Those of us who were in our teens during the 1960s can appreciate the extent to which popular culture and politics have changed beyond recognition.
We lived through that era as witnesses, spectators, demonstrators, civil rights activists, draft dodgers, drop-outs, beatniks, hippies, flower children, and participants of what some historians have termed the unraveling of society, the destructive generation, ‘The Age of Aquarius’, the great cultural revolution (before Mao expropriated the title for a totally different movement in China) and ‘the swinging sixties’.
Our children and grandchildren can consult and debate with their parents what the world was like before hard rock music, ‘the pill’ and when the word ‘gay’ meant merry. The consequences of what happened in the sixties were long-lasting: the Sixties cultural revolution, in effect, established the enduring cultural values and social behavior since then.
The Sixties put a premium on physical beauty that created a new idolatry as well as a multi-billion dollar industry. Good looks were always an asset but apart from writers or painters whose work doesn’t require them to appear before the public, talent, acquired skills and demonstrable achievements have now been assigned a back seat in a way incomprehensible to our grandparents.
It is not only movie stars but singers, dancers, a host of television personality presenters and even politicians who owe their initial break to their looks. Would Obama, Bill Clinton and Tony Blair have made it to the top in the pre-television era? Would a Harry Truman, Wendell Wilkie, Adlai Stevenson or a Clement Attlee do so today? Probably not!
Certainly a comparison of leading men contrasting Humphrey Bogart with Leonardo DeCaprio tells us much about the depreciation of strength and character as attractive male features. Only exceptional stars, such as Barbara Streisand and Bette Midler, bucked the trend and refused to have the nose job ‘everyone’ was convinced would improve their careers, whilst Michael Jackson, today’s plastic-man, turned himself into a freakish human wax figure in his narcissistic quest for the ‘perfect look’.
Our daily “news” is full of trivial and yet intensive coverage of the antics of various super-models and pop-stars. Anne Nicole Smith, Paris Hilton or Britney Spears differ from “celebrities” of the past in that their “careers” have been totally devoid of any recognizable talent except “sex appeal” and outrageous notoriety.
My own favorite metaphor for the changes since my early teenage years was called to mind by the immense success of the epic musical “Hair” urging us ‘to let it all hang out’ provoking the recollection that not one American professional major league baseball player before 1960 had long hair, a beard, mustache or sideburns (not to mention gold necklaces, tattoos, earrings and other paraphernalia that are so evident today).
As the cigarette commercial opined, ‘You’ve come a long way baby’. Nevertheless, today’s stars, no matter how decked out, still chew bubble gum or tobacco and continually spit in all directions.
A major theme of the participatory uninhibited culture of the ‘swinging sixties’ that has endured is the universal language of rock music, a merger of black Rhythm and Blues with White Country and Western music as the folk idioms of two down and out groups became elevated into a new international elite music for the young.
The brass and reed sections of the old big bands, the sentimental crooners, the importance of melody and witty lyrics and traditional folk instruments fell by the wayside.
The new music with its emphasis on the group and rock beat spread across the West replacing much of the older local/national popular music as had chamber, symphonic or operatic music in the past for middle class society. Dance, beginning with the ‘twist’, witnessed the separation of partners who no longer had to move in step with each other (or on each other’s toes) and gave everyone freedom to move to the rhythm whilst fashion did away with men’s hats and raised skirt lengths to new heights – launching an even more frenetic concern with hairstyles and youthful sexy figures.
Many of the new trends, fads and fashions began first in the United States simply because its manufacturers were more keenly aware to provide a commercial and innovative response to a much larger ‘youth market’ and then ‘image sell’ its products to all those wanting to identify with youth and new exciting trends without accepting any necessary political message of rebellion, permissiveness, liberation, etc.
No memories of the sixties can ignore the political issues of the Vietnam War and struggle for an end to racial segregation in the United States. These problems escalated the youth rebellion into a confrontation with the ‘system’ and the older generation in the United States and then almost in epidemic-like fashion in Britain, France and Italy across the world.
Much of the responsibility for the protest movements to engage in violent acts and demonstrations stemmed not so much as a spontaneous reaction to police mismanagement but to the media penchant for confrontation.
The ‘counter-culture’ served to unite not just those who were actually politically active but anyone and everyone with a disaffection for the older generation that had previously been expressed in elite universities, anti-racism, experimental theatre, the ‘underground’ press, feminism, the homosexual cause, traditional anti-militarism, anti-colonialism, and solidarity with the plight of the ‘Third World’.
