Features March 1999
What the Sixties wrought
On The Sixties: Cultural Revolution in Britain, France, Italy, and the United States, c.1958–c.1974 by Arthur Marwick.
“One is clever and knows everything that has ever happened: so there is no end of derision. One still quarrels, but one is soon reconciled—else it might spoil the digestion.
“One has one’s little pleasure for the day and one’s little pleasure for the night, but one has a regard for health.
“ ‘We have invented happiness,’ say the last men, and they blink.”
We have here the peculiarly American way of digesting continental despair. It is nihilism with a happy ending.
Where’s the outrage?
“The Sixties,” it seems, have become less the name of a decade than a provocation. As a slice of history, the purple decade actually encompasses nearly twenty years. It begins some time in the 1950s and lasts at least until the mid-1970s. And it means—what? Sexual “liberation,” rock music, chemically induced euphoria—nearly everyone would agree with that, even though some would inscribe a plus sign, others a minus sign beside that famous triumvirate. The Sixties also mean protest, the “youth culture,” and a new permissiveness together with a new affluence: Dionysus with a bank balance and a cause. For all its garishness, however, the spirit of the Sixties tends to live on and to reveal itself most clearly in a negative not a positive sense: not in what it champions so much as in what it undermines, what it corrodes. In many respects, the Sixties really did amount to a counter-culture: a repudiation, an inversion of the Fifties—another period that lives on as a provocation. As we approach the end of the century and a new millennium, the question of what the Sixties wrought is far from settled. Indeed, it has lately assumed a new urgency as it becomes ever clearer that American culture is deeply riven along fault lines first defined by the reverberations of that long, percussive decade.
In his huge compendium on the Sixties, the British social historian Arthur Marwick offers a kind of international sourcebook of exemplary texts, trends, and events from about 1958 through about 1974—his definition of the “long decade” that constituted the Sixties. It is an odd book. There is nearly as much about the evolution of English laws regulating the sale of alcoholic beverages as there is about the Beatles and rock music. The social-science apparatus is wheeled on early and often. The reader encounters sixteen “Characteristics of a Unique Era” (“the formation of new subcultures and movements,” “upheavals in race, class, and family relationships,” etc.) as well as numerous statistical summaries and charts: there is, for example, a chart indicating the percentage of Italian families who owned television sets, refrigerators, and washing machines in 1965 as compared with 1975 (more later than earlier) and a chart comparing the relative popularity in France of watching television and going out in the evening in 1967 and 1973 (ditto). Eight-hundred pages of such stuff are reinforced by one-hundred pages of notes and index.
Mr. Marwick makes a great show of being the careful, “scientific” historian, concerned with sources and evidence, not “metaphysical” theories. He begins with a good deal of methodological throat-clearing: just what counts as an historical period? What really constitutes historical influence?—that sort of thing. This is harmless enough, no doubt. But one might have had more faith in Mr. Marwick’s scientific aptitude had the left-wing journalist Paul Berman not appeared as Professor Paul Bearman on page four of The Sixties, endowed not only with a new name and a professorship but also with “a strongly hostile view of the radicals of the sixties.” Hostile? “We ourselves,” Mr. Berman wrote in A Tale of Two Utopias, the book to which Mr. Marwick refers in his notes, “stood at the heart of a new society . . . of spiritual grandeur. . . . Something soulful. A moral advance. And in the glow of the very grand and utopian idea, a thousand disparate events from around the world—the student uprisings, the hippie experiments, the religious transformations,” &c. Not exactly everyone’s idea of hostile.
In many ways, what Mr. Marwick has produced is less a book than a sociologico-historical grab-bag. Nevertheless, The Sixties offers both an argument and a mood. The mood is captured by the montages Mr. Marwick offers of the Fifties and the Sixties in his opening pages. It is not all that different from the mood evoked by Mr. Berman. The Sixties, Mr. Marwick writes, prominently featured
black civil rights; youth culture and trend-setting by young people; idealism, protest, and rebellion; the triumph of popular music based on Afro-American models and the emergence of this music as a universal language; . . . the search for inspiration in the religions of the Orient; massive changes in personal relationships and sexual behaviour; a general audacity and frankness in books and in the media, and in ordinary behaviour; gay liberation; the emergence of “the underground” and the “counterculture”; optimism and genuine faith in the dawning of a better world.
