Wednesday, June 04, 2003

The Sixties Revisited

Glenn Reynolds links to  Fred Turner, who argues that the 1960s counterculture movement was an attempt to recreate a class movement dying under the burgeoning democratization (read "vulgarization") brought about by the War of Independence, the Civil War and the mass consumerism following World War 2. In place of an aristocracy based on wealth and education, an elite founded on superior "consciousness" was substituted. The mark of being "in" was to be switched on, turned on and dropped out. Turner talks about the fear of being cast out of this class.

Fear has become a liberal trademark. The Pulitzer Prizewinning New York Times reporter Chris Hedges used one of the favorite liberal words when, as invited speaker, having launched into a tirade against American imperialism and militarism at the commencement ceremony of Rockford College, he characterized the resultant outpouring of grief and outrage as "frightening." This word is becoming almost a trademark of liberal fear, as my friend Terry Ponick points out. "Scary" is preferred by female columnists. In the academy, "troubling," "disturbing" and "alarming" have the same atmosphere of impending reprisals about them.

But there is another flavor in the fear. I recognized it with astonishment, and once I did, it was unmistakable. It was the fear of losing one's class standing, of being "cut" by one's "set," of being labeled not quite "pukka," not quite "our sort," a loss of caste. What had happened, I realized, was something absolutely astonishing; that in some way the cultural revolution of the '60s had begun an attempt to reinstitute a class system that America had, out of its own inner nature and best genius, rejected. Rejected in the American Revolution, rejected in the Civil War, rejected in the decision to welcome immigration from Ireland and Southern and Eastern Europe and China, rejected in the Civil Rights movement. But still the urge toward the pleasures of snobbery kept reasserting itself in new forms; this time it was a snobbery of radical liberal intellectuals in the university, the school system, the press, the judiciary, and the charitable foundations, with wannabes in government, the caring professions, and even the hipper reaches of the corporate campus.

It is hard for most people to appreciate the ways in which the secret handshake, the invitation to join the elect is made. It might be the invitation to join the staff of the Lampoon; the studied casualness at the tailgate party, when, if all has gone well, the right football team has won. The secret approval by friends of the magazines found in a casual browse on your apartment shelf. The Gatsbyesque night when you stand in the total acceptance of people whose approval you crave beneath bare winter branches under the ringing stars. Once admitted into this new aristocracy of consciousness, a person often tries to maintain the status at all costs, for it is often the only claim to specialness one has in later life. The liberal rich can shuck it off: "in the way that the ...  people had, who had been so bold as to support George Bush. Michael Kinsey had done it in Slate. Dennis Miller had done it on Comedy Central." Because they are rich.

But for the golden children of the 1960s who had never become more than high school teachers, or drones in some cavernous publishing house, writing advertising copy for say, ketchup, the status of the higher, revolutionary consciousness is all the status they have. For them, the years will not condemn, though they may make foolish. In the tawdry confines of their apartments, it must always be the Summer of Love: a time trembling on the brink of possibilities, when the dawn of human brotherhood was breaking, before it was all spoiled by the fall of the Soviet Empire and bearded men crashing into towers in Manhattan.

For they dreamt they were aristocrats of the spirit, never imagining that Stevie Winwood's long ago words were meant for them:

Come down off your throne and leave your body alone.,
Somebody must change.
You are the reason I've been waiting so long.
Somebody holds the key.

But I'm near the end and I just ain't got the time
And I'm wasted and I can't find my way home.