In ten years, it all fell apart. Yes, I know that’s something of an exaggeration: public morals and traditional authority had been eroding for some time beforehand and would continue to do so afterward. Still, what we call “the sixties” was not an illusion: plot the decline per decade using any measure you want, and I’m sure you’ll see a spike at the 1965-1975 mark.
What caused it? A successful explanation must explain why “the sixties” happened when it did (1965-1975) and where it did (the entire West, but not Asia or the communist East). Most proposed explanations fail because they don’t account for one or the other of these facts. For example, some claim that there was a major issue in the mid-1960s that discredited all the established authorities. The trouble with this idea is that none of the events suggested had the right scope. Some say it was the Vietnam War, but why would this provoke a crisis in countries like England or Germany that weren’t significantly involved in this conflict? And why didn’t the Korean War (a U.N. action, which therefore implicated the whole West) cause even a blip in the culture? Others say the Civil Rights movement did us in, but once again, why would students in Paris try to bring down de Gaulle just because they thought American southerners were racist? It doesn’t make sense. In fact, segregation would seem to be a very poor issue to indict Western civilization, since it didn’t even involve most of the United States. One might have expected the whole issue to serve as just one more inducement to Yankee smugness.
Some say that there was some new idea, sensibility, or argument that proved (or seemed to prove) that the old authorities and the old rules were bad. The trouble is that there wasn’t. All the libertarian, anarchist, irreligious, and socialist ideas bandied about in the sixties had been well-known to the public for at least a century. Liberal ideas didn’t advance in the sixties—liberals had long been in favor of socialist revolution, free love, legal abortion, and drug use. It’s just that by the end of the sixties, there were a whole lot more people who agreed with them. In fact, if you look at what the sixties regarded as classics—The Mass Psychology of Fascism, The Second Sex, Eros and Civilization, etc—or at the pseudo-scientific reports that were supposedly so influential—The Authoritarian Personality, The Kinsey Report, etc—the first thing you’re struck by is the unbelievable stupidity of it all. There is very little argument for their claims (even for psychological claims that seem directly contrary to everyday experience), the few arguments given are atrocious, there is essentially no grappling with arguments for the other side, and it’s usually just assumed that the reader is already a Marxist, a Freudian, or a utilitarian. These are books for the already converted—they did not change the world. Nor could the work of anthropologists in advocating cultural relativism have been that important. The public had long believed that savages were looser in their sexual mores than civilized folk; this used to be rather more of an argument against sexual licentiousness than for it.
Were there forces pushing for the changes that we saw in the sixties? Yes, but these same forces had been there in the six prior decades of the twentieth century. Why were they suddenly so much more sucessful?
Next time: my solution
Filed under: How we got to this point