Making Fun of the 60s and 70s, Again

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:55

    Sixties and 70s bashing is basically making fun of the 60s and 70s without the sense of humor. It has been practiced for some years now by conservatives who believe that (a) American civilization is going down the crapper and (b) it's all the fault of those darn 60s and 70s people. You know the words to this song well: the hippies, the drug culture, the sexual revolution, rock music, the antiwar radicals, the feminists and affirmative action set out to destroy everything that was good, decent and, well, conservative about American society. The awful result: today's depraved, debased world. Anything you don't like about today's society, blame those counterculture types. They probably started it.

    Personally, I think it's always good to counter the self-hagiography boomers engage in when discussing the era. And as a former counterculture type myself I'm happy to take the blame for ruining, oh, Hilton Kramer's or Robert Bork's life. But I do think they're exaggerating my influence just a tad. Likewise the other conservatives who've been running the same riff over the last bunch of years, most notably the late Allan Bloom, Francis Fukuyama, David Horowitz, Peter Collier and Roger Kimball.

    Kimball, managing editor of The New Criterion and author of Tenured Radicals, a primary text of the genre, has returned with, in effect, Tenured Radicals II. It's actually called The Long March: How the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s Changed America, and you know he don't mean changed it for the better (Encounter Books, 326 pages, $23.95). But it is precisely the same cultural critique he and those others have been trotting out for the last decade, and at this point you have to wonder who the hell do they think is still listening? Who's going to buy this book who hasn't already bought a sampling of those previous books and already agreed with this argument?

    The Long March is also in a real way Tenured Radicals Lite. In that previous work, a key reference for all Young Republicans who feel alienated by the p.c. culture of their university, Kimball argued, persuasively if a bit hysterically I thought, that after the 60s radicals stopped taking over the streets, in the 70s they quietly drifted back to the campus and became the radical faculties responsible for so much absurd campus correctness in the 80s and 90s.

    Here he focuses on a bunch of the big names of the 60s?the celebrity counterculture if you will?and basically makes fun of them, denouncing them and all the ways they sent American civilization sledding down into the shitter. He starts pre-60s, with the Beats, whom he excoriates for their "programmatic anti-Americanism, their avid celebration of drug abuse, their squalid, promiscuous sex lives, their pseudo-spirituality, their attack on rationality and their degradation of intellectual standards, their aggressive narcissism and juvenile political posturing." So much for them.

    Susan Sontag he blames for "a corruption of taste that was at the same time the triumph of a certain species of aestheticizing decadence"?i.e., it's her fault, and her cohorts', that kids today like rock and rap more than the classics. That's a ridiculous rehash of Bloom, obviously. But I did grin when he accuses the insufferably self-regarding Sontag of "intellectual impersonation." Palpable hit, Rog.

    Who else? There's Mailer, "an established antiestablishment guru," and his Village Voice, "a megaphone barking New Left thought, such as it was, into the mainstream culture." There are sitting ducks Timothy Leary, Eldridge Cleaver and Norman O. Brown. There's Paul Goodman and Wilhelm Reich, Tom Hayden and Herbert Marcuse, Charles Reich and the Beatles and assorted "artists and intellectuals, entertainers, political activists, blatant poseurs, and professional gurus," all "agents for utopia." Will it surprise anyone that Kimball has nothing good to say about these figures, whom he sees as the major architects of the counterculture? More to the point, when he succumbs to the urge to scorn and satirize these people, Kimball introduces a logical flaw into his argument: if they were such dummies and dreamers and drug-addled ninnies, how could they possibly have destroyed the great American civilization he mourns and replaced it with the awful world he lives in today? Put that the other way: if his beloved American civilization was so great, how could such a bunch of bungling dopers and sex addicts have toppled it so handily?

    More generally, Kimball denounces the pernicious influence of rock, again paraphrasing Bloom when describing it as "a prefabricated Dionysian ecstasy, blatantly sexual, conspicuously nonrational." (Lighten up, Rog. That's what we like about it.) What others call the sexual revolution he sees as simple promiscuity. Indeed, he writes off the entire social epoch we mean by "the 60s" as little more than "free-floating protest and political activism, a 'youth culture' that never ages, a new permissiveness together with a new affluence: Dionysus with a credit card and a college education." In short, he sneers, the 60s was nothing more than a middle-class fantasy: "America's cultural revolution was a capitalist, bourgeois revolution: a revolution of the privileged, by the privileged, and for the privileged." That smarts, but again, it's not exactly fresh insight, and it only applies if you're limiting the scope of your argument to the liberal elite a Sontag and a Mailer represented. If you care to include, say, the civil rights movement in your definition of the 60s cultural revolution, Kimball's thesis falls apart.

