TODD GITLIN, 3/89
X: Social thought. Conversations with the original personalities who are rethinking the way our society and institutions work. With your host, Michael Phillips.
You grow up with a whole series of assumptions that break upon the reef of experienced reality. Well, what happens then? You're jolted. You're jolted and you look for some form of culture that's going to express your identity. And some people found it in the so-called counterculture. Some people, in the political New Left. And the intertwining of those forces is part of the dynamic that works its way through the '60s.
Michael Phillips (MP): Our guest today is Todd Gitlin, professor of sociology at the University of California at Berkeley. He is author of a book called The Sixties as well as several other distinguished works. I'm your host, Michael Phillips. Welcome to Social Thought, Professor Gitlin. Would it be fair to say that in your book you treat the '60s as an institution?
TODD GITLIN: Well, it's an interesting concept, the notion that a period is an institution. I think it's actually a rather new notion. The very notion that a time speaks with a common voice is a very modern notion. We speak of the generation of 1914, or at one point the Spanish talk about the generation of '96. We talked about the Lost Generation, and then the Beat Generation, and so on. The very, now of course it's become routine. We talk about people of the '50s, people of the '60s, people of the '70s wrote articles now I see decrying the fact that they don't have a period that speaks clearly. Now already we're starting to look back on the '80s. So the first thing that's already interesting is maybe the '60s are a strong period for this in American culture. The notion, because of the Baby Boom, because there were so many people who came of age, and because there were so many cultural institutions that seemed peculiar to them, I think we got used to thinking in decades. And that's in some ways misleading. When I speak of these institutions, these cultural forms, I mean rock 'n' roll, I mean television, I mean marijuana. Just to name three forms of communication, which seemed to people to characterize them as a segment apart. It's a very interesting phenomenon.
MP: What was the role of the mass media?
TODD GITLIN: Well, that was, I mean the question in a modern society where people live in scattered milieux is, How do people recognize themselves as part of a common enterprise? When they don't belong to the same tribe necessarily, they don't necessarily live in the same place. And increasingly people turn to mass media as a way in which they can identify themselves. In other words, they recognize themselves as fans of the same formats. So when they listen to Elvis Presley or when they went to a rock concert with Janis Joplin or what have you, they could identify themselves as that. They are the fans of the same enterprise. Or they are readers of Jack Kerouac, or Normal Mailer or Allen Ginsberg. And the '60s were a moment I think when the mass media came into their own as a central force in American life, and that's why the media, you cannot say three sentences about the '60s without talking about the media. I, myself, belong to that transitional generation. I was ten years old when we got a television set, so I straddled, and I think therefore I think I'm particularly aware in my own life of how reliant I was on television to bring the news, to bring a sense of what was happening Out There, quote/unquote. People who grow up with it now are simply fish swimming in the water, they take water for granted.
MP: Didn't radio change its function in the late '50s when television took away some of the parents and left the young people listening on their own?
TODD GITLIN: Yeah. The old radio, the idea of radio as a mass medium was folding. The radio was being evacuated by its stars. Jack Benny, Red Skelton, people like that were going to television. So the people who had radio licenses didn't know what to do with 'em. Enter the disc jockeys. And the disc jockeys stumbled into rock 'n' roll as a force. Well, that of course turned it into a teenage force and turned radio into a site for contest. I mean, you had to fight with your parents over who got to listen to what. And radio was also I think in a way a subversive force. I mean, you could force, if you were parents then of rambunctious kids, you could force them to stay in their room maybe, and do their homework, but you couldn't keep Dick Clark or ?Alan Fried as it was for me growing up in New York or, you know, the curly-headed kid in the third row, or Wolfman Jack, out of the room. Right? The disc jockey was a sort of subversive uncle who came to the door peddling stories of his escapades, in the land of the uncivilized, the unruly. A very subversive force.
MP: The people we're talking about in the '60s had characteristics, attitudes, and behavior that seemed to be related. Were they in that sense in multiple institutions?
TODD GITLIN: Things tended to clump in the '60s because the older institutions were losing their legitimacy. People were not believing the old stuff, they knew that people didn't dance the way they said they danced on Lawrence Welk and they knew that people didn't live in families the way Ozzie and Harriet said and they increasingly knew that presidents lied, that armies fought unjust wars, and so on. And so they went looking for substitute institutions, places where they felt at home in an identity of disgruntlement at the least, or opposition at the most. That could be rock 'n' roll for some people, it could be marijuana, it could be underground newspapers, it could be organizations of the political left. It seems to me you have to write about all of them, that's why I did that in this book on the '60s, that these were not all the same thing by any means. People who smoked dope were not necessarily people who hated the Vietnam War. But you have to look at the relation between them. You have to understand that, for example, if the institutions of law enforcement treated people who smoked marijuana as if they were major criminals, then you could in effect alienate them and drive them into the arms of those people who were interested in political opposition, as in anti-war activity and so on. So you have to look at the way these institutions ricochet off each other.