All of which is to be contrasted with the Fifties, a dark, uncreative time whose “key features” include
rigid social hierarchy; subordination of women to men and children to parents; repressed attitudes to sex; racism; unquestioning respect for authority in the family, education, government, the law, and religion, and for the nation-state, the national flag, the national anthem; Cold War hysteria; a strict formalism in language, etiquette, and dress codes; a dull and cliché-ridden popular culture, most obviously in popular music, with its boring big bands and banal ballads.
Mr. Marwick is quick to add that “of course” a conservative would regard the Fifties quite differently. And he admits along the way that much of what was done in the name of the Sixties “was downright stupid” (the violence, the “mindless” drug-use). But in mood, The Sixties adheres closely to the standard left-wing account: Sixties good, Fifties bad. Toward the end of the book, in a few sentences remarkable as much for their baldness as for their naïveté, Mr. Marwick sums up his attitude:
Life became more various and enjoyable. With less rigid conceptions of marriage and new opportunities for divorce, with changing attitudes to fashion and to education, with the abandonment of comfortable fictions about the nature of beauty and the arrival of informal, body-hugging clothing, there was a healthier openness to ordinary living, less need for lies. . . . Gone was the stuffy conservatism of previous decades, while the radical, divisive, philistine conservatism of Reagan and Thatcher was yet to come.
It is an excellent thing that Mr. Marwick early on warned us that “It is very important not to get into the position of idealizing, reifying, or anthropomorphizing periods or decades, attributing personalities to them, singling out ‘good’ decades from ‘bad’ decades.” The unsuspecting reader must be grateful for that warning: otherwise he might think Mr. Marwick was doing just that.
There is, however, another side to The Sixties. If in many respects it embodies the established liberal clichés about the delights of the Age of Aquarius and the depredations of the years before and after, it also challenges at least two important elements of the received story. For one thing, Mr. Marwick has no patience with what he calls the Great Marxisant Fallacy. He describes this as “the belief that the society we inhabit is the bad bourgeois society, but that, fortunately, this society is in a state of crisis, so that the good society which lies just around the corner can be easily attained if only we work systematically to destroy the language, the values, the culture, the ideology of bourgeois society.”
As Mr. Marwick notes, “Practically all the activists, student protesters, hippies, yippies, Situationists, advocates of psychedelic liberation, participants in be-ins and rock festivals, proponents of free love, members of the underground, and advocates of Black Power, women’s liberation, and gay liberation believed that by engaging in struggles, giving witness, or simply doing their own thing they were contributing to the final collapse of the bad bourgeois society.” Or so they said. Revolution in this sense was never more than a pipe dream—partly because, as Mr. Marwick notes, modern liberal societies are not the monolithic entities that the radicals and would-be radicals pretended they were. Liberal society—it is part of its genius—tends to absorb opposition instead of rejecting it outright. This does not mean that the cultural revolution did not happen, only that in the end it succeeded by insinuation rather than insurrection. As Mr. Marwick puts it, “The various counter-cultural movements and subcultures, being ineluctably implicated in and interrelated with mainstream society” did not so much confront that society as they “permeated and transformed it.” Exactly.
And this brings us to Mr. Marwick’s second challenge. The counterculture of the Sixties is often described as idealistic, utopian, and anti- or non-materialistic. Doubtless there were utopian and idealistic elements. Yet in retrospect we can see that most were so tightly interwoven with naïveté and simple hedonism that neither “utopian” nor “idealistic” seems quite the mot juste. And although there was a great deal of rhetoric about the evils of materialism, it is now clear that there had hitherto never been a generation so blissfully immersed in consumerism. The 1980s and 1990s may have perfected the genre. But it was the counterculture of the Sixties—supported by the unprecedented abundance the mainstream economy provided—that succeeded in first spreading the gospel. As Mr. Marwick notes, “most of the movements, subcultures, and new institutions which are at the heart of sixties change were thoroughly imbued with the entrepreneurial, profit-making ethic.” All those boutiques, experimental theaters, art galleries, discothèques, nightclubs, light shows, head shops, pornographic outlets, and underground films may have challenged the morals, manners, and standards of taste and accomplishment of bourgeois capitalist society. But they did so while profiting generously from its largesse.
