Paul Andersen: The watershed of rebellion in 1950
The conformity of the 1950s blew apart in the 1960s with a rebellious spirit that overturned the cultural values of the status quo. Hippies and protests went hand-in-hand as American youth flexed our muscles amid the tumult of Vietnam.
The generational phenomenon that led to the advent of the counterculture and social justice movements rocked the foundations of America and may now have repercussions on veteran suicides and school shootings that are blowing America apart all over again.
Phillip Roth, in his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “American Pastoral,” describes the formative values for the generations born before World War II: “the ideology of parental self-sacrifice bled us of wanton rebelliousness and sent underground almost every indecent urge.”
If Roth is right, the rebelliousness of my boomer generation (born in 1951 and later) came as a result of our perception of a distinct lack of parental self-sacrifice as evidenced by the booming post-war economy, rampant materialism and the American exceptionalism of economic and political imperialism.
Rebelliousness went underground in Roth’s time because the roots of his generation reached back to the Great Depression and a world war. The most shocking literature of Roth’s era explored indecent urges through the lusting of Alec Portnoy, the rambles of Jack Kerouac, the debauchery of beat writer Charles Bukowski, and shocking exposes on the failing of social mores and conformity.
Historically, 1950 seems like a behavioral watershed between opposing visions of America. The pre-1950s were swept up in achievement, self-aggrandizement and opportunities for material status. The post-1950 era was caught up in denouncing those same values by expressing any “indecent urge” that would send tremors through the foundations of mass culture.
“Our class started high school,” Roth wrote, “six months after the unconditional surrender of the Japanese, during the greatest moment of collective inebriation in American history. … Sacrifice and constraint were over. The Depression had disappeared. Everything was in motion. The lid was off. Americans were to start over again, en masse, everyone in it together.”
This collaborative striving, Roth wrote, resulted in “the communal determination that we, the children, should escape poverty, ignorance, disease, social injury and intimidation — escape, above all, insignificance. You must not come to nothing! Make something of yourselves!”
Fueled by a national hysteria of victory in war, security in the economy, and a mythic scenario of limitless growth and potential, America embraced acquisition and accumulation as a unifying religion. America worshipped manna from heaven in the guise of the latest cars, appliances, gadgets and entertainments. TV and commercialization became ubiquitous.
It is worthy to note that the Aspen Institute (1950) attempted to counter this surge by enlivening the intellect and the spirit through informed discourse that enriched the life of the mind.
Institute thought leader Robert Maynard Hutchins, the youngest named chancellor of a major university (he was 28 when he assumed that role at the University of Chicago in 1945) decried the feckless pursuit of material pleasures. “I can’t get over the notion that fun is a form of indolence,” scolded Hutchins.
The end of parental self-sacrifice reached its national apogee when George W. Bush, in the stunning aftermath of 9/11, admonished Americans to “go shopping.” His father before him had rejected the Kyoto Accord, saying, “The American lifestyle is not negotiable.”
By sheltering Americans from self-sacrifice, an opposite reaction occurred for those who have felt sacrificed to a self-centered culture. Veterans coming home from recent wars in the Middle East have recognized the softness and disengagement of society, and many thousands have taken their lives rather than isolating among civilians who they feel have ignored and devalued them.
Random school shootings force sacrifice, not only on parents and communities, but on society as a whole through the shock and awe of video game-style murders of children by children. Could there be any more “indecent urge” than the reckless, diabolical assailing of the value of life?
Such nihilism is a counter to over-indulgence and to material worship where the spirit is denigrated, perhaps annihilated, by too much of too much. Instead of self-sacrifice, we pay the costs for excess, ease and the deadly sin of complacency.
Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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