A lot of people blame Dr. Spock for that whole 60’s mess, but I’m not so sure. It’s easy and tempting to find a single easy target or an obvious conclusion, but humans have been taught- erroneously, it seems- that there is always an answer to a question, always a solution to a problem, and always a cause for blame. Parents tell children, and children pass it on: there’s an answer, and you can find it. But it ain’t necessarily so.
Starting with the Industrial Revolution, parents and children became increasingly separated, and in America, one of the few family functions we have left to us- eating dinner as a family- has devolved into infrequently bearable periods of tolerance. At the end of the Second World War it became clear that a new power had taken the position of world leader, and that new power was the United States, at which point a new level of disconnection with reality set in.
American leaders, both in politics and industry, told each other and the world of that ascendancy, and proceeded to strut about the world’s corridors with the arrogance, complacency, self-confidence and the certainty that what we did was right. In the new America, both politics and industry adopted this attitude of entitlement and introduced solipsism as the new paradigm. For those who might want to know, solipsism is the inability to distinguish between what you think and what you know.
Now, if you can accept that this is what happened, at least subconsciously on a national level, then we can move on to the next important step. In the wake of the successful conclusion of the Second World War (successful except for the Germans, Italians and Japanese, and for those who did not return to their lives, and their wives, children, relatives and friends), American soldiers came home and began producing a record crop of children who came to be known, with varying degrees of affection, as the Baby Boomers, upon whom was lavished an unprecedented amount of attention, by parents, educators, ministers and merchants.
Boomer parents all had direct and discomfiting experience with the Great Depression, whose culture-wide economic hardships had deeply scarred them, and so they came into the new prosperity determined to provide their children with the plentitude that they had been deprived of during their childhoods. Thus the indulgence that they now inserted into their children’s childhoods. Oh, there were wide swaths of exceptions, but on the whole, American kids would never want, goddam it, and so Boomer parents worked hard and provided an unprecedented abundance of toys, sports gear, clothing and tolerance. Okay- especially tolerance, but it wasn’t all their fault: kids were a goldmine. American business was awakening to a new morning of needs to be created and filled, a morning whose forecast said there was going to be clear weather and no signs of change ahead. American industry adapted to the new consumers- parents buying for the children- by exploiting them, mining the newfound riches by filling the shelves with the bounty that parents now wanted to provide their offspring.
Although one generally loathes a facile summary, I am impelled to reduce the issue to six words: Davy Crockett and the Hula Hoop. When each of these was conceived, there was no plan to “roll out” any “phenomenon.” They were each a product of its genre, hoping to be successful, to be sure, but no one had any idea, from conception to design to production to release, that these two different products would awaken such excitement, such mad energy, such nation-wide cultural participation that they would ultimately identify and define a generation.
Both producers of these products released them and watched as they became phenomena successful beyond the wildest dreams of their creators. But others were watching as well, paying attention and reacting. A giant corporate entity like Disney would wield great cultural power, of course, but in America, there was also room for a little guy with an idea, a guy like Wham-O. Neither of them knew in advance the frenzy they would create by introducing their products, and so it was that in the new culture- big or small- you could make it in America, and many took note. Many saw the sales figures, and the money generated. What they saw beyond the sales statistics were the cultural statistics: they saw that there was suddenly a huge new market, a groundswell of new parents willing- no, anxious- to pay for their children’s happiness. So the manufacturers started coming up with ways for parents to make their children happy. There was a vast new market out there, and once the marketers got hip to it, they expanded to sell their happiness to them.
Every kid needed some or several Davy Crockett clothes, including of course- first thing- a coonskin cap, and then the phony buckskin jacket with the plastic fringes, the knives, guns, comic books, lunch-pails, games, and a lot of etc. Every kid also needed a Hula Hoop, and now I would like to add a few words:
Davy Crockett was cool. He was handsome, virtuous, moral and an excellent example for young, impressionable minds. He was the first superstar of the Boomer generation, and as a role model he was an admirable example in every way, which may be why parents and grandparents despair at children’s today’s role models. He was an American hero for all Americans, except possibly for those who favored Indians or bears. It was a children’s phenomenon that the marketers observed; it was produced by industry, bought by parents, but it was all about the kids. No parents went about in fringed buckskin jackets and coonskin caps with rear-dangling raccoon tails. No, this was for the kids, and the adults were out of it. But that was OK. Give the children some. The parents will pay.
