The 1960s were intended as a rebellion against the materialism, mindless conformity, soullessness, and general inhumanity and immorality of commercial and bureaucratic (“corporate and militaristic”) America. The answer, it was thought, could be found in freeing ourselves from a society gone wrong by rejection of social forms, pursuit of intense experience, and “doing your own thing”—making individual choice the supreme standard.
The solution made the problem worse. The ’60s turned society much more than before into a mass of contending wills with no higher standard to order them. Rebels and activists debunked what was left of traditional culture without offering anything to replace it. In the absence of a definite higher standard, or any way to determine one, people fell back on the most mundane, content-free, and soulless standards possible: money, bureaucracy, and social position, who gets hold of what and who’s in a position to do what to whom.
So the effect of the ’60s was radicalization of the soulless modernity they attacked. The resulting damage fell notably on those thought to be beneficiaries. In the period’s aftermath poor black people stopped progressing economically as crime raged and their families and communities fell apart. Non-elite women abandoned housewifery only to fall into unwed motherhood, low-paying jobs bringing neither stability nor respect, and demonstrably greater unhappiness. Homosexuals celebrated their liberation by pursuing their inclinations, resulting in shortened lives without evident benefits to other aspects of their well-being. Creative people saw the intellectual and aesthetic interest of their productions decline as their professional world became absorbed by commercialism and grant-making bureaucracies. And “the people”—those not well-positioned in the social order—found their situation becoming ever poorer, less stable, and less rewarding.
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And where was the Church in the midst of this disaster? Unfortunately, her decision to open herself to the secular public world and follow its lead in hopes of transforming it from within came just as the ’60s were getting underway and sealing that world off ever more totally from any higher influence. To join the world, it turned out, was to abandon Catholic identity and with it any possibility of influencing events in a better direction.
To use the language now spoken, it’s evident that the ’60s were rushed to market based on an unproven concept that didn’t work. With that in mind, they need to be rebooted with different parameters, or more likely undergo a total rewrite.
The ’60s were right about some things. Life is not an industrial process, material advantage is not its center, and people should not be expected to give fundamental loyalty and devote their best efforts to social institutions wholly oriented toward rational pursuit of money and power. The things of everyday life, simply as they are from the standpoint of a commercial and bureaucratic society, are not enough for a life worthy of man. We need to break on through to the other side, if not in the ’60s manner.
The means chosen then, abolishing forms in favor of unconstrained choice and extreme experience, made sense to young people who knew only what they saw on TV, learned in school, and picked up from other young people. Trends like the postwar return to normalcy and the growth of TV, advertising, suburbia, large corporate employers, and universal college education for the middle class were making the American Way of Life ever more uniformly organized on wholly mundane principles. Young people were left to contemplate the value of a strictly secular middle-class existence.
That way of life had many good features, especially in comparison with what came after, but it made no provision for the highest things. The possibility of contact with something ultimate and life-changing had given way to security and comfort. Religion had become religion in general that put God in the background as a general support and validation for what was being done for other reasons. Education had been dumbed down, and had more to do with career and social expectations than introducing students to the highest human achievements. And the world seemed safe to suburban young people, so much so that it seemed they could do what they wanted without penalty. Violence, poverty, and oppression seemed like anomalies that would disappear if others stopped acting so pointlessly.
So what to do? In a commercial and bureaucratic world forms—procedural manuals, bills of sale, applications for benefits, tallies of credit hours—govern everything but are devoid of human interest. They have no space for the open-endedness of reality or possibility of transcendence, so getting rid of them seemed like the key to a better world. And if the orientation of society was wholly toward the material, then goodness, truth, and beauty became individual and subjective. Something better could come only from dropping out and looking within.
That is why people thought forms must go and subjectivity and pure experience rule. What they got though was a chaotic stream of sensation and impulse. Within that stream contact with the ultimate seemed to mean pursuit of the most intense impulses and sensations: sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll, perhaps in the end violence and death. The possibility of that line of development has been with us since the Enlightenment and figures such as Sade, but in the ‘60s it went mass market.
The tendency didn’t end well. The problem is that the good, true, and beautiful, the things it makes sense to do, believe, and contemplate, are important because they put us in relation to God, the world, and each other. They can’t do that if they are formless or purely individual, or if they lack an element that transcends sensation and impulse so it can put them in their place.
But where is that transcendent element to come from? Evidently, from the presence within experience of something that points beyond it. Modernity thinks of experience as closed within itself, as a combination of pure sensation and pure quantity, so that the only exit from the everyday is novelty, death, or excess that overwhelms our sense of the normal. The possibility of a life worthy of humanity depends on there being something more than that. And it is evident there is: we know from our own lives that we can recognize the good, beautiful and true as things that expand and orient our world because they have direction and point beyond impulse and sensation.
The ability to recognize those things depends on our sense of the transcendent element within experience. That sense is elusive—it has to do with something that can’t be measured or photographed—but it is real and supremely important. To become reliably present and usable, so it can orient and sustain us, it must be made concrete through forms and limits. To that end it needs the symbols, stories, rituals, and traditions that constitute the religion and culture of a people. Without those things we are at best “spiritual but not religious,” inhabitants of a world that wants to rise beyond the mundane but never goes anywhere.
Jack Kerouac insisted that “beat” stood for “beatitude.” He had the right idea, but got lost pursuing it. With that in mind, the rebels of the ’60s would have done better attending to the individual soul rather than individual choice. Instead of denying forms they should have pursued the forms that bring life, beauty, and grace—good manners, the arts, the sacraments. And instead of the commune and tribe they should have joined communities ordered to the highest ends—parish, monastery, and Church. In short, the ’60s should have been a movement to restore Christendom. And that is what Sixties 2.0 will have to be if they ever come and if they are ever to amount to anything.
Editor’s note: Adler Alley in San Francisco was renamed Jack Kerouac Street in 1988.