Civil War breaks out among UU's over Pete Seeger

OK. I'm kidding.

Pete Seeger's death has precipitated a storm of grief among most UU's, especially older UU's who remember his music and participation in the great movements of their lives. A lot of UU churches and congregations will be celebrating him this weekend in their services.

But some GenXer's and Millennials push back saying that we should be careful not to overdo it. A lot of GenXer's and Millennials are not especially fond of Seeger's style of folk music, don't share the complicated memories of the 60's protest movements, and are generally unemotional about the baby boomer experience. They are repelled by Boomer nostalgia. There is a hashtag that occasionally surfaces: #notjustboomersinthepews.

The key to understanding contemporary UUA history and culture (from merger until now) is the marginalization and demobilization of progressive forces between 1968 and 2008. I call it the Nixon-Reagan Reaction.

We have just now emerged from a cultural counter-revolution.

One element was a revulsion by GenXers toward the most rebellious strains of the Boomer culture. Much of that revulsion was real and personal, rooted in the experience of having boomers as parents. The punk movement expressed a rebellion against baby boomer leftish sentimentality in a broad cultural and musical movement. There was a political aspect; GenXers swung toward the GOP and Reagan politically, and were a crucial part of the ascendant conservative political coalition. And it was encouraged by the makers of popular culture. In the mainstream, the boomer rebels were lampooned as silly, stoned, naive, and generally pathetic. "Being stuck in the Sixties" became considered a neurological, psychological disorder; a kind of cultural Alzheimers; sufferers were objects of revulsion and mockery. Some UU churches were seen as appropriate asylums were these unfortunates could be safely confined.

The rebellious impulses of the 60's were not only politically defeated, but discredited and ridiculed.

A defeated movement not only has the endure the pain of defeat, but the shame of being thought foolish by its children.

Pete Seeger was not a boomer, but of the generation of our parents. Pictures of him as a young man show that he was of the generation where radical folk singers wore suits. He was a living link to the Old Left, the WW2 United Front radicals who survived the McCarthy era, who sang at protests through the 60's and 70's and kept going during the Reagan counter-revolution. He was no longer on the world stage anymore in the 80's and 90's, but, like so many others, went local, sailing the Hudson River. You can trace the ups and down of the progressive America by charting his career. And that he lived to sing for a President at the Lincoln Memorial the day before his Inauguration shows the turning of the tide.

That Pete Seeger kept on 'keeping on' exposes our own
discontinuous and broken history. For many Boomers, mourning Pete Seeger is a displacement of our own grief what happened in our own lives. We honor his persistence in the face of defeat as a way to mask our shame.

Some of us are adoring Pete Seeger this weekend; some are impatient, and even revulsed, by the nostalgia for the 60's, folk music and all that foolishness. Both responses are predicated on a voluntarist theory of our own history as agents of change. The voluntarist theory is that everything that happened happened because of our virtues and our faults. The thinking goes: "If we had all been like Pete Seeger, then we would not have had Reagan and Bush and Bush and 40 years of backward motion." Or the thinking goes: "If people like Pete Seeger and his crew had not been so mawkish, sentimental and uncool, we would not have had 40 years of growing income inequality, climate change and imperialist wars."  Either way, it is the thinking of process of abused children.

The best way to honor Pete Seeger is not by a sentimental tributes, but by a clear-eyed look to the history of the radical, reform and religiously liberal movements of last 50 years. Once in a while, we make history, but most of the time, history makes us.
At FarmAid in 2013


  1. Wise thinking, Tom. I have been very bound up in the passing of Pete, and partly that comes from being a banjo player in his mold, but you rightly name the shame that he inspires, the sort of shame I feel reading of the accomplishments of my classmates in my alumni magazine, "why haven't I made more of my life?" But I still take inspiration from his example. I can't get too bothered by my children's generation's judgment that Pete was uncool, that folk music is uncool. Judgments like these are not set in stone, and are as arbitrary as the judgment of some of my generation in the 60s that it WAS cool.