Mr. Marwick is quite happy about all this. In his view, the international movement that “permeated” and “transformed” society constituted a “mini-Renaissance,” with the Beatles, miniskirts, and the art of Andy Warhol having contributed “their mite to the people’s liberation.” Everywhere, people were richer, “franker” (a favorite commendation), and more intent upon pursuing pleasure:
All the statistical evidence suggests that permissive attitudes and permissive behaviour continued to spread at accelerating rates, with only the utterly unforeseen occurrence of AIDS to bring any kind of caution; single-parent families proliferated, the terms “husband” and “wife” became almost quaint, giving place to “lover” and “partner.” . . . The appearance, also, of moralistic crusades simply testifies to the strength of the by now well-established behaviour patterns which the crusades, vainly, hoped to eliminate. The cultural revolution, in short, had continuous, uninterrupted, and lasting consequences.
Of course, Mr. Marwick is right. The only question is whether we are justified in taking so cheery a view of the results. Again, Mr. Marwick sounds various cautionary notes; he is disturbed by the phenomenon of political correctness; he notes that the Sixties brought various undesirable excesses. But overall he is a cheerleader for the “multicultural societies” that “exhibit to the full the vibrancy and creative potential which first bloomed in the sixties.”
Mr. Marwick’s basic mistake is believing that more is necessarily better. Sometimes more is only more. You cannot step a foot into the literature about the 1960s without encountering the phrase “creative potential” and being told ad nauseam that not only was the decade “idealistic,” it was also terrifically “creative,” especially in comparison to the 1950s. In fact, the “idealism” of the 1960s was nine-parts self-infatuation and its creativity was seldom more than adolescent flurry. What Allan Bloom said in comparing American universities in the 1950s to those of the 1960s can easily be generalized to apply to the culture as a whole: “The fifties,” Bloom wrote, “were one of the great periods of the American university.” They had recently benefitted from an enlivening infusion of European talent and “were steeped in the general vision of humane education inspired by Kant and Goethe.” The Sixties, by contrast, “were the period of dogmatic answers and trivial tracts. Not a single book of lasting importance was produced in or around the movement. It was all Norman O. Brown and Charles Reich. This was when the real conformism hit the universities, when opinions about everything from God to the movies became absolutely predictable.” Notwithstanding Mr. Marwick’s contemptuous remark about the music of the “boring big bands,” this was true in virtually every department of intellectual and cultural life. The Sixties saw a tremendous amount of activity but precious little real accomplishment.
They did, however, see an astonishing explosion of material prosperity. Mr. Marwick alludes regularly to that fact, he pets and caresses it, he produces it whenever he attempts to justify his claims on behalf of the achievements of the period. To be sure, material prosperity is a nice thing, a very nice thing. But it does not guarantee cultural health or moral vigor. The culture of the 1990s has served as a vivid reminder of this home truth. We—the industrialized, technologized world—have never been richer. And yet to an extraordinary extent we in the West continue to inhabit a moral and cultural universe shaped by the hedonistic imperatives and radical ideals of the Sixties. Culturally, morally the world we inhabit is is increasingly a trash world: addicted to sensation, besieged everywhere by the cacophonous, mind-numbing din of rock music, saturated with pornography, in thrall to the lowest common denominator wherever questions of taste, manners, or intellectual delicacy are concerned. Mr. Marwick was right: “The cultural revolution, in short, had continuous, uninterrupted, and lasting consequences.”
It is hardly surprising that conservatives have traditionally been highly critical of that revolution. Its ethic of self-gratification stood in stark opposition to the moral, intellectual, and political fabric of our culture. The wrinkle was abundance. For if the Sixties were an assault on the moral substance of traditional culture, they nonetheless abetted the capitalist culture of accumulation. Yes, there are exceptions, but they are unimportant to the overall picture. Indeed, it happened that the cultural revolution was most damaging precisely where, in material terms, it was most successful. This put many conservatives in an awkward position. For conservatives have long understood that free markets and political liberty go together. What if it turned out that free markets plus the cultural revolution of the Sixties added up to moral and intellectual poverty? This unhappy thought has lately been the subject of much discussion and disagreement. Among those identified as conservatives, the two most popular responses at the moment seem to be retreat and denial. Both are mistaken.
Probably the most vivid example of the counsel of retreat is the now-notorious open letter written by the conservative activist Paul Weyrich to his friends and supporters. Dated February 16, 1999, this poignant, eighteen-hundred word document is clearly the product of profound disillusionment bordering on despair. Over the last few decades, Mr. Weyrich has done an enormous amount to promote the conservative agenda. He has been instrumental in helping many conservative candidates get elected. It was he who popularized the phrase “moral majority.” And yet the impressive political victories he helped to win have clearly not translated into moral or cultural victories. If anything, the culture today is in worse shape than in 1980 when Ronald Reagan was elected: “our culture,” Mr. Weyrich argues, “has decayed into something approaching barbarism.” The reason? “Politics itself has failed. And politics has failed because of the collapse of the culture. The culture we are living in becomes an ever-wider sewer. In truth, I think we are caught up in a cultural collapse of historic proportions, a collapse so great that it simply overwhelms politics.”
