Occupy Wall Street may never amount to much politically, but it has certainly set a lot of people thinking, including myself. It has been the source of a very heated and lengthy argument at fourthturning.com, and that has finally allowed me to break through some confusion and finally understand exactly what the Awakening, a.k.a. "the sixties," actually did, and why it has been so personally liberating and so politically disastrous. To understand this, we have to go back before the beginning, to the 1950s.
Let's take two movies that express the best and the worst of that decade: Twelve Angry Men, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. (The book upon which the latter was based was published in 1961 and the movie was set in 1963, but both are before the Awakening.) Twelve Angry Men is about a functioning institution, a jury in a murder case. 11 of the 12 jurors initially trust authority--the prosecution and the court--and vote for conviction and execution. One, played magnificently by Henry Fonda, disagrees. Calmly, without ever raising his voice, he manages to get a few of them thinking about some of the evidence and entertaining the possibility that the defendant might be innocent. His first few allies are equally controlled. The cast is composed entirely of white males, but racism, which plays a role in some of the guilty votes, is clearly defined as an evil. Because everyone is a white male, virtue and vice have nothing to do with race or gender in this movie. The virtuous are polite, restrained, take the job seriously, and are willing to listen. The wicked, including the last holdout, are emotional, at one point almost violent, insulting, or lazy. They also insist that their own feelings are more important than the evidence.
Now let's talk about One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. It takes place in a mental institution, and incredibly, one million Americans lived in such institutions when the book was written. There isn't much wrong with the patients upon which the film focuses, including McMurphy, played by Jack Nicholson. He explains in the opening scene why he has spent so much time in prison: "I fight and fuck too much." And that is what the movie is about: the inability of a large part of the population to submit to the emotional restraint and repression upon which society insisted in those days. That was a heavy burden, and the generation after the war threw it off. They also made One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest the third-grossing movie of 1975.
So the Awakening focused on personal liberation and the end of emotional restraints. Women, suddenly, could complain about, and leave, their husbands, and millions did. Young adults adopted new dress, new music (very emotionally unrestrained), and new values. Therapists, critically, began to drop Freud's mechanistic model and pay attention to their patients' feelings and to how those feelings grew out of their patients' individual experiences. Families no longer deserved automatic respect. By the 1970s gay Americans demanded the right to act out and legitimize their sexual feelings. All this created a new America, and a personally freer America, and that was, for the most part, a good thing in the personal realm. Unfortunately, that was only half the story.
What has finally struck me this week is that those values--spontaneity, the exaltation of individual feeling and experience, and the rejection of institutional authority--were, inevitably, politically disastrous. For one thing, the rich and powerful (and the would-be rich and powerful) seized upon them as justifications for greater economic freedom, lower taxes, and less regulation. But for another, these values worked against the values of discipline, organization, and leadership, which have been critical to effective political action since the beginning of time. And the emphasis on what divides us--on race, gender, sexual preference, religion, and values--has now almost completely destroyed any national sense of common purpose and belief, which was critical in the 1930s and 1940s to the extraordinary things our grandparents and parents accomplished and remain equally critical today. In the second post that I ever made here, seven years ago,, I showed how these same problems had affected the right--and specifically George W. Bush--just as much as the Left. It was natural for him to believe that he could transform a whole region of the world, the Middle East, by dropping bombs, and lower taxes at the same time: it all felt good, so he did it, confident that the world would bend to his feelings. His left-wing counterparts have been equally delusional, and much less effective. The attack on authority became an attack on intellectual authority as well, and both left-wing academics and religious zealots freely reject the rationalist values of western civilization.
The Boom generation, sadly, taught Generation X to think only about itself. Boomers have shown very little feeling for the values of the institutions they have run, from universities to investment banks, and my friends in various walks of life report that Gen Xers are showing even less. The Millennials have been taught to value the group, but in the world their elders have made there is little outlet for those values.
And this is why, sadly, I cannot see that Occupy Wall Street is offering anything new. It belongs to the great (?) tradition founded by the SDS in the late 1960s, the tradition of the media event, designed to dramatize the evil of the existing regime without any real idea what to do about it. (The Civil Rights protests, at least through 1965, were of a completely different character: they were well planned, well organized, and had specific goals.) And for the most part, OWS seems to be opposed to organization and discipline as well--and the Boomers who have adopted it are still convinced, of course, that that is a good thing.
Writing in the 1990s, William Strauss and Neil Howe expected their Boomer contemporaries eventually to play the role of the Missionary generation, the post-civil war Prophets who, with FDR in the lead, had led us through the great national enterprises of the New Deal and the Second World War. (To their credit, they realized that the Transcendentals, the first post-Constitutional generation who gave us the civil war, had failed to leave behind nearly as big a legacy--but it didn't occur to them to compare the Boomers to the Transcendentals. Now the comparison is unavoidable.) The Boomers did not--could not--live up to those expectations. Now the peak of their power has passed and I do not think it will return. Mitt Romney is now the man most likely to become the third Boomer President, and he is not going to lead us on a great crusade.
The Boomer legacy of emotional freedom is an important one, and the counterattack upon it from the religious right seems destined to fail. But the price we have paid politically has been enormous and we will continue paying it for a long time. It is idle even to ask whether one was more important than the other. They came together, a tribute to the endless complexities and paradoxes of human experience, and future generations, apparently, will have to restore the balance.
P.S. I am delighted by the response to this post, below.
Meanwhile, I wouldn't want anyone to miss this brilliant piece of media criticism from Slate, which picked up on something that I had been noticing myself over the last few weeks.