On Misunderstanding the 1960s

On Misunderstanding the 1960s

Richard Wolin: Misunderstanding the 1960s

The attempt to discredit liberalism by associating it with the purported excesses of the 1960s has been one of the fixtures of American conservatism over the last four decades. For Norman Podhoretz, one of neoconservatism?s founding fathers, 1960s America unleashed a process of irreversible cultural decline:

Auden?s low dishonest decade, of course, was the 1930s; its clever hopes centered on the construction of a workers? paradise in the Soviet Union. Our counterpart was the 1960s, and its less clever hopes centered not on construction…but on destruction?the destruction of the institutions that made up the American way of life.

In the eyes of Newt Gingrich, American history possessed a 350-year narrative coherence until the 1960s, when, owing to the excesses of liberal elites and counterculture hedonism, everything unraveled: ?The Great Society messed everything up: don?t work, don?t eat…From 1965 to 1994, we did strange and weird things as a country. Now we?re done with that and we have to recover.? With characteristic hyperbole, Straussian political philosopher Allan Bloom takes these arguments a step further, suggesting that the New Left was, in essence, Hitler Youth redivivus. ?History always repeats itself,? observes Bloom. ?The American university of the 1960s was experiencing the same dismantling of the structure of rational inquiry as had the German university in the 1930s.? During the fortieth anniversary of 1968, the New York Times published an op-ed piece insinuating a direct link between 1960s licentiousness and the excesses of the Manson family?whereas, undoubtedly, the counterculture was merely an outlet or external occasion for group psychopathology of Manson and his followers. In other words: such crimes tell us much more about the mental instability of the perpetrators than they do about the era writ large.

All of these efforts at cultural and political delegitimation are striking for their hypocritical silence about the depredations of the forces of order: pervasive racism, the war in Vietnam, inner-city poverty, the unconscionable gap between the haves and the have-nots. In essence, they have chosen, quite intentionally and dishonestly, to focus on symptoms rather than causes.

In recent years, a milder attempt to discredit the 1960s has surfaced, one that points to the hypocrisy of a generation that at the time of the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement had claimed the moral high ground, but which rapidly traded in its oppositional standpoint for the haute bourgeois comforts of consumer society. One of the point persons in this effort has been New York Times columnist David Brooks, whose articles mocking yuppie self-indulgence were collected in the pungent and amusing Bobos in Paradise. Here is one of Brooks? pithy send-ups of the endemic, post-1960s role confusion among ex-non-conformists who became stereotypical consumption-obsessed, latte-sipping liberals:

After four and a half years abroad, I returned to the United States with fresh eyes and was confronted by a series of peculiar juxtapositions. WASPy upscale suburbs were suddenly dotted with arty coffee houses where people drank little European coffees and listened to alternative music. Meanwhile, the bohemian downtown neighborhoods were packed with multimillion-dollar lofts and those upscale gardening stores where you can buy a faux-authentic trowel for $35.99. Suddenly massive corporations like Microsoft and the Gap were on the scene, citing Gandhi and Jack Kerouac in their advertisements…Hip lawyers were wearing those teeny tiny steel-framed glasses because now it was apparently more prestigious to look like Franz Kafka than Paul Newman.

According to this view, the 1960s generation was, from the very beginning, a group of narcissistic hedonists. Its credo was unlimited self-indulgence. Recently, this line of argument was reiterated by Mark Lilla in a New York Review of Books article on the Tea Partiers (?The Tea Party Jacobins”, May 27, 2010). Lilla?s point?and it is one he has made elsewhere?is that the sixty-eighters and the Tea Partiers are mirror images of one another. Both groups, though, seemingly ideologically opposed, are merely expressions of a?if not the?central fact of postwar American life: the triumph of ?individualism.? It would be erroneous, Lilla suggests, to contrast the Dionysian 1960s with the unbridled egotism and greed of the 1980s. In point of fact, they are of a piece. As Lilla observes: ?A new strain of populism is metastasizing before our eyes, nourished by the same libertarian impulses that have unsettled American society for half a century now. Anarchistic like the 1960s, selfish like the 1980s …It is estranged, aimless, and as juvenile as our new century.? Thus, the Sixties merely unleashed centrifugal, atomistic forces that came to fruition in later decades and that are still with us today. As Lilla continues: ?Though there?s been a slight conservative retrenchment since the 2008 election, it?s clear that the Sixties principle of private autonomy is rooted in the American mind? (emphasis added).

But Lilla gets this wrong, even backwards. The triumph of ?individualism? and ?private autonomy? was not a direct result of the 1960s. It was a direct result of the failure of the 1960s. After all, the 1960s were, unmistakably, about the rebirth of the communitarian spirit. From a political standpoint, the 1960s underwrote a renaissance of participatory democracy: recapturing the populist and republican roots of American politics. Almost all of the major secondary literature and commentaries agree that one of 1960s? distinguishing traits was a regeneration of public spiritedness and community activism. Selfishness, egotism, private autonomy, and individualism: these were social phenomena?in truth, anti-social phenomena?that arose only in the wake of the 1960s? collapse.

The 1960s? failure is tied to the ultimate triumph of a deeply rooted and longstanding American ideology: the ideology of possessive individualism. If the 1960s were ?anarchistic??which, to a certain extent, they undeniably were?that anarchism was always tied to a wider set of communal allegiances: an underlying commitment to civic engagement and social belonging. Thus, in reviewing the decade?s major political expressions, the civil rights and antiwar movements, there was very little that bore on questions of private autonomy. The hedonism that outlived the 1960s, and that partly accounted for their demise, did not derive from the counterculture per se, but from Madison Avenue, Hollywood, and, more generally, the enticements of the consumer society. The 1960s were surpassed and undone by what Daniel Bell called the ?cultural contradictions of capitalism.? To pretend otherwise is to engage in a deceptive and self-serving neoconservative rewriting of history.

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