The Irony of ’60s “Liberation”: The Age of Aquarius Ushers in a Ruling Class of “Experts”

It has been half a century since the inauguration of John F. Kennedy and the opening of the Second Vatican Council began the period we call the Sixties. Those were heady times. In America there would be a New Frontier, in the Church a new springtime and even a new Pentecost. The windows of the Church would be opened to let in light and air, and President Kennedy told us there would be a man on the moon before the decade was out.

Man did land on the moon, but otherwise very little worked out as planned. Even the position of minorities, usually considered the great triumph of the period, improved less than it seemed. Equal opportunity legislation provided an initial boost, but in a few years the benefits were increasingly outweighed by other consequences of ‘60s-style liberation. Crime and family breakdown increasingly weighed on the lives of those at the bottom, and by the mid ‘70s the decades-long rise of African Americans out of poverty had come to an end.

The remarkable thing about the ‘60s was the radical opposition between what was expected and what happened. The politics of the New Frontier soon became the politics of utopian fantasy set against a televised backdrop of riots, assassinations, and war. Pope Paul VI was driven to speak of the “smoke of Satan” entering the Church, and her opening to the modern world became less a new Pentecost than absorption by secular, political, and mundane concerns.

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As time went by “outer space” became a fitting symbol for the ideals of the time. The dominant theme was rejection of institutions and traditions, and eventually of all limitations including reason. The natural outcome was a radical decline in intellectual, artistic, and religious life, chaos, banality, and brutishness in the world at large, and the replacement of traditional patterns of life by commerce, bureaucracy, and makeshift stopgaps. The expected Golden Age turned out to be an age of lead, or rather of tinsel and trash.

The contrast between expectation and event resulted from an opposition between appearance and reality. Given the Marxist tendencies of the age, it’s fitting that the opposition should exemplify false consciousness—the acceptance of false images of reality and failure to recognize the interests those images promote.

The ‘60s claimed to be about liberation. In fact, they were much more about the rise of a new ruling class of experts, managers, and media people. That class, which is still with us, has some unusual qualities. The most notable is that it denies that it is a ruling class, and claims instead to be a neutral means through which expertise, rational administration, and the machinery of publicity help people attain their goals. Our rulers today tell us they are here to help us: to educate us, free us from the prejudices of the past, let us know what we really want, and make sure we all get it. They claim their power is liberating, and back up the claim by pointing to their suppression of authorities that compete with them, such as family, custom, religion, and traditional hierarchies. If we can go shopping, play video games, surf the Internet, and sleep around, and we don’t have to listen to Mom, Dad, or the Pope, we must be free. Aren’t suppression of incorrect thoughts and safeguards like the Health, Education and Welfare (HEW) mandate worth having to protect that?

A class that rules by claiming not to rule needs to hide what it is. Our new rulers deny their identity as a class while denouncing the influence of classes that remain identifiable as such. If the Supreme Court is all white or male, that’s domination by a particular class and something must be done about it. If it’s all graduates of Yale and Harvard Law School, and recent presidential elections have all been contests between various Yale and Harvard graduates, that’s not domination by a particular class, it’s just proof that Yale and Harvard are superior and the more power we give the Supreme Court and president the better.

The new politics rejected rule by political give-and-take among the WASP establishment, ethnic and religious majorities, cigar-chomping businessmen, and big-city bosses. Instead, we would have rule by whiz kids and the best and brightest, who would remake everything through expertise backed by expansive interpretations of the law and the urgency provided by various protest movements at odds with authorities the new rulers didn’t like either. The integration of the new ruling class with the news media, manned by Columbia J-School grads instead of the hard-drinking wise-cracking street-savvy reporters of yore, ensured that the official story would be accepted at face value. The result was a consensus that liberation meant stripping minority communities of leadership through affirmative action, and turning women from homemakers into single moms getting by on a waitress’s pay and the occasional welfare or child support check.

Something similar happened in the Church. Instead of tradition and hierarchical discipline the Church would be guided by expert committees and supervised by the news media. Vatican II gave the process a boost through the prominent role it gave academic experts, a role encouraged by its decision to issue lengthy pronouncements on the general nature and direction of the Church. The emphasis on formal expertise was then fortified by the creation of national bishops’ conferences, the need to interpret the Council and put together the new initiatives it seemed to call for, and the growth of bureaucracy at all levels. The occasional hierarch might resist the demands of the rising academic and bureaucratic magisterium, but if he kicked up too much of a fuss a media campaign would intervene, so it was easier to go along. And if faithful Catholics were more attached to rosaries than newly-composed songs of worship, they were told they were wrong and the People of God wanted the songs even if they didn’t know it. If the result was that the People of God dropped out altogether, that’s too bad but there are always growing pains and there’s no going back.

The new elite claimed to be democratic, since it was a meritocracy open to all, it claimed to interpret popular needs and aspirations, it included people who had been outsiders under the old regime, and it mostly avoided the direct use of force. In fact, it was narrow, self-selected, and utterly uninterested in views other than its own. It was composed by definition of those who knew better, so why should they listen to anyone? Hence the increasing insistence on formal certification and propagandistic educational materials informing us that everything we thought we knew was wrong. The new, rational, democratic, and liberated order turned out to mean that people can’t be allowed to do much of anything without training and supervision by their betters. Otherwise they won’t do it right, and they might hurt themselves or others. They are required to be free in the way they’re told to be free, and that is decided by committees whose expertise exempts them from any need for personal knowledge.


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