Six months ago I reviewed a book by Heather Hendershot, When the News Broke, about the television coverage of the turbulent Democratic Convention of 1968. The current issue of the New York Review of Books includes a review of the same book by the distinguished Columbia historian Eric Foner. I have some differences of opinion with Foner about the era which we both lived through, mostly about the role of leading mainstream media outlets. " For many years," he writes, especially but not exclusively in the South, the mainstream press published articles about the civil rights movement that denigrated demonstrators, defended segregation, and included the names of Black men and women who sought to register to vote, resulting frequently in economic retribution such as the loss of their jobs." I believe that nearly all the major northern media coverage of the civil rights movement in the South was very sympathetic, as were the news broadcasts of the major television networks. "Until 1968," he continues, "the news media displayed a remarkable credulity about official claims of military progress in Vietnam and failed to examine in any depth the rising tide of nationalism in the colonial world that helped explain the conflict." In fact young reporters for leading newspapers in Vietnam expressed enormous skepticism about how the war was going during the Kennedy Administration and much of the media was skeptical from the outset of the large-scale war in 1965. Foner wants us to believe that we needed I.F. Stone's Weekly, the Nation, and the new underground press to learn the truth. And that leads me to what I really want to talk about: the definition of the exact legacy and the intellectual and academic rebellion of the late 1960s, to which Foner turns at the end of his review.
Foner points out that the bulk of the television audience sided with the police, not the protesters, after watching the Chicago convention. Partly for that reason the Democratic Party--which had won more than 60 percent of the popular vote in Johnson's 1964 landslide--won just 42.7 percent of that vote in 1968, the rest divided between Nixon and George Wallace. The entire South, except Texas, went for Nixon or Wallace in that election, the beginning of the realignment that allowed the Republicans to win five of six elections from 1968 through 1988, and the next two Democrats to reach the White House were southern centrists. Reagan put an end to the New Deal order. Yet as Foner points out, that was not the whole story:
"But radicalism did not suddenly disappear. By the early 1970s social movements dotted the political landscape, including the second wave of feminism, gay liberation, and environmentalism, while the Black struggle continued. All survive to this day, and all have changed American life in dramatic ways. The antiwar movement did not reach its peak until 1970 when, in the aftermath of the US invasion of Cambodia and the killing of four protesting students at Kent State University by members of the Ohio National Guard, a strike paralyzed campuses throughout the country. And in 1975 the war ended. . . .When did the decade of the Sixties end? Did it end at all? We sometimes seem to be reliving those years that did so much to shape our world."
I am convinced that the legacy of those years is far more profound than he seems to realize, and I want to explain why.
The Second World War and its aftermath were the climax of about two centuries of European and North American politics based upon a mix of the principles of the Enlightenment and the social influence of the Christian religion. The states of the North Atlantic region believed that reason and science could create better governments based on impartial principles and improve the lives of their citizens--and states did that. They did so, however, thanks to a widespread, though not universal, respect for authority among the citizens, who submitted to a great deal of discipline in nearly every area of their life. Education was based on well-defined curriculums. The laws tightly regulated questions of sex and marriage. Society defined strict roles for men and women. The continental European nations required their young men to serve in their armies, and the Anglo-Saxon nations adopted that practice as well during the two world wars. The Second World War showed what the modern state was capable, both for good and for evil, and much of the wartime atmosphere lasted for another fifteen or twenty years because of the Cold War. Meanwhile, a new generation was growing up in relative security and affluence--the Boom generation--whose parents had already begun to discipline much less, and who were not growing up in fear of war or destitution.
What holds the various political and social aspects of the sixties together is a rebellion against authority of all kinds--political, social, and cultural, and above all, generational. The percentage of young people in college was much higher than ever before, and this was perhaps the first generation--the Boom--in which everyone who could go to college was expected to do so. The 1964-5 school year was the first in which nearly all the students in college came from the Boom--and it coincided with the start of the Vietnam War, which over the next few years proved that the older generation had made a terrible mistake. Many students did not see why they should fight in that war, and that in turn encouraged them to question other forms of authority, from dress codes to parietal hours in dorms to the illegality of certain widely available drugs.
