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Consuming the ’60s Revolutions (Mark Wegierski)

Consuming the ’60s Revolutions

Mark Wegierski

In some areas of society, politics, and culture, the various revolutions that became evident in the 1960s have succeeded spectacularly. In others, however, they have failed miserably. One of the defining ideas of the ’60s, for instance, was the opposition to big corporations. Yet today transnational corporations are bigger and stronger than ever before.

The ’60s generation also expressed a desire for a return to nature, a wish for a more natural existence. Nonetheless, the world has become more mechanized, more commercialized, more paved-over, and more technologized in the years since.

Another popular idea of the decade was a sort of robust individualism, yet the “jean generation” could be said to have created a new uniform, and any “squares” who dissented were treated as badly as the “beatniks” had been in the’50s. The sharply defined new hierarchy of “cool” vs. “square” (in a society claiming to be thoroughly egalitarian) was both baseless and socially destructive.

This new orthodoxy was nonetheless characterized as freedom. After the reductive mill of MTV and immersion in electronic media from age five or earlier, after the droning lectures of politically correct pedagogues, and after the intense collective pressures of adolescence, today’s society claims to offer those who reach adulthood freedom of choice concerning the values they will hold and the lifestyles by which they will live.

Nowhere were the burgeoning contradictions of the ’60s exemplified more fully than in rock music. The fine points of selling out or not selling out became a matter of urgent discussion, even though it is patently clear that rock music has always been driven by money. By the time one has heard of a rising rock artist on the radio, it is almost certain that he or she has done any number of questionable deals to get there. Somehow, however, the public must be convinced of the rock star’s unsullied honesty, which is typically attested to by the obscenity of the lyrics and the vulgarity of the performer’s personal behavior. Then again, the public also must be reassured that, although a real party animal, the rock star is at bottom a nice person who cares about various approved social causes.

The allegedly subversive nature of rock music is likewise largely a fabrication. It is true that extreme movements such as thrash metal and gangsta rap typically promote violence and decadence, but they do so without posing any meaningful challenge to the current political and social systems. Self-indulgence, after all, is the centerpiece of any modern consumer culture. Of course, the lyrics of some musicians do constitute an overall critique of present-day society, as do the stories of some movies and television shows. Nonetheless, the notion that honesty equals social rebellion has lost nearly all credibility, and correctly.

There is nonetheless some truth to the idea that generations tend to reject many of the ideas and behaviors of their immediate predecessors. Hence, there is a possibility that the next few years might bring an increasing dissatisfaction with media oligarchy, consumerism, disengagement from one’s neighbors, and mechanistic social conditioning.

Such a movement, however, will require a certain subtlety and sophistication in its criticism. The world of rock music, for example, can be censured much more readily than the music itself, which is subdivided into numerous subgenres, some of which—such as soul music, progressive rock, and ’80s-style pop— are quite congenial to more traditional or communitarian viewpoints.

In fact, although rock music is undeniably one of the primary means for the socialization of youth today, it maintains in places strong, authentically Romantic and idealistic themes, however distorted they might be in execution. To elucidate these ideas effectively and in a socially meaningful way, through careful lyrical and melodic analysis, can be a quick point of entry into the very center of today’s media-generated youth culture.

Of course, many conservative critics argue, to the contrary, that ultimately the only worthwhile attitude toward contemporary North American mass culture, for anyone claiming to possess some amount of thought, reflection, or decency, must be one of strong criticism and nearly wholesale rejection. And surely it is a heroic and idealistic thing to fight against what one sees as a corrupt and socially destructive oligarchy, to strive to discover real meaning and worth in one’s own life, and to work toward recreating a real social, communal, and spiritual life for one’s community and nation.

In this respect, these conservatives sound remarkably like the hippies of yore. Current-day neo-traditionalists who argue for an idealism rooted in nation, religion, family, and local community are actually the true heirs of the most idealistic parts of the ’60s message—those aspects, such as the local-preservation segment of the environmental movement, robust individualism, and true community feeling, which have probably been the least instantiated in current-day society.

Thinkers who evoke such an outlook include Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John Ruskin, William Morris, G. K. Chesterton, J. R. R. Tolkien, George Orwell, Christopher Lasch, the agrarian philosopher Wendell Berry, the French critic of technology Jacques Ellul, Marshall McLuhan, and the Canadian social philosopher George Parkin Grant. They make good starting points for an intelligent critique of modern society.

Ironically, it appears that the success of this movement will depend greatly on the ability of its purveyors to penetrate and exploit the media oligarchy they correctly perceive as both pervasive and destructive. In such efforts, it is wise never to underestimate the ability of the modern American consumer culture to absorb new ideas and turn them to its own ends.

Mark Wegierski is a Canadian writer and researcher who has written for several publications, including Telos and The World & I.

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