by ProfDave, ©2022
(Jul. 14, 2022) — [See Part I of this title here.]
Not the least of the cultural shifts of the 60’s, was the so-called sexual revolution. Once again, the change was far from unanimous and certainly not sudden, but over the decade there was a distinct shift in the constellation of sex, love and marriage in popular culture. Beginning with work of Alfred Kinsey in the late forties, attention shifted from the emotional and procreative aspects of sex, love, and marriage to the sensual mechanics of individual fulfillment. In the 18th century it was all about good breeding, in the 19th century it was all about romance, and in the 20th century it seemed to become all about sensations. Kinsey’s work with prisoners, prostitutes, and sex offenders purported to show a wide gap between moral codes and personal behavior. His science may have been deeply flawed and biased, but it unleashed a torrent of hitherto confidential sexual information, popularized sex education, and laid the foundation for the LGBT rights movement.
Over the next decade, the mass consumer market was broadly eroticized. Not only did pornography become much more available, but a plethora of magazines devoted to physical attractiveness, health, and hygiene appeared. Advertising, with ever increasing frankness, sold all kinds of products with appeals to sex and self-fulfillment. The Motion Picture Production Code of the 30’s began to crumble after a Supreme Court case in 1952. Hollywood was developing color and widescreen techniques, reaching out to dominate world entertainment, and – at the same time – began “pushing the envelope” of sexual themes. “Sexuality was now widely considered a form of self-expression – perhaps even the core of oneself” [Cannon 893-94].
The other side of the sexual revolution was the legalization, development, and marketing of birth control – and later abortion. Birth control and abortion had been practiced since Roman times (along with infanticide), but had been crude, ineffective, and/or dangerous. The rise of Christianity, placing transcendent value on all humans, had stamped out abortion. However, industrial conditions combined with Malthusian and Darwinist thinking had brought eugenics and population control back into consideration. Some social scientists (like Margaret Sanger) urged that the poor, the unhealthy, and members of inferior races should be discouraged from having children. Planned Parenthood was established to push this agenda. The real breakthrough, however, was oral contraception (“the pill”) in 1959. Contraception became legal throughout the West in the next few years, abortion in the 1970’s [Canon 894].
Abortion had been permitted in the United States under restricted conditions, but Roe v Wade (Supreme Court 1973, reversed 2022) made elective abortion a constitutional right. This landmark decision became the human rights and “culture war” issue of the late 20th century in the USA. It pitted the sexual autonomy of the woman (right of privacy or choice) against the humanity (right to life) of her unborn child – the natural consequence of that freedom. Please pardon me for noting that the availability of contraception and abortion did not lead to “every child a wanted child.” A massive increase in child abuse and abandonment seemed to indicate that they were, instead, symptoms of a society that didn’t particularly want children.
The increase of sexual knowledge, the focus on sexual fulfillment, and the availability of the pill gave in the rising generation of war babies to the illusion of “free sex:” that sexual desires were their own justification and could be, should be, indulged without consequences. Taboos were taboo. Anything was permissible if it felt good. This combined with drugs and rock-n-roll was epitomized in “the summer of love,” 1968, in the Haight-Ashbury district of Oakland, CA and in Woodstock, NY, in 1969 – a vast outdoor orgy of youthful exuberance. Only later did the consequences become apparent: a tragic increase of premature sexual activity, broken hearts, unwanted pregnancies, broken marriages, fatherless children (despite birth control and abortion) and an explosion of previously unknown sexually transmitted diseases. The social and economic consequences of these things are with us to this day [See Duiker & Spielvogel 850 ff].
Parallel to the sexual revolution was a new stage of feminism. The first stage of feminism had culminated in the right to vote (and was associated with prohibition, incidentally). During both wars the contribution of women to the labor force had been demonstrated and recognized. Following the war some women returned to the home (an average male wage-earner could afford a home in those days), but many did not. Differences in wages and job opportunities going back to the industrial revolution now became intolerable. Why were men paid more for doing the same work? Why were women excluded, in peacetime, from the jobs they had held during the war? Why were high status colleges and professions virtually closed to women? Why were women excluded from management positions, even in typically female occupations? Expectations rose during the 1950’s and spilled over into noisy agitation in the 60’s and 70’s as the new generation of young women began to give priority to education and career, postponing marriage and family.
