On-line resources from the
American Studies Resources Centre at LJMU

Liverpool John Moores University

Painting It Black?

An optimistic and lighthearted look at how the Sixties democratised almost everything

Posted 20-Feb-2014

by Ed Weeden

The Self
The State

There’s always a tendency to see the glass half empty instead of half full.  This is true of the Sixties.  Most historians view this period (in fact from about 1964 to about 1976) as divisive, violent, counterproductive, an interruption, some sort of counter cultural supernova or some sort of failure that had little mainstream effect.  If those of us who lived and participated in the Sixties believed this when we look about us today, we might be tempted to see things as did Mick and Keith: 

Maybe then I'll fade away and not have to face the facts
It's not easy facing up when your whole world is black.

- - Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, 1966

On the other hand, if we take a closer look at everything around us, and a sharper look at what was really going on in the 1960s, we might have real cause for celebrating with Bob:

Come writers and critics who prophesize with your pens
And keep your eyes wide, the chance won't come again
And don't speak too soon, for the wheel's still in spin
And there's no telling who that it's naming
For the loser now will be later to win
For the times, they are a-changin'

- - Bob Dylan, 1964

Nothing could be further from the truth than to assert that the Sixties was some sort of exception, interruption or failure.  This ‘era’ was directly responsible for a fundamental change in how we approach ourselves, others, and the world in general.  This basal shift has highly influenced the way we look at the world and ourselves today.  Like the original ‘big bang’ in physics, the societal ‘big bang’ of the Sixties still reverberates and influences. 

We are always the last to see this sort of cultural evolution when we literally live through it.  The change consists of a multitude of incremental moves in many areas of life, some small, some huge.  The underlying theme of all these moves was a broadening of reach, a democratisation of personal, societal and national life.  The terms ‘access’ and ‘empowerment’ come to mind, but they are used so often by Yuppies that this retired Hippie prefer the words of the lead Papa:

You gotta go where you wanna go- do what you wanna do

With whoever you wanna do it with.

- - John Phillips (Mamas and Papas), 1966

Let’s see how we enjoy the benefits of the Sixties in our current mainstream culture by looking at just three critical areas:  the Self, the State and Society. 

The Self

Can anyone deny that there has been a gigantic progression toward individualisation, tolerance and understanding of the Self since the 1960s? 

Certainly both the range of individual opinion and expression, as well as range in self-image has changed due to the Sixties.  Criteria of exclusion such as cultural background, political affiliation, societal stereotypes, language dialect or accent, personal appearance, disability, sexual activity, sexual orientation, or social class are no longer legally or socially acceptable as criteria for exclusion or marginalization.  Just two examples will make my point:  self expression, and self image. 

Speaking your mind has always been dangerous in certain circles.  It continues to be so today.  There are, however, no longer the informal but very powerful ‘thought police’ which used to act so decisively on persons prior to the Sixties.  When was the last time my readers looked over their shoulders before expressing an opinion in normal, polite conversation?  It just never happens anymore, and yet, prior to 1964 it used to happen all the time.  Dare I mention the “Legion of Decency’s” effect on screenwriters, or the “University Regents” and their effect on students in the Sixties?

Thank Mario Savio for an end to all this.  Who?  Mario Savio was one of the founders of the Free Speech Movement at the University of California in the mid Sixties.  This mass movement completely transformed the concept of acceptable public speech – both in terms of content and consequences.  It started at the University, but spread everywhere.  Things are not only more open, they are much broader now in terms of potential content.  We’ve oome a long way from George Carlin’s “Seven words you can never say on television” (1962).  This form of public speech affects the entire social and political spectrum (for better and worse), from skinheads to anti-globalisation protesters:

It's my life and I'll do what I want - It's my mind and I'll think what I want
- - Eric Burdon (Animals), It’s My Life, 1965

We also understand now that what we say does not necessarily stand in stone for the entire world.  This is largely due to a widening of multicultural consciousness that began in the Sixties.  From the religious movements at this time (Hare Krishna and Swami Yogananda to name just two) to the realisation that what our parents told us might not be entirely and immaculately true (‘don’t trust anyone over thirty’), we began to hear and tolerate different drummers and see things in relative, not absolute terms:

Stars and losers, kings and fools go dancing hand in hand
Relatively speaking you make me who I am.

- - John Denver/Art Hancock, Relatively Speaking, 1995

The current ‘democratisation’ of self-image is even more obviously influenced by the Sixties.  I am certainly not saying that if you walked barefoot into a recruitment agency with purple hair, green nails and sawed-off Levi 501s that you wouldn’t get some stares.  If you knew your stuff, however, had the correct qualifications, and if it was not contrary to that ubiquitous monster called Health & Safety, that composite image would not necessarily bar you from potential employment. 

