The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Sixties is a short, entertaining book which aims to set the record straight about life in 1960s America. “For the overwhelming majority of Americans,” Leaf writes, “the 1960s was a conservative decade.” The radical left was neither popular nor valuable, but evidence for this has been shoved down the memory hole. Leaf’s book tries to correct that.
The book is divided into three parts: “The Social Sixties,” “The Cultural Sixties” and “The Political Sixties.” The first part covers student radicalism, feminism, civil rights and other social movements of the decade. The second part covers 1960s music, media, fashion and culture. The third part covers, briefly, the politics of the sixties, including Johnson’s War on Poverty, the Vietnam War and “Camelot as it really was.”
Few readers of this blog will be surprised that black economic progress slowed after the civil rights movement, or that the sexual revolution led to broken families. However, there is much of interest in this book, even if it is unsurprising to you. Here are some examples:
- The UC Berkeley “Free Speech Movement” led to less freedom of speech in the long run. In 1964, when the movement began, Berkeley students could join the College Democrats or Republicans, but on-campus political activity was otherwise banned. A group of students intimidated the administration into changing this. On-campus activism, mostly liberal, blossomed at Berkeley and around the country, which led to more “civil disobedience” at the expense of academics. Student draft deferment only encouraged radicals to stay in school, where some became professors and “hired their allies…and refused to hire those who didn’t share their beliefs.” A year before the Free Speech Movement protests, UC chancellor Clark Kerr said that even “avowed communists” would be permitted to speak on campus. Would Berkeley’s current president say the same of “avowed racists”? I woudn’t bet on it!
- The music we associate was not as popular as we’re led to believe. While bands like Jefferson Airplane, the Who and the Grateful Dead had zero number one singles during the 60s, now-forgotten Bobby Vinton had four. Other chart-topping performers included Dean Martin, Pat Boone, Petula Clark and Nat King Cole. Some of the biggest selling albums of the decade were soundtracks to musicals like Mary Poppins, My Fair Lady and West Side Story. Rock was not obscure, but it was not the most popular genre.
- After President Nixon ended the draft in 1973, campus protests declined sharply. Too, much of the antiwar movement wasn’t so much anti-war as pro-communist. Hence chants like “Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh, the NLF is gonna win!“
My favorite part of the book covers the resurrection of “Students for a Democratic Society.” In 2006, some young activists and former SDS members revived the organization, but “The group…has had some problems.” Leaf explains:
[W]hat exactly does the reborn SDS stand for? The organization unleashed an extremely long mission statement filled with stilted political jargon…the statement pledges to “target structures of domination,” “build powerful diverse movements for change,” and combat “systems of white supremacy, patriarchy, capitalism, imperialism, heterosexism, transphobia, and the many other forms of oppression.”
Good luck with that.*
The book is full of this sort of gloomy hilarity. In the 1960s, in many areas of public life, intellectuals––the people who are “always somewhere else when the trigger is pulled“––championed progressive ideals like urban blight, easy divorce, even psychopathy. “So much of left-wing thought,” George Orwell wrote, “is a kind of playing with fire by people who don’t even know that fire is hot.” Of course, it’s rarely the person playing with fire who gets burned.
This book omits one important myth. The Woodstock music festival is mentioned once, in passing, while the Altamont Free concert merits in-depth coverage. This, to my mind, is a mistake. Altamont is not romanticized; Woodstock is. I think it would have added to the book to have a brief description of, for example, the capitalist impetus that made the Woodstock festival possible.
Jonathan Leaf is an entertaining writer, occasionally witty, but this book offers no sense of what life was like for the “overwhelming majority,” or even the leftists. Good history books convey something of the atmosphere of a period. Perhaps doing this for an entire country and decade, in just 200 pages, was too tall an order. Still, it makes a disappointing reading experience. In contrast, Joan Didion’s “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” by describing day-to-day life for a few San Francisco drop-outs, conveys something of the time that demographic and economic statistics cannot.
The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Sixties is a good starting point for those who want to know the truth about this decade. If you have teenage or college-age relatives, I recommend giving them this book to counterbalance whatever lies and half-truths they’re being taught. I wish I had read this book before I went to college; it would have spared me, and my friends, a lot of unnecessary bemusement and aggravation.
*Masochists can read the full mission statement of the “New SDS” here.