The 1960s, An American Decade of Death
It’s a cliché that history is written by the winners, and a dishonest one. History is written by all sorts of people. Samuel Eliot Morrison, for example, wrote a history that, by omission, virtually exonerated Christopher Columbus of his most depraved genocidal initiatives against the godless heathens he found living on Hispaniola.
Howard Zinn wrote another, more inclusive version, detailing the man erroneously given credit for discovering North America’s almost unimaginable crimes. Because we honor the establishment’s version, the official story, we continue to recognize this monster with a national holiday.
History is written by almost everyone in one form or another. Think about the many historians to whom Studs Terkel gave voice. What we know as history is what gets recorded, and that’s a publisher thing and currently undergoing a revolution.
In Morrison’s ethic, apparently, hero-making excuses genocides that were encouraged by the Christian hierarchy of the time. Morrison’s is the most read and widely accepted, being more palatable to Americans who prefer easy to digest untruths to ugly realities.
Readers must be held responsible for any choice in favor of ignorance, just as voters must take responsibility for the failures and successes of those they elect. There are always choices, and the crowds on the street far outnumber the powerful. When power is ceded to others, as it is with this most populous of all animal packs, otherwise known as humanity, we purchase what we get.
False histories and ignorance are part of the American legacy, and both are becoming more calcified.
Which, of course, returns us to the discussion of evolution, but not yet…
Let’s tip our hats first to the 1960s, very likely the decade in which the resurgent American liberal spirit was finally crushed and the resulting disintegration of national unity led to a quiet military takeover and, in time, banana republic status for us.
So, what can be said about the crazy decade? Having experienced it firsthand, I can tell you that the condensed version now on view is a poor replay of how things really were as protests and rejections from the 1950s squeezed through the door to break up the placid, self-satisfied monotony.
The 1960s were a spiked transition in which the convergence brought all the flavorful American ingredients into a culture-rattling kitchen, each openly self-identified, and a recognition forced that, in creating the next national stew, some would have to be discarded and others subdued. America, the great nation of immigrants, joined briefly in cause by World War II, would be pushed into maturity by its culminating effects.
Conservatives fought to retain prewar dominance while liberals struggled for broader, leveler participation. Liberals were calling conservatives on the lies they’d been preaching about the American Dream. The conservatives won, as history shows, but it took a decade and a few years more.
Outside the South, the mosquito republics still soaked in historical poisons of religion, class rigidity and entrenched racism, the United States might be considered happily emergent as the 1960s rolled out. A belief, founded on stacks of fallacies, but encouraged by a charismatic new leader, that America was expanding its legacy as a bastion of freedom gained momentum.
Parents were determined that their children would have better, more peaceful and secure lives than they’d grown through. Post secondary education was idealized as both an enabler of individual success and a conditioner for national expansion. A better educated population could nurture a better world.
What seems almost quaint now in an era marked by contraction and pessimism, we believed in the capabilities of science and industry to take us to the moon, provide ever-improving vocational opportunities, and to secure our country in the world. America would lead with its irresistible example of freedom and prosperity.
Odd it seems now, a half-century later, that instead of basking in admiration for having flashed a beacon to the world, we see the planet around us as seething with enemies and lesser adversaries. What went wrong?
Nothing really. We were awakened to ourselves, the dream doused with reality.
The struggle against institutional racism and sexism, political assassinations, and the lust for military power became more visible as an age of media exposure, led by television and nourished surprisingly by small, alternative newspapers like the Berkley Barb and the I. F. Stone’s Weekly, bloomed.
Hiding realities behind patriotic curtains passed which citizens waltzed, saluting, unquestioning, became more challenging. The Viet Nam War grew to a bloody, extended impasse, attracting viewers on three pervasive networks, even after being cleaned up for dinnertime consumption.
Three dramatic events saturated the airwaves with transitional power first.
The assassination of John F. Kennedy and the murder of his alleged killer, Lee Harvey Oswald, both filmed live, the later the most conclusively, were replayed like a tape stuck in a loop. The globe representing American idealism and national pride was dented. Almost nightly, civil protests concerning human rights or the war pressed between the commercials, befuddling and embarrassing a country lulled into a belief that such struggles were unnecessary.
The third event, seeming vastly more benign in the moment, was the arrival of the Beatles on national televisions. Those agents provocateurs, ushered in by the accidentally radical figure, Ed Sullivan, did more to loosen conformist pressures among young people than all the pot smoked at Berkeley.
Public awareness, it was later understood, was a positive public trait only when it fed the needs of those leading the nation, but initially, the media was so respected, freedom of the press a mantra so often repeated, a consensus existed that honest information was always beneficial.
Awareness is no longer treasured now and with the vestiges of our national media consolidated under corporate control, it’s illusion is massaged and polished appropriate to the tool it has become. An artfully branded reality is presented everywhere.
