The Long March: How the Cultural Revolution of the 1960’s Changed America, By Roger Kimball: Encounter, 2000
Once in a while a book is published
which seems to provide a genuine landmark in the way we understand ourselves
and our world. To his considerable credit, the American Roger Kimball has
performed this singular feat not once but twice: first with Tenured Radicals:
How Politics Has Corrupted Our Higher Education and now with The Long March:
How the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s Changed America. Although both
books were written specifically about the United States their messages
are no less relevant to other Western countries such as Australia.
As a cultural commentator myself, it has been quite a rare experience for me to encounter views with which I am in almost total agreement. Indeed, if I were obliged to nominate five relatively recent books which have caused me to cheer out loud, thank God or punch the air with pleasure, Kimball’s aforementioned volumes would be two of them. The remaining three would be Paul Johnson’s Intellectuals, Roger Scruton’s An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Modern Culture and Hilton Kramer’s Twilight of the Intellectuals. Is it a coincidence, you may ask, that three of the five have been written by Catholics and all five by political conservatives?
Naturally, I do not imply for a moment that a great deal of other excellent material has not been published in the same period. Evidently it has, although much of such material has appeared solely in the pages of intelligent periodicals such as the one you are enjoying at this moment. Sadly, though, too little of the worthy material which appears in such journals ever gets collected and published in book form. The ephemerality of journals tends to defeat the best efforts of us all. Metaphorically, while newspapers and periodicals provide excellent tools for swatting flies and cockroaches, it generally takes a weighty hardback to flatten a troublesome rodent or reptile.
Roger Kimball’s The Long March provides, within its 284 pages, all the heavy ammunition we need to refute just about every foolish claim which has been made for the 1960s. Other books or articles may expose Norman Mailer, as Kimball does, as a “moral cretin” but few deal with equal severity with such other icons of the era as Allen Ginsberg, Timothy Leary, William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, Wilhelm Reich, Jerry Rubin, Susan Sontag, Daniel Berrigan, Herbert Marcuse, Bobby Seale and Eldridge Cleaver. While the mere reciting of these names may send a shudder down the spines of many who experienced the varied forms of civic madness and distortions of truth the doctrines of these people helped engender, many others exist who bad little or no personal experience of the decade in question yet still insist on viewing it via some rosy, phantasmagoric or hallucinogenic glow. Part of the continuing, toxic appeal of the 1960s lies in the way the era has managed to help perpetuate adolescent ideas into adulthood.
However, as the cover of The Long March eloquently explains:
The Age of Aquarius did not end when the last electric guitar was unplugged at Woodstock. The 1960s continue to reverberate in our national life today. This decade transformed high culture as well as everyday life in terms of our attitudes toward self and country, sex and drugs, and manners and morality.
Others may think of the 1960s as The Last Good Time but Kimball has no
patience with such nostalgia. He sees this decade as a seedbed of excess
and moral breakdown. He argues that the radical assaults on “The System”
that took place then still define the way we live now, with intellectually
debased schools and colleges, morally chaotic sexual relations and family
life, and a degraded media and popular culture.
Clearly, Kimball is no fan of the 1960s and, having witnessed much of the era at first hand from the supposedly ideal standpoint of being twenty-something, neither am I. It could be justly said, I believe, that it is not only nature but evil which abhors a vacuum. Having witnessed mankind’s climb with difficulty from the depredations of the Second World War, though the Cold War climate yet also increased prosperity and stability of the 1950s, a truly detached or Olympian observer could probably have foreseen what would happen next in America and the Western world simply through knowledge of human nature.
Why, after centuries of belief—and ample historic evidence—to the contrary were people suddenly persuaded en masse that in sexual promiscuity and the use of mind-warping drugs lay the joint keys to any future advance for Western society? It might appear that one would need to be an historical and moral idiot to be sold such a story, yet millions upon millions of young and nor-so-young people signed up. And once the momentum had gathered force, the supposed zeitgeist seemed unstoppable. I recall thinking at the time that when phrases such as “the Permissive Society” were invented the consequences were probably self-fulfilling. It was easy enough to imagine girls in respectable rural towns first encountering the phrase and then modifying their moral standpoints, in much the same way as the length of their skirts, simply to fit in with the “with-it” urban fashions: “if ours is a permissive society, I’d better start becoming permissive myself”.
Like Kimball, I see hardly anything of even the slightest human worth as emerging from 1960s initiatives. One especially distressing development which I recall vividly was the then widespread habit in England of young parents to encourage or even oblige even very young children to remain awake and fully dressed during adult dinner parties. Invariably such children howled from sheer fatigue, desperation and boredom as the hours passed by. It is hard to remember now what the parental justifications were, although they will surely have been based on some bizarre contemporary notion concerning infantile rights and liberties. The 1960s were the era in which common sense began the long vacation from which it has never returned. Kimball is acidly accurate in his analyses of such matters. I, too, do not think we can even begin to progress genuinely until we distance ourselves intellectually as well as historically from an era of wanton and destructive childishness.
