It seems as if no social critic can get a fair hearing in the mass media unless she-he blames it on the sixties. If you Google the expression “blame it on the sixties,” you summon up references to a wide range of articles and books in which experts and pundits blame a variety of current social and economic problems on changes in the attitudes, customs and mores of the 1960’s. My perusal of the first three pages of search results found the 1960’s and early 1970’s faulted for the rise in child abuse, our economic decline, political correctness, the vote in the Electoral College for Donald Trump, the increase in obesity, crime and growing drug abuse.
You’d think that most of the sixties-haters would be religious and social conservatives, because, say what you will about that decade, it did witness the sexual revolution that led to more open attitudes and greater social acceptance of sexual rights for women and all kinds of sexual experiences between all kinds of people. But as it turns out, a substantial number of sixties critics are self-flagellating liberals, you know, pundits who claim to be liberal but butter their bread by always blaming liberals for their own predicament. For example, after the election, a slew of Democrats blamed Clinton’s loss on the Democrats depending too much on “identity politics,” i.e., caring about civil rights. With friends like that…
The latest liberal self-flagellator to blame the sixties for the deplorable state of the world is novelist and journalist Kurt Andersen, in his glib and often superficial Fantasyland. Anderson’s description of today’s American Fantasyland is attractive and largely accurate. The insidious spread of fake news; the new level of lying by politicians; the basing of social and economic policy on disproven or bad science; the great numbers of Americans who believe in demons, the absolute existence of a god with male features and/or a literal interpretation of the Judeo-Christian genesis myth; the large number of adults whose lives revolve around electronic games, comic book superheroes, cosplay and other escapist fare; the climate change deniers, the evolution deniers, the birthers—these snapshots of the irrational are but a sampling of the evidence that Andersen musters to show that current American society is based on lies and myths, that we surround ourselves with fantasy.
Andersen is also right when he asserts that fantasy has played a major role in American society since the search for the Northwest Passage and the Salem witch trials. His history of irrational thought in America reads like an outline or a greatest hits list: each major figure in an irrational movement or trend gets a paragraph or so. For readers who want to delve into the long history of irrational thought in America, Fantasyland can serve as a syllabus that sends you to the right people and primary sources to read.
But the third part of Andersen’s thesis—that the sixties marked a turning point, after which instead of being a peripheral trend, irrationality took center stage—is dead wrong.
In sixties terminology, Andersen’s mistake is to conflate “do your own thing” with “believe your own thing.” Yes, a lot of people believed in some pretty weird stuff in the 1960’s. Like the First (1730-1740) and Second (1800-1860) Great Awakenings and the Roaring Twenties, the sixties saw an uptick in interest in the occult and the irrational. But lots of the doing of your own thing in the sixties and early seventies involved overthrowing old myths and lies and asserting the truth of empirical science, such as the anti-Vietnam War, Civil Rights, Women’s Rights, Gay Rights, environmental, anti-nuclear, organic gardening and sustainable living movements. All products of a very rational sixties. And in every case, it was the government or the majority of those with influence who were living in a fantasy.
Andersen takes particular note of the rise of the Pentecostal movement and televangelism in the 1960’s. True enough, but morality is not inherently contra-factual. Morality motivated a lot of the antiwar activists and poverty workers. Remember, too, that a Christian left and right wing have existed in this country since at least the abolitionist movement got its start. Even if we accept the core beliefs of the Christian right wing that have persisted for at least 140 years, a rise in a concern for moral issues doesn’t in and of itself suggest the society is entering a fantasyland. I can be against a woman’s right to control her body for moral reasons and still be living in the real world. I enter Fantasyland only when I believe that an abortion causes future health problems, that life begins at conception or that vaccines cause autism.
