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The Myth of the ’60s
Posted on Nov 16, 2011
Excerpted from “What Really Happened to the 1960s: How Mass Media Culture Failed American Democracy” by Edward P. Morgan. This excerpt is adapted from the published book by the author, with permission.
I begin the book with a discussion of how the unending “battles of the 1960s,” as candidate Barack Obama put it, were a significant and at times poignant backdrop to the 2008 presidential campaign. Such is the nature of political discourse in the American mass media culture. Something called “the Sixties” is alluded to again and again at regular intervals: presidential campaigns, repeated acts of war by the United States, outbursts of mass protest, episodes of racial unrest, abortion battles, charges of “political correctness,” to say nothing of media-saturated anniversaries of iconic sixties events, from Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech to Woodstock.
I maintain that the mass media’s “sixties” discourse is chiefly one of ghosts, accusations, and smoke and mirrors that has long played on audience emotions and diverted public attention to what is essentially a symbolic form of spectator politics. In a commentary that represents perhaps the archetypal media culture representation, commentator Andrew Sullivan referred to these as the “debilitating, self-perpetuating family quarrel of the Baby Boom generation that has long engulfed all of us.”1 [See footnotes at end of article.] Sullivan is right in one sense; this media discourse is debilitating if we aspire to a democratic way of life. On the other hand, the archetypal media argument is also wrong in two respects. These “battles of the 1960s” were not, and are not, a generational quarrel. Notwithstanding media representations, sixties battles were about racism, poverty, war, meaningful education, the rat race, sexism, and ecological destruction. But, second, these political concerns are not even battles of the sixties. Lo and behold, while minorities and women have made great gains within the social mainstream, contemporary American life is marked by wars the people oppose yet cannot stop; poverty and a racially identifiable underclass that lives without hope; the growth of an obscenely wealthy class of the super-rich combined with an eroding middle class; an educational system increasingly driven by the bottom line that leaves young people more trapped in a rat race than were their sixties forebears; ongoing violence toward women in a society that continues to bombard us with images of pumped-up militarism; and an ecosphere that is showing far more fundamental signs of deterioration than it did in the earlier era of Earth Day environmentalism.
What Really Happened to the 1960s: How Mass Media Culture Failed American Democracy
By Edward P. Morgan
University Press of Kansas, 405 pages
I revisit this past because it can tell us a lot about where we are today and why we are there. It can also shed important light on the kinds of complex issues we face if we are to strengthen rather than lose our democratic way of life.
“The Sixties” in Mass Media Discourse
Presidential campaigns have for more than forty years exploited symbols, images, and personalities from the 1960s era as a means of mobilizing political support for their candidates and political agendas. For the most part, these campaigns have come from the right side of the political spectrum. Over time, they have blamed “the sixties” for just about everything they see as wrong with America. Beginning as far back as Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential campaign, political forces on the Right have used sixties-era media images to tap into the fears and resentments the spectacle spawned and thus to buttress their political agendas aimed largely at what they like to call “Big Government.” During the 1960s, these attacks began to pull significant populations—most notably the white South and portions of the Catholic working class—out of the Democratic Party’s New Deal coalition into the Republican camp.
With the economy floundering in the early to mid-1970s, capitalism’s elites sought to redress what they saw as the “excess of democracy” or “democratic distemper” of the sixties era in order to move public policy to the right.2 Rightist and corporate agendas converged with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, a turning point that not only produced the neoliberal (or what is misleadingly called a “free market”) regime that has dominated American politics ever since,3 but has succeeded in transforming American political discourse in the process. The Reagan agenda implemented earlier corporate calls for a sharp reduction in liberal government, a major shift toward privatization and free-market policies, and a new surge in military spending coupled with a more aggressive U.S. foreign policy—a reversal of the so-called “Vietnam syndrome.”
Despite policies geared to the interests of corporations and the wealthy, neoliberalism enjoyed wide electoral success because it was ushered in by rhetoric that effectively played off public images of the sixties—threatening black militants, rebellious students, Viet Cong flag-waving antiwar protesters, self-indulgent and stoned hippies, and “man-hating” or “family-hating” women—that had alienated significant portions of the population. Via a process I call “visual thinking” or visual association, the conservative “Machiavellians,” as Tom Hayden has labeled them,4 produced a populist spin for policies that favored economic elites by blaming the images on an “Eastern liberal elite.” The folksy, avuncular Reagan persona became a kind of nostalgic commercial for traditional verities and “family values” that allegedly flourished in a visually mythologized past before the era of “riots, assassinations, and domestic strife over the Vietnam war,” as Reagan described the 1960s.5 All things “liberal” —permissive parenting, indulgent campus authorities, domestic government programs, and the media—were blamed for the generational unrest of the past.
Curiously, this long-standing campaign against the “bad sixties” succeeded with considerable help from the very “liberal media” the campaign persistently attacked. Like the ideological backlash, the commercialization of the sixties began during the sixties era as news media and advertisers began to zero in on images of what they saw as new and increasingly provocative behaviors of a large baby boom population. News media coverage of sixties-era protests began to frame public understanding of protest around the most common visual denominator, a seemingly “rebellious generation,” around mid-decade—roughly the same time that protests began targeting national policies and institutions, and the same time that the national backlash began. Commercial interests responded by adopting the language of youthful alienation and a stance of “cool” skepticism as they began to transform the “youth culture” into a “hip” youth market.
Over the same time period, entertainment television and popular movies began to air themes popular with sixties youth. By 1971 CBS had introduced Norman Lear’s sitcom All in the Family, which juxtaposed two stereotypical sides of the popularized sixties divide—young liberals versus their working-class parents, presented in the familiar generational frame. Twelve years later, NBC’s Family Ties, a sitcom that President Reagan claimed as his favorite TV show,6 played off another generational clash, this one between the young Reaganite Alex P. Keaton and his liberal sixties-generation parents. With musical scores and themes that evoked baby boomer nostalgia, films like the Reagan era’s The Big Chill (1983) and the 1994 blockbuster Forrest Gump provided audiences with representations of the sixties era that confirmed everything the Right claimed. Advertisers appealed to hip consumers by using rebellious sixties songs to sell everything from sneakers to raisins to accounting firms. More generally, as documented by Thomas Frank, advertisers and the business world widely appropriated the values of countercultural rebellion for their own commercial purposes.7
This political culture is both hyper-political and depoliticized; hyper-political because it is dominated by blame-them rhetoric heightened by imagistic media, yet depoliticized in two important ways: the nation’s political institutions too often serve up essential symbolic solutions that fail to resolve deep-seated problems that have over time become worse, and a correspondingly disillusioned and disempowered public is drawn into a culture of consumption and entertainment that provides them with a compensatory but ultimately erosive sense of empowerment. This political culture is one of the two legacies of the mass media’s “Sixties” that popular social movements like Occupy Wall Street or the Wisconsin-Ohio state protests have to contend with.
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