Up from the Fifties

To make injustice the only
measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.

—Jack Gilbert

In the 1950s we heard it said that Americans pursued materialistic Success as an idol that eclipsed better human values. The generation of the 60s preened itself on rejecting that —with a degree of hypocrisy, it must be admitted. Now we have people born after 1970, nostalgic for the “interesting times” they could not possibly remember, raising protests about their own issues. The public atmosphere all along was freighted with public and private moralisms; now it laced with personal attacks, focused on a litany of real and imagined abuses too familiar to need repeating here. The Owl has pledged to avoid the obsessions of the present moment, and we will keep our word, but without detailing them it perhaps behooves us to recall our need for common cause with each other.

A Golden Moment

The generation of the 60s was not the first to discover materialism. That criticism goes back at least to fifth century Rome, but it was still news to the Beats of the 1950s. who were pretty successful at making commercial products of themselves. In that time, two realities converge on us with unprecedented force.

First, as heirs of postwar prosperity Baby Boomers came up in a golden moment. A working class kid could find enough money to pay for the best schools, with great teachers, the best libraries in existence, music and food in abundance, and friends with whom to enjoy them. We were excused from military conscription and protected from the impact of anti-drug laws. Our parents, after the most horrendous of wars, saw life as something of a miracle, and sent us love upon request.

It seems odd that the decade should become synonymous with protest, but so it did. Secure as our foundation was, we felt we could kick against it with no danger to ourselves. We were like a child who screams at his parents, “I hate you,” secure in the knowledge he will still get his supper and sleep in his usual bed. We could not imagine any real threat to the sources of our sustenance. We saw it as a virtue, and we still do, to indict our country for its injustices.

Second, this was the first generation to receive the full impact of the most powerful marketing system that had ever existed. The same television that sold soap, refrigerators, and cars, sold narcissism in all its forms. To this day, people only dimly realize that there is not a moment on television which is not doing both: entertaining and selling. Merely putting an image on the screen gives it a heightened presence. Whatever its impact up to that moment—positive or negative, humane or cruel, healthy or perverse—TV makes it more real than anything not so noticed.

On November 25, 1960, Edward R. Murrow, CBS, aired “Harvest of Shame.” The subject was Appalachian poverty, marking the industry’s acknowledgment that not all America was white and middle class. It was advertised as a courageous move; but far from being an unpopular shock, it was a stroke of supreme business genius. It offered an awakened conscience for the affluent, identity itself for needy people, and a poignant vision to hold the audience for advertisers; all were blended into a seamless whole. Nobody saw any danger in this cocktail—on the contrary, we felt ourselves virtuous for having taken it in. Social injustices there were, and they needed to be addressed, to be sure. But we did more; we turned indictment into entertainment.

The Business Model

In both entertainment and marketing, something has to replace the last thing before it gets stale. Contrasts are made sharper, antagonisms deeper, and rhetoric stronger. There came in succession the civil rights movement, Mississippi Freedom Summer, the anti-draft movement and Vietnam War protests. Soon other causes, saying in effect, “What about me? I too deserve redress.” And, since the essence of marketing is competition, “I deserve it more than those other guys do.” Activists promoted themselves by discovering suffering at the margins that the rest of us were too thickheaded to notice, too insensitive to care about, or too slow to fix. It wasn’t long before pundits were saying injustice was endemic to our polity, our economy, our culture, and our psychology itself.

A pair of cynical presidents played into the malaise. Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon responded to the anti-war enthusiasm with arrogance and lies. Taking warrant from those men’s very real vices, the movement responded still more stridently. Hyperbolic shouts of “genocide!” began to fill the air. Since then, other causes have followed, lumped into one “resistance.” At the same time, we have added social media to the mix; power is measured in tweets and clicks, which are generated far more easily by anger than by sweetness and light, so we get what we see.

Mining injustice for power and profit is an industry. In some of our larger cities, where the amount of money in play might actually relieve poverty if distributed rationally, we have what has been called the homeless-industrial complex. Some of the leaders in this are certified ministers of the Gospel; even the secular operators offer the equivalent of plenary indulgences; soothing the conscience for money. Against our better interests, misery and injustice, or the appearance of them,are thus made market goods. It would be hard to imagine a more straightforward definition of perversion—a word never to be used lightly.[1]

The victim, predictably, remains a victim. The object of solicitude does not break out of the anger that goes with the role of victim. That anger has to be kept hot for the machine to keep running. It is seductive and self-validating, even after it has become destructive. Meanwhile, its promoters, who do not suffer from it, show no qualms about leading more into the temptation.

3 thoughts on “Up from the Fifties”

  1. I remember in the late sixties after service in Veetnam, I became what I considered to be a liberal. Most of our generation did. Not many mean ol’ conservatives. Not that anyone could properly define either movement at the time. I guess we were more Jefferson type liberals, based on the root word “liberty”. Some where along the line, powers much greater than I co-opted the liberal movement. I had already moved to the jungles (how non-pc is that word?) of Hawaii where our generation practiced a lot of barter and advocated for no government involvement. (Remember: never trust anyone over 30!) When I reentered western civilization I was reclassified a conservative. I don’t think I had changed; I still believed in liberty and the 2nd amendment. So many of my acquaintances had been co-opted, though. It took me a while to figure that out. How could they change from “Berkeley” free speech to advocate for the control of thought and speech on the internet? That question is still unanswered for me. Someone a lot smarter than I managed to pull if off. Sounding like a crotchety old conservative aren’t I?

  2. “Liberal” used to meant, more or less, “favoring freedom and open to a variety of ideas and people.” This certainly does not describe the current left-wing elite in our country. I am seeing reports of some of the violence I remember from the late 1960s. My daughters report that they dare not discuss politics or religion (they are Christian believers) at work.

    1. Katherine, I generally refer to our liberalism as Jeffersonian Liberalism. I don’t know if that is entirely accurate but it conveys the connection with liberty. That connection seems to be lost on today’s progressives.

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