The is a continuation of a post on the changing media atmosphere.
The New Media of the 1960s
In the 1960s, people were polite to one another in the media. They were not obsessed with the goings-on of Paris Hilton and didn’t watch women wrestling in jello (or dung). Yes, they had Marilyn Monroe, but it seems to me that interest in Marilyn did not exclude paying attention to serious news.
The old news—the news that my father taught me to watch in the 1960s—has been dying a slow death for many years. That is not surprising to me. The Internet provides a more targeted audience at a much lower cost than traditional classified advertising. And my father, predictably, believes the loss of the old ways is terrible. Things are going downhill, he tells me. That is not surprising, given his age. What is more surprising (at least to me) is how many of my friends–even some of the more radical friends–think the loss of newspapers and serious news represents a crisis in the world. Things are going downhill, they tell me.
But with all due respect to my friends, they’re wrong.
I explain changes in the world differently. I think things are changing, to be sure, but I don’t have such a pessimistic outlook of those changes. Change is inevitable. This is what makes life on earth so interesting. And it is our approach to change that makes human life so interesting. So here’s what I think was happening in the 1960s.
The Baby Boomers
What happened in the sixties was that the baby boomers arrived. This was the first generation of Americans who grew up without the threats that had worried people in the depression. America was merely an experiment in the thirties, and there were real and longstanding threats to the existence of America. Hitler and Stalin had appeared in the 1930s. And if we want to go further back, the Catholic Church had long taken a position that the freedom in America was decadent, and the church supported the search for new, more orderly way of organizing social structure. In the thirties, Fascism and Communism were the prime contenders for alternatives to American decadence. And the church supported some of the efforts that we now in America view as pure evil.
But by the time the 1960s rolled around, the 1960s the Catholic Church had implemented Vatican II, laying the tombstone on Latin as living language. Fascism had been defeated in Europe and was no longer a contender for consideration. Communism still held out some promise against the “decadence” of American individualism.
To those born in the 1930s, like my father, they still worried about threats to the American way of life. But those born into the post-war era had fewer complaints about communism, and when they were faced with having to go to war to fight communism–a war that grew out of the fears of their elders–the younger generation resisted.
The baby boomers grew up without the sense that depression was always around the corner. We grew up as idealists. We grew up profoundly skeptical of past failures to implement those ideals. We were the first generation to fully comprehend the idealistic universe.
I still remember one of my professors in college in the 1980s telling me that things were going downhill–people are always telling me that things are going downhill–because he could remember the sixties when he could assign works and people would actually read the assignment and come prepared to discuss it in class.
This may or may not be true, but the idealism of the Baby Boomers accounts for the embrace of communism. Once again, my evidence is anecdotal, but I still remember my junior year high school history teacher telling me that communism was a purer form of democracy. Such statements can only be explained by a blindness to the weaknesses of communism as a collective form of government. But the baby boomers were looking for answers that Fascism, Communism, and American democracy had not provided them. They looked back on their fathers’ position–protective of the American way of life–as imperfect. We can do better.
Waking Up From the Nightmare of History
Consequently, they pictured themselves as the first generation to wake up from “the nightmare of history.” They saw themselves collectively as a generation that was out to change the world. In fact, we’d love to change the world, thank you very much. And that meant that we felt that, for the first time in history, there were no obstacles in our quest to reshape the world in our image. We were the first generation to wake up from history.
Such an aphoristic approach to the problems of human life leaves the sense that the world has been thrown open for the first time. These phrases became part of the baby boomer generation’s approach to life, so that even the Monkees could write (and apparently sincerely believe) the following lyrics:
When the world and I were young,
Live was such a simple game,
A child could play.
It was easy then to tell right from wrong.
Easy then to tell weak from strong.
When a man should stand and fight,
Or just go along.
But today there is no day or night
Today there is no dark or light.
Today there is no black or white,
Only shades of gray.
This openness to new ideas was enough in the 1960s. We had just survived the 1950s with the first housing boom, where women stayed at home in their suburban houses, wearing aprons. This was the dream that my father’s generation had forged from the ashes of a World War, and now “these young kids” were destroying their dreams. This was the change that overcame us in the 1960s. My father’s generation resisted it; my generation embraced it.
The fact was that my generation grew up feeling that the possibilities of life were endless and that they had not been tapped by previous generations. But in the aftermath of the 1960s,the Baby Boomers had grown old. My generation has turned into a bunch of old cranks of the sort that we thought we had dispensed with when we decided that we hoped we died before we got old and to never to trust anybody over 30.
The problems of humanity turned out to be more significant and more difficult than the baby boomers had given them credit for.
The Monkees’ lyrics, for instance, had confused the lifetime of a single individual with the collective consciousness of humanity. It had seemed even as late as the late 1970s that all we had to do to reconnect with our collective humanity was to forego our individual selves for a larger purpose. But this larger purpose was immediately available to us, if only we would look to ourselves.