Something else was happening on campus. The academics of the Silent generation (b. 1925-42) were the most favored group in the history of American higher education. They got an excellent education and finished their degrees in the midst of a very rapidly expanding job market. And quite a few of them began making their names by questioning the most fundamental beliefs of postwar America--such as the idea that the Cold War was simply a defense of the free world against Communism. It was in 1965 that Gar Alperovitz--an economist, not an historian--published Atomic Diplomacy: Hiroshima and Potsdam, arguing that the United States dropped the atomic bombs on Japan to intimidate the USSR. This was one of a flood of books blaming American imperialism for the Cold War, and they all became more popular as the Vietnam War went from bad to worse. In 1973 the historian Robert James Maddox published The New Left and the Origins of the Cold War, showing that Alperovitz and six other historians had built their case largely on sand, but his work had little impact. The idea of American imperialism as the source of the world's evils was an idea whose time had come.
The women's movement, meanwhile, was getting off the ground as well. Female undergraduates accompanied their male contemporaries into graduate and professional schools in unprecedented numbers. The 1960s did not really discover gay rights--they are not even mentioned in the indispensable documentary, Berkeley in the Sixties--but the gay rights movement grew in the 1970s. To his credit, Foner does not associate the civil rights movement with the rebellion of the late 1960s. It had won its biggest successes by then, and it was being weakened by a generational rebellion of its own, led by men like Eldridge Cleaver, Stokely Carmichael and H. Rap Brown. The black activists of the late 1960s introduced a crucial shift in liberation movements. Rather than arguing, like the earlier leaders of the NAACP and Martin Luther King, Jr., that black Americans simply deserved to be treated like white Americans, they identified the United States as hopelessly racist and corrupt, beset with evils that only revolution could remove.
The rebellion continued to make gains on campus even in the Reagan era, and women's studies (later gender studies), black studies, and gay (later LGBTQIA+ studies) became established academic fields. All of them increasingly followed in the footsteps of the antiwar and black activists of the late 1960s. Rather than simply calling for equal treatment within the existing American legal framework, they increasingly insisted--following scholars like the Frenchman Michel Foucault--that all the principles of western civilization were based on the oppression of some groups by others. By the 1990s the oppressors were identified with straight white males. I recently glanced once again at my own online archive of articles from Academic Questions, the journal of the National Association of Scholars, which was formed in 1987 to defend traditional intellectual values. It is amazing how closely articles from the 1990s anticipate what has become the mainstream intellectual climate today. The attitudes that rule our elite media and publishing today already ruled the campuses then, but it took two more generations for them to take over our institutions.
Foner made his name as a scholar of Reconstruction and recently wrote a book about Abraham Lincoln--yet he has apparently refused to join the courageous scholars who have pointed out the falsehoods underlying the 1619 Project. He cannot face the idea, apparently, that the activism of the late 1960s might have done more harm than good--but that is the truth. Because I was already immersed in the writings of George Orwell--the subject of the senior thesis I wrote in 1968-9--I already had an immunity to that kind of activism, and that has stayed with me for my whole life.
The mid-twentieth century consensus, to repeat, rested on the political and intellectual principles of the Enlightenment. The rebellion against it led over the decades to the abandonment of those principles among our intellectual class. They do not believe in a single historical or social reality, but rather in multiple realities that belong to different races, genders, and people of different sexual practices. They believe that any consensus position on almost any issue is simply a vehicle by oppression by a particular group. Many of them now reject the nuclear family as a model. They cannot even accept climate change as a threat to all of us in which we have an equal stake. Something bigger, however, than leftwing activism obviously lies behind all this, because the right now feels the same way--equally entitled to believe in and act on their own reality, even when it comes to responses to new diseases. That is the real secret to what has happened in the last half century.
In the long run, the discipline of the era of the first two hundred years or so of American history turned out to be too much for humanity to endure--especially as we became more comfortable and secure economically. Nearly all of us rebelled in one way or another. Something similar may have happened to the Roman Empire, although I am too ignorant about that empire to say. Great historians, I often say, do not argue with history. Those of us in our 70s or older have lived through a profound transformation of human life--one that clearly must reflect immutable aspects of human nature. Other generations must deal with the consequences--possibly for a very long time.