TV watchers think they are being updated about reality when they sit in front of commercial television news for a half-hour or more. Even in situation comedies, invented environments that subversively promote conformist consumer-driven lifestyles are required.
Doubt it? Return briefly to the 1980s. The popular, prime time show, Cheers, takes place mainly in a bar which is brightly lit like no bar before it or since to promote acceptable personal positions uncluttered by–and here’s the real joke–alcohol. Nothing will be allowed to sully the industry that pays for so much video real estate.
Since, titillation has been amped along with the persistent diminution of individuals. Public awareness is now more selectively promoted, no longer allowed to germinate naturally as real events happen. Among the TV-addicted public, that is. Protests are allowed, even in the national media, but they serve mainly as strategic pressure releases.
Emerging from a shadowy stage in the 1950s, excitement about mind expansion took hold as the decade rolled out. Laws to control the surge were quickly enacted and existing ones ratcheted upwards. It was common knowledge that alcohol loosened screws and induced some parts of our authentic selves to come dancing.
As teenagers, we waited our turn to take the medicine and cheated on age restrictions whenever possible. My first dose came from a bottle of gin shared with a friend in a nearby garage we found open after getting our hands on it. Joints and muscles relaxed. Inhibitions fled. I found in myself a happier, more confident young man than the one for which the rigors of society had previously made room. I chatted confidently with girls, my major interest at fifteen, surprised, even contemporaneously, that I had the skill.
Then, I got sick, ending the game, but one after which I was wiser and more aware. This happened in some fashion to most of us.
Front runners got to pot years before I did. And peyote. Hashish. LSD. Speed. And they did all the research before the rest of us caught up.
The media was brought in to counteract less formal channels that had been setting the tone. The disinformation campaign resembled the one launched to portray leaders of the earlier free speech movement as bigmouthed beatniks who wanted only to swear profusely in polite company. The talking points of the movie, Reefer Madness, produced by the military, were trotted out as if they reflected real risks and dangers. Addicted to killer weed, young people grew listless and carelessly fell in with baser elements.
Eventually, inhaling pot led to shooting up heroin in dingy rooms with women who looked like superannuated hookers. LSD was worse, of course. That sugar cube resulted in mental illness as disciplined minds melted down and blindness when insensible trippers lacked the command to stop staring into the sun before their irises were burned out.
The media, already well-known for promoting and embracing alcohol and tobacco, had a hard time carrying the day. Law enforcement vigorously stepped in. In places like Buffalo, where a swaggering Mike Amico managed to have cameras on hand when he led armed officers into private homes to expose drug addled young people, it introduced a new angle in heroic, televised spectacles, edging into territory previously reserved for house fires and bank robberies. It also alienated a generation with unapologetic hypocrisy.
We kept smoking, and as pot went middle class and beyond, the dark forces backed off, returning to their traditional focus of turning the acts generated by poverty and fear into criminal events.
After the first Kennedy assassination opened the door for greater military influence in civil government, the combination of factors ushered in a new wave of alternative political involvement.
Coalitions in pursuit of civil rights were formed. Antiwar factions expanded as middle class kids joined cause in territory previously ceded to Quakers and other excusable oddballs. Women stood up everywhere. Gail Collins history, When Everything Changed, creates a rambunctious picture of the stage on which women stepped up among multiple battlefields, fighting entrenched sexism, even among the civil rights crowd.
By the mid-1960s, there was, at least among my generation, a sense that the world was up for grabs. An assertive, life-loving, freedom-demanding dance broke out. Hippies, later disparaged as smelly, unwashed, drug-taking, free love flops, cranked open a door for alternative lifestyles.
When I shared an apartment with a girlfriend for the first time in 1968, it was still necessary to claim to be married and to lie about different last names.
The best educated generation in history percolated with freedom in an abundant culture. Before darkness descended over the 1970s, a decision was made that both education and freedom must be curtailed. And they were. Freethinkers were out of season again and hippies went into hiding.
The strategy became clear as the new decade generously hosted war and repression. What became known as the “Silent Majority” cranked up the volume. Unarmed students were allowed to be killed without significant public protest. Easy enough to see, the good times were over. Political assassination had found another venue.
On a more benign, but insidious level, symbols of our revolution were co-opted. The peace symbol itself went first, diluted through overexposure as it permeated the middle class as something cool. On the refrigerator in my first apartment in Buffalo in 1969, I painted a psychedelic peace sign melting like plastic over a flame, staying up half the night listening to Bob Dylan as I wielded my brush.
Next, our freak flags were turned into shags, a pathetic statement in the new singles bars my friend Liz called “meat factories.” One winter day on Main Street in Buffalo, I saw designer jeans for the first time, tightly emphasizing the curves of a young woman. Our hippie uniforms of choice had been taken fashionable.
The 1960s, An American Decade of Death is taken from Amazing: Truths About Conscious Awareness