An important part of the Sixties legacy is the romantic (but eroding) identification of youth, rebellion and THE LEFT as ‘cool’. The triumphal election of Barack Obama is eloquent testimony to how long we have come since the Sixties – or is it? All signs point to an increase in racial tensions during the Obama administration with worse to come. An Afro-American candidate (with 50% of his ancestry entirely “White”) who wins 95% of the Black vote can only mean that, just as in the past, anyone with any Black ancestry is still regarded as solely Black by the great majority of the population in the United States and this support is taken for granted.
BUT, the drop in support for Obama of working class white men that is clearly evident according to all the polls compared to the 2008 election immediately raises the claim that this is the outcome of a ‘white racist reaction’ to the first ‘Black President’ rather than the very logical reaction to his terrible economic policies, broken promises and failures on many fronts.
The recent case of District Attorney Eric Holder dropping charges against members of the so called “New Black Panther Party,” observed on video in their uniforms and carrying police batons “discouraging” white voters and chasing away Republican monitors at the time of the 2008 election in Philadelphia, is the most blatant outrageous example of abandonment of the ideals on which this nation was built. It is proof, if any more were needed, that Barak Obama’s electoral campaign was a fraud and that instead of a color blind society we are in a new age where the administration relies on pandering to minorities to ensure its survival.
It didn’t surprise that this item was not reported at all by the New York Times and major network media except for interviews of the New Black Panther Party representatives accusing Fox News of “scare tactics.”
In these interviews, pains are taken to convince the audience that the New Black Panther Party has nothing to do with the “old Black Panthers” founded in 1966 in Oakland by Bobby Seale and Huey Newton with its explicit doctrine calling not just for protection of African Americans from “police brutality” but a passionate espousal of communist (Mao variety) ideology and Black Nationalism.
Watching the news on TV brought back my own confrontation with the Black Panthers then at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (circa 1970-71) where I was a graduate student and the similar total cowardice and neglect of their responsibility by University administration officials to protect their students on the campus.
I attended a showing of the political cult film “Battle of Algiers” glorifying the terrorism of the FLN in their fight against French Colonialism (nevertheless, the largest number of victims was Muslims who refused to cooperate with the FLN). The event was also in support of Angela Davis, who was then trying to run for political office in California. After the showing of the film (the reason I had attended), several uniformed members of the Black Panther Party stood on the stage and posted several of their colleagues at the rear of the auditorium barring exit from the auditorium.
When I, and several other students got up to leave, the uniformed “chairman” on stage (dressed in exactly the same get-up as the “new Black Panthers” but minus the clubs, who barred entrance to the polling booths in Philadelphia in the 2008 election), loudly proclaimed “Nobody is to leave!”
I immediately shouted back that I had come to watch the film and had no interest in the rest of the event and intended to leave and that nobody was going to prevent me. This produced a cheer by another dozen or so students who followed me to the exits where the uniformed “monitors” looked doubtful about how to prevent us from leaving. I was prepared to use force but was very grateful that the leader on stage “relented” and gave orders to his henchmen to step aside and “Let the fascist pigs pass.”
This was an event in which no one from the administration was present but my attempt to protest the lack of any supervision by the University the next day was met with the official response that I did not have “proof” of my allegations (unless I could contact others who were present and could verify my accusations). This was the line taken by a university that continues to call itself a great liberal institution of higher learning dedicated to education and the promotion of equality, harmony, tolerance and diversity.
Norman Berdichevsky is a native New Yorker who lives in Orlando, Florida. He holds a Ph.D. in human geography from the University of Wisconsin-Madison (1974) and is the author of The Danish-German Border Dispute (Academica Press, 2002), Nations, Language and Citizenship (McFarland & Co., Inc., 2004), Spanish Vignettes; An Offbeat Look into Spain’s Culture, Society & History (Santana Books, Malaga, Spain. 2004), An Introduction to Danish Culture (MacFarland, 2011) and The Left is Seldom Right (New English Review Press, 2011). He is the author of more than 200 articles and book reviews that have appeared in a variety of American, British, Danish, Israeli and Spanish periodicals such as World Affairs, Journal of Cultural Geography, Ecumene, Ariel, Ethnicity, The World & I, Contemporary Review, German Life, Israel Affairs, and Midstream. He is also a professional translator from Hebrew and Danish to English and his website is here.
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