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The Myth of the ’60s
Posted on Nov 16, 2011
What is lost in the media culture’s “Sixties” is the powerful experience of people taking history into their own hands, as well as the story of how and why that popular uprising turned into the distortion popularized in media lore. If these had been the stories told to people over the past thirty to forty years, innumerable groups could have sensed their connection to this history, could have learned from it, and might thereby have a greater sense of hope linked to their own potential empowerment. Like their forebears, people would sense their potential to make history in their own time.
Mass Media and Protest Dynamics in the 1960s
The other legacy of the mass media’s “Sixties” is grounded in the way mass media interacted with 1960s era social movements in ways that influenced the trajectory of that era and set in motion the backlash and commercial exploitation that produced today’s world.
In brief, I argue that the mass media of the sixties era helped to invite and spread that era’s protest activity, but they did so on terms reflecting broader structures of which they were part. As a result, they simultaneously helped to shape, marginalize, and ultimately contain protest movements. Along with the powerful ideological voices who enjoy significant, if not dominant, access to the media, they have been the major facilitators of our diversionary politics and warlike discourse ever since.
I suggest that two systemic characteristics of the emerging postwar media became crucial to the contestation and maintenance of hegemony. First, what the media, by their behavior, consider to be legitimate discourse for public consumption encompasses a range of viewpoints that embrace rather than challenge the system’s foundational myths, ideological beliefs, and institutions. Second, as commercial enterprises, the mass media must aggressively seek and engage readers and audiences. The ideological commons of mass media discourse can be traced back to their origins as mass-market enterprises, while the imperative of attracting and engaging audiences took on new intensity with the postwar rise of television.
What Really Happened to the 1960s: How Mass Media Culture Failed American Democracy
By Edward P. Morgan
University Press of Kansas, 405 pages
I argue that both characteristics contradict and undermine a democratic culture. Democratic discourse is inclusive. At great cost to our public discourse, the mass media exclude critical conversation about fundamental flaws in the nation’s policies and institutions. Democratic discourse should also enlighten and inform the people so they achieve a level of understanding that enables them to act as citizens. The mass media’s main function clearly should not be to distract the public from engaging in and learning about their society and its institutions.
In combination, these two structural characteristics of our corporate mass media produce dynamics that have telling implications for efforts to challenge and contest prevailing conditions—as they did in the sixties when they introduced a contradictory dynamic into the political realm. On the one hand, the “boundaried” sphere of legitimate discourse effectively excludes the critical perspectives and argumentation of protesting “outsiders.” Thus the media simultaneously delegitimize and disempower them. On the other hand, the introduction of television in the years following World War II greatly accelerated media culture’s emphasis on powerful imagery, colorful personalities, dramatic action, and even violent conflict. At times, these images would reach wide audiences with powerful meanings that transcended the normally narrow media interpretations. But the media’s growing fixation with dramatic visuals invited an expressive form of protest in which appearances and behavior, symbolism and militancy became increasingly significant vehicles for expressing the voices of those whose arguments the media treated as unworthy of serious consideration. From the mid-60s on, as protests increasingly focused on national institutions and policies, the logic of media coverage—coupled with political backlash, government repression, and the ever-escalating war in Vietnam—produced increasing movement isolation and fragmentation, a sharp polarization of the American public, and, ultimately, both co-optive market forces and the political turn to the right.
This book’s focus on what happened in and to the sixties has led me to conclusions that emphasize democracy building, with implications for the Left’s efforts to raise consciousness among the wider public. Most fundamentally, my argument revolves around contradictions between capitalism and democracy and the way these have played out in the United States since World War II. Along with an increasing number of voices around the world, this perspective sees these contradictions becoming increasingly problematic in the years ahead. As Herbert Marcuse wrote in 1966, “Today the fight for life, the fight for Eros, is the political fight.”8 If that was true in 1966, it is certainly more true today.
In the end, the effort to build a democratic alternative to an increasingly ominous corporate future is, like many moments experienced during the long sixties era, one that can be powerfully self-sustaining. In addition to enabling people to see the forces that impinge on and repress their full humanity, it awakens in people the awareness of possibility—the possibility that things can be done differently, the possibility that people of very different backgrounds and orientations can come together and discover their common humanity. The latter discovery is one of democracy’s most powerful rewards, the sense of breaking through preconceptions about differentness to come to an understanding of the other that brings with it a rich, emotional connection.
1 Andrew Sullivan, “Goodbye to All That,” Atlantic Monthly, December 2007, 42.
2 See Michel Crozier, Samuel P. Huntington, and Joji Watanuki, The Crisis of Democracy: Report on the Governability of Democracies to the Trilateral Commission (New York: New York University Press, 1975), 113.
3 The term neoliberal refers to the extreme, contemporary form of classical liberalism and its embrace of “free” markets. I use the word “regime” in the sense of “relatively durable political regimes” grounded in dominant political coalitions over a span of American presidencies. See Stephen Skowronek, “The Changing Political Structures of Presidential Leadership,” in Bruce Miroff, Raymond Seidelman, and Todd Swanstrom, eds., Debating Democracy: A Reader in American Politics, 4th ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2003), 285-296.
4 Tom Hayden, The Long Sixties: From 1960 to Barack Obama (Boulder, Colo.: Paradigm, 2009).
5 Ronald Reagan, quoted in Daniel Marcus, Happy Days and Wonder Years: The Fifties and the Sixties in Contemporary Cultural Politics (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2004), 61.
6 Sidney Blumenthal, “Reaganism and the Neokitsch Aesthetic,” in Sidney Blumenthal and Thomas Byrne Edsall, The Reagan Legacy (New York: Pantheon, 1988), 275.
7 Thomas Frank, The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counterculture, and the Rise of Hip Consumerism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997).
8 Marcuse’s words are the final sentence in the “Political Preface,” in Herbert Marcuse, Eros and Civilization (Boston, Beacon Press, 1966), xxv.
Excerpt from “What Really Happened to the 1960s: How Mass Media Culture Failed American Democracy,” by Edward P. Morgan, ©2010 by the University Press of Kansas. Used by permission of the press.
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