The same holds true of virtually all of the old self-image stereotypes accepted as the ‘norm’ prior to the Sixties movement.  Then, these images amounted to ‘radical departures’ and often resulted in exclusion or marginalization.  They were outward images of inner states at that time strongly opposed to a ‘status quo’:

If you're going to San Francisco be sure to wear some flowers in your hair

All across the nation, such a strange vibration, people in motion, people in motion
There's a whole generation with a new explanation.

- - Scott McKenzie, San Francisco, 1967

Today these images are matters of personal choice – perhaps unconnected entirely to any sort of political or social set of values.  That is precisely my point about the basal shift.  What used to be considered radical and unique, is now considered personal and unique – a democratization of look has occurred, devoid of socio-political context.  So beware, beneath the green nails and purple hair, you may find a supporter of Mr. Blair!  Thanks to the ‘look’ of the Sixties, our range of choice is much more open now – and by inference tolerated and accepted. 

The State

In the Sixties there was a clear divide between us and them.  We were opposed to the closed, elitist and byzantine state as constituted during that time.  We knew that it was them or us:

Gotta get down to it, soldiers are gunning us down;
Should’ve been done long ago.
- - Neil Young, Four Dead in Ohio, 1972

There's a man with a gun over there, telling me I got to beware
Stop, children, what's that sound - everybody look what's going down

- - Buffalo Springfield, For What It’s Worth, 1970

Now things have changed.  Politics has become a tool, not a target.  We may not have won every election, but more importantly we have shifted the debate to topics of crucial importance.  Some examples:  When was the last time you heard anyone in politics seriously suggest that we disregard civil rights, prohibit union organising, forget entirely about Social Security, abolish all welfare, forget about unemployment insurance, immediately end Medicare or terminate the Voting Rights Act?  In the 1950s and early 1960s these were common conservative themes.  No longer.  Politics has undergone a basal shift.  Even today’s Tories and Republicans alike admit the need for all of the above, as well as ‘national healthcare’ and ‘the environment’ – all issues formerly considered the exclusive province of the Left.  The crux is in how to achieve this, not whether it is needed.

What about the most destructive activity of the State – war?  Some may think that we are repeating history – with both the left and right having learned from the Sixties crucible of Southeast Asia.  They may be right.  The Left has learned impatiently and with enormous frustration that its moral position is unassailable, and that with time its position will be vindicated.  The Right has learned that it must use ‘careful calculation’ (some might call it subterfuge) to temporarily gain its way.  Does all this so-called knowledge result in modified action?  To no great extent.  Does it produce some very amusing, entertaining and at times even shocking ‘spin’ from both sides?  Virtually every day.  Just watch Mr. Rumsfeld or Mr. Dean when they are next on the telly!

But what is important for my point about democratisation, is that now both events and  decisions are mulled over publicly.  We still don’t know, and never will know how many Abu Ghraibs there were in Vietnam – on both sides.  We only found out about ‘secret wars’ in Laos and Cambodia after the fact.  But things like that cannot be concealed now.  War has become a very public and personal proposition.  The entire war making process – ignorant and ugly as it is – is now open, instantaneous and participative, with information flowing out from a host of sources, military, journalistic, social and even individual.  We see the politics, maneuvering and propaganda on both sides, and make our judgments accordingly as we would expect in a democratized environment: 

I'm not going to kid you, there's a lot to do
Little can I promise, it's really up to you
But if we all work together, And I think we can
And if you want some new ideas, Then I'm your man.

- - Chicago, Vote For Me, 1977

But this democratisation of State conduct is wider than any one country or conflict.  People around the world as well are now more participative in political processes, thanks to the original ‘people power’ of the Sixties.  From the Philippines to South Africa, ordinary people have seized power from social and economic elites.  We may not always like what we see when they do so (examples:  Museveni in Uganda, Nazarbayev in Turkestan, Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, and the Ayatollahs in Iran), but they are genuine choices of the people, and as such should be respected. 

Rise above your depression, above the one that kills
Above the one that hates, above all of the pain
Fear! Death! Rage!

