Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Book Notes: The 60s Unplugged - A Kaleidoscopic History of a Disorderly Decade by Gerard DeGroot

Gerard DeGroot's "Sixties Unplugged" is a fast-paced, lively account and shrewd analysis of key events that took place in the what he calls a "disorderly decade". The book consists of 67 stand-alone essays on subjects as diverse as Civil Rights, Biafra, Bob Dylan, Hippies, Free-Love, Ronald Reagan and the Student Protest Movement. Although weighted strongly towards a USA/European audience, world events such as the Six Day war, Mao's China, The Congo and Sharpeville in South Africa also feature. DeGroot's main thesis is that there is no one grand, narrative with which to interpret these diverse events. He is resistant to elaborate a single thesis and try and force all these divergent strands into a single interpretation of the decade, instead he wants to allow each of his subject areas to exist in its own right and bear the weight of his often searing scrutiny. 

If DeGroot is somewhat post-modern in his rejection of a meta-narrative, he is equally so when it comes to deconstructing his subjects. In "The Sixties Unplugged", DeGroot savages 60s nostalgia-fanatics who paint the decade as a revolutionary era of peace, love and the dawning of some new hope for humanity. He points out that such claims are misguided on several levels. Firstly they over-estimate the significance of the counter-culture in what was a fairly conservative decade. Only 10% of American universities had riots in the student protests of the late Sixties, he writes, and of those who did, less than 10% of their students were actually involved. The young Republican movements always attracted more members than the left-wing student groups such as the SDS. Furthermore, behind the Liberal rhetoric of Kennedy (and his golden image) was a hard-nosed Cold-war warrior. The outcome of the 60s was a dying hippie dream and the rise of Ronald Reagan; it had less to do with Maggie's Farm than Maggie Thatcher, he quips. This, in part, was because the counter-culture embraced drug-taking to the extent that they perceived themselves to be changing political realities, whereas in fact their brain chemistry was the main thing which was altered.

In his (very frank) discussion about the sexual revolution, DeGroot unearths some painful truths about some of the dark-side of the movement to throw off, what was regarded as, the sexual prudery and repression of the previous generation. While many people did not engage in the sexual revolution, for those who did they did so prior to the rise of feminism. The tragedy of this was that sex wasn't just requested of women, it was expected, and consent was a low priority in the drug-and-sex culture that pervaded much of the decade. Drugs were used often as rape tools, and innocents running away from home in search of communal-idyll were seriously powerless and were shamelessly exploited. DeGroot suggests that hippie culture was wrong to try and separate love and sex, and wrong to try and interpret free-love as some kind of political or transcendental event or statement. In many cases it was pure selfishness - because part of the mosaic of the Sixties was extreme individualism.

DeGroot has a brilliant eye for pithy quotes from key protagonists with which to enliven his discussions of these subjects. One student protester from the LSE reflected, "All those revolutionary a___holes, when it really came down to it, had to finish their courses and get their jobs and secure their careers". He does the same with statistics, showing research that suggested perhaps surprisingly that The Vietnam War was more popular amongst Americans than the NASA Space Program!

DeGroot's pen-portraits of these 67 areas, are fascinating reading. The decade he describes is nothing like the moral abyss described by Conservatives, or the hippy-idyll popularised in the media and collective imagination. A deeply confused-period of turbulent history emerges in the book. If there is a problem with the book, it it simply that without an over-arching theme, the chapters are selected perhaps a little arbitrarily. Indeed the author confesses as much in the introduction in which he states that the original version of the book was twice as long and contained over a hundred essays. He hints at some of the things he had to leave out, perhaps making the reader wish he had written a second volume! I am delighted to discover that DeGroot has gone on and done a similar work on the 1970s.

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