Where it gets a bit nasty is with the Hula Hoop, which was also for and about kids, but with this one, the parents thought they’d give it a try- and failed. Oh, they tried, and some may have gotten it, but even if they did manage to keep the damn thing twirling for a half minute or so, they always looked freakin’ ridiculous doing it. Kids were charming when they did it as they’d smile and laugh and keep it up until they got bored, which was, of course, imminent, as once you were doing it, that was it- there was no more, the thrill quickly faded and enjoyment paled. Children and pointless repetition are notoriously poor friends. But the cool thing about the Hula Hoop was the very exclusion just discussed. We can do it- they can’t. It excluded your parents right under their noses, and you could flaunt it and laugh at their incompetence and it was okay. You could vent your childish anger and frustration and laugh at your parents out in the open and often in front of others and that was okay, too. So I’m just saying that there was a little evil upside to the Hula Hoop thing. That was going to come out in a big way in the Sixties, wasn’t it? Now you know where it started.
Business leaders and innovators rightly identified a vast new market, sighted on it and some of them made fortunes exploiting it. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but what few people were concerned with at the time was where the new paradigm was leading, and that is what we are here to discuss.
Boomers grew up as the focus of the consumer market, and then the political market, which means that they grew up the focus of the culture, and never before in the history of the planet has the focus of a culture been the youth of that culture. The messages received, both subtle and overt, was that the youth of the Sixties had power. Their dreams and fantasies of influence were founded in more reality than of any generation that had ever preceded it. The impact of such a message is incalculable, but the results therefrom are more accessible, and we read them in the headlines every day.
The divisiveness we see daily over issues such as healthcare and our two wars, over global climate change, evolution and economic oversight is at record levels, but the level that alarms me more is the anger out there, and our unwillingness to hear and consider a different viewpoint. This is solipsism clear and simple.
The Republicans are “in power” yet cannot get anything substantive done about healthcare. The Democrats rail at the proposals, and no one notices that they are obstructing, not creating, and certainly not helping. The sad fact is that they are ALL bought by commercial interests who are infinitely more interested in growing their businesses and reporting the growth to their shareholders than they are helping anyone not in their employ, and that only applies to Upper Management.
I understand why abortion is such a hot issue, but evolution? I saw that 42% of Americans believe the Bible is the exact word of God, and everything written therein is exactly what God wants you to know. And that’s the problem. Why do you believe something without asking, “has this been studied? What do the experts say? Must dinosaurs and men have to have existed at the same time for their faith to give them comfort? Did it have to be six days like we measure six days?
Hasn’t evolution been around long enough, and agreed upon by enough scholars to get a little love from Christians? Why do 61% of Americans not believe in evolution? Observe:
People are frightened. Back in the ‘60s, a lot of us thought that when we grew up we’d be heroes and rogues, free thinkers and free livers and we’d create their own lifestyles, shape our own lives and change the system. And now look at us. Everyone thought they’d get first-rate husbands and first-rate wives, and love would flow and they’d have appreciative, respectful children, and most of all, their lives would have meaning. So many of their lives have fallen far short, and so frustration and fear abound. And fear is what always precedes hate.
Thirty years ago, Rolling Stone magazine published an article on why the Sixties generation wasn’t smoking pot anymore. It seemed that in the general population, pot use was increasing nationally at the same time that it was decreasing among the Baby Boomers. And the reason most often given for the decline in that group was that the drug now made them paranoid. Now, I’ll ask you to take it on faith that I know my pot, and I know what’s going on. Yeah, the pot is stronger now, but back in 1982 when the Rolling Stone piece was written, the strength that pot has reached today was not available. But again- it wasn’t the pot that made them paranoid, it was their lives. When they were first smoking it and raving about how cool it was, it was.
But it was their lives that were cool. Possessed of an excess of health, confidence and optimism, we danced into our twenties. We had long been primed as golden children, the messages had been there for us all our lives. And then we graduated high school and college and got jobs and got married and had kids and mortgages and leases and responsibilities and then we got older and only a couple of us got to be rock stars and just a few more got into the movies or wrote a book or made it to TV. Most of us have settled into lives of habit and scant few ever dare to remember our dreams. Yes, there’s a lot of dis-satisfaction out there in Boomer Land. But dreams die hard, and few ever really disappear. They’re always somewhere on the hard-drive, and thinking about them makes us sad and fearful. And fear precedes hate.
And so they are afraid. Afraid to look back, and afraid to look forward. In diminishing health, with diminished expectations and close enough to death to see it as a reality, people are afraid. Most of them have been afraid since the ‘60s failed to produce the utopia we had allowed ourselves to expect.
I would like to suggest that the bitterness we have in America today is partially the residue, the resentment born of ‘60s optimism and naiveté and the fear, loathing, ignorance and hatred that has become our legacy. Hope breeds disillusionment, and the 60’s were all about hope. No, we never grew up to be rock stars or astronauts, and a lot of dreams lie unfulfilled, cluttering up our pasts. But I think the first crack in the shell, the first opening to exploit our dreams came from the people who discovered the depth, the wealth, the willingness of the Boomer Market. This is news to you? And I know it's un-American, but I blame Davy Crockett.