All of society bases part of its existence on fantastic notions, typically related to ethnic superiority, national character, religion and the convenience of rich folk. Certainly since Columbus made his voyages, religious and irrational beliefs have harmed the United States. Our economy before the 1860’s was largely based on the myth that Africans were inferior people who needed the white man’s guidance and therefore benefited from slavery. What about the medical, economic and social impact of the myths that led to the anti-marijuana laws of the 1930’s? TR, Henry Cabot Lodge and William Randolph Hearst shoveled a lot of bull hockey at Americans to build support for the Spanish-American War and our later atrocities in the Philippines. I would like to prove that the inflection point at which belief overran rationality was during the Reagan era, when so many edifices of lies were built and then used to justify horrific policies; lies and myths such as welfare queens, supply side economics, the failure of government, the failure of public schools and the benefits of the unimpeded free market. But reading history books like Stephen Kinzer’s The True Flag about the Spanish-American War epoch and Matthew Karp’s This Vast Southern Empire: Slaveholders at the Helm of American Foreign Policy about pre-Civil War U.S. foreign policy demonstrates that the Bush II and the current administrations aren’t the first times the United States has been run by a band of reality-denying ignoramuses guided by myths with no basis in reality and representing a sizable minority but not all the people.
If we, as I do, place primary blame for the growth of the American Fantasyland on the increase of lies and myths knowingly perpetrated by the news media, we can’t really locate in the 1960’s the inflection point after which fantasies begin to dominate the media and, by inference, American society. Since the original scandal sheets and yellow journalism of the Gilded Age, mass media has been growing inexorably, and as it does, so has the ubiquity of advertising, the focus on celebrity and the increase in myths being presented as truth—in commercials, by televangelists, well-funded rightwing think tanks and rightwing television and radio, on alt-right and UFO websites, in social media and fake news. Let’s look at some of major events in the history of media’s creation of Fantasyland: yellow journalism emerged at the end of 19th century, free market commercial radio developed in the 1920’s, the first radio evangelists started broadcasting in the 1930’s and 1940’s, the rise of commercial television and the beginning of the right wing creating alternative distribution channels for their myths occurred in the 1950’s, the federal law that allowed companies to own more TV and radio stations passed in the 1980’s, rightwing radio was born in the 1990’s, the Internet was the 2000’s, the Citizens United decision in 2010. You get the idea.
Why then blame the 1960’s? We would have to read into Kurt Andersen’s heart to know the answer as it pertains to Fantasyland. I am, however, quite confident that the larger phenomenon of blaming the 1960’s (and early 1970’s) for every social and economic ill since then results from the mass media applying a screen: Blame the sixties—we like it; blame another decade—reject the article! For the most part rich folk who like the status quo own the mass media and the companies which support media outlets with advertising. While rich folk include a spectrum of beliefs from left-leaning to ultra-right (there are very few socialists of any ilk among this group), they mostly lean right and mostly want to protect the prerogatives of the wealthy.
And they don’t like the true story of what happened in the sixties: It was the absolute high point for equality of wealth and income in U. S. history and the high point of union power (if not of union membership, which occurred in the 1950’s). While not the inflection point for American irrationality, it certainly was for the movement to provide equal rights in courts, the marketplace and workplace to all Americans—plenty happened afterwards, but the turning point certainly came in the 1960’s with the maturing of the Civil Rights movement and the start of other inclusion movements. The 1960’s thus represent the start of the threat to the special position of white males.
In other words, the real “evil” of the 1960’s is not that it created an American Fantasyland, or that it led to a decline in morals or educational standards or the work ethic. No, what the mass media hates about the 1960’s is that for a few brief years we saw a way to institute a true social democracy in a fairly equitable society with a fairly level playing field, kind of like the model developed in Europe after World War II. The Reaganites saw another way, but to make it work, they had to denigrate the real ideals of the sixties—government spending to solve social problems, a level playing field that did not favor individuals of any group, the importance of ending poverty and giving people a hand up, enlightened stewardship of natural resources, a foreign policy not dependent on America bullying other nations. These core beliefs—all based on facts and science—contradict everything the right stands for. Thus the desire, even today, to blame everything on the 1960’s.
I stopped reading novels about writers or university teachers about 30 years ago. I think it might be time to stop reading books that blame the 60’s.