Mr. Weyrich began with a faith in the moral wisdom of the majority of American people. That faith has been broken.
Let me be perfectly frank about it. If there really were a moral majority out there, Bill Clinton would have been driven out of office months ago. It is not only the lack of political will on the part of Republicans, although that is part of the problem. More powerful is the fact that what Americans would have found absolutely intolerable only a few years ago, a majority now not only tolerates but celebrates. Americans have adopted, in large measure, the MTV culture that we so valiantly opposed just a few years ago, and it has permeated the thinking of all but those who have separated themselves from the contemporary culture.
Mr. Weyrich may overstate his case. The MTV culture that he rightly deplores may not have permeated the thinking of quite “all” who have failed to exempt themselves from contemporary culture. And it should be noted that he issues various qualifications and expressions of tentativeness (“I don’t have all the answers or even all the questions”). But by and large I think it must be admitted that his unhappy diagnosis is right. At the deepest level—at the level of the culture’s taken-for-granted feelings and assumptions about what matters—the hedonistic, self-infatuated ethos of cultural revolution has triumphed to an extent unimaginable when it began.
What is the appropriate response? Mr. Weyrich’s “frankly rather radical” proposal is what we might call the survivalist option: opt out, take to the hills. “What seems to me a legitimate strategy,” he writes, “is to look at ways to separate ourselves from the institutions that have been captured by the ideology of Political Correctness, or by other enemies of our traditional culture.” Some of Mr. Weyrich’s suggestions are more plausible than others. Homeschooling, for example, has proven to be an attractive alternative for many families around the country who are appalled by the extent to which both public and private schools have been dumbed-down and have been captured by the ideology of political correctness. But what about his praise for those “setting up private courts, where they can hope to find justice instead of ideology and greed”? Do we really want to encourage efforts to establish a “private” judiciary?
In the last year or so, certain liberals have adopted the strategy of attacking conservatives for aping the radical tactics and anti-Americanism of the 1960s. Although the attack is often ludicrously wide of the mark, it has been enormously popular. Liberals understandably enjoy beating conservatives with the stick that only yesterday was wielded so effectively against them. Regrettably, Mr. Weyrich has given his enemies plenty of ammunition for such attacks. Rhetorically and substantively, the most ill-judged part of his letter comes in the peroration when he advocates adopting a “modified version” of the radical slogan “turn on, tune in, drop out.” It doesn’t matter that Mr. Weyrich wants us to turn off our television sets rather than turn on with drugs, or that he advises us to “tune out” the ambient noise of cultural degradation. What catches everyone’s attention is his endorsement in any form of Timothy Leary’s infamous slogan and his final plea that we “drop out of this culture.”
As could have been predicted, Mr. Weyrich’s letter created a journalistic firestorm. Liberals savored the evidence of capitulation it seemed to suggest; conservatives for the most part shrank back in appalled silence from the spectacle of political suicide. For his part, Mr. Weyrich later declared that “we’re not surrendering—we’re opening a different front.” It remains to be seen how effective his protestation will be.
Even if one strenuously disagrees with Mr. Weyrich’s prescriptions, his seriousness and the pathos of his response make his letter a moving document. Here is a man who has fought long and hard for values he believes in deeply. He may be mistaken; he is not supercilious. I wish I could say the same about the conservatives who have adopted the strategy of denial. If Mr. Weyrich errs on the side of petulance—threatening to go home and take his marbles with him if the game is not played his way—the happy conservatives neither see nor hear nor speak any evil so long as there is a game going and they are allowed to play. Looking around at our astonishing prosperity, they respond (in answer to Bob Dole’s plaintive question) “Who needs outrage? We’re doing fine, thanks.”
The latest salvo from the camp of contentment is “Good & Plenty: Morality in an Age of Prosperity,” the cover story for the February 1 issue of The Weekly Standard. It is an extraordinary performance. Written by David Brooks, a senior editor at the Standard, “Good & Plenty” is an unashamed paean to philistinism. It seems entirely appropriate that its title recalls a popular brand of candy. Mr. Brooks has nothing but sweet things to say about our cultural situation. He opens his essay by telling us about a trip he made to a small town in northeast Connecticut. “I asked some of the older residents whether the cultural upheavals of the 1960s had affected the town much. They didn’t know what I was talking about. They remember the sixties as a golden age when jobs were plentiful and the factories were buzzing.” Doubtless they did. And so?