MP: Particularly, people seemed to move into different Baby-Boom categories. Is that how you would describe it?
TODD GITLIN: Well, it's a mistake to see all Baby Boomers as one thing. Baby Boomers, for example, were not all middle class, most of them didn't go to college. So, the impression was magnified by media in the '60s, that quote/unquote The Youth were all rambunctious, dope-smoking anti-Americans. That was ridiculous. But it is true that a very large number of people of this Baby-Boom generation, for a whole variety of reasons, had an experience of themselves as apart from, and counter to, a set of values which they had inherited, and a set of political commitments which had been second nature, but which did not describe their world any more. They grew up, if you were of my generation, and I was born in 1943, I'm a little older than the Baby Boomer, technically. But you grew up learning that the fundamental fact of the world is the Cold War, there's a good side and bad side, and it's as simple as that. We, our side, embodies the victory of truth over injustice and good over evil in World War Two. We were that, we will forever be that. That's what you grow up with. And you grow up subscribing to magazines like Junior Scholastic that show the globe with the red paint spilling over it, from the East, and encroaching upon the previously pristine West. And so on. You grew up with that, where the Cold War is sort of the master script. But! The world ceases to look that way after a while. What is really so horrendous about the Cuban Revolution that American troops have to be involved in invading it and, or at least in the plans, and that the world is brought to the brink of nuclear war over it. You begin to wonder, to take another issue, whether America really is a completed society, when you find out about racial segregation, and a movement to resist it. And you grew up thinking America was already perfected. We could all go off and mow our lawns with Ozzie Nelson. But what if you find out that that story is itself a distortion, that the world according to Time and Life magazine is a distortion. You grow up being told that men and women have their respective places. But that image is shattered, partly by the sexual revolution and partly by the fact that women have already moved into the workforce, and there's no economic reason any more why they should be subordinated. You grew up with a whole series of these assumptions that break upon the reef of experienced reality. Well, what happens then? You're jolted. You're jolted and you look for some form of culture that's going to express your identity. Now, some people found it in the socalled counterculture, some people in the political New Left, and the intertwining of those forces is part of the dynamic that works its way through the '60s.
MP: What mechanisms do you use in analyzing this history?
TODD GITLIN: Well, I had the advantage of having lived through a lot of this, and I tried to build this book on events that I could remember, which made a difference for me. Now, of course I also had my eye out for lots of things that I didn't experience personally, but almost all this book is built on experience that I had directly. So I could remember, for example, when I first understood that there was going to be a mass youth sentiment, against the war in Vietnam, and it was, I could date it very precisely. It was August 1965, when suddenly a song called "Eve of Destruction" came out of the blue and within a few weeks of being released was #1 all over the country. Even though there were many big radio stations, like all the ABC network stations, radio network stations, wouldn't play it! Because it was so angry, so alienated, so disaffected from the American war in Vietnam. And that you can, that would, long before I had a language, I mean I was twenty-two years old, I was a graduate student in political science, but I didn't have a language for understanding the political significance of culture. I just had a visceral feeling, that there's a different form of identification that's possible now. People are buying this song in order to say, in effect, "Hell, no; we won't go." It's a new political fact. You have to monitor the radio charts in order to get a sense of what people are feeling. That's just one example of a new cultural form that had come into being, into existence, and become a political fact.
MP: What was the relationship between the song, the songwriter, and audience? Did they form a loop?
TODD GITLIN: Well, there always is a loop. Sometimes you don't know what the sentiment is until you write a song in that vein and you send it, you float it out and see who gets in the boat. Of course, there were lots of other songs too. In fact, I recall that in the fall of '65, the major radio, rock station in Chicago, WCFL, had a contest in which they asked people to call in and express their vote either for "Eve of Destruction" if that was their point of view, or for "Ballad of the Green Berets," also very popular at the time, a song recorded by a master sergeant named Barry Sadler. They called it the Battle of the Barrys because it was a guy named Barry ?Maguire who sang "Eve of Destruction." And actually when they counted their votes, and they got many thousands of votes, they had Barry Sadler winning, the green-beret song, winning by one vote. I mean there was a sense I think that many people had, whether they were writing songs or putting them on the air, that all this was heatedly political. That there was a contest going on. I'll use another example of it. In 1968, just before the Democratic convention in Chicago, the same WCFL refused to play Mick Jagger, the Rolling Stones, "Street-Fighting Man." Instead, they played incessantly the Beatles' song "Revolution," which, despite its name, and undeserved reputation, is actually a song that's extremely disabused about left-wing politics. It contains lines like "if you go marching with Chairman Mao, I'm not going to" something or other "anyhow." You're not gonna make it with me anyhow. In the case of "Street-Fighting Man" of course there was an irony in the lyrics. Jagger says that "sleepy London town is just no place for street-fighting man," but it didn't matter what the lyrics were, the important thing was that anybody who heard "Street-Fighting Man," who actually let the pulse of it get into their bones, knew, in a sense, what it was sounding like. It was sounding like marching in the streets. So, here were I think both Mick Jagger, who did it cynically, and the radio station that did it directly, both understood there was a political loading to these songs, that had to be taken seriously.
