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Palimpsest: A Memoir

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Arts and Culture

The Myth of the ’60s

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Posted on Nov 16, 2011

(Page 2)

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.

 

book cover

 

What Really Happened to the 1960s: How Mass Media Culture Failed American Democracy

 

By Edward P. Morgan

 

University Press of Kansas, 405 pages

 

Buy the book

 

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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Anarcissie's avatar

By Anarcissie, January 14, 2012 at 9:57 am Link to this comment

No one was actually spat upon, however.

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By John Poole, January 13, 2012 at 10:14 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

To MPLO:  I was “spat upon” in an interesting manner. My LA studio career was
interrupted by the draft in 1967. The Army upon recognizing they had drafted a
professional was thrilled to not have to spend any more to have me qualify for
02N20 (pianist) after basic training. When I returned in 1969 all my colleagues
shunned me.  I might mention that the professional musicians my age with busy
careers in the music businesses had never served. They were either gay, manic
depressive with a doctor’s letter, were heavily into narcotics (how convenient!)  or
had kept their IIS deferment by going to grad school and then marrying and then
having a kid. Even my best friend shunned me when I returned from two years
stateside duty as a pianist in an Army band at Ft. Lewis. It was a strange feeling to
have to start all over again. I doubt it was the same for professional musicians
who had been drafted or volunteered to serve during WWII.

Report this

By Ted Morgan, January 12, 2012 at 8:22 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I appreciate the comments on the excerpt (well most of ‘em anyway!) and would note that the book is now in paperback.  I wanted to assure Anarcissie that the civil rights & black power movements figure VERY prominently in the book, as they did in helping to ignite and shape the 60s. You might find the half-chapter on the Panthers and the media particularly interesting.  These were excerpts taken mainly from the preface and the concluding chapter.

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By gabenowandthen, December 12, 2011 at 5:28 pm Link to this comment

Looks like an interesting book, thanks for the post. 
This may also be of interest:  we’re a new [url=“http://www.nowandthenreader.com”]digital
publisher[/url] and have a great nonfiction title on the
roots of the counterculture.  Take a look. 
http://www.nowandthenreader.com/dawning-of-the-counter-
culture-the-1960s/

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Anarcissie's avatar

By Anarcissie, November 18, 2011 at 10:17 am Link to this comment

Is corporate control of the media the significant event of the Sixties, the cause of the Sixties, or of the memory of the Sixties and the use of that memory?  I would guess rather that demographics altered popular culture, and the corporate media followed, with due care to adhere to certain political lines (for example, everthing was always going wonderfully in Viet Nam, unions were always bad, etc. etc.)

Back in 1998, Mark Lilla wrote an interesting article in the New York Review of Books proposing the theory that Reaganism was more of the same cultural tendency that produced the hippies and the New Left.  (This does not mean that each and every hippie and New Leftist turned into a right-winger like David Horowitz and Eldridge Cleaver.)  Unfortunately it’s behind a paywall, so I won’t frustrate you all with a URL.  It would not be surprising to find that people in their 20s were rebellious but became increasingly conservative or right-wing in their 30s and 40s.  And the media would follow, looking for customers.

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D.R. Zing's avatar

By D.R. Zing, November 18, 2011 at 8:17 am Link to this comment

I can imagine Mr. Morgan reading some of the comments below and
questioning the reading comprehension level of Truth Diggers. 

This article is not a book review; it’s an adapted excerpt from the
book. There’s a difference. 

Below are some of my favorite quotes from the article that only a few
seem to be reading and comprehending:

“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.”

That’s an academic way of saying the media stages fake debates that do
not address core issues and problems arising when a single country
attempts to rule the world.  The media does this because they don’t give
a shit about humanity.  Their sole goal is to attract as many viewers
as possible.

Now check out this polite fusillade:

“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.”

That one brings to mind a line from a great song:
“I may going to hell in a bucket, babe, but at least I’m enjoying the
ride.” (Robert Hunter/Jerry Garcia “Hell in a Bucket”)

Report this

By rumblingspire, November 18, 2011 at 1:02 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

@EmileZ

“WoW”

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yO1xwz6WeyQ
THE PAISLEYS- Now

Report this

By rumblingspire, November 18, 2011 at 12:54 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

@EmileZ

Magic Mixture - Living On A Hill
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=btRy2MDxMv0

Report this

By rumblingspire, November 18, 2011 at 12:41 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

@EmileZ

Faine Jade-On The Inside There’s A Middle
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oUZ24RHmeHI

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By mapol, November 17, 2011 at 9:11 pm Link to this comment

The book being reviewed here does sound like an interesting book.  I did see the
excellent documentary called “Sir, No Sir”, which definitely debunks the myth
about how Viet Nam Viets returning to the United States after their tours were spat
upon by average anti-war demonstrators, especially since, by the time the late
1960’s rolled around, many of the anti-war demonstrators were Viet Nam Vets
who’d turned against the war by the time they got back to the USA, or even before
that.

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D.R. Zing's avatar

By D.R. Zing, November 17, 2011 at 8:33 pm Link to this comment

Truthdig,

The headline for this great article does not do the article justice.
“The Myth of the Sixties,” that’s it? Good thing you weren’t naming
fish. You would have called them all swims.

This article nails it. Corporations have systematically bought and
controlled all forms of free speech in this country. 

And, like Chris Hedges said in a recent post, eventually there will
have to be mass protests against the news media.  They are a huge
part of the problem.  They must be broken up and wrenched from the
hands of the corporate titans if our democracy is ever going to function. 

Thank you, Edward P. Morgan, for writing this book.

