An excerpt from “The Conquest of Cool”
Business Culture, Counterculture, and the Rise of Hip Consumerism
by Thomas Frank
Why do this kind of advertising if not to incite people to riot?—Nike copywriter, 1996
of commerce and counterculture
For as long as America is torn by culture wars, the 1960s will remain the historical terrain of conflict. Although popular memories of that era are increasingly vague and generalized—the stuff of classic rock radio and commemorative television replayings of the 1968 Chicago riot footage—we understand “the sixties” almost instinctively as the decade of the big change, the birthplace of our own culture, the homeland of hip, an era of which the tastes and discoveries and passions, however obscure their origins, have somehow determined the world in which we are condemned to live.
For many, the world with which “the sixties” left us is a distinctly unhappy one. While acknowledging the successes of the civil rights and antiwar movements, scholarly accounts of the decade, bearing titles like Coming Apart and The Unraveling of America, generally depict the sixties as a ten-year fall from grace, the loss of a golden age of consensus, the end of an edenic epoch of shared values and safe centrism. This vision of social decline, though, is positively rosy compared with the fire-breathing historical accusations of more recent years. For Allan Bloom, recounting with still-raw bitterness in his best-selling The Closing of the American Mind the student uprising and the faculty capitulation at Cornell in 1969, the misdeeds of the campus New Left were an intellectual catastrophe comparable only with the experiences of German professors under the Nazis. “So far as universities are concerned,” he writes in his chapter entitled, “The Sixties,” “I know of nothing positive coming from that period; it was an unmitigated disaster for them.” Lines like “Whether it be Nuremberg or Woodstock, the principle is the same,” and Bloom’s characterization of Cornell’s then-president as “of the moral stamp of those who were angry with Poland for resisting Hitler because this precipitated the war,” constituted for several years the high watermark of anti-sixties bluster. But later texts topped even this.
By 1996 it had become fashionable to extend the blame for unhappy events in the academy that Bloom heaped on “the sixties” to the demise of “civility” and, taking off from there, for virtually everything that could be said to be wrong about America generally. For Robert Bork, “the sixties” accomplished nothing less than sending America Slouching Towards Gomorrah: thanks to the decade’s “revolutionary nihilism” and the craven “Establishment’s surrender,” cultural radicals “and their ideology are all around us now” (a fantasy of defeat which, although Bork doesn’t seem to realize it, rephrases Jerry Rubin’s 1971 fantasy of revolution, We Are Everywhere). Political figures on the right, waxing triumphal in the aftermath of the 1994 elections, also identify “the sixties,” a term which they use interchangeably with “the counterculture,” as the source of every imaginable species of the social blight from which they have undertaken to rescue the nation. Republican speechwriter Peggy Noonan puts the fall from grace directly, exhorting readers of a recent volume of conservative writing to “remember your boomer childhood in the towns and suburbs” when “you were safe” and “the cities were better,” back before “society strained and cracked,” in the storms of sixties selfishness. Former history professor Newt Gingrich is the most assiduous and prominent antagonist of “the sixties,” imagining it as a time of “countercultural McGoverniks,” whom he holds responsible not only for the demise of traditional values and the various deeds of the New Left, but (illogically and anachronistically) for the hated policies of the Great Society as well. Journalist Fred Barnes outlines a “theory of American history” related to him by Gingrich
in which the 1960s represent a crucial break, “a discontinuity.” From 1607 down till 1965, “there is a core pattern to American history. Here’s how we did it until the Great Society messed everything up: don’t work, don’t eat; your salvation is spiritual; the government by definition can’t save you; governments are into maintenance and all good reforms are into transformation.” Then, “from 1965 to 1994, we did strange and weird things as a country. Now we’re done with that and we have to recover. The counterculture is a momentary aberration in American history that will be looked back upon as a quaint period of Bohemianism brought to the national elite.”
The conservatives’ version of “the sixties” is not without interest, particularly when it is an account of a given person’s revulsion from the culture of an era. Their usefulness as history, however, is undermined by their insistence on understanding “the sixties” as a causal force in and of itself and their curious blurring of the lines between various historical actors: counterculture equals Great Society equals New Left equals “the sixties generation,” all of them driven by some mysterious impulse to tear down Western Civilization. Bork is particularly given to such slipshod historiography, imagining at one point that the sixties won’t even stay put in the 1960s. “It was a malignant decade,” he writes, “that, after a fifteen-year remission, returned in the 1980s to metastasize more devastatingly throughout our culture than it had in the Sixties, not with tumult but quietly, in the moral and political assumptions of those who now control and guide our major cultural institutions.” The closest Bork, Bloom, Gingrich, and their colleagues will come to explanations is to revive one of several creaking devices: the sixties as a moral drama of millennialist utopians attempting to work their starry-eyed will in the real world, the sixties as a time of excessive affluence, the sixties as a time of imbalance in the eternal war between the generations, or the sixties as the fault of Dr. Spock, who persuaded American parents in the lost fifties to pamper their children excessively.