To understand today’s politics, look at Yale in the ’60s

But in the coarsening, embittering 1960s, Wilkinson writes, “more Americans annihilated fellow citizens in their consciousness than were slain on the field of any battle.” In a harbinger of very recent events, “the shorthaired and hard-hatted sensed that class prejudice had simply been substituted for race hatred.”

He locates the genesis of today’s politics of reciprocal resentments in “the contempt with which the young elites of the Sixties dismissed the contributions of America’s working classes.” We have reached a point where “sub-cultures begin to predominate and the power of our unifying symbols fades. We become others to ourselves.” The “insistent presentism” that became a permanent mentality in the 1960s cripples our ability to contemplate where we came from or can go. “Sometimes individuals lose, and societies gain,” Wilkinson writes. “Maybe someone’s loss of privilege is another’s gain in dignity. Perhaps there is a selfishness in every song of lament.” At this moment of pandemic vulgarity and childishness, his elegiac memoir is a precious reminder of what an adult voice sounds like.