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By mplo, November 17, 2011 at 8:15 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I saw the movie “Sir, No Sir”.  It’s an excellent documentary that certainly debunks
the myth of Viet Nam Vets who returned home to the United States being spat
upon by ordinary, average citizens who demonstrated against the war at that time

If Viet Nam Vets were spat upon by anybody, it was the United States government
who spat on them, by totalling abandoning them in time of real need of help with
various problems resulting from their having been involved in military combat,
affordability of housing, etc.  Inotherwards, Viet Nam vets were exploited by our
government to carry out wrongheaded, illegal and unnecessary policies in a
foreign land, and then tossed aside like trash when they were no longer needed. 
This same policy, I’m sorry today, is still going on right now, only the names are
changed to Iraq and Afghanistan, Yemen, and Libya.

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Anarcissie's avatar

By Anarcissie, November 17, 2011 at 3:05 pm Link to this comment

I don’t see anything much about the Civil Rights movement.  The Civil Rights (and Black Power) movement drove most of the other things that happened.  Interestingly, it has been largely divorced from its context and hagiographized, whereas the ‘other’ Sixties has been ignored, trivialized, demonized—or quietly coopted and absorbed.  I wonder if this book continues this—well, we might humorously call it segregation.

Report this

By LT, November 17, 2011 at 2:33 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

One of the main reasons the same battles are being fought over and over
again is because movements in the USA won’t face and name outloud
exactly what it is they keep having to fight: FASCISM.

Admit that this is a fascist country. Tell the truth to yourself first.

Report this

By John Poole, November 17, 2011 at 1:21 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

The reference to “the sixties” misleads all of us. We should instead use perhaps the
term, “broken sixties”. It was only in the second half (1966 at the earliest) that
events and attitudes happened and appeared which are now considered the
“counter culture”.  I should know- I was there. I would distrust anyone writing
about that time who didn’t actually live them.

Report this
EmileZ's avatar

By EmileZ, November 17, 2011 at 7:57 am Link to this comment

@ rumblingspire

I was experimenting with symmetry. It was an accident.

Not a personal thing, please understand.

Report this
EmileZ's avatar

By EmileZ, November 17, 2011 at 7:44 am Link to this comment

@ rumblingspire

Did I just say that???

It was an accident, please believe me.

You are awesome rumblingspire.

Report this
EmileZ's avatar

By EmileZ, November 17, 2011 at 7:40 am Link to this comment

@ rumblingspire

You (((((suck))))) !!!

Report this

By rumblingspire, November 16, 2011 at 9:46 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

goodness.  i supply the data.

in further support of the study i will note that institutions like Time magazine, by putting a subtle positive spin on the counter-culture, lent proof to my young mind that the counter-culture’s ideas would soon be the new norm.  in many ways the hippies won.  but yes, not the larger battle.

I remember when suddenly blacks started shoping at our local mall. like it happened over night.  somewhat after kings assassination.  i witnessed white cashiers appear to bend over backwards with black customers.  it was pleasing and mysterious.  one of the two blacks in my high school told me much the same, but the “bending over backwards” “bugged” him ,he said.

it wasn’t soon after that all the kids started looking like elton john and to be cool you had to be bi.  rocky horror picture show played the midnight seen for months.

yes, some of the chains that bound society were broken.

I remember it all!  maybe i did not inhale deep enough.  i assure you i did.

p.s. the 60’s died in 1972, when the hippie station started advertising the previous uncool Beer and declared themselves the K-SHE PIGS and sold PIG shirts.  ( no decent hippie admitted drinking alcohol.  i’ve always wondered if the PIGS had something on the station and it was blackmail.  K-SHE had to declare themselves PIGS.  i was the only one the minded.  all the other kids thought K-SHE PIGS was cool.  i remember.

another thing happened around 1972.  the groups that used to beat us up started growing their hair long too.  long hair was no longer a reliable badge.

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By rumblingspire, November 16, 2011 at 8:51 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

before i read the article i will comment.

i was 13 during the summer of love.  the tv news and the magazines were peppered with flower children and peace and communes.  i looked for Time magazine every week to read about free love and a counter-culture.  (remember that word, counter-culture).  i was looking forward to avoiding the draft in a phony war.  i would move to Canada as Time magazine assured me i would find fellows.  the schools taught me Equality while the news displayed southerners beating on negros for swimming at the same beach.  Like Holden Caufield i wanted to fart and blow the damn roof off.
i was a wanabe hippie waiting for the revolution that was most assuredly coming soon.

the 60s has been lied about.  it was not about drugs and sex.  hippies were not dirty, not at my middle class suburban high school.  and despite the drugs, i remember it all. 

i am so friggin tired of the joke that if you remeber the 60s you were not there.  i was assuredly there.  i am still there.  i remember it all.

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By gerard, November 16, 2011 at 6:59 pm Link to this comment

“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.”

This vast and important accomplishment, so necessary to the life of democracy as a system of self-government, is precisely what Occupiers have modeled and reinvigorated.  (Why else do you suuppose the included the homeless and refugees from addiction in their camp life to the extent possible—even though of course they knew they might be “betrayed.”???

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EmileZ's avatar

By EmileZ, November 16, 2011 at 4:09 pm Link to this comment

A brief excerpt from Jodorowsky’s “The Holy Mountain”...

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gojrtr5VxIU

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EmileZ's avatar

By EmileZ, November 16, 2011 at 4:02 pm Link to this comment

This book sounds very interesting.

There is a wonderful documentary called Sir, No Sir about the G.I. revolts in the late sixties and early seventies.

This segment….

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qcp93i4sWW4&feature=related

... touches on how this aspect of history has has been effectively suppressed and replaced with the bogus myth of returning veterans being spat upon and called “baby killers” by ant-war activists, a myth clearly designed and propagated to create division.

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