Thomas Frank’s best-selling revisionist retelling The Conquest of Cool counters the prevailing sociological interpretation of the 60’s, according to which the fresh, revolutionary “young culture” broke free of the hierarchical conformities of the 50’s — the business, political, artistic, educational, and moral conformities of their parents and grandparents — and established a fresh new egalitarian culture. In the conventional telling, business was one of the great defenders of the conformist tradition, and the capitalists were the authoritarians against whom the young egalitarians revolted. The goal, wrote Norman Mailer in 1957 [!] “was to tear oneself from the security of physical and spiritual certainty, to live for immediate pleasures rather than the postponement of gratification associated with the ‘work ethic,’ ‘to divorce oneself from society, to exist without roots, to set out on that uncharted journey with the rebellious imperatives of the self.” One “exists for ever-more-intense sensation, for immediate gratification, for ‘an orgasm more apocalyptic than the one which preceded it” (p. 12). This in 1957. It was the “innocent youth,” uncorrupted by the banal standards of their elders in business, church and politics, who would revolt against conformity — led, of course, by the culturally revolutionary vanguard like Mailer. This is the narrative.
Only it isn’t true. Frank enlists impressive evidence that a wide swath of society was already complaining about the sterility and convention of modern culture. Widely read and hailed books on business management were lionizing the creative, egalitarian workplace 30 years before Silicon Valley championed as its model employees the thirtysomething t-shirt and flip-flop code-writers collaborating as utter peers in a large environmentally friendly nuclear-free flat. In 1951 Fortune magazine carried an article (title borrowed from Trotsky) “U.S.A. The Permanent Revolution.” In 1951. Frank lists books and articles with very traditional readerships that boldly critiqued the insincerity, plasticity, inauthenticity, and conformism of 50’s (and earlier) culture. The businessmen were saying it. The Establishment was saying it.
But Frank makes his case more simply and powerfully: such massive cultural changes as the 60’s wreaked cannot have happened without the willing collaboration of large parts of society. Richard Nixon may have won the presidency by appealing to “The Silent Majority” who recoiled before TV images of the Martin Luther King and Kennedy assassinations and the riots at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, but that majority kept right on silently acquiescing in the altered standards exhibited in normalized birth control, promiscuous sex, government redistribution programs, aversion to the Vietnam War, and recreational drug use. The children and grandchildren of that “Silent Majority” haven’t reversed those 60’s mores. Not by a long shot.
The 60’s generation won the culture, but it won with the tacit (and sometimes explicit) approval of the 50’s and 40’s and 30’s generation. “The meaning of ‘the sixties,'” writes Frank, “cannot be considered apart from the enthusiasm of ordinary, suburban Americans for cultural revolution” (p. 13). The real revolutionaries were the silent revolutionaries at home and hearth.
Frank’s thesis leads to a sobering conclusion: the conservatives thrashing the 60’s revolutionary elite that sent to country to Hell in a hand basket have a whole bigger target — 20th century culture itself with its obsession first with Enlightenment conformism and, in pendulum-swinging reaction, Counter-Enlightenment (Romantic) non-conformism — which with the business community has become the new conformism.
It means that the 60’s are not the cultural dividing line in the United States that many conservatives suppose, and that turning back the cultural clock to the 50’s will not help solve the problem.
The 50’s (and earlier) were the problem.
6 thoughts on “On Giving the 60’s a Break”
Amazing summation, Andrew!
What Mailer defines is simply Epicurism. Even Bloomberg, when interviewed on Charlie Rose with Bill Gates a few days ago, admits that Epicurism is unhealthy. Of course, Bloomberg has a dual motive: He believes in limiting personal freedom through government intervention, and this is the cornerstone of his anti-sugar campaign. [Editor’s note: “Hey, Bloomberg. Super size THIS!”]
I’ve always enjoyed Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Wolfe’s new journalism masterfully details the world of Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters and provides an unforgettably virtual trip on board the bus.
Funny how these guys all came from rich families. Without the capital, they could never afford the trip. Thanks, Mom! Thanks, Pop! (They never credit Timothy for coining the adage, “The love of money is the root of all evil,” yet a tinny ring fills all their rhetoric.)
I must credit Kesey for giving up the drugs which he admits did not aid in his predominately religious quest. But only Wolfe focuses on this making the hardcore radical a lost anti hero at the end of the book. One almost feels sorry for him as he and the Merry Pranksters reach an impasse: their interests diverge, but their feelings are mutual.
You mention that not only the 60’s but the 50’s, 40’s, even 30’s are to blame. How about the 20’s with Gatsby and F. Scott’s possee? (Woody Allen celebrated this crew to great fanfare in Midnight in Paris. And, of course, the hero is an anti business artsy sponge whose lifestyle, again, could not be supported without a bankroll–or rich friends–to finance it.) All of that excess/ennui was funded by free enterprise, the same source of funding for the counter-extravagance of the 60’s radicals.
How about the grunge movement of the 90’s? Like the 60’s it’s a dirty yet expensive lifestyle. (Neil Young, the father of grunge, was born in a somewhat affluent yet dysfunctional family. And Washington born Curt Cobain–sans silver spoon–was born into a family of artists and musicians.)
The dress-down attitude of Silicon Valley co-opts the fashion sense of the 60’s counter culture. In Hooking Up, Wolfe points out that Silicon Valley execs find it uncool to carry briefcases. Looking anything other than carefree and unhampered by labor is frowned upon. Yet the elitism lives even in the dress-down 90’s as as execs don jeans pricier than the most expensive suits. The look is the thing, yet it’s unreachable–like the lifestyle they purport–by those, again, without money. The left never abandons their elitism in one form or another, an elitism differentiated by smugness and money, yet these pseudo-intellectuals/individuals move in packs. (See Greg Gutfeld’s The Joy of Hate.)
Ecce: Argo, which is proof the left love their elitism as much as they deny their schizophrenia.
To quote John Cleese from a sketch in Monty Python:
“The clarity is devastating. But where is the ambiguity? Over there in a box. Shunt is saying the 8.15 from Gillingham when in reality he means the 8.13 from Gillingham. The train is the same, only the time is altered. Ecce homo, ergo elk. La Fontaine knew its sister and knew her bloody well. The point is taken, the beast is moulting, the fluff gets up your nose. The illusion is complete; it is reality, the reality is illusion and the ambiguity is the only truth. But is the truth, as Hitchcock observes, in the box? No, there isn’t room, the ambiguity has put on weight. The point is taken, the elk is dead, the beast stops at Swindon, Chabrol stops at nothing, I’m having treatment, and La Fontaine can get knotted.”
Okay, I remember that skit. You got it stuck in my head, and now I have to go find it.
Brian, your comments are always eye-opening. Thank you so much!
You gave me the ideas. 🙂 Great topic!
With all the talk about the “Greatest Generation,” I’ve always wondered how they could raise the flower children of the 60’s. Now I know.
The sixties were a construct of carefully planned social engineering by the alphabet agencies who pushed their LSD on an unwitting public. This was done to ruin the family structure, so society could be more easily controlled. Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World described what was happening exactly, for his family was in on the scheme. If you want to understand real history, you have to look behind the veil of mythos. Our society is tightly controlled and led towards continuous control under the guise of liberty until we will be completely enslaved in a technocratic society which is now being set up all around us. It seems very few are awake both in the sixties, today, or at anytime… If you want the real scoop on the 60’s counter-culture, I highly recommend looking into Jan Irvin’s in depth research into the sixties. You may be surprised to know it was all fabricated for your demise and mine.