Do you really remember the sixties?
May 05, 2008
New research suggests that the sixties was not really the decade of
peace, love and understanding that people generally remember.
Instead, Professor Gerard DeGroot claims that the decade was as much
marked by 'mindless mayhem, shallow commercialism and unbridled
cruelty' as it was by wearing flowers in your hair and loving your fellow man.
In a new book, the University of St Andrews' researcher attempts to
rewrite the history books and capture 'the real spirit of the
sixties' that is generally lost in the mists of nostalgia. Out this
week, The Sixties Unplugged: A Kaleidoscopic History of a Disorderly
Decade, suggests an alternative view of the decade best known as a
time for free love. The new research restores to the hippy era the
`prevalent disorder and inconvenient truths that longing,
wistfulness, and distance have obscured from memory'.
The historian claims that nostalgia can create a distorted view of
history as it 'strives to impose order on memory and value on mayhem'.
He said, "We remember the Sixties for sex, drugs and rock and roll.
The 1960s is a decade often seen through a rose-tinted lens: an era
when the young would not only rule the world but change it, too, for
the better. Books and films about the decade tend invariably to
reinforce that image. But is such fond nostalgia really merited?
"How many of us, reflecting on those times, think about Sharpeville,
the Six Day War, starvation in Biafra, mass murder in Jakarta or the
Chinese Cultural Revolution, which was undoubtedly one of the worst
atrocities of the 20th Century? Forty years after the summer of love,
it is possible to focus more clearly on what actually took place."
Far from being a decade of opening doors, Professor DeGroot claims
that it was, rather, a time when real opportunities for liberal
progress were destroyed by a generation of protesters in 'thrall to
violence and in love with their television image'.
"The survival of the Sixties myth says something about the resilience
of our spirit, if not about the reality of our world", he continued.
"The decade brought flowers, music, love and good times. It also
brought hatred, murder, greed, dangerous drugs, needless deaths,
ethnic cleansing, neo-colonialist exploitation, soundbite politics,
sensationalism, a warped sense of equality, a bizarre notion of
freedom, the decline of liberalism and the end of innocence. Bearing
all that in mind, the decade should seem neither unfamiliar nor all
The Sixties Unplugged: A Kaleidoscopic History of a Disorderly Decade
by Professor Gerard DeGroot is published by Macmillan.
Author separates facts, myths of '60s
Sunday, May 11, 2008
By JOE BLUNDO
As I was reading The Sixties Unplugged, that troublesome decade kept
plugging itself back in.
Barack Obama's acquaintance with Bill Ayers, a former member of the
bomb-happy Weather Underground, came to light in the presidential
campaign. Another anniversary of the Kent State shootings (a 1970
event with a 1960s genesis) was commemorated. A hair-dye commercial
aimed at lusty baby boomers aired.
It's impossible to kill a decade. But The Sixties Unplugged: A
Kaleidoscopic History of a Disorderly Decade (Harvard University, 528
pages, $29.95) at least puts some of its myths out of their misery.
The Summer of Love? More like the summer of rape, says author Gerard
J. DeGroot, a history professor at the University of St. Andrews in
Scotland. He makes a pretty good case that San Francisco in 1967 was
a paradise for hippie sexual predators.
"Often it was not even called rape," he says -- "merely an expression
of sexual freedom."
If this sounds like a conservative screed, it's not. DeGroot is an
equal-opportunity iconoclast, hammering everyone from the clownish
Jerry Rubin to the clueless J. Edgar Hoover.
But student protesters take a bigger beating than they did in Chicago
in 1968. The passing years have tended to meld the hippies, the
yippies, the anti-war activists, Students for a Democratic Society
and a lot of other restless young people into one grand coalition
that faced down the government.
DeGroot patiently separates them. He delineates the difference
between the Berkeley Free Speech Movement (spawned by an effort to
restrict campus protest that enraged both liberal and conservative
students) and the incoherent Rubin, an egotist whose main interest
was in showing off.
In a lot of cases, DeGroot drains the era of its mystique by nothing
more complicated than quoting the reflections of the student leaders.
Columbia University activist Mark Rudd admits to mixed protest
motives: "It was a social thing. People hang out. And the subculture
is fun. There were drugs and girls."
Well, history doesn't occur in decades anyway. Nothing that happened
during the 1960s was disconnected from the 1950s, '40s or '30s, but
popular culture likes to reduce everything to 10-year packages for
This has made it easier for boomers to glory in their youthful
exploits, boring the generations that followed.
If they read DeGroot, they might stop claiming to have invented
premarital sex: Out-of-wedlock births rose 150 percent between 1941
and 1964, well before the first flower children began having babies, he notes.
