From Beatlemania To Vietnam
THE SIXTIES: CULTURAL REVOLUTION IN BRITAIN, FRANCE, ITALY, AND THE UNITED STATES
By Arthur Marwick
Oxford University Press
871 pp., $39.95.
There are critics - not all of them dyed-in-the-wool conservatives - who look upon the 1960s as the era that ushered in a deluge of corrosive values: self-indulgence, disrespect for authority, promiscuity, drug abuse, and crime.
Then, there are other critics - and not only on the extreme left - who view the upheavals of the 1960s as a lot of sound and fury that ultimately achieved almost nothing in the way of truly changing the economic and political structures of society.
The central premise of Arthur Marwick's comprehensive study, "The Sixties," is that the era marked the onset of a genuine revolution - not in politics, government, or economics, but in culture. This cultural revolution, he avers, succeeded in transforming the way most of people in the West live their daily lives. Greater personal freedom, frankness, permissiveness, the continuing reign of rock music, the growth of multiculturalism, and improvements in the outlooks of - and attitudes toward - women and minorities are some of the salient changes he cites in support of his contention.
Also central to Marwick's view of the 1960s is a concept he calls "measured judgment." This is how he characterizes the way in which many persons in positions of authority responded to - and even embraced - the demands for change. This flexible attitude, which Marwick lauds, is the same that the 1960s guru Herbert Marcuse lambasted as "repressive tolerance." Marcuse's complaint was that, by tolerating - or giving in to - protests, liberal authority figures blunted the edge of the activists' anger and zeal, thus preventing the "revolution" from occurring.
In Marwick's opinion, however, a genuine political and economic revolution was never in the cards. Therefore, credit for the cultural revolution that did happen should go to these enlightened practitioners of "measured judgment," who facilitated the diffusion of many so-called "countercultural" ideas and values into the mainstream.
This is a big book that includes everything from Mary Quant, the Beatles, and miniskirts to the free-speech movement, Mississippi freedom summer, and the Memphis sanitation workers' strike.
Another of the book's useful features is that it surveys the changes as experienced in four countries: Britain, France, Italy, and the US. Although students in Milan may have felt solidarity with their peers in Paris, London, Berkeley, and New York, there were significant differences in the situations that provoked their protests, and in the beliefs of the protesters themselves.
Yet for all the material that it contains, "The Sixties" remains a curiously unsatisfying work, a book that looks a lot more interesting at first glance than it proves on actually sitting down to read it. There are few fresh insights, and the few ideas and opinions the author has to offer soon come to seem repetitive. Some sections, such as one entitled "The Truth about Beauty," seem downright extraneous and wrong-headed. (Marwick considers the 1960s - the age that opened everyone's eyes to the idea that "Black Is Beautiful" - to be the first era when people were "honest" enough to acknowledge that only a very small number of people are physically attractive!)
Many of us remember the excitement and high hopes of the early 1960s but cannot help feeling saddened by the ways in which violence, stridency, and thoughtlessness increased as the decade wore on. Marwick does not share this view. His game plan is to minimize or make excuses for the failures of the movement, ignore the depth of the negative backlash that it generated, remove politics and economics from the playing field, and declare a resounding victory in the realm of "culture." This jovial shallowness is, perhaps, a key to understanding why his book is ultimately disappointing.
* Merle Rubin regularly reviews books for the Monitor.