One of Mr. Brooks’s main points is that “we shouldn’t leap to conclusions about the supposed degradation of our culture.” That little town he visited was up in arms about a porn shop that had opened down the street. But the town’s newfound prosperity came largely from a local gambling casino: so they are tough on smut but welcome gambling. According to Mr. Brooks, the situation in our culture is like a mixed day in the stock market: some are up, some are down. It is “hard to tell whether the aggregate effect is positive or negative.” Besides, we shouldn’t ignore “all the social indicators that are moving in the right direction: abortion rates are declining, crime is down, teenage sexual activity is down, divorce rates are dropping.”
Possibly. But as the historian Gertrude Himmelfarb pointed out recently in “The Panglosses of the Right Are Wrong” (The Wall Street Journal, February 4),
For almost every favorable statistic, an ornery conservative can cite an unfavorable one. He can even go beyond the statistics to point to the sorry state of the culture: the loss of parental authority and of discipline in the schools, the violence and vulgarity of television, the obscenity and sadism of rap music, the exhibitionism and narcissism of talk-shows, the pornography and sexual perversions on the Internet, the binge-drinking and “hooking up” on college campuses.
And so on. If none of that has made much of an impression on Mr. Brooks, it is because he wants to scrap all such moral considerations anyway and replace them with pragmatic, “utilitarian” tests. He notes with approval the extent to which society has recast moral—his word is “moralistic” language in terms of health and safety. Today, he writes, “we regulate behavior and control carnal desires with health codes instead of moral codes. Today in mainstream society, people seldom object to others’ taking the Lord’s name in vain—but watch out if they see a pregnant woman smoking or drinking.” Note the use of “mainstream”—we reasonable people, you understand, do not worry about morals per se: that’s for those poor fanatics who still get riled about something as outmoded as blasphemy. We enlightened pragmatists are beyond all that.
Mr. Brooks acknowledges that many people might consider “Morality as mere healthism . . . meager, superficial.” But really, he says, in these “happy, prosperous times” “people”—i.e., people like Mr. Brooks—have decided that they “want a lower-case morality that will not arouse passions or upset the applecart.” So what if we have a moral pygmy in the White House? Those good folks from Connecticut agreed that “personal behavior has no connection with public performance.” What about the continuing depredations of the culture revolution? “No cause for alarm,” Mr. Brooks says: “the counterculture has nothing to do” with contemporary life in America. The counterculture of the 1960s, he assures us, was “utopian” whereas “Today’s moral attitudes are anti-utopian. They are utilitarian. They are modest. They are, in fact, the values of the class the counterculture hated most. They are the values of the bourgeoisie.” The nineteenth century essayist Walter Bagehot famously said that “the essence of civilization . . . is dullness.” How surprised he would have been to find himself taken so literally.
A lot of nasty things have been said about the bourgeoisie over the years. But few people can hold that class in deeper contempt than does Mr. Brooks, for all his praise. According to him, the bourgeois doesn’t want to bother with “grand abstractions,” he is “never heroic” and “has no grandeur,” he “never seem[s] to look up from quotidian concerns to grapple with great truths or profound moral issues.” At most this modern Polonius is “modest, useful, and reliable.” If this is “utilitarian,” no wonder Russell Kirk described utilitarianism as “a philosophy of death.” Mr. Brooks wants us to celebrate this stunted caricature because, after all, conservatives have always championed the bourgeoisie. But what conservatives have traditionally championed were bourgeois values not bourgeois vices. And those values were rooted deeply in a God-fearing Protestant ethic that emphasized church, community, family, and moral honor. The bourgeois ethic is not a form of Romanticism, true enough; but neither is it the vacuous, feel-good, “I’ve-got-mine” philosophy Mr. Brooks apparently wants us to embrace. Irving Kristol once wrote that “if you believe that a comfortable life is not necessarily the same thing as a good life, or even a meaningful life, then it will occur to you that efficiency is a means, not an end in itself.” Perhaps Mr. Brooks would scoff at such distinctions, branding them merely “grand,” “abstract,” or “heroic.” If so, what he espouses is not conservatism but a cheerful, buttoned-down version of the moral vacancy that Mr. Weyrich rightly laments.
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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 17 Number 7, on page 14
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