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Years of Hope, Days of Rage

THE SIXTIES: Cultural Revolution in Britain, France, Italy, and the United States, 1958-1974.\o7 By Arthur Marwick (Oxford University Press: 872 pp., $39.95)\f7 ; TOO GOOD TO BE FORGOTTEN: Changing America in the '60s and '70s.\o7 By David Obst (John Wiley: 282 pp., $24.95)\f7

October 11, 1998|STEVE WASSERMAN | Steve Wasserman is Book Editor of The Times

People never find it easy to confront the past; they generally prefer to consign it to oblivion. In today's society, the model citizen is too often one without memory. Spurious historical categories are essential to social amnesia. The notion of the decade, for example, is among the more ubiquitous of such categories. It is, to be sure, a convenience, but it also is a tool of demarcation, an ideological term used to protect the present from the past. It reduces complex events to easily digestible chunks of time: A "decade" is a collection of social forces or tastes that is inevitably discarded. Experience becomes fashion: Everything changes, nothing lasts. History is turned into a species of exorcism and kitsch.

This is especially true whenever one hears talk about "the '60s." The term is, of course, a code name for the upheaval thought to have occurred in those over-oxygenated years. But it is used to hallow certain experiences while hollowing out others. The mosaic of moods and movements (musical, artistic, political) that were so much a part of that period has unfortunately congealed in the popular imagination as "the '60s." This apparently innocuous term conceals, as Arthur Marwick points out in his massive new book, the fissures and frictions, the many divisions and differences, inherent in any time of social dislocation. It suggests the hegemony of particular experiences (Woodstock Nation, say) and neglects or diminishes the importance of others (the Silent Majority, for instance). It is worth recalling, for example, that there was much political conservatism and quietism in the 1960s.

The packaging of history into decades exacts a toll on collective memory. For many people, "the '60s" is a kind of exotic folklore (Twiggy, the Beatles, Timothy Leary, Godard, Vietnam, Huey Newton), as strange and harmless as the glittering artifacts of a Stone Age tribe displayed in a glass case in a museum. It will not surprise anyone when "The '60s" reappears as a prime-time series on HBO or network television. Its purpose will be entertainment, but its effect will be to trivialize history.

It is hardly possible to condemn this notion of "the decade," as Marwick rightly does, without using it. The power it exerts is seductive. Marwick objects to its tyranny and confesses the lack of an alternative, except to posit a "long sixties," beginning in 1958 and ending in 1974. The notion's essential vulgarity can be glimpsed in the disagreement over the point of origin and end of the '60s. For some, the decade began in 1955 when Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of a Birmingham bus; for others, in 1963 with President John F. Kennedy's assassination. For some, it ended in 1970 with the killings at Kent State University; for others, several years later with Watergate. By the time the last American Marine was forced to flee Saigon in 1975, no one doubted that "the '60s" were over.

It is difficult to apprehend the legacy of what critic Greil Marcus has called the "moods of rage, excitement, loneliness, fatalism, desire" that buffeted America and the world in those turbulent years. The changes wrought in our sense of ourselves are not well understood, even now as the century draws to a close. There is little doubt, however, as Marwick convincingly demonstrates, that the social, moral and aesthetic issues first articulated then have now become acute. Controversies over race, sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll became widespread, revealing, as Marwick writes, "fractures [in society] which had long existed and had been too long ignored [and which] were now being brought out into the open." For Marwick, a professor of history since 1969 at London's Open University, "the essence of what happened in the sixties is that large numbers of new subcultures were created, which then expanded and interacted with each other, thus creating the pullulating flux which characterizes the era."

That "flux" saw "the growing power of young people," "unprecedented activism on the part of ordinary citizens," "changes in family relationships," "new standards of sexual behavior," which, singly and in combination with other factors, "permeated and transformed" the culture of the mainstream society in both America and Europe. While there was no political revolution, there was, Marwick argues, a cultural revolution in "material conditions, lifestyles, family relationships, and personal freedoms for the vast majority of ordinary people." For Marwick, "the full significance of the sixties lies not in the activities of minorities, but in what happened to the majority, and how it happened." He believes it was the "measured judgment" of a malleable establishment that both blunted the period's excesses and absorbed its sensibility. He is convinced that "the only societies for the future are multicultural ones, societies which will exhibit to the full the vibrancy and creative potential which first bloomed in the sixties."

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