The new emphasis in feminism was in family and sexuality. Betty Freidan’s The Feminine Mystique in 1963 gave rise in 1966 to the National Organization of Women. Feminism sought to declare independence from men, with mixed results. In two-income families the mortgages were higher and the woman still had to do most of the housework – even in the “liberated” Soviet Union! If the man did not hold the door for the woman, did it mean he respected her more or less? Family law was equalized. No-fault divorce set men as well as women free to abandon troubled marriages, but the woman usually was left holding the bag with greatly diminished resources. Men set free from family responsibility tended to become less responsible, while fatherless children tended to fall into poverty and social malaise. Abandoning the “double standard” of sexual behavior lowered female standards rather than raising male. It lowered resistance to male predation, increased risky behavior and – as always – women suffered disproportionately [Canon 894-95].
As in the Civil Rights movement, institutional barriers to the advancement of women were substantially removed in most of the West, obliterated in the East bloc, and reduced in the Third world. Even traditional Islamic states extended education and employment opportunities for women, although separation and male protection were still required in some places. On the other hand, in aggregate and in informal ways, women still may be disadvantaged and disrespected even in the most “liberated” societies. Note the pervasive growth of pornography (not to mention human trafficking) and associated attitudes towards women and children as sex objects [See Duiker & Spielvogel 852-54].
Woodstock and Haight-Ashbury (Oakland, CA) were icons for the “Hippie” life-style of “sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll.” They were, of course, only the foam on the crest of the youth movement, but there is no denying the quantum increase of all three as the post-war generation came of age. Elvis, the Beatles, and other groups evoked a quasi-religious fanaticism and – even without drugs – their concerts produced altered states of consciousness. The development of psychoactive medications for psychiatric use spilled over into recreational abuse on an increased scale. Dr. Timothy Leary (1920-96) discovered LSD, a powerful hallucinogenic, during psychiatric research with prisoners in 1960 and popularized its use as a means to spiritual insight and artistic creativity: “tune in, turn on, drop out!” Psychotic consequences led to its being made illegal, but the search was on for other means to altered states, “getting high,” and dropping out. A volatile mixture of youthful idealism, rejection of post-war materialism, and an escapist search for intense sensual and psychic experiences engulfed the Hippies and spread its skirts over the spirit and culture of the whole generation. Most only experimented and recovered, but the “war on drugs” has yet to be won.
Perhaps even more significant, but buried under surface excitement, was a tectonic shift going on in European and American society in the twentieth century. An American school child in the 50’s got a week of teaching in February about “honest Abe” and another week of George Washington chopping down the cherry tree. Every morning they said the Lord’s Prayer and pledged allegiance to the flag. There was a big King James Bible on the teacher’s desk, and they were taught that America was a Christian nation. A little more than a century earlier, that Bible had been a major textbook – if not the only textbook – in public schools across America and the English-speaking world. In the late 1950’s, this began to change.
The Supreme Court case, Murray vs. Curlett, in 1963 was only the tip of the iceberg. Not only had America ceased to be a Protestant nation since the 30’s, but Western Civilization had become apologetic about its Christian heritage. The standard of law and education in the west shifted from a non-denominational synthesis of Christian revelation and Greek philosophy to one of scientific naturalism. Traditionally, law and education were based on the certainty of the eternal. Modern society separated scientific methods of dealing with the material world from philosophical and religious methods of dealing with non-material reality. Tolerance of competing ideas and theories was seen as the path to truth in both realms, but science still assumed a rational cosmos obedient to the laws of a rational God.
Scientific naturalism set out, with Charles Darwin, to propose a new and reductionist metaphysical scheme in which the non-material elements are consigned to the realm of imagination and taste. Transcendent values, particularly related to religion, had no rational basis and should be kept private. Thus, prayer, the Bible and the Ten Commandments, once foundations of Western Civilization by consensus, became problematic. Public policy discussion no longer appealed to Scripture for justification. Not only the name of Jesus, but all references to deity in public institutions and by public figures have come under attack.
Several factors contributed to this shift: the erosion of the Newtonian scheme of an orderly mechanical universe (evolution, relativity, quantum physics), the rapid advance and impact on life of science and technology, the spiritual disillusionment of two world wars, and existentialism. Traditional metaphysical certainties were lost in technical abstraction and global pluralism. War, depression, and totalitarianism discouraged the liberal vision of progress towards a Kingdom of God on earth. Reality contrasted sadly with the values of Christ, while science promised empirical improvement in daily life. Existentialism taught that non-material realities and values were subjectively created, not objectively discovered or revealed by God.