- - Fear Factory, Arise Above Oppression, 1992

Of course, this basal shift does not exist everywhere (look at Zimbabwe, Burma, Haiti, or Saudi Arabia as examples), but it is expanding.  Who asserts that there is a more totalitarian world now than in the 1960s?  Chaotic, yes…multilateral, yes…more dangerous, very possibly yes.  More totalitarian?  No.  If anyone did assert this, I am sure that she or he would be roundly shouted down by many hundreds of thousands of Nigerians, Eritreans, Yeminis, Bangladeshis, Nigerians, Algerians, Angolans, Mozambiqans, South Africans, Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, Hungarians, Germans, Romanians, Bulgarians, Croatians, Slovenians, Albanians, Brazilians, Argentinians, Peruvians, Panamanians and Venezuelans.  There has been progress and, given time, progress will find a way forward: 

Take this message to my brother, you will find him everywhere
Wherever people live together, tied in poverty's despair
You, telling me the things you're gonna do for me
I ain't blind and I don't like what I think I see

- - Doobie Brothers, Taking it to the Streets, 1976


Just as individuals within society now have much greater freedom and choice, so societal groups also have a much greater range of freedom in social participation – due in large part to the movements of the Sixties.  Let’s look at the most obvious three groups:  women, men and minorities. 

And the time will come when you see we're all one,

and life flows on within and without you.

- - John Lennon, Paul McCartney, 1967

While there is room for debate over whether to formulate them in an Equal Rights Amendment, no one can deny that the central concepts of the Women’s Movement have become mainstream since the 1960s.  We have women Chief Executives, and women Fighter Pilots.  There are thousands more jobs I could list, and although no one denys the continued existence of the ‘glass ceiling’, the fact that it is publicised and opposed is evidence of its future diminution.  Just as importantly, we have now also come to recognise the importance and value of women in the role of mother and partner.  There is value to both types of contribution, and often women’s choice is to do both.  But always, this choice is a personal one, made by the democratised modern woman based on her own circumstances in life:    

She looks sleek and she seems so professional
She's got a lot of confidence, it's easy to see
You want to make a move, but you feel so inferior
Cause under that exterior, is someone who's free

- - Billy Joel, Modern Woman, 1985

Men have also changed.  We too are liberated – no longer bound by the roles and conventions expected of us in the ‘Marlboro Man’ era.  Of course these more traditional roles still exist and can be selected.  In the last generation, however, men are increasingly choosing to blend this tougher traditional image with more ‘human and humane’ images largely originating from the non-violent, sensitive Sixties.  Now, men can be soft, sensitive, tender, confused, and understanding.  They can be cowards, critics or criers – if they wish.  This is largely due to the new freedom of self we have inherited from the Sixties.  Remember, the Peace Movement and Flower Power was a male as well as female movement!    

And I woke up crying in my sleep, I was talking to your pillow
And I reached out to touch your hand

- - Art Garfunkel, Crying in my Sleep, 1977

Minorities in our society are looked at and look at themselves in a totally different way than before the Sixties.  Need I mention the societal icons who brought minorities out of the shadows – Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Cesar Chavez?  Formerly powerless, American minorities now look on themselves as empowered.  True, economically, socially and academically they have a long way to go.  No one asserts that U.S. society is now colour-blind.  But even more importantly, no one today seriously considers minority status as criteria for exclusion or marginalisation:

Now we demand a chance to do things for ourserlf
We're tired of beatin' our head against the wall
Say it loud, I'm black and I'm proud

- - James Brown, Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud, 1969

We have come a long way since the Sixties.  We have a long way to go.  But we should acknowledge that the Sixties had a great influence over where we are today, and a great perspective on where to head in future.  The glass is not half empty.  The glass is half full – perhaps more than half. 

We should not let current circumstances get us down by dwelling on individual ‘trees in the forest’ of the times.  True, wars still are fought, hunger still exists, poverty grinds many down, elections are lost.  But the overall trend of things in the last fifty years has been with, not against, the progressive, tolerant, democratic and participative goals and objectives of the Sixties.  Let’s celebrate this:

You might not be looking for the promised land, but you might find it anyway
Under one of those old familiar names . . .
Like New Orleans, Detroit City, Dallas, Pittsburg PA.,

New York City, Kansas City, Atlanta, Chicago or L.A.,

Living in America - hand to hand, across the nation
Living in America - got to have a celebration

- - James Brown, Living in America, 1995

American Studies Today Online is published by
American Studies Resources Centre, Aldham Robarts Library, Liverpool John Moores University, Maryland Street, Liverpool L1 9DE, United Kingdom.
Tel 0151-231 3241
International(+44)151-231 3241
The views expressed are those of the contributors, and not necessarily those of the Centre or the University.
Liverpool John Moores University and the Contributors, 2006
Articles and reviews in this journal may be freely reproduced for use in subscribing institutions only, provided that the source is acknowledged.

Arnet Home Page > American Studies Today Front Page > This article