September 10th 2016


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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY 'Born that way' far from being scientifically verified

CANBERRA OBSERVED Malcolm's 25-point action plan is a bit dusty

NATIONAL AFFAIRS Chinese Australians deplore Mao celebration

U.S. POLITICS A superficial comparison: Donald is no Ronald

VIETNAM MEMOIR Reminder of communist tyranny from a good man

AUSTRALIAN MILITARY HISTORY 10 more awards for Long Tan after 50-year delay

EUTHANASIA BOOK REVIEW Moving stories by no means the whole story

UNITED STATES LABOUR The dwindling state of the States' unions

MUSIC The past is a present and enduring danger

CINEMA Stop-motion serves memory: Kubo and the Two Strings

BOOK REVIEW The West's left turn into today

LETTERS

EDITORIAL 'Free market' ideology a failure: economists

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BOOK REVIEW
The West's left turn into today




News Weekly, September 10, 2016

 

1966: The Year the Decade Exploded

by Jon Savage

Faber & Faber, London
Hardcover: 620 pages
Price: AUD$49.99

 

Reviewed by Jeffry Babb

 

Exactly 50 years on, what can we say about 1966? The so-called “Swinging Sixties” were a time of almost unimaginable prosperity, spread uniformly across the Western world. Economists would argue that we are far more prosperous now, but many people have been left behind by economic growth, trying to make ends meet on contract and part-time work, enough to make them “employed” in the statistician’s eyes.

Prosperity in the Sixties was uniform. Women were making their presence felt. The West was climbing out of a pit of wartime deprivation. The ventures by the Chifley and Attlee governments to impose wartime “state socialism” austerity on their peoples were rejected emphatically at the ballot box. People wanted to reap the fruits of victory, not wallow in misery.

Some would argue that 1968, when Paris erupted in student riots, was more significant, but the seeds were sown in 1966. 1966: The Year the Decade Exploded traces the genesis of the great events and social and political movements that have fashioned Western society ever since. This story relies on key pop songs and bands, prime among them the Beatles, to develop its argument. The book has an extensive discography.

The motive force behind the Sixties was the rise of the Baby Boomers, the generation born between the end of World War II and the early 1960s. The notion of a “teenager” was a relatively new concept. The “Summer of Love” in 1967 drew crowds of would-be hippies to the Haight-Ashbury neighbourhood in San Francisco. The struggle between teens and Los Angeles police for control of the clubs on Sunset Strip pitted the youth of Los Angeles in pitched battle against the law enforcement authorities.

Needless to say, in the short term, the police won the battle. But not for long. In the long term, it was the Boomers who would take control of the destiny of the Western world. Their creed, says Savage, was that “success wasn’t the be-all and end-all; it was possible to conceive of an alternative future, to believe that things could be different, that people could be free”.

Hanging over the head of the Boomers was the prospect of nuclear Armageddon. The Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 brought the prospect of imminent nuclear war to the universal consciousness of the Western world. If the United States and the Soviet Union launched their nuclear missiles at each other, what would be left?

Pacifism was deified. In Britain, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) organised the Aldermaston Marches, which at their peak brought hundreds of thousands of pacifist marchers out onto the streets. The Cold War was at its height. The marches played into the hands of the Soviets. In America, the Vietnam War was masticating a generation of young conscripts, a disproportionate number of whom were poor and black.

The anti-war atmosphere was mixed into a witch’s brew of rebellion by artists such as Bob Dylan and Peter, Paul and Mary. The end result was that support for war as a policy option, no matter the cause or justification, was devalued, to be replaced by a miasma of pacifism.

It is almost impossible now to imagine that the “draft” could be reinstated in the nations of the prosperous West. Indeed, the U.S. and its allies have been campaigning in the Middle East for 20 years with “all volunteer” armies. Seemingly, the soldiers of World War I and World Ware II were heroes, while the veterans of Vietnam were let languish in a social ghetto.

Drugs in Western society, up until the Sixties, had been restricted to marginalised groups such as the urban poor, artists, medical personnel and criminals. Consumption of LSD was for a long time legal and it was manufactured by mainstream pharmaceutical companies. LSD was almost universally consumed by “progressive” pop groups such as Grace Slick and Jefferson Airplane as a means of “expanding consciousness”.

LSD is a very dangerous drug, especially when consumed in tumultuous environments such as rowdy clubs. Psychosis is a common outcome. In the Sixties marijuana use became so common that the bands that used “dope” didn’t attempt to disguise the fact that they smoked the drug. That the era’s most famous artists, including the Rolling Stones, the Beatles and Bob Dylan, smoked pot was known to their followers.

This, combined with peer group pressure, evolved into the current situation where in some American states consumption of marijuana has been, in all practical terms, legalised. The drug experimentation of the Sixties led to the drug culture of today.

