The Sixties Revisited

A book review for all those who lived through the Age of Aquarius
by Norman Berdichevsky
(Dec. 2008)

The Sixties: Cultural Revolution in Britain, France, Italy and the United States, c. 1958- 1974.
Arthur Marwick (Oxford University Press 1998), 903 pages. ISBN 0-199-210 022-X.)

“The Sixties” is a brilliantly incisive and penetrating analysis that transcends pure nostalgia and analyses the causes and consequences of events and trends that formed a watershed in the social history of the United States, Britain, France and Italy and subsequently spread throughout the world. Marwick deals with these four Western nations due to his familiarity with primary sources, experience and fluent knowledge of their languages but it is obvious that French and Italian films, literature, food and clothing had much more of a reciprocal impact with Britain and the United States than Germany, Spain, Scandinavia or anywhere else in Europe. The genius of ‘The Sixties’ and its charm for both older and younger readers lies to a considerable degree in its jarring use of historical memory to put in perspective the life styles, perceptions, fads and social relations that are so taken for granted today.

The book deserves reading for its relevance to many issues involved with the election of Barack Obama, not least of which is how someone with the thinnest resume imaginable and with close links to extreme radical figures on the fringe of the Far Left in American political life and the clergy could win the nomination of a major political party and then the national election for president. The advantages of Obama’s powerful and charismatic rhetoric mixed with good looks would not have made up for his paltry CV in the pre-JFK era.

The Sixties put a premium on physical beauty that created a new idolatry as well as a multi-billion dollar industry. Good looks were always an asset but apart from writers or painters whose work doesn’t require them to appear before the public, talent, acquired skills and demonstrable achievements have now been assigned a back seat in a way incomprehensible to our grand-parents. It is not only movie-stars but singers, dancers, a host of television personality presenters and even politicians who owe their initial break to their looks. Would Obama, Bill Clinton and Tony Blair have made it to the top in the pre-television era? Would a Harry Truman, Wendell Wilkie, Adlai Stevenson or a Clement Attlee do so today? Probably not!

Certainly a comparison of leading men contrasting Humphrey Bogart with Leonardo DeCaprio tells us much about the depreciation of strength and character as attractive male features. Only exceptional stars, such as Barbara Streisand and Bette Midler, bucked the trend and refused to have the nose job ‘everyone’ was convinced would improve their careers, whilst Michael Jackson, today’s plastic-man, turned himself into a freakish human wax figure in his narcissistic quest for the ‘perfect look’. Our daily “news” is full of trivial and yet intensive coverage of the antics of various super-models and pop-stars. Anne Nicole Smith, Paris Hilton or Britney Spears differ from “celebrities” of the past in that their “careers” have been totally devoid of any recognizable talent except “sex appeal” and outrageous notoriety.

It took me several months to read through the entire book of 800 pages but I know it will be a book I will read more than once to relish the experience of having lived through and been an intimate part of history and not a remote bystander. As the back jacket of the book puts it: ‘nothing quite like it and nothing ever quite the same again’.

Readers over sixty will particularly savor the novel experience of reading this account of the period 1958-74 they lived through as witnesses, spectators, demonstrators, civil rights activists, draft dodgers, beatniks, hippies, flower children, and participants of what other historians have termed the unraveling of society, the destructive generation, ‘The Age of Aquarius’, the great cultural revolution (before Mao expropriated the title for a totally different movement in China) and ‘the swinging sixties’. Younger readers will have the advantage of being able to consult and debate with their parents what the world was like before hard rock music, ‘the pill’ and when the word ‘gay’ meant merry. The consequences of what happened in the sixties were long-lasting: the Sixties cultural revolution, in effect, established the enduring cultural values and social behavior for the rest of the century.

The sources and methods are astutely laid out in the first chapter and openly challenge the rival views, metaphors and banal clichés of ‘metaphysical’ cultural historians and Marxists. Indeed it is the refusal of the latter to recognize the true revolutionary implications of the changes which occurred during the sixties in material conditions, lifestyles, family relationships, availability of birth control, race relations and the empowerment of women and young people that made them frantically search for a new ‘Revolutionary Class’ to replace the proletariat, be it Third World terrorists, student radicals with their icon portraits of Che Guevara, the oppressive regimes of Cuba, China, Vietnam, North Korea or Albania, migrant workers or racial/ethnic separatists to bring down Capitalism.