    But of course it must. It's amusing that when conservatives like Kimball take to cataloguing all the bad people and bad events of the 60s and 70s, they only seem to come up with hippies, rockers and Black Panthers. Where's the pernicious influence of Richard Milhous Nixon in this book? Spiro Agnew, Richard Daley, George Wallace, the Shah of Iran? Where is the bombing of Cambodia? Where's Watergate? Where's Gerald Ford's recession? Are we saying they all had no influence on American culture today?

    On another level, now that we're 20-odd years into the great conservative backlash against the counterculture, what really are Kimball, et al., complaining about? The damnable excesses of a Tim Leary and a Tom Hayden only cleared the way for a couple decades of Reaganomics, Christian tv, centrist politics and a return to old-fashioned patriotism. Far from dominating American civilization, beyond a very few and very isolated college campuses there is no Left left in the country today. Outside of Manhattan and a few other urban centers, no one remembers the Beats. Kimball seriously argues that the counterculture dispersed and permeated all of American culture, dragging it all down to its level of hipster decadence. Kimball needs to get out more. Or send me a list of the places he's been hanging.

    Ultimately, I'm afraid that for all his eloquent and erudite ways Kimball's written a superficial polemic that goes no deeper in its social criticism than David Frum's recent 70s survey, How We Got Here (Basic Books, 418 pages, $25). For all its wanting to be taken as a sweeping critique, it also doesn't do much more than make fun of a wide array of easy targets. I repeat: How hard is it to make fun of the 70s? Frum covers it all, the smiley faces and crunchy granola and Me Decade narcissism. So?

    To his credit, Frum does discuss Kimball taboos like Watergate and Nixon's lasting detrimental effect on our faith in the political system. And he can occasionally wrest authentic commentary from a silly topic like designer jeans: "[Calvin] Klein flourished because he spotted an important trend early. A generation earlier, the coveted objects of upper-middle-market desire had been cheaper versions of things only the very rich could have... Since the 1970s, the upper middle of the market has hankered instead after costly versions of things that everybody has: leather-upholstered trucks; $200 hiking boots; gigantic digital television sets with stereophonic speakers; coffee brewed from fine beans; white-truffle pizza. Once the upper middle aspired to look like the very rich, only on a more modest scale. Since the 1970s, it has aspired to look like everybody else?only much more lavishly."

    Frum's at his best when he gets away from the kitsch and the popular culture silliness of the era?on the pop-culture level it was, as I've written before, an extremely silly era?and deals straightforwardly with serious topics. There's a fine chapter, for instance, on the draft and draft resisters, and a whole very good section on the vastly increased incursion of law and lawsuits in the realms of civil and personal rights.

    Ultimately, though, just as I am unconvinced by the Kimball camp's argument that "the 60s" is to blame for now, I'm skeptical of Frum's attempt to tag "the 70s" as How We Got Here. No single decade is How We Got Here. Why the 70s and not the 80s? The 40s? The 1860s, the 1840s, the 1320s? They're all How We Got Here. Hanging it all on the 70s makes for a clever book proposal, a less clever book.

    In presenting such a selective and politically lopsided history of the 60s, Kimball is, in effect, not just preaching to the choir, but lying to them. Frum's approach is broader and shallower, but in the end just as biased. Neither one gives any credence to how fun and interesting it was to be living through the 60s and 70s, despite all the glaring shortcomings of the latter of those two decades. As eras go, they were easily more fun and interesting than the Pax Reagana that came after. Trust me on this children, the sexual revolution and the drugs and the rock 'n' roll more than compensated for the oil embargo and the radio ubiquity of "Brandy." Why do you think there were all those smiley faces?

    Afterwords Before bed the other night I was flipping through The Complete Tales & Poems of Edgar Allan Poe?I've been on a little bit of a Poe kick lately?when I hit on "The Coliseum," one that I'd never really paid attention to before. It reminded me of Gladiator, which I think Poe would've liked, despite the, you know, stupid parts. A few stanzas: Here, where a hero fell, a column falls! Here, where a mimic eagle glared in gold, A midnight vigil holds the swarthy bat! Here, where the dames of Rome their gilded hair Waved to the wind, now wave the reed and thistle! Here, where on golden throne the monarch lolled, Glides, spectre-like, unto his marble home, Lit by the wan light of the horned moon, The swift and silent lizard of the stones!\ ...These stones?alas! these gray stones? are they all? All of the famed, and the colossal left By the corrosive Hours to Fate and me? "Not all"?the Echoes answer me?"not all! Prophetic sounds and loud arise forever From us, and from all Ruin, unto the wise, As melody from Memnon to the Sun. We rule the hearts of mightiest men?we rule With a despotic sway all giant minds. We are not impotent?we pallid stones. Not all our power is gone?not all our fame? Not all the magic of our high renown? Not all the wonder that encircles us? Not all the mysteries that in us lie? Not all the memories that hang upon And cling around about us as a garment, Clothing us in a robe of more than glory."