Rescuing the Sixties

Edward P. Morgan, What Really Happened to the 1960s: How Mass Media Culture Failed Democracy (Lawrence, KS: University of Kansas Press, 2010).

Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past

– George Orwell, 1984


We are approaching the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s iconic “I Have a Dream” Speech. Subsequent years will bring the half-century markings of other key 1960s moments in the United States: the Free Speech Movement (1964-1965), Selma (1965), Watts (1965), Newark and Detroit (1967), the Summer of Love (1967), the March on the Pentagon (October 21, 1967), the Tet Offensive (January 1968), CBS news broadcaster Walter Cronkite’s “bloody stalemate” comment on Vietnam (February 1968), the assassination of King (April 1968), the Democratic Party Convention and Chicago police riot (August 1968), California governor Ronald Reagan’s proto-fascistic assault on People’s Park (May 15, 1969), Stonewall (June 1969), Woodstock (August 15-18, 1969), the November (1969) Mobilization to End the War in Vietnam, the execution of Black Panther leader Fred Hampton (December 4, 1969), the first Earth Day (April 22, 1970), the invasion of Cambodia and Kent State (1970). 

Stay tuned for the official version of the Sixties, filtered through the selective memory lens of the corporate mass media. Consistent with that media’s behavior during those years and since, we can expect two things to be missing from its “retrospectives” on that remarkable decade: (i) what really happened in the Sixties; (ii) the critical role that media itself played in distorting and exploiting the Sixties, with deadly and authoritarian consequences ever since. 

Ted Morgan’s richly researched and powerfully argued book What Really Happened to the 1960s: How Mass Media Culture Failed Democracy (Lawrence, KS: University of Kansas Press, 2010) offers indispensable correctives on both counts. Morgan shows how the “dominant media frame” (245) of the Sixties as a “generational squabble” between spoiled Baby Boomers and their elders (the dismissive real-time analysis of reactionary U.S. intellectuals Lewis Feurer and Bruno Bettelheim) is a wildly inaccurate smear. “The battles of the 1960s were not and are not,” Morgan reminds us, “a generational quarrel. Notwithstanding media representations, sixties battles were about racism, poverty, war, meaningful education, the rat race, sexism and ecological destruction” (ix). 

Starting with the southern black Civil Rights struggle inherited from the 1950s and expanding to include remarkable grassroots struggles against poverty, the U.S. war on Indochina, the corporate-military university, pollution, and patriarchy, the great social movements that provided the real historical underpinning of the Sixties contained two basic components by Morgan’s analysis: (i) a widespread sense that American society and its key institutions could be democratically transformed; (ii) an accurate sense that the nation’s problems were rooted in the underlying social, economic, and political power structures of that society. 

The “democratic dialectic” in the 1960s emerged, Morgan shows, from core contradictions between the liberating and egalitarian promises of triumphant post-World War II U.S. capitalism and the unequal, unjust, segregated, soulless, alienating, isolating, and homogenized nature of life under that system. Instructively launched and escalated by “liberal” Democratic presidents in brazen defiance of the nation’s declared benevolent and democratic purposes, the racist, mass-murderous, and imperial U.S war on Vietnam (and Laos and Cambodia) added no small fuel to the fire. 

During the Sixties and ever since, the basic systemic and historical forces and issues that fueled the decade’s uprisings and the real democratic and egalitarian nature of its popular movements have stood beyond the boundaries of legitimate discourse in dominant U.S. media. The underlying problems that drove Sixties movements – soulless corporate rule, imperial war, ubiquitous poverty, oppressive racism, stultifying cultural homogenization, pervasive sexism, environmental pollution, and more – have been thrown down Orwell’s memory hole in that media. They’ve been exiled to the margins of collective memory, along with the democratic hopes of millions who participated in those movements. In transmitting the Sixties, the managers of mass U.S. media have offered an emotionally potent but highly superficial, heavily image- and personality-centered depiction of the decade’s movements and protests as dysfunctional deviance reflecting little more than a rebellion of angry and “sick” youth against authority as such. This great generations Sixties smear relies heavily on sensational visual representations of the protestors themselves and the national degradation and mayhem they allegedly advanced. 

This ugly and authoritarian portrait of the Bad Sixties has fed “conservative” (right wing) cultural and political backlash ever since, greasing the cultural wheels for a corporate-neoliberal policy turn that has brought us to a New Gilded Age of inequality and the brink of environmental apocalypse. At the same time and in complimentary ways, the media has undertaken a softer “domestication” and co-optation of the Sixties. The corporate-commercial “conquest of cool” (Thomas Frank) has channeled the decade’s rebellious sensibilities sentiments into an ironic culture of consumerism. Advertisers found in the Sixties uprising a magical formula whereby, as Thomas Frank puts it, “the life of consumerism can be extended indefinitely, running forever on the discontent that it itself has produced.” Sixties “hip” and cool became what Frank calls “a cultural perpetual motion machine transforming disgust with consumerism into fuel for the ever-accelerating consumer society” (quoted in Morgan, What Really Happened? 222). It’s a machine that helps push livable ecology to the edge of collapse while continuing to fuel the hard right political backlash that helps advance the post-1960s plutocracy deepening war on social justice and livable ecology. 