The use of LSD for “mind expansion” had a link to the pursuit of mystical visions. Moreover, Christianity seemed to be losing its place in the West to be replaced by Eastern religions. In particular the Beatles’ George Harrison and John Lennon led the way in that direction. Combined with this was the introduction and popularisation of Indian musical instruments, such as the sitar. Indian musician Ravi Shankar, for example, became very popular in the West.

The dubious quality of much of this Eastern “philosophy” was exposed when Tuesday Lobsang Rampa, an exponent of a transcendental variety of Tibetan Buddhism and populariser of the notion of the transmigration of souls, was found to be bogus. Lobsang Rampa’s best-selling book, The Third Eye: The Autobiography of a Tibetan Lama, was revealed as the work of an English plumber from Devon named Cyril Henry Hoskin. This embarrassing revelation had little effect on sales of his books.

Ideas of this sort have a long and persistent intellectual history. Madame Helena Blavatsky’s survey of the occult, The Secret Doctrine: The Synthesis of Science, Religion and Philosophy, published in 1888, was the progenitor of much such mysticism. The symbiosis of mysticism and “progressive” politics has been described most effectively in Professor Patrick O’Brien’s book, The Saviours: An Intellectual History of the Left in Australia.

Just how far these ideas penetrated the mainstream of the West can be seen in the Whitlam government, itself a child of the Sixties, which affirmed the link between politics and a transcendental code in a 1972 book, Towards a New Australia. This book, which outlines a plan to transform Australia, was the foundation for the next 40 years of Australian Labor policymaking. Politics was no longer merely about government; it was a project to create a new man.

Modern art was coming out of the closet. Dada, which revelled in the irrational, found objects and collage, was a primary inspiration for Sixties artists. Marcel Duchamp’s famous bicycle wheel, now in the Museum of Modern Art in New York, is probably the best-known Dada piece. Surrealism, Dada’s close cousin, had concentrated more on the dreamlike quality of reality. Salvador Dali’s melting clock, such as in 1934’s Persistence of Memory, serves as a prime example of Surrealism.

In terms of social history, pop artist Andy Warhol had great influence. Homosexuality had always been frowned upon in Anglo-Saxon societies. Warhol promoted camp culture, as did popular newsmagazines such as Time and Newsweek, which often reported on “progressive” movements. Warhol was openly homosexual and promoted other homosexuals, including his many lovers.

The record industry was regarded as a “queer friendly” space, although blackmail was not unknown. The Sixties kick-started the assertion of gay identity, the single most determinative incident being the Stonewall Riots at the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village on Manhattan in June, 1969. These riots signaled a shift in tactics by homosexual activists from a campaign of education and assimilation to one of confrontation and definition of group identity by GLBTI (Gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and intersex) interest groups.

Of all the social movements that emerged from the Sixties, in terms of political and social policy, the GLBTI lobby has been among the most influential. The GLBTI movement must be broadly grouped with drugs, youth revolt, pop art, racial mingling and the anti-war movement as a constituent of the counterculture. The combination of the Vietnam War, which peaked in the Sixties, and the propensity of draft boards to compulsorily enlist poor and coloured youths into the U.S. Armed Forces gave the civil rights movement a kick along. The assassination of black activists Malcolm X and Martin Luther King demonstrated that the civil rights movement had tapped a very deep vein of white cultural insecurity.

Feminism differs somewhat from other Sixties social movements. Women had been co-opted during World War II to do the jobs vacated by the men who had gone to fight. They did, on the whole, return to the kitchen when the men returned, but the memory of what many regarded as better economic times persisted.

Feminism was (and remains) an upper middle-class phenomenon. The Second Sex by French philosopher Simone de Beauvoir remains an impressive intellectual effort to this day. Not until Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique was published in 1963 did second-wave feminism gain traction. Many of second-wave feminism’s aims seem neither logical nor desirable but feminism has conquered society’s commanding heights. How else can we explain, for example, that women are now deployed in front-line combat roles in the Australian armed forces, where significant casualties are inevitable when the “long peace” fades? Or that “gender equality” is de rigeur in big business at senior management level?

What were down-to-earth Australians doing in the Sixties, far from the bright lights of London and New York? In Milleara, Garden Suburb, Margaret Marshall describes the aspirations of residents moving into a new housing estate. Milleara was designed by Walter Burley Griffin, the American planner of Canberra. Melbourne’s outer suburbs, populated by honest toilers, were despised by the cognoscenti.

Marshall wrote: “Many non-British European migrants started life in Australia in shared or rented small homes in Footscray or Brunswick and aspired to a home of their own in the outer suburbs. They worked hard, scrimped and saved to put a new brick home on their block in East Keilor. Like earlier residents these migrants were strongly independent and house proud and avoided having large debts. They were working-class people who believed in the cash economy and assisted each other, in particular their family.”

New York and London are far away. The metropolitan megacities control the world’s cultural industries. Of course the Sixties affected Australia profoundly, in ways still being played out, but for most working Australians, life went on as usual.

This book does not seek to justify the Sixties retrospectively. To gain maximum benefit from the book a working knowledge of Sixties popular music and culture is essential.


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