To this day, people have been eager to blame their problems — moral decay, crime, violence, and the plight of the family — on a permissive generation of misfits, delinquents, and revolutionaries more powerful in myth than they ever were in life.
Gary Kamiya pens a great review in today’s Salon about St. Andrews historian Dennis DeGroot’s The Sixties Unplugged: A Kaleidoscopic History of a Disorderly Decade. The review presents the book and the questions it asks in the context of other, possibly more sweeping condemnatory works on that era.
At least the way Kamiya tells it, DeGroot appears to have a pretty well-honed set of praises and critiques for the era, such as the following sentiment, with which I strongly agree:
On the scanty plus side of the ’60s ledger, DeGroot lists the “longterm effects of the sexual revolution,” which resulted in “sexual relations [being] accepted as the business of the individual rather than the state.” He sees gay liberation as the most impressive outcome of the sexual revolution: Although he acknowledges that women gained sexual freedom as a result of the ’60s, he is harshly critical of what he sees as the era’s decoupling of sex from love (in which he echoes Bloom), as well as what he claims was its rampant sexism.
DeGroot further levels the full weight of perspective in his evaluation of the ’60′s significance, in a clever historical re-telling approach:
But DeGroot also employs a more ambitious and unorthodox technique, using what he considers the decade’s truly important events to reveal the ultimate insignificance of the counterculture. His book is broken into 67 shortish sections, most of them dealing directly or indirectly with the counterculture, but a number covering extraneous subjects: the Sharpeville massacre in South Africa, the Vatican’s “Humanae Vitae” encyclical, the Arab-Israeli Six-Day War, the Watts riots, the Vietnam War and so on.
What I gain from this sort of review is that there is no great or terrible era of history. Moreover, those eras whose values are debated most vigorously when the aura or zeitgeist that made them Eras have long passed are the periods that supporters and detractors alike view as responsible for informing our present values.
One thing that gets me a little is that the experience of women, blacks, gays, etc., today are often laid at the doorstep of the ’60s, as if that brief time of social unrest is responsible for everything that happens since, that at some point in the late 1970s, Americans ceased at defining and re-defining themselves, that their experience was enveloped by the 60′s attitudes. Particulary, DeGroot’s suggestion that the direct result of ’60s counter-culturalism was ’80s and onward consumerism is not causually sound.
Kamiya puts it very well, too:
A good cultural historian is like a biographer: He must be capable of empathizing with his subjects, seeing the world through their eyes. Equally important, he must also consider that historical change does not always take place for obvious reasons. Even a narcissistic, indulgent or just plain silly era can change the world, in ways that are as imperceptible as the workings of evolution.