One of the particular pleasures of reading Kimball is the polite yet firm and unequivocal way with which he deals with popular heresies and myths. Even when demolishing some widely esteemed icon- William Burroughs, for example—Kimball writes as though his findings ought to be self-evident to all people who are in full possession of their senses. Broadly speaking—in the case of mature people at least—this assumption ought to be true. Unfortunately one of the lasting consequences of the sixties has been a disastrous decline in ability to ratiocinate even among supposedly educated people.
Today the ability to think or act rationally is presented by many of our educators simply as an instrument of bourgeois or patriarchal power. In fact, in the present postmodern age, there seems no limit to the sheer irrationality and dangerous absurdity of much currently fashionable thinking. When rationality disappears from human discourse, what is left? Wild rhetoric and an ominous over-reliance on “gut feeling” are two obvious alternatives, both of which threaten to return any degree of civilisation rapidly to the barbarity of the bear-pit. Did someone mention daily scenes in the Australian parliament?
My guess is that Kimball’s book would be on the forbidden reading list in the houses of Australia’s metropolitan chartering classes, who will resort, as ever, to damning the author, without bothering to read, let alone understand, his book. The major tactic of the creeping left-wing totalitarianism which permeates education and the arts (to say nothing of public broadcasting) in contemporary Australia is to deny any kind of hearing to all opposing views. While paying lip-service to democracy, the ultimate aim of the left here is to achieve an all-obliterating power which can sweep aside anything as inconvenient as contrary opinion, truth or facts. Taking Lenin as their example, any means at all is deemed suitable for the cause. It is a further measure of current irrationality that the cause itself should have become largely unquestioned by now. Left-wing utopianism is an incurable disease.
While entirely capable of demolishing empty claims and arguments on his own, Kimball wisely summons the contributions made by other voices of reason in opposing the growing tide of chaos the 1960s brought in their wake. Thus Kimball quotes the philosopher Harvey Mansfield, who dismisses the supposedly mind-expanding virtues of drugs as being “an illusion so pathetic that one can scarcely credit that it was once held”. On the subject of total license, Kimball quotes the diplomat and historian George E Kennan to equally telling effect:
There is, in this cultivation of an absolute freedom, and above all in the very self-destructiveness with which it often expresses itself, a selfishness, a hardheartedness, a callousness, an irresponsibility, an indifference to the feelings of others, that is its own condemnation. No one ever destroys just himself alone.
In short, Kimball modestly avoids thrusting himself forward as the sole
standard-bearer of a crusade, although he is certainly one of its more
articulate spokesmen. In recent eras of mass idiocy, the number of dissenting
voices is often made to appear small simply because of the widespread exposure
generally granted by the media to proponents of fashionable novelty. Novelty
is always believed to be news.
In the meantime, a majority of decent citizens may regularly side with reason and convention, even though their public champions may seem to be few. Many such citizens will be paying at first-hand, in any case, as their children become addicted to hard drugs, join communes, reject the faith of their families and so forth through being seduced by the siren voices of the Timothy Learys, Wilhelm Reichs or Jerry Rubins of the time.
Silent majorities are silent precisely because they are generally unskilled or unversed in articulating the frequent anguish of their feelings. What could the ill-educated parents of a drug-addicted teenager say or do in the face of the confident, articulate arrogance of a Timothy Leary?
Sixties hedonism unleashed evils into society from which the world continues to reel. To quote the incontinent, rabble-rousing prose of Jerry Rubin:
The revolution declares war on Original Sin, the dictatorship of parents over their kids, Christian morality, capitalism and super-masculinity trips. Our tactic is to send niggers and longhair scum invading white middle-class homes, fucking on the living room floor, crashing on the chandeliers, spewing sperm on the Jesus pictures, breaking the furniture and smashing Sunday school napalm-blood Amerika forever.
As Kimball sagely remarks:
Today most people who remember Rubin (who
died in 1994 at 56) think of him as having occupied the lunatic, histrionic
fringe of the counterculture before retiring from Street theater to Wall
Street. But, in fact, Rubin represented he epicenter of the Sixties’ counterculture.
It is worth recalling that if Rubin’s attitudes, pronouncements, and behaviour
were indeed far out, he was nonetheless an
emblematic figure of the times. And it is also worth recalling how many of the ideas and attitudes Rubin espoused have, in suitably repackaged form, survived into contemporary society.
The sixties left a legacy of social
and metaphysical mess in virtually every Western country. Kimball writes,
not just with the benefit of hindsight, but with a fearless determination
to look into the motives, causes and effects of the whole, convulsive phenomenon
of the sixties. We may be thankful that such a gifted writer should also
show exemplary sense and guts.