  2. Careful not to equate millenial and gen x experience. I would characterize my experience as a millenial as such: I am not unfond of folk music, but rather less connected to it. And I am not repulsed by 1960s nostalgia so much as left out of it - lacking emotional resonance whether positive OR negative with many of its references. I sit and watch it happening around me with curiosity, but no real sense of inclusion or connection. I'm ok with that. I'm not upset by it happening around me (not that it would be a big deal if I were), I just can't be expected to participate in it.

  3. Anonymous12:53 PM

    I'm a Gen X-er. I know it's always dangerous to generalize about the generations (though I do it all the time). I was born in '68, slightly on the older end of Gen X. My parents, and most of my friends' parents, were actually from the Silent Generation. The Boomers were an in-between generation. We didn't hate them... we looked up to them. We felt left out - the Boomers had such a cool coming of age, or so it seemed... whereas we came of age in the era of HIV/AIDS. Plus theirs was a large and influential generation, whereas we are so tiny and a little "lost". So for me personally, and I think I'm safe in saying for many of my Gen X friends from "back home", Boomer music isn't a nostalgia thing... it's before our time. But we respect it. I have no youthful memories of the sixties. But I love the music. And that goes for Seeger. I respect his music and his larger legacy. I will not devote an entire Sunday service to memorializing him (in part because I recently did a service in honor of Woody Guthrie)... but we will sing one of his songs. Seems appropriate, to me.

  4. I remember as a first grader seeing Pete Seeger on the Smothers Brothers -- this would have been around 1969.

    My father, who was 42 at the time had seen combat in WWII and Korea in the front lines of a segregated Navy and then Army. He opposed war because he had seen it.

    The local Unitarian minister explained his absence from Civil Rights activism because he was so busy working in the Peace Movement -- he told the Peace Movement just the opposite.

    There was a real difference in those days between the Counter-Culture as a Culture and the hard-nosed, in-season and out-of-season commitment to justice. My father, like many black people, then and now, rolled their eyes at that sixties culture. Too many of those young people were alive and unmaimed because our black neighbors' 17 year olds were in the thick of escalating carnage in an ever-escalating war.

    Even now, UU men will come up to me with a conspiratorial twinkle in their eyes to share how they managed to avoid the war -- crossing the Canadian border, pursuing an unwanted and never-used graduate credential. Sometimes I ask them directly:"Who went in your place?" Most times I do not, because the 1970s personal growth culture that took over UU culture in the 1970s (in my view a re-packing of the 19th century romanticism that allowed some elites to distance themselves from the enslavement and genocide that purchased their prosperity) made critical discourse virtually impossible.

    Feelings were and are feared and avoided at the cost of ethical and spiritual maturity.

    Pete Seeger, Paul Robeson, Amiri Baraka, Abbey Lincoln, Nina Simone Adrienne Rich, -- these were artists who strove to push us into a maturity to contradict that (Jack Nicholson character's) message that "you can't handle the truth." Their music was not intended to invoke nostalgia nor self-congratulation. They did not equate breaking through our numbness with hurting our feelings.

    My daddy said about Pete Seeger, when I was seven or so: "Now that is a white man willing to pay his dues." The metaphor of dues, or as James Baldwin said, "the price of the ticket," have to do with staying in a fight (and that fight is not metaphorical) were sacrificed to shame about the fact that most of the time we lose. We continue to pay, to contribute, to affiliate/dis-affiliate, over and over, generation to generation with a tenacity that transcends fashion. There are no opt-outs and course correction is part of the joyful possibility that we can always do better.

  5. The notion of somekind huge cultural divide that can be explained by these labels of GI Generation, Silent Generation, Boomers, Gen X and Millenial is useful for marketing and for pop cultural commentary. But the majority of the people are not middle class and upper class White people. Do these categories really fit the experience of working class, and poor whites.? American Indians? African Americans? Latinos?

    My culture taught me to honor my elders and be thoughtful and supportive toward the young. So my Cherokee mentors could tell tales of the lynching tree and radical mentors marched for Saco and Venzetti. The young Latinos I know honor Floyd Westerman (Lakota folksinger) and Pete for their solidarity with the migrant and border.

    By the logic of these constructed generations I was supposed to be Silent, and Pete was Depression going on GI and born to serve. But Boomers needed someone to teach show them how the mimeograph work and witness how the Black List gave voice to a lot Silents.

