[sixties-l] Shades of the 60s

From: radman (resist@best.com)
Date: Thu May 31 2001 - 16:59:44 EDT

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    Shades of the '60s


    Europe has escaped the cultural wars that racked American
    society, but the continent's smooth social transition comes
    with its own dangers

    By Mark Lilla
    June 4 issue

    In many ways the cultural revolution we call the 1960s began in the
    Netherlands. There, on the streets of Amsterdam, an obscure and playful
    anarchist group called the Provos staged a number of "happenings" in the
    early years of the decade to poke fun at the hypocrisies of bourgeois life
    and to demand that laws regulating drug consumption and sexual activity be
    THE GROUP DISBANDED within a decade, but its influence can still be felt by
    any visitor to that doll-house city who sniffs the cannabis in the air and
    strolls past the neon-lit sex shops.
    For American visitors in particular, this is all very confusing. The image
    we have of Europe in the '60s is of a continent in the midst of some kind
    of political revolution, with stenciled portraits of Che Guevara painted on
    ancient walls, terrorist bombings, kneecappings and the occasional
    assassination of political and business leaders. The upheavals on American
    campuses, which ceased soon after Richard Nixon's resignation and the
    withdrawal from Vietnam, were tame indeed when compared with the two
    decades of violence and political instability that lasted until the
    mid-'80s in Europe.
    Culturally, however, it seems that Europe survived the '60s intact, without
    deep social divisions or the kind of culture wars that dominated American
    public life in recent decades. All the changes that took place in American
    society since the '60sin sexual matters, family structure, drug use, also
    took place in Europe. Yet somehow the transformation of European life was
    managed with more finesse, and without recourse to street marches, legal
    briefs and self-help books. European women have joined the work force in
    large numbers (though at different rates in different countries), and
    generally find it easier to balance family and career, given the presence
    of state-supported day-care centers and generous leave policies. They have
    made these advances without feminist militancy, but also without provoking
    hysterical fears about the decline of the family. Homosexuals today find
    themselves in a highly tolerant environment without having to make
    exaggerated claims about their identity or dramatizing their "coming out."
    And school curricula, which in the United States today are the litmus paper
    of social change, have stayed pretty much the same in Europe, on the
    sensible assumption that what students need to learn before entering the
    world has not been significantly altered.
    Why these striking differences? On a recent trip to Europe I took an
    afternoon walk in a public park and was struck by how many young people in
    mod attire, pierced noses, dyed hair, combat boots, were out strolling with
    their grandparents after the traditional Sunday lunch. That image offers
    part of the answer: despite the '60s, Europe is still culturally
    conservative. In a strict sense, all cultures are conservative to the
    degree that they establish customs that grease the wheels of social life
    and impart those customs to new members of the society. But in a looser
    sense some cultures can be said to be more conservative in that they manage
    to decelerate changes in attitudes and behavior, moderating them in the
    process and weaving them into a continuous fabric with older ones by means
    of consensus. Modern European culture has always made room for those who
    rejected the consensus of the moment, bohemians, saints, because the strong
    centripetal force of custom has allowed the center to hold, leaving more
    space at the margins for those who don't fit in. The '60s posed a serious
    challenge to that consensus, yet it is striking today to see how
    successfully the new customs have been grafted onto the old.
    American culture is not conservative; it is democratic. Given their strong
    suspicion of inherited authority and
    their almost infinite faith in an individual's right to shape his own
    destiny, Americans have trouble accepting social customs whose provenance
    is unclear and whose authority they never consented to. This does not mean
    that Americans are always comfortable with diversity, for as we know there
    have been periods of stifling conformity and moralism in American history.
    What it does mean is that Americans see cultural changes as matters of
    principle that need to be publicly debated, and those debates can be
    polarizing. Americans have a reputation abroad for being pragmatic, which
    in economic and technical matters might be true. But on large political
    issues, and almost all cultural ones, Americans tend to be dogmatic and
    uncompromising because they see democratic principles at stake in
    them. That is why the post-'60s American debates over abortion, feminism,
    identity politics and school curricula seem so bizarre to Europeans, who
    may have views on these matters but generally don't think the fate of
    democracy hinges on them.
    There are signs that the culture wars in the United States are coming to a
    close, and that we will soon follow Europe in digesting the cultural
    revolution of the '60s and integrating it into American habits and customs. So
    argues American journalist David Brooks in his recent "Bobos in Paradise,"
    an engaging study of the bourgeois bohemians ("bobos") who made the passage
    from '60s cultural radicalism to '80s Yuppiedom, transforming middle-class
    life in the process. Brooks's book has been translated into many languages
    and has been a big hit in Europe, where the bobos were first to appear.
    Yet, strangely, there are also signs that at least some Europeans are
    becoming more concerned about the cultural legacy of the '60s, despite
    their conservative sang-froid. One of the best-selling novels in Europe in
    the past decade was French writer Michel Houellebecq's "The Elementary
    Particles" (1998), which paints a horrific picture of the emotional
    wasteland young Europeans inhabit today, a wasteland created, in
    Houellebecq's view, by the '60s. The book tells the story of two brothers
    who come of age in that decade and, after being abandoned by their parents,
    find themselves sexually and socially maladjusted; one brother descends
    into an inferno of drink and sexual obsession, while the other withdraws
    from the world into his genetic research. Below the surface calm that
    currently reigns in Europe, Houellebecq sees a progressive erosion of human
    decency and love, and its replacement by ruthless forces of economic,
    sexual and even genetic competition.
    Whatever one makes of Houellebecq's novel as a work of art or as a portrait
    of contemporary life, it does offer a useful reminder about the limits of
    cultural conservatism. It is one thing for European societies to tolerate
    changes in social customs that enhance the range of human possibilities, or
    at least leave our basic humanity untouched; it is quite another to reach
    the point where societies can no longer distinguish such changes from those
    that demean or trivialize human life. However much one enjoys the pageant
    of a city like -Amsterdam today, it is difficult to avoid wondering if
    Europeans can still make that distinction.
    Lilla is a professor on the Committee on Social Thought at the University
    of Chicago.

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