The Sixties and Culture War
In France, Mai 68 is an “event”—or rather, a series of événements, the temporality itself having occupied quite a bit of philosophical discussion over the years. In any case, having a single month that represents the country’s recent history of radical social and cultural upheaval is a convenient thing for people in France or people interested in France who write books, host radio shows, or organize conferences and discussion events fifty years after the fact. Though Macron never got around to staging the official celebration he had hinted at, the anniversary of Mai 68 is nonetheless a reminder of how a relatively brief period of time left a profound impact both on politics and culture, and on the memory of recent history more generally.
Why is there no similar commemoration taking place in America? It’s not as if there were no equivalent to the radical youth, antiwar, and labor movements taking place at the same time—these movements in the US of course predated their French counterpart by several years. Part of the reason is that Americans don’t have a corresponding event to commemorate. We tend to talk less about a particular date or year than about an entire era we call “the Sixties.” How to choose between the anniversaries of things like the Port Huron Statement, the Berkeley Free Speech Movement, the March on Washington, or the Kent State shootings (many of which passed by unnoticed…)?
I suspect, though, that there’s a deeper reason America has been relatively uninterested in reflecting on the legacy of the Sixties. It wasn’t too long ago that this legacy was very much in the national papers. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, a debate that came to be called the “culture wars” (or “campus wars”) broke out, in which conservatives blamed progressive or radical ideas in the academy, which they traced back to Sixties-era student activism, for the degradation of American culture. Animus against countercultural movements had existed in conservative circles well before, motivating much of grassroots social conservatism from the 1970s onward. But as Andrew Hartman’s comprehensive history of the culture wars demonstrates persuasively, “the Sixties” was a concept that was central for conservatives of many stripes who have sought to take on what they saw as the progressive left’s takeover of American culture.
Hartman completed and published his book on the culture wars during the years 2014 and 2015, and concluded with the prediction that this discourse had been exhausted in American society. Progressives, he believed, had largely won battles over things like abortion and gay marriage, and the terrain was shifting back towards economic struggles. This was, of course, just before Donald Trump propelled culture war rhetoric back to the center of American public debate. Like so many others (myself included), Hartman failed to anticipate the rise of Trump and the sorts of political ideas that have accompanied him. From the “alt-right” even to anti-Trump centrist liberals, there has been a revival of cultural polemics blaming left-wing attitudes on American social decline. Many of these polemics take up almost word-for-word the arguments of 1990s-era conservatives about leftist academics (Jordan Peterson’s tirades against “postmodern neo-Marxism” being the most caricatural example).
But the one thing that tends not to come up in today’s culture war debates are “the Sixties,” precisely what was most important for the polemics of thirty years ago. Many of today’s opponents of “political correctness” consider themselves social liberals who have no problem with what was once called “loose” morality. I suspect many of them are also simply unaware of their more conventional conservative predecessors (Allan Bloom, Roger Kimball, William Bennett, Dinesh D’Souza, Hilton Kramer, Lynne Cheney…) and their fixation on the 1960s as the source of America’s problems. But perhaps this absence is a sign that Hartman was right in the sense that the cultural battles of fifty years ago really are over. What we are seeing now might draw from similar polemical language, but as Hartman argues in a recent article for The Baffler (which he also discussed in this fascinating radio interview), today’s culture wars are expressing very new economic and social anxieties.
This is, of course, in reality not so different from what is going on in France. As Gilles Texier argued in my interview with him last week, though today’s youth movements, which often proclaim themselves the heirs of Mai 68, are not so much interested in the cultural critique of contemporary society as the condition of “precarity,” which one might say stays closer to the economics than 1960s-era critiques of authority or alienation (though this is clearly debatable). And none of this is to say that economic and social anxieties did not play a role in the “old” culture wars. On the contrary, today’s culture wars make this connection much more explicit than it has tended to be over the past five decades of cultural polemic.
Photo Credit: David Wilson, Anti-War March, via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 2.0.