  6. It is interesting to see the different responses to Pete Seeger's death. I have been feeling deep grief, and it feels personal to me. Pete's songs were my lullabies when I was a baby, and I accompanied my parents to his (and other similar artists') concerts when I was a small child. Born in 76, at the tail end of Gen X, I experienced him directly and through stories.

    As an adult, Pete's kind of activism and his steadfastness in the long, long arc of The Struggle for justice and peace (encompassing so many many different Issues) has informed my ministry, my activism and my personal ability to stay IN the struggle. I feel like my granddad died.

  7. "GenXers swung toward the GOP and Reagan politically, and were a crucial part of the ascendant conservative political coalition."

    The Baby Boomer wiki marks the Baby Boomers as going through 1964 in birth dates. Thus if Gen X started with those born in 1964, the eldest of the generation turned 18 in 1982, making us too young to blame for Reagan becoming president in 1981. Even if you take our dates back a few years, only the very eldest among us -- those closest to Boomers in age -- were able to vote in that election. Reagan's presidency was more a product of Boomers than Xers. Even when we came of age, we're way outnumbered in the electorate. We're more to blame for Clinton, ironically the first Boomer president himself. The first Xer president is Barack Obama, and his pragmatism--this healthcare reform rather than universal healthcare, for example--is very Xer.

    From the perspective of this later Xer, it was the Boomer Hippies turned Yuppies who ushered in the combination of Reagan conservatism and Xer cynicism.

    This is not to say that Xers don't have a conservative streak. But UU Xers who are commenting on Pete Seeger and Boomer nostalgia aren't really among those. From the left side of X, I don't think it's fair to say we have a "revulsion by GenXers toward the most rebellious strains of the Boomer culture." The relationship to the cultural revolution of the Boomer era is more complicated for us than that. There's a deep impatience and frustration that all that beautiful past we're always told about didn't lead to a better now. "Where have all the flowers gone?"

  8. Cynthia,
    Your math is correct, as to be expected.
    I guess I have been unclear, both in my expression, but also in my thinking. I think I am trying to flip the script on that. Instead of suggesting that generational transitions cause cultural and then political shifts, could we argue that generational transitions reflect political shifts, and solidify them.

  9. "Instead of suggesting that generational transitions cause cultural and then political shifts, could we argue that generational transitions reflect political shifts, and solidify them."

    Hmmm... Yes, I think so. I think it would be fair to say of GenX that they reflected and solidified a turn towards conservatism as they came of age.

    I was just like totally, "Dude, how did I vote for Reagan? I was like totally in Junior High!" ;)

  10. Tom, I have a vaguely-formed theory (but this is the internet so what the heck) that periods of social/cultural tumult are often accompanied political reaction and that the reverse is true.

    For instance, my sense is that 1920s were both a period increasing autonomy for women, the widespread use of illegal intoxicants (alcohol then) and artistic experimentation accompanied by conservative ascendency in politics. In the 1930s, the jazz age ended and flappers were nowhere to be seen (the depression and ending prohibition probably contributed) alongside the greatest achievements in progressive politics in American history. This progressive political era continued, with fits and starts, until the mid-60s while cultural and sexual mores changed slowly.

    Anyway, in regards to your point,I wonder if the political retrenchment of the Reagan-Bush era was, in part, a reaction to perceived excesses the cultural and sexual revolutions of the late 1960s/early 1970s. I'm a gen Xer, and while (as was pointed out above) I don't think that my generation was necessarily as conservative politically as you suggest but do sense that a lot my peers thought that boomers had gone from idealism to self-indulgence and narcissism.. That may be in part a caricature of the boomers, but not entirely and I think it influenced perceptions of that era by later generations.

  11. Pete, Check out Nixonland by Rick Perlstein. His thesis is that the Nixon was able to build a majority based on cultural resentment of the issues/excesses of the sixties, and that the 40 year conservative era was based on that on that majority.

  12. Since this discussion explores generational change and turning, I thought you might want to read Millennial Momentum by Winograd and Hais. They pose an intriguing theory of American generational characteristics and civic involvement that might be a good framework to hang your thoughts on.


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