DeGroot's main complaint with '60s mythology is that it depicts the
decade as a coherent march toward peace, love and liberalism. He
points out that a Newsweek poll in 1967 found the most popular
student political group to be the Young Republicans.
In fact, DeGroot credits student radicals with unintentionally
helping to create the conservative movement that is so strong today.
Ronald Reagan, realizing where popular sentiment really lay, was
elected governor of California by talking tough about unruly youth.
Behind him came Newt Gingrich, Rush Limbaugh and the rest.
And so the 1960s march on, but not exactly as expected.
Joe Blundo is a Dispatch columnist.
Far out: The Sixties laid bare
THE 60s UNPLUGGED by Gerard DeGroot (Macmillan, £20)
By ANDREW MARR
9th May 2008
The Sixties was the first decade with a cultural slap so stinging
people are still sore about it today. Nobody gets hot under the
collar about the Fifties, or even the Forties which were much more
important. But the Sixties comes in lurid warpaint.
Was it the Devil's decade, a satanic dance of indulgence, idiot
politics and sexual cruelty; or a sunlit ten years of optimism,
freedom and fun?
Recently, there have been plenty of lazy, cuttings-job books about
the Sixties, giving a conservative or liberal reading. Gerard
DeGroot, an American who teaches at St Andrews University, again
takes us through Mary Quant, The Beatles, Mods and Rockers fighting
by the seaside, and a brief history of orgies. Most people interested
in British history will be unsurprised.
What makes his book special, though, is that he adds in so many
unfamiliar parts of the story, and has such a wicked eye for damning quotes.
Here we find the nightmare of Mao's China. Unreported in the West at
the time, cannibalism was being used to terrify dissidents, and human
flesh was served in the cafeteria of the Wuxuan Revolutionary Committee.
We hear about the creative rebels of Holland, called Provos, who used
laughter and mockery to subvert Dutch society and had no illusions at
all about the masses 'these apathetic, dependent, spiritless bunch
of cockroaches, beetles and ladybugs'.
We see heroes with feet of Clay. In one scene, two black Americans
one Muslim, one Christian are in a ring. The Muslim, now renamed
Muhammad Ali, has seen his TV appearances collapse since attacking
Christianity and declaring that integration is wrong.
The other man, Floyd Patterson, a Christian, has promised to reclaim
the heavyweight boxing title 'for America'.
Ali replies that he is 'a deaf dumb so-called Negro who deserves a
spanking. I'm going to punish him for the things he said ...' Now he
is doing so, with deliberate cruelty, smashing him again and again,
but giving him time to recover just so that the punishment can go on.
'Come on, white America!' he taunts Patterson, as the vicious
spectacle goes on.
Or how about this? It is 1967 and a new pop band is outselling The
Beatles and the Rolling Stones combined. It's a genuinely prophetic
form of pop music: that is, cynical, bland, manufactured by marketing
people and confected by television The Monkees.
As DeGroot puts it, their top-selling song of that year, I'm A
Believer, was a delightful irony 'since they believed in nothing'.
If we turn to the radical politics on American campuses, we find the
largest student group is not the Left-wing Students For A Democratic
Society, still less the Black Panthers, but the Young Republicans.
And who are these kids waving banners promising to do unspeakable
things to the draft and the state? Not Yippies but Young Americans
for Freedom, embracing the cause of a rising Californian politician
called Ronald Reagan.
So who had the last laugh? The Sixties led to the triumph of
consumerism and conservatism.
The student radicals went into public relations, journalism and
mainstream politics, or even learned to turn an honest penny. Well,
the real winner of the Sixties turns out to be the media. Victory
comes not through the barrel of a gun, as Mao thought, but the barrel
of a camera lens.
The Woodstock festival was a filthy, chaotic disaster: but clever
cutting of the film turned it into a hazy-golden paradise. Che was
rubbish as an international guerilla leader; but he achieved global
martyrdom on T-shirts thanks to an ace photograph.
There are real heroes in these pages. Martin Luther King, a womaniser
so rampant that the FBI's Hoover told him suicide might be a good way
out, nevertheless shook the conscience of America. He, not Ali, made
it possible for Barack Obama to challenge for the U.S. presidency.
Bob Dylan's derisive hostility to fans who wanted to make him the
spokesman for a generation ('As far as I knew, I didn't belong to
anybody') now seems shrewd, not shrewish. Rachel Carson, taking on
the pesticide scandal as she is dying of breast cancer, was a true prophet.
But for the rest of us, the overwhelming moral is that it is
appallingly easy to be fooled by our own instinctive optimism,
through striking images and flowery words.
We have become a more sceptical people, which is good, and a more
cynical people, which is sad. This is the book which tells you why.