One must not think that Christianity suddenly disappeared from Western Civilization, although participation in European state churches declined precipitously in the 20th century. Christian fervor remains a significant force in the West, played a role in the fall of Communism in the East, and is advancing in the Third World. The noisy critique of religion by a small number of atheist intellectuals in the West and the state supported attacks in eastern Europe were based on Christian values. Indeed, it was Christian theologians in the 1960’s who joined Nietzsche in proclaimed, “God is dead.” Atheism could be said to be a Christian movement and scientific naturalism a product of the Christian West [Philip Johnson, Reason in the Balance]! While a secular worldview may have taken “the commanding heights,” it may be too soon to speak of a post-Christian America.
3. What is Postmodernism?
The “Boomer” generation of the 60’s and 70’s was followed by “Generation-X” of the 80’s and 90’s, raised under much different conditions. They were a much less wanted generation than their forebears, raised in smaller, less stable and less nurturing families – and day care (both parents working). And there were distinctly less of them – “the most aborted generation in American history.” This was the generation of A Nation at Risk and Alan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind. “An awakening era that seemed euphoric to young adults was, to them, a nightmare of self-immersed parents, disintegrating homes, schools with conflicting missions, confused leaders, a culture shifting from G to R ratings, new public-health dangers, and a ‘Me Decade’ economy that tipped toward the organized old and away from the voiceless young.” [Strauss & Neill 317-24]. Perhaps it isn’t surprising that this generation of survivors is characterized by sociologists as under-achieving, cynical, and relatively conservative [Strauss & Neill 326-27]. Maybe you are none of the above, but many of your contemporaries are.
The culture of the late 20th century was marked by what is called “Postmodernism.” To understand this mode of thinking, we have to go back to the existentialism of Albert Camus (1913-60) and Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-80) in the 40’s and 50’s. Post-war existentialism begins with the absence of God and of objective meaning from the universe. Metaphysics was relative. Objectively, there was no meaning and no hope. It was the individual who must create his own meaning and reality, right and wrong. If you felt that life was absurd, you were right. That this philosophy would resonate with the post-war generation and – for different reasons – with their children was not surprising. In the 60’s and 70’s existentialism became popular in the academic fields of sociology, political science, and education. In the 90’s it became main stream in popular culture.
Postmodernism, as defined by Duiker and Spielvogel, “rejects the modern Western belief in an objective truth’ accessible to all . The will, not reason, determines what is and what should be. The major values were pluralism, relativism and secularism. Berkeley philosophy professor John Searle described a campus culture-war in the early 90’s between “traditionalists” (modernists) and “challengers” (postmodernists). Modernists adhered to a canon of masterpieces because of their inherent excellence. Postmodernists dismissed masterpieces as products of dead white men. Modernists believed in objective standards of rationality and merit, postmodernist saw objectivity as a mask for gender, race, and class bias. Modernists sought to liberate students from parochial backgrounds and introduce them to “the general intellectual culture.” Postmodernists saw their purpose as political empowerment and transformation, denying the existence or value of any “general intellectual culture.” Modernists defended the tradition of individual rights and expression and, simultaneously, “universal human culture.” Postmodernists held sub-group identity supreme, dialoguing only with their own kind, while subjecting all others to ridicule and propaganda. Modernists abhorred prejudice of all kinds, group and individual, in pursuit of objectivity. Postmodernists rejected objectivity altogether. Some went as far as to reject metaphysical and scientific rationalism [Searle quoted in Johnson, 113-114]. For others, subjective identity complemented scientific rationalism, replacing religion and ideology in the non-material sphere of life.
Question: which way is this going? The aging leaders of our world today belong to the post-war generation. Which way will Western civilization go when the Gen-Xers come into leadership? Will Postmodernism drown in its own nihilism and irrationality or produce a jungle of competing interest groups and factions? Can democracy survive without a common fund of values? Is there a democratic mechanism whereby competing worldviews can coexist? The business of historians is the past, not the future, so I leave this question to you.
Coffin, Judith et al. Western Civilizations, 17th edn. New York: W.W. Norton, 2011.
Duiker, William L. and Spielvogel, Jackson J. World History, 6th edn., Boston:
Johnson, Philip. Reason in the Balance, Downers Grove: Intervarsity, 1995.
Sherman, Dennis and Salisbury, Joyce. The West in the World, 3rd edn. Boston:
McGraw Hill, 2008.
Stewart, Robert, Wesley, Karla and Weiss, Shannon, “Postmodernism and Its Critics,” The University of Alabama, Department of Anthropology (2009), retrieved 10/20/11 fromhttp://anthropology.ua.edu/cultures/cultures.php? culture=Postmodernism%20and%20Its%20Critics
Strauss, William and Howe, Neil. Generations. New York: William Morrow, 1991.