The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Sixties
by Jonathan Leaf
Regnery, 247 pages, $19.95
“What a shrill, pointless decade,” said The Simpson’s fictional news anchor Kent Brockman . He was describing the 1960s, of course, and his summary neatly captures the attitude of most American conservatives and moderates, who treat that decade’s name like the name of Amalek, ritualistically abominating its infamous excesses. Free love, drug abuse, cacophonic music, fashionable anti-Americanism, narcissistic student radicals, massive government spending on entitlement programs . . . there seems nothing to do but curse the 1960s and all its works, and all its pomps. Playwright and social critic Jonathan Leaf is therefore sure to startle many by arguing that the 1960s really weren’t so bad.
To be sure, Leaf agrees that the trends and events most strongly associated with the 1960s are deplorable, and he attacks the liberal interpretations that justify or celebrate them. He paints a picture of antidemocratic, irresponsible, destructive, cowardly, and generally stupid egoists pushing Americans to adopt vicious lifestyles, conduct class and race war, hate their own civilization, abandon personal responsibility, participate in a culture of subhuman sensualism, and to snatch “defeat from the jaws of victory” in Vietnam. But, while the book is a syllabus of errors rather than a single, sustained argument, Leaf seems especially concerned to show that the counterculture really was a counterculture. The 1960s was, he insists, “a conservative decade.” He shows that the most popular music was not rock and roll, that sexual behavior was basically as it had been in the 1950s, that the majority of college students were not radicals, that most Americans supported Vietnam, and so on.
The point is accurate, but the reason for emphasizing it is obscure. Those who celebrate the 1960s are generally happy to grant that its social and political “achievements” were the work of an influential minority. It is always more glorious to be part of a heroic vanguard than a representative of the status quo. As Leaf himself notes, the counterculture eventually did win lasting victories (as is evident in contemporary mores and tastes)—so why not treat its first emergence as more significant than the continued predominance of the “squares”?
This book might make a good gift for someone who has bought into the romantic leftist image of the 1960s, but readers should be warned that it is far from scrupulously fair to its targets and is as uplifting as bitter litanies generally are. The book is packed with interesting trivia (for instance, women’s fashion was more sexual in the 1950s than in the 1960s), but very few of Leaf’s major claims will be new to experienced participants on either side of the culture wars. The only points likely to be truly provocative are his totally unexpected attacks on Bob Dylan and the Apollo 11 mission to the moon.