The Legacy of Modernism
The contradictions in this outlook can only be explained by looking to the legacy of High Modernism, not only in the baby boomer generation, but my father’s generation as well.
The baby boomers grew up in an era of high culture. Yes, some of their pop stars were mental midgets, but the culture of Modernism seemed to be reaching a peak in the 1960s. In psychology, Freud and Jung had pushed the field farther than anyone had dared to before. Freud had given us new insight into our minds in the 1930s. Jung’s collective consciousness was available to us all, although only some pursued the “deeper” life, while others pursued a more superficial life on the surface.
Sociology had made great progress in the 1950s through the work of C. Wright Mills, who applied and popularized Max Weber‘s sociological theories in the United States. Marxist political doctrine, too, seemed deeper than the “American” sensibility of selfishness. Eliot, Yeats, and Joyce had plumbed the depths of experience so far that the subsequent generation had simply reworked and revised poetic themes put forward for the first time by these giants of literature.
For metaphysics, Americans looked no further than Nietzsche. The world did indeed seem to be getting answers to questions that had plagued man for thousands of years. In the world of criticism, Northrop Frye has announced his “final solution” to the problem of literature in his Anatomy of Criticism.
And Joseph Campbell, one of the heroes of my adolescence, tied all these strands of Modernism up in his four volume work, The Masks of God. Drawing upon Jung, Nietzsche, and Joyce as his primary founts of knowledge, he managed to subordinate his vast (and I would say almost inhuman) amount of learning into one dissertation on myth from the deepest past right up until the present day.
The European Outlook of the Moderns
All these thinkers were European in their outlook. The postwar period represented the coming to the fore of America, but Americans still relied on Europe, with its deep sense of history and culture, to order our lives. The baby boomers–and I include myself among them–hoped to avoid the sins of their American fathers: sins that came about from being too selfish.
But, as I said, both generations embraced Modernism. The embrace of High Modernism manifested itself differently in different generations. In my parents’ generation, the generation that had suffered through a world war, it manifested itself in a quest for security. In matters of the intellect, my parents didn’t know the answers, but someone in the world did–it was usually one of the European intellectual class. So they embraced art, even while professing not to understand it completely. But, of course, no one understood art except the artists. They stood at the avant-garde, seeing what we suburbanites were blind to as we went along with our daily lives.
So people like Joyce, Eliot, Yeats in the 1950s were given free reign to catalog and define us. Joyce, Eliot, and Yeats knew more about cultural struggle, they had anatomized it for us, and had fought against collapse. Feeling like the world had been torn apart by war, my parents’ generation felt like they were restoring stability by allowing life to settle into domestic tranquility and by allowing the artists to continue to settle “artistic” things.
The Great Divide
The divide between generations the divide between generations could not have been more apparent than in the Baby Boomer’s approach to High Modernism. For the baby boomers, the superficial life was exemplified by those who believed in the superficialities of America: the pursuit of money and power, rather than more worthy (and less lucrative) goals held out by Freud and Jung.
The great divide between generations seemed inevitable. The generation that had fought and won a great battle in defense of personal liberty felt protective of the individual. The subsequent generation had a sense that individualism was limited unless it could connect with the higher plane (see the Hare Krishna video, in which Sheila exchanges her upper middle class twit form for her goddess body).
The Baby Boomer’s Sense of Mission
The baby boomers had a sense of collective mission that transcended their individual selves that was left over from their experience with High Modernism. Modernism in general was looking for a collective experience, one that defined human beings in terms of their collective nature. This is why Pepsi could market their product to young people, who they referred to as “The Pepsi Generation.” All were one; one was all.
It was their parents’ sin not to have gone far enough into the ideal world. They had settled on individual security rather than pursuing full-blown goddesshood through drugs and other “alternative” experiences.
The Failure of the Baby Boom to Realize its Ideals
But this, too, was doomed to fail. Rather than pursuing the noble goals to their ends, the Baby Boomers settled in for security and wealth. In the 1983 film, Risky Business (a movie set in my home town of Glencoe, IL) Tom Cruise could see no farther than business school. This was an unthinkable plot in the 1970s. Business school?! As a goal in life? Puleeeaaassse!
This divided academia off from the rest of the world. They were procedeing on the original idealistic path, even while the rest of the blind world was electing Ronald Reagan and experiencing Tom Cruise’s capitalistic dreams. They were the true keepers of the dream, both Modern and American.
But even the idealistic dream of academia was a mere mirage. Thinkers had percolated up, even while High Modernism was in firm control of the intellectual agenda, who would give lie to the dream of the High Moderns. They were the Postmoderns, and they did not believe that the dreams of Modernism were anyhing but dreams.
And I will follow this article with an article on their enormous impact on media after 1994 (the Gore Bill which legalized the commercial use of the Internet and which is directly related to the death of the newspaper) later this week or early next week.