Where did we go wrong?
0 comment Saturday, May 10, 2014 |
I've posed that question in various forms on this blog.
The usual answer is that it all started to go wrong in the 1960s.
Lately there has been a spate of articles about the 1960s rebellion, which culminated in a sense in the year 1968. Christopher Hitchens writes about it here.
Here, however, is a piece from TNC on the subject of that era which deals with the origins of the Sixties -- in the Fifties.
The writer refers to a piece from the New York Times Review of Books called 1958: The War of the Intellectuals, by Rachel Donadio.
Donadio tells us of the intellectual intensity of the 1950s, which is a perspective we don't hear too often. So many who think that the New Age of Enlightenment began in the 60s like to exalt that decade and its pretensions by comparing it favorably to the 50s, which is painted in drab colors as an age of oppressive conformity and repression.
There was a lively cultural scene and considerable intellectual ferment in the 50s. Even the popular culture which is decried by many today was a much more genteel and elevated kind than today's popular culture. The debasement which so characterizes today's pop culture was absent then.
But beneath the 'conformist' and mundane surface, there were signs of the coming social revolution. Donadio does not describe these things in critical terms; she simply notes them. For example, the beginnings of the attack on 'value judgments' which is part of the destruction of all discernment and discrimination.
Donadio quotes essayist and critic Dwight Macdonald's essay from 1960 called 'Masscult and Midcult.'
She says
The leveling process taking place in the culture "destroys all values, since value judgments require discrimination, an ugly word in liberal-democratic America," Macdonald wrote. Masscult, he added, "is very, very democratic; it refuses to discriminate against or between anything or anybody."
Macdonald, whose politics were all over the place during his life, was at various times a leftist/anarchist, a Marxist, and by the 50s, a dedicated anti-Communist who puzzlingly, became enamored of the antiwar movement of the 60s, and the New Left. Still, he was in general a social conservative despite his strange political affinities. This seems odd to us now because there are very few social conservatives among the liberal/leftists. For that matter, there are few social conservatives on the so-called 'right' these days, considering how fiscal conservatism and social libertarianism have come to be the norm on the right.
In a sense, Macdonald represents the rather complicated nature of the intellectual establishment in the 1950s. The New Criterion article describes how the supposedly 'conformist' and conservative 50s contained the seed of the counterculture sixties, in which conformity to tradition and the upholding of standards in all areas of life became anathema.
Macdonald and so many other intellectuals of the 50s era, though at first disparaging and disdaining the 'Beat Movement' slowly capitulated to the sixties counterculture and embraced the idea of 'radical chic', fawning over student agitators and black militants.
I suppose the question that ought to be asked is: why was there so little resistance to these pernicious ideas and movements when they came along? How do people make such sudden shifts? It's easier to explain when young people, seeking identity and individuality, eager for novelty, embrace some radical idea or fad. But what of people past middle age, as Macdonald was in the 60s? I suppose his early leftist ideas reemerged, and of course intellectuals and literary types are not necessarily average, typical people of their age and time.
Starting with the intelligentsia, American society was soon seduced by the counterculture, and the effects are still being felt, with the present-day acceptance of 'gay marriage', feminism, obsessive egalitarianism, hatred of all standards and discrimination, and the whole constellation of counterculture ideas.
The article makes another point about the sixties counterculture: there was practically nothing original in it; it was mostly warmed-over Beat Generation standard-issue Bohemian rebellion.
Most if not all the hallmarks of the counterculture were there in the Beat movement: drugs, sexual anarchy, anti-art (art which violates the old norms and esthetic standards), leftist politics, and even the fascination with exotic and outre religions.
And it was already present in a considerable degree in the staid-and-sober 50s. Careful observers of popular culture from that era can see the incipient rebellion even early in the 50s, for example, in the movie 'The Wild One.' Marlon Brando, as motorcycle gang-member Johnny, when asked what he is rebelling against, answers truculently: ''Whaddya got?''
That line is often quoted, especially by sixties types who have made rebellion their life theme.
I like this summation from the TNC article:
In a word, the establishment of the Beat "church" was significant as a chapter in the moral and cultural degradation of our society. Regarded as a literary phenomenon, however, what the Beats produced exists chiefly as a kind of artistic antimatter. It would not be quite right to say that its value is nil, for that might imply an innocuous neutrality. What the Beats have bequeathed us is actively bad, a corrupting as well as a corrupt phenomenon. To borrow an image from the Australian philosopher David Stove, the Beats created a "disaster-area, and not of the merely passive kind, like a bombed building, or an area that has been flooded. It is the active kind, like a badly-leaking nuclear reactor, or an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in cattle."
It's very facile to blame the 60s and the 'hippie' baby-boomers who supposedly invented all these corrupting influences which have come to dominate our society. And as a boomer myself, I don't let my generation off the hook. We have plenty to answer for, and I've tried to make some amends for my youthful errors, while some, unfortunately, are as fanatical as ever in theirs.
The rot started, as I have said before, before the 60s, while my generation was in kindergarten, or perhaps sooner. I've mentioned before that the Civil Rights Revolution was well underway when I was a child; it was a fait accompli by the time I was of voting age or even before I was very politically aware.
And the other, perhaps more important part of the process, the social/cultural revolution, was underway much earlier, as well.
Does it matter so much when it began, or who began it? The thing is to recognize where we took the wrong turnings and to go back and retrace our steps, lest we become even more hopelessly lost.

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