“Home schooling, vampire style,” chapter 2 of Martha’s Children, is now available for you to read. Ned thinks being a vampire is his only problem. By the time Martha teaches him a thing or two, he’s going to find out differently. Chapter 3 will go up next Friday.
Martha’s Children is set toward the tail end of that tumultuous period that has gone down in popular history as “the Sixties” or 1960s. The Sixties have conceptually dominated and divided our politics and society ever since. And that’s because the Sixties saw the clash of two myths.
To understand the Sixties, you have to go back to the end of the Second World War in 1945. Eight million men came home, determined to live the life of the American Dream that hardly anyone had seen since the start of the Great Depression in 1929. With the G.I. Bill giving them financial support for getting an education, buying a home, and starting a business, they got married, settled down in the suburbs, had their 3.5 children, a dog, and a car. And they built a generation of economic prosperity, in which everyone got richer, and the nation’s income was distributed more evenly than any time since the Industrial Revolution.
True, there was an enemy on the horizon: the Soviet Union, a brutal, atheistic communist dictatorship. In reaction, Americans pulled together, forging a common political consensus on most issues, becoming militantly capitalistic and Christian. And who better to lead our country than the boys who fought the war? Every President for forty years (1953-1993) had served in the military in World War II.
But not everyone was happy with the 1950s version of the American Dream. The Negroes, as they were then called in polite society, had served in the war, too, but had come home to segregation, prejudice, and poverty. They couldn’t even vote in many states, thanks to the way poll taxes and literacy tests were manipulated. So they fought back. And partly because it’s hard to claim to champion freedom and equality when an entire race has to sit in the back of the bus, they slowly gained support from the Federal Government and slowly gained ground. But not without violence and struggle. The Supreme Court could declare segregation illegal (in Brown v. Board of Education, 1954), but it took troops to desegregate schools, and civil rights workers would die trying to get the black man the vote, especially in the South.
Women were the second group that found that the American Dream, 1950s style, wasn’t all that great. They were supposed to be sex symbols, housewives, and mothers, and that was it. It seemed like enough in the eyes of many men, and even many women. But quite a few women disagreed. They wanted more independence, more respect for their minds and work, and they found their discontents emerge in everything from pop fiction (Peyton Place) to serious analyses of their role and image in society (Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, published in 1963).
Finally, having grown up in unrivaled prosperity, some of the Baby Boomers (so call because there was a statistically immense number of births between 1946 and 1964 compared to the years before or after) looked around and asked why, if America was so great, there was still such poverty, prejudice, pollution, and often a general dissatisfaction with the narrowly defined normal life. So some of them, a minority it should be noted, seized on alternatives, from marginal figures in the arts to radical political programs, as a way to critique and improve American life.
The result was the Sixties. A minority of people decided to protest against “the System” and to try novel living arrangements and deviant lifestyles. The majority looked on, puzzled and bewildered that anyone could be unhappy with living in the best country in the world, and yet stung by some of the valid criticisms the “counterculture” offered. And a small minority, which included many people in positions of power, saw the dissidents as troublesome malcontents upsetting a perfectly nice world, and were willing to use force to put them down.
And so for a decade, more or less, the country was torn by protests and violence as some people either tried to change the System, or find an alternative to it. Bucking the Man could get you arrested and even killed. Or you could drop out, take drugs, live on a commune, and find yourself dead broke, brain damaged, and with kids you couldn’t take care of. No choice was without its risks and costs. And most people stuck to what was considered a normal way of life, which imposed its own costs.
Yet, slowly, what was normal changed. Racial prejudice became unacceptable. Women could have jobs and a career without being stigmatized. Sexuality outside of marriage ceased to be frequent and shameful and became frequent and at least tolerated. People began to think about the environment as something to be cared for everywhere and not just in national parks.
I’m simplifying a lot here. I’ve managed to leave out the Vietnam War, or any explanation of why similar protests rocked Western Europe. And there’s a thousand other major developments I haven’t even mentioned.
The point is that as the Sixties wound down, the era spawned two myths. The first myth was that the American Dream had reached a pinnacle of social development in the 1950s, that the Sixties had been a disaster, and what we as a nation had to do was return to the values of the 1950s. The other myth was that the Sixties had been the first surge of an idealistic movement supported by most Americans to change our society and make it better. The first myth ignores the flaws in 1950s America, and kids itself that we can go back in time. The second myth tends to idealize the rebels, ignoring everything from a skyrocketing venereal disease rate to the sometimes senseless violence, and glosses over the fact that permanent change came only as they convinced the non-revolutionary mainstream to change.
Ever since, those on the political right have looked fondly back at the 1950s and condemned the changes spawned by the 1960s, while those on the left have done the reverse. The “culture wars” since the 1980s have been over the various legacies of the 1960s. I had thought the departure of the WWII generation from the political stage would have ended them, as the last pre-1960s generation died out. And yet in 2008, one of the political controversies was over Barack Obama’s ties to Bill Ayers, one-time leader of the Weather Underground, a violent revolutionary movement that had petered out in the mid-1970s. Thirty years later, and it was still a flashpoint, at least for some. I suspect that for many younger voters, it was ancient history, no more important than a list of Roman consuls.
And my apologies to the readers of the e-mail version of this post that first went out, for an obvious flub in the last paragraph which I have since corrected.
The intent might have been to explain why you’ve set Martha’s Children in this era, but you’ve delivered a succinct summary of the complex cultural and societal factors involved in an interesting and accessible package (I’m biting back an additional comment that would be ultra facetious of me; I’ll have to smack my sense of humour)
Thank you. I was trying to make the analysis accessible both to those who lived through it, and those to whom it is back before they were born.
And if I was gong to make a follow-up joke, it probably would have been about interesting and acceptable packages.