MP: We'll be right back. This is Michael Phillips, the program is Social Thought, and our guest today is Todd Gitlin, professor of sociology at the University of California at Berkeley. He is author of the book The Sixties and several other distinguished books. This was recorded in his home in Berkeley. So far we have discussed the historic period that is in the book as an institution. We've talked about the particular elements that define that periodóthe songs, the events, the concerns of the people. And we've focused particularly on the role of the media. How did the media metaphors play a role in helping this specific cohort, or this generation, to define itself?
TODD GITLIN: Well, I think a great deal has to do with specific historical events. To be in that Baby-Boom generation was to grow up, first of all with a sense that the glory years of America, namely, the years of World War Two when America was simply on the side of the angels, those years were gone. They were in the background, but they were gone. Secondly, it was to grow up with a very specific fear of The Bomb. It was a fear that was not abstract because periodically at school there were take-cover drills and you were required to hide under your desk or go out in the hall and pretend to be insulated from the effects of a nuclear blast. So that, it didn't matter whether you really thought you were. I think you were reminded that you were involved in a Cold War, that you had been in a sense inducted into the arms race as a hostage, whether you liked it or not. That was a historically specific experience that was different, it cut you off from the previous generation. The previous generation tended to think that war was war, and that the Abomb, although horrible, was simply another bomb. I think to grow up in my generation was to feel differently about it. The other thing I think that was striking was the appeal to generational feeling that was made by Jack Kennedy himself. I mean generations don't simply invent themselves. They invent themselves in relation to other generations. And, Kennedy himself had a generational ethos, a generational spirit. His inaugural address was quite explicit about it. "The torch is passed to a new generation." And here is was clearly differentiating himself from Dwight Eisenhower. Jack Kennedy had been an ordinary sailor. Eisenhower had been a general. That was quite different. Now, Kennedy, because he was so young, evoked a spirit of vigor and youth, terms that were imputed to him, but terms that he himself used. Which suggested that to be of a certain age was to be branded with a particular historical identity. And that in turn made it easier for the generation younger than him, to feel the same, to feel something equivalent. And he was making the specific appeal to the young. The Peace Corps was part of that. The Green Berets, in a different way, were part of that. So I think very much, there's nothing divine about generations. You are not born, assigned a membership card in a generation. Generations are made, not born. And it's through particular historical experiences, that they are made. Now, subsequently of course what consolidated the sense of generation was the war, it was the war in Vietnam. Wars are very dramatic ways of stamping an identity on a generation. And here, after all, was a whole generation of people who, whether they were inducted or not, in the army, in the armed forces, at least had to cope with being of the age at which they could be inducted. Whether they were soldiers who enlisted, or college kids who were largely exempt, or other people who became draft resisters, they all had to cope centrally with this fact about themselves. The government was treating them as a particular category of social being, because of their age. Age translated into war availability. And so all of these historical realities processed this generation, as a generation. Now, in some ways, as I was saying before, this is misleading. To be twenty-two and a truck driver in 1965 was very different from being twenty-two and a college graduate. These are very different experiences. And yet, there is this common element, of a war which, to which you are an equivalent sort of token to be moved about. So I think it's well to remember that generations are organized, in a sense. I mean they are like other institutions in the sense that people set out to mark them as such. I mean part of what made my crowd a generation was that certain figures in the political movements, in the culture, set out and said, It's our generation. Pete Townsend and The Who said, talking about our generation. In a different way, Bob Dylan said it. In a different way, Tom Hayden said it. In a different way, Stokely Carmichael said it. In a different way, MalcolmÝX said it. In a different way, Eldridge Cleaver said it. In a different way, Abby Hoffman said it. In a different way, lots of people most of us haven't heard of said it. And all of them in different ways were in a sense bringing that generation to life.
MP: As we've been talking, you have been very candid about yourself and used yourself as an example. Is this characteristic of your generation? Is it a general characteristic of this period?