This is an immensely engaging and witty book as well as a work of scholarship. After conclusively demonstrating in the first chapter the 16 major distinguishing characteristics of the period 1958-74 to justify that indeed there was a cultural revolution within this time period, Marwick uses his second chapter ‘If So Why?’, to make a valuable contribution by providing the reader with the tools of historical methodology. He outlines the major forces and constraints upon these events, human agencies, convergences and contingencies so that the final product is history rather than slogans and empty metaphors.

The ‘baby boom’, earlier onset of puberty than in previous generations (a biological fact), urbanization, rising living standards, the collapse of European colonialism following the exhaustion of the Second World War, mass communications (the transistor radio that allowed teenagers the independence of carrying their music around with them), and educational reform are identified as the structural imperatives that set the scene for a youth-oriented culture which also drew upon the older ‘angry young men’ (in their 20s and 30s) of French existentialism, the ‘Chelsea Set’ and the American Beat movement who had protested against the ‘rat race’, British ‘old school tie’ snobbism, fixation with the ‘Cold War’, threats of nuclear annihilation and institutionalized racism.

Any reader who lived through the sixties as a young adult will find many striking metaphors for the revolutionary changes that have occurred but which may be lost on the younger reader who has no personal knowledge of the life styles and expectations of pre-sixties Western societies. Marwick’s favorite example is a contemporary (1997) personal observation of black sanitation workers (the ‘garbage men’ in colloquial American) in Memphis (the site of Martin Luther King’s assassination) using profane language ordering a wealthy white woman to move her illegally parked ‘f****** Cadillac’ out of the way of their garbage truck. What would have been their fate if they had done this in 1955? Probably a lynch-mob!

My own favorite was called to mind by the immense success of the epic musical “Hair” urging us ‘to let it all hang out’ provoking the recollection that not one American professional major league baseball player before 1960 had long hair, a beard, moustache or sideburns (not to mention gold necklaces, tattoos, earrings and other paraphernalia that are so evident today). As the cigarette commercial opined, ‘You’ve come a long way baby’.

A major theme of the participatory uninhibited culture of the ‘swinging sixties’ that has endured is the universal language of rock music. Marwick traces the emergence of ‘rock-n-roll’ from the merger of black Rhythm and Blues with white Country and Western music as the folk idioms of two down and out groups that became elevated into a new international elite music for the young. The brass and reed sections of the old big bands, the sentimental crooners and traditional folk instruments fell by the wayside (Frank Sinatra excepted).

Anybody who doubts this can simply look at the sell-out standing-room-only triumphal appearance in Moscow of Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones. Brezhnev had dogmatically asserted that the Stones would ‘never’ be allowed to perform their ‘corrupt degenerate’ music in the Soviet Union. Now, rock music, Coca-Cola and McDonalds reign supreme in the former homeland of the New Socialist Man. The whole world as we knew it on both sides of the ‘Iron Curtain’ has irrevocably changed.

The new music with its emphasis on the group and rock beat spread across the West replacing much of the older local/national popular music as had chamber, symphonic or operatic music in the past for bourgeois society. Dance, beginning with the ‘twist’, witnessed the separation of partners who no longer had to move in step with each other (or on each other’s toes) and gave everyone freedom to move to the rhythm whilst fashion did away with men’s hats and raised skirt lengths to new heights – launching an even more frenetic concern with hairstyles and youthful sexy figures. Carnaby Street in London set the pace and reversed the city’s reputation as the epitome of conservative sophisticated ‘chic’.

An analysis of the British ‘New Wave’ in books and films such as Room at the Top and Look Back in Anger focuses on disillusionment with the high moral cost of struggling to achieve success (the ‘rat race’) at the top, which, along with the old prudery of sexual taboos became the arch-targets of the youth counter-culture. Older readers will no doubt remember the sense of liberation at being able to read Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, works written long before the sixties but only released by legitimate publishers after long court battles.

On a few occasions, however, the non-British reader may feel a bit lost in several esoteric ‘high-brow’ areas. Marwick’s Chapter on Art, Morality and Social Relations is inbred and belabored – particularly the elaboration of his claim that ‘All Contemporary Art is Sixties’ Art’ based on his assessment that this means ‘a democratic impulse and absence of metaphysical pretentiousness’.

