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Recreate '58!
By Ed Driscoll · May 12, 2008 08:16 PM · Bobos In Paradise · The Memory Hole

Roger Kimball writes, "much that we associate with 'the Sixties' really had its origin in the 1950s", observations that societal critics as disparate as Alvin Toffler and Diana West each mentioned to me when I interviewed them. While some on the left will tacitly make that point when pinned down, it isn't internalized in how the left views history, because it undermines much of the "the most important decade of the 20th century" narrative of the 1960s, as someone who did one too many tabs of lysergic acid diethylamide in the waning years of that decade once claimed.

More from Roger:

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,” which 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.”

[Rachel Donadio, writing in the New York Times Book Review] is chiefly interested in reminding us of the febrile cultural animation of the late Fifties. What she doesn’t say is, but what we can no see clearly with the wisdom of hindsight, is that the ideas of the Beats contained in ovo nearly all the characteristics we think of as defining the cultural revolution of the Sixties and Seventies. The adolescent longing for liberation from conventional manners and intellectual standards; the polymorphous sexuality; the narcissism; the destructive absorption in drugs; the undercurrent of criminality; the irrationalism; the na‹ve political radicalism and reflexive anti-Americanism; the adulation of pop music as a kind of spiritual weapon; the Romantic elevation of art as an alternative to rather than as an illumination of normal reality; the pseudo-spirituality, especially the spurious infatuation with Eastern religions: in all this and more the Beats provided a vivid glimpse of what was to come.

Indeed, the chief difference between the Beat Generation and the Sixties was the ambient cultural climate: when the Beats first emerged, in the mid-Fifties, the culture still offered some resistance to the poisonous antinomianism the Beats advocated. But by the time the Sixties established themselves, virtually all resistance had been broken down. It was then that the message of the Beats gained mass appeal. Reaction to the Vietnam War probably did more than anything else to enfranchise their antinomianism, though the introduction of the birth-control pill certainly did a great deal to further the cause of the sexual revolution, a prime item on the agenda of the Beats. In short order, the unconventional became the established convention; the perverse was embraced as normal; the unspeakable was broadcast everywhere; the outrageous was met with enthusiastic applause.

And as a refresher on the disastrous outcome of where all that inexorably led, I can't recommend enough this essay by Myron Magnet from the new issue of City Journal.

Update: When Peter Hitchens claims "The real issue for the 1968 generation has always been their right to have fun, however much it costs other people", that's true to a certain extent, but it ignores that neo-puritanism that quickly followed, as Rich Lowry observes:

The freedoms fought for in the student revolt soon curdled into the opposite: free speech became speech codes; sexual liberation became the regime of sexual harassment; civil rights became quotas. Meanwhile, Mark Rudd and a fringe of the New Left spun off into the Weather Underground, which took the destructive spirit of the campus protests to its logical conclusion in a campaign of terrorist bombings. Jonah Goldberg reminds us in his book "Liberal Fascism" that the radical left committed roughly 250 attacks from September 1969 to May 1970.

If the academics gave in, another segment of the parents resisted. They were the Nixon voters, reacting against the disorder and cultural radicalism with which liberalism became identified. Republicans held the White House for 28 of the next 40 years, and the alternative history of the 1960s is the rise of the right. Even now, with Barack Obama dogged by his association with former Weather Underground member Bill Ayers, the Democratic Party's challenge is to free itself from the taint of 1968.

Good luck.



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