TODD GITLIN: Well, yeah, there was some of it. I think some of that sentiment was quite vigorous in the '60s, the notion, at least on the part of the writers who meant something to me, that one should always be testifying from a firm place, from experience. Not that experience is a simple concept. But that one should be aware of where one is in history. I mean I think in many ways I learned that, not from people of my generation, but from, just to name two, C.ÝWright Mills, who talked about wanting to write at the intersection of history and biography. And George Orwell, who always in his powerful writing called upon his own personal experience, whether it was as a policeman out in the far reaches of the British Empire or as a combatant, a soldier in the Spanish Civil War. I guess I would add Albert Camus, writing about the wartime resistance, and in his own way Norman Mailer writing about World War Two. I think what, these are very different writers, but what they have in common is the notion of testifying, from the grain of experience, the grain of a unique human life. Now, I think what makes it possible for me to write a book which is one of history and not simply a memoir is that I believed in making the connections, understanding myself not as a free-floating figure who wafts over the earth from nowhere, but somebody who was situated in a historical situation. So I hoped, the reason I ended up writing this book which moves in and out of the first person is that I finally don't trust work which pretends to a sort of distance it doesn't have. In my experience, the people who are quick to brandish their objectivity are people who are concealing their own commitments and feelings. And whenever I hear the word "objectivity," I reach for my skepticism.
MP: Has this observation expanded to other generational cohorts? By that I mean, have the deconstructionists spread it to wider generations?
TODD GITLIN: Well, this is very tricky. I think there are different ways of embedding oneself in experience. I mean some people, some of the hard-core deconstructionists would go so far as to say that no one can say anything comprehensive because everyone is situated so deeply in, inerasably, in a point of view, that no one can get out of it. Then it's a wonder that anybody can communicate at all. I belong to the side that thinks, if it is a side, I'd like to make it a side, that thinks that the reason communication is possible is that, while we start from particular experience, we don't necessarily end there. It is possible to say comprehensive things. It's possible to say that certain statements are more right or more wrong. Not all points of view are equivalently reasonable. Now, I mean I still uphold the banner of the Enlightenment. I think we're all in hock to it, and we have our debts to pay to it. I'm not eager to kick it overboard at all. I think if we do want to think of this generation, we, that, I'm forty-six. I think to those even ten years younger than me, and more particularly fifteen years younger, are inhabiting a different moral and cultural climate, in which they are suspicious if there's any ground to stand on. They are suspicious about any belief. I'm here speaking really quite globally, but, for simplification I would say it. The socalled post-modernist mood is a mood of skepticism about the possibility of finding any philosophical or political ground to stand on. It's a suspicion of universal claims, universal ideas, and so on. And it troubles me. It troubles me, although I understand its roots, generationally. I think it's a post New Left, post Vietnam, post television, post '60s, point of view. Known, you notice, more by what it's post than what it inhabits. I think it's very hard to get a sense of the political drift of this time because it seems so much adrift, and people are in so many ways inoculated from the consequences of widespread social unhappiness. It's possible for middle-class white people to go through a day happily oblivious of the conditions in the black ghetto, because there is no movement walking down their street reminding them of it. It's safely remote. And I think therefore social thought has a certain aloofness, a certain ability to float free now, a certain unanchored feeling, which to me represents a sort of interim mood, a sort of mood of waiting. It's waiting for something that hasn't happened, and relieved to be done with something that has happened, but it doesn't quite know where here is. And that mood is something that strikes me as particular to a generation that is, in a certain way, anesthetized.
MP: Using the metaphor of an anchor, does that leave this generation susceptible to a major event which would then become their anchor?
TODD GITLIN: Well, it's an interesting possibility. Of course, many people would deny this and they would say that things have happened. They would say that the Reagan years happened, they would say that Ronald Reagan happened. They would say that the hostage in Iran happened. And all that is true, but for most people it happened on television. Where It's Morning in America, but what does that mean? So, what would change this situation? Well, we should be thankful that some things haven't come along to change it. I mean wars are good at defining generations. And one of the continuing legacies of the '60s is in fact the fear of American power to reproduce that experience. They are not anxious to send Americans to fight and die, and come back in body bags, which makes for unpleasant politics. We've also been free of assassinations. The murders in the society are little murders, they're murders largely of people we don't know, and most of that is kept at some distance. So, it seems to me that only the disruption of that I think rather thin sense of equanimity and normalcy would rewrite the agenda for the current generation.
MP: Thank you for being with us, Professor Gitlin. This is Michael Phillips, the program is Social Thought, and our guest today was Todd Gitlin, professor of sociology at the University of California in Berkeley. The book we have been talking about is called The Sixties, published by Bantam.