Morgan shows that this corporate-Orwellian rendering of the Sixties’ many-sided “democracy surge” is evident in the so-called (corporate-crafted) popular entertainment culture as well as in the official news, public affairs and commentary. It has richly informed such popular television productions as The Cosby Show, Family Ties (declared “my favorite television show” by President Reagan), The Wonder Years (1988-1993), and Dharma and Greg (1997-2002) and cinema productions like The Big Chill (1983), 1969 (1988), Hamburger Hill (which “essentially blames antiwar youth and resisters for [U.S.] soldiers’ suffering [in Vietnam]- 278), The Deer Hunter (which portrayed the Vietnamese as the real aggressors in the bloody U.S. invasion of Vietnam), Coming Home, Uncommon Valor, Rambo: First Blood, Part II, and the blockbuster Forrest Gump (1994). The official media tarnishing and flattening of the Sixties is captured nicely in Morgan’s summary of some key episodes in the last movie:


“On his return [to the United States from a deployment with the U.S. military in Vietnam], Forrest finds himself at an antiwar rally, where he bumps into his childhood love, Jenny, now attired in hippie garb. ….Jenny’s boyfriend, cast as an SDS leader with no redeeming qualities, shouts clichéd antiwar slogans, calls Forrest a ‘baby killer,’ and slugs Jenny in the face, causing Forrest to lose his cool and attack him. Threatening Black Panther lookalikes spew epithets at America’s white racism. And, finally, Jenny’s role embodies a variety of blame-the-sixties mythologies circulating in popular media. Growing up with an abusive father, Jenny falls in with the folk crowd, begins to smoke dope, performs naked in a folk club, is featured in Playboy, gets strung out on hard drugs, and eventually dies of an AIDS-like disease” (277).


Some will question the depth and degree of the great 1960s “democratic awakening” today. Many in the U.S. establishment did not at the time and in the Sixties’ immediate aftermath. In August 1971, for example, top corporate attorney Lewis Powell penned a length and remarkable memorandum to the director of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Written two months before Richard Nixon appointed him to the Supreme Court, the memo detailed what Powell considered a “broadly based” assault on “the American economic system” (capitalism) emanating not just from radical margins but from “perfectly respectable elements of society: the college campus, the pulpit, the media, the intellectual and literary journals, the arts and sciences, and from politicians.” By Powell’s reckoning, a dangerous anti-business uprising led by such “charismatic” threats as Ralph Nader and the radical professor Herbert Marcuse meant that corporations should undertake a concerted and many-sided public relations and media counter-offensive – a veritable capitalist cultural counter-revolution. “It is time,” Powell proclaimed, “for American business – which has demonstrated the greatest capacity in history to produce and influence consumer decisions – to apply their great talents vigorously to the preservation of the system itself” (emphasis added). Powell felt that the struggle to win back hearts and minds for capitalism should target the universities, the publishing world, and the mass media, including an effort to place the television networks “under constant surveillance.” By Morgan’s account, Powell’s “urgent appeal helped set in motion forces that subsequently transformed public discourse in the United States for decades to come.” (165-167). 

Two years later, Chase Manhattan Bank chief David Rockefeller, chairman of the Council on Foreign Relations, convened top figures from business and government in Europe, North America, and Japan to determine how to maintain what he called “the wider international system.” Organized as the Trilateral Commission, the elites gathered by Rockefeller produced a study claiming that “excessive” popular engagement and activism during the 1960s had generated “A Crisis of Democracy” – meaning, by Morgan’s translation, “that capitalism, its constrained, elite version of electoral democracy, and U.S. global hegemony were all endangered” (243). Writing the report’s section on the United States, Harvard political scientist Samuel P. Huntington worried that the “democratic surge” had activated “previously passive or unorganized groups in the population,” including “blacks, Indians, Chicanos, white ethnic groups, students, and women,” who “embarked on concerted efforts to establish their claims to opportunities, positions, rewards, and privileges” (imagine!). This was all, Huntington scolded, part of a an effort towards “reassertion of the primacy of equality as a goal in social, economic, and political life” – a goal that Huntington found dangerous and dysfunctional because it sought a “welfare shift” of government resources from “defense” (the military-industrial complex) to things like education, public health and social security (244). 

What really happened to the great many-sided democratic and egalitarian awakening that was the essence of the 1960s? The decade’s great popular movements were of course quite significantly snooped on, infiltrated, manipulated, smeared, bloodied, and otherwise repressed by local, state, and federal government. Just as importantly and of no small relevance for authorities’ ability to repress, however, those movements were defeated in their own time and ever since by a mass media that has distorted and exploited the Sixties for reasons both political and commercial, with terrible results for democratic and human prospects. 

This is not to say that progressive Sixties and post-Sixties activists bear no responsibility for “the left’s” marginalization in the U.S. today. Morgan offers sage reflections on the significant extent to which excessively “expressivist” and insufficiently “strategicist” (left philosopher John Sanbonmatsu’s useful terms) activists during and since the protest decade have been tragically and narcissistically complicit in the triumph of the “market dialectic” over the “democratic dialectic” in neoliberal America. A left Sixties veteran with a distinguished history of teaching students about social movements past and present, Morgan gives some wise advice on how activists and citizens can re-awaken the latter dialectic in re-waging an ultimately spiritual peoples’ struggle pitting democracy and “eros, the life principle,” against capitalism and “thanatos, the death force” (quoting Lewis Powell’s bête noir Herbert Marcuse, 329). I can’t imagine a more significant subject today. All environmental indications suggest strongly that Morgan’s core Sixties struggle – that between capitalism and democracy – has become a matter of life and death for human and other sentient beings. 

Paul Street (www.paulstreet.org) is the author of many books, including Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (2004), The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (2010), and They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, January 2014). Street can be reached at paul.street99@gmail.com 

Leave a comment