heaven on earth.” While some of us might wince now at Bascom’s messianic rhetoric, the practical force of his social gospel shouldn’t be overlooked: after all, Wisconsin soon threw off its reputation as a wheat-laden hinterland and became a thriving interior economy, buttressed by its university’s preeminent research, which “assist[ed] the citizens of the commonwealth in their quest for information.” The Wisconsin Idea has since become a token of the state’s identity as a bastion of progressivism, a reputation that has made it easy for some citizens to overlook the state’s inability to sufficiently address racial and economic disparities that persist to this day. But in its original formulation, the Wisconsin Idea was an academic mission statement and a covenantal call to service, one that inspired professors from relevant departments to collaborate with the state, drafting legislation on social-justice issues like workers’ compensation and the minimum wage.
Yet this relationship between the university and the state began to erode and break down. As higher education scholar David J. Weerts notes, new epistemologies produced during the Sixties—such as poststructuralism and deconstruction, which were meant to destabilize unjust social hierarchies—soon complicated the public’s trust in value-neutral truth claims. No doubt this reckoning was long overdue, but it had the inadvertent effect of making academic departments insular and concave, to the point where research became inscrutable to vast swaths of the citizenry. What resulted, Weerts believes, was “a wedge between academia and a public that had historically looked to universities for guidance on moral questions.” The chasm was widened by the fact that the utopia dreamt of in boomer philosophy placed a premium not on the public good, but on the sanctity of private choice, a revolutionary spirit that aligned neatly with the neoliberal agenda of the Chicago School economists.
It is difficult to overstate how thoroughly the Chicago School’s “contract” mentality infiltrated the provinces of higher education. Whereas the moral “covenant” of the Wisconsin Idea was built upon commitment and mutual obligation—binding the state’s educated elite to its urban and rural poor—the current legislature no longer sees the university as a fountain of truth and guidance, but as a vending machine of potential labor. In his 2015 budget proposal—which slashed state support for university research by $250 million—Governor Walker attempted to codify this change in thinking with an amendment to the UW mission, recasting the university’s central purpose from a “search for truth” to an effort to “meet the state’s workforce needs.” With the recent election of Tony Evers, the university’s destiny does seem somewhat brighter, but given the preponderance of neoliberal thinking across the political spectrum, it’s difficult for Wisconsinites to maintain more than a candle of hopefulness.
On the final night of the reunion, the Doobie Brothers and Steely Dan play a concert on the east side. The sky bruises to dusk, and hordes of boomers flood into the stadium. Do EMTs arrive to resuscitate a septuagenarian homecomer who partook of too much ganja? They do. Hearing aids are pulled out once Steely Dan takes the stage, and the audience emits an orgasmic roar as the band starts “Reeling in the Years.”
This neighborhood, with its co-ops and head shops, was once a mecca of leftist energy. But over the last decade, it has fallen prey to the encroachments of the tech industry. Dozens of condo developments have gone up in recent years to house the employees of Epic, a software behemoth that has become the spine of the regional economy. Even Google has an office on this block. You see them sometimes, these minions of the digital age, strutting around Whole Foods in search of microgreens and kombucha, fielding alerts on their whiz-bang smartwatches, confident that buying organic and shopping local secures their liberal bona fides. For me, though, the kids operate as a metonymy for how Madison has embraced the ethos of the Sixties. After all, the Boomers’ revolutionary spirit, which prized individualism and nonconformity, found a natural bedfellow in the techno-utopians, what with their unswerving faith in neoliberalism and their appetite for lucrative disruption.
That the movement has been the enzyme of gentrification in countless American cities, including this one—pricing out longtime residents, erasing geographic novelty—is scarcely mentioned. It is a painful irony that the new condominium directly across the street from the concert rests on a field that once served as an Occupy Madison encampment. Some years ago, droves of homeless and underemployed people staked out tents here, under the stars, rallying for affordable housing. Now, there’s a condominium with a coffee shop and fitness center, plus a winsome rooftop bar with pulse-quickening views of the city.