Other examples from the world of film are much easier to grasp. Marwick compares accents from the film “I’m all right Jack”. Working class and ‘plummy’ accents employed by actors Terry Thomas, Peter Sellers and Richard Attenborough are examples of the continued importance of class in Britain. Dozens of other writers and actors are recalled – each with their own particular catalogue of talents that helped to convey much of the irony, satire and critical view of society portrayed by the arts.

Many of the new trends, fads and fashions began first in the United States simply because its manufacturers were more keenly aware to provide a commercial and innovative response to a much larger ‘youth market’ and then ‘image sell’ its products to all those wanting to identify with youth and new exciting trends without accepting any necessary political message of rebellion, permissiveness, liberation, etc.

The truly revolutionary rise in living standards that brought affluence, massive out-migration from rural areas to the cities, a lifestyle of home and automobile ownership, access to higher education and a monumental change in the perception of women’s role in society engulfed France and Italy, creating a new outlook of hope, optimism and forever eliminated the barriers that had once divided the more fortunate, benign but stodgy Anglo-Saxon world from jaded continental Europe.

The more traditional patriarchal family-oriented societies of France and Italy could not withstand the dual pressure of affluence, youth empowerment and demographic strength (young people constituted an even larger percentage of the general population than in the United States). The enormous success of the first radio program and magazine specifically devoted to teenage interests – Salut les Copains, engendered envy among such traditional bastions of French society as the Catholic Church and Communist Party who launched their own competing copy-cat versions. Marwick finds that a few keen European sociologists correctly predicted that if the young in France and Italy came to feel neglected in the key areas of education and employment after a decade of rising living standards, then the inevitable result would be severe political disturbances.

No book on the sixties can ignore the political issues of the Vietnam War and struggle for an end to racial segregation in the United States (and the later prospects of ‘multi-cultural societies’ in Britain and France). These problems escalated the youth rebellion into a confrontation with the ‘system’ and the older generation in the United States and then almost in epidemic-like fashion in Britain, France and Italy. Marwick is correct in assigning much of the responsibility for the protest movements to violent acts and demonstrations, police reaction when antagonized, crowd mismanagement and a media penchant for confrontation.

There is little in the book on the actual course of the Vietnam War but the central focus remains the social and political turmoil it caused in the four countries – the United States as a front-line participant and Britain, France and Italy as side-line observers for whom it provided an occasion to distance themselves as Europeans from the much imitated if little emulated America. In fact, as Marwick documents, American involvement in Vietnam, which began where a tired France had left off, served as a lightning rod for the disaffection of a broad counter-culture. It served to unite not just those who were actually politically active but anyone and everyone with a disaffection for the older generation that had previously been expressed in elite universities, anti-racism, experimental theatre, the ‘underground’ press, feminism, the homosexual cause, traditional anti-militarism, anti-colonialism, and solidarity with the plight of the ‘Third World’.

There was also a small but vocal anarchist lunatic fringe who either openly or secretly identified with the Weathermen, the Baader-Meinhoff gang, the Red Brigades, or the Black Panthers. The long hot summer of 1968 witnessed the unhappy coincidence of peak American casualties in the war, the televised rioting and brutal violence of Chicago Mayor Daley’s police at the Democratic convention and the aftermath of the dual assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy.

In tracing the history of racial conflict, Marwick is also particularly perceptive in distinguishing the many faces of segregation and racism, residential patterns and the mechanics of the housing market, the interplay of moderates and extremists, the legacy of North-South rivalries, the contrasts between the ‘Deep South’ and border states and the worrying trends of renewed separatism and racial exclusivity.

Here too, British, French and Italian opinion found an easy target with which to berate an America whose self-confidence and superiority complex had begun to wear thin. Europeans were, for a long time, able to freely criticize the USA without themselves being tested to any degree in the tolerance necessary for a truly multi-cultural society. The triumphal election of Barack Obama is eloquent testimony to how long we have come since the Sixties – or is it?

Has the election of Obama’s meant “the end of racism”?,   An Afro-American candidate (with 50% of his ancestry entirely “White”) who wins 95% of the Black vote can only mean that, just as in the past, anyone with any Black ancestry is still regarded as solely Black by the great majority of the population  in the United States. His “racial ancestry” (a category recognized on “official” government forms) and the fact of his official racial identity as Black (rather tham “mixed” or “other”)  is testimony to the endurance of racial ancestry being determined by the Black component alone much like the Nazis regarded “mixed-race offspring” of Jews and Gentiles as essentially Jewish .

Yes, we have come a long way since the 60’s, but it has not all been in the direction we hoped.

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