The decade when everything changed
I am a child of the 1980s and 1990s, so the sixties were already a distant memory when I was growing up. Perhaps a stronger memory than it is now, as it was closer in time, but still only a memory. A few things, such as certain rock bands, or the musical Hair, still lingered on, but mostly the cultural landscape had completely changed.
And yet, the fruits or, if you will, the side-effects of the 1960s are still very much with us, even today. It is hard to find any other decade in history in which things changed so much, and whose effects lasted for so long. So much so, that we still talk about the “sixties”, but other, more recent decades (“the 2000s”, “the 2010s”) did not seem to leave a lasting impression and are hardly differentiated from the general blur of time.
Just a few things that come to mind:
Political murder as media event: JFK’s murder was not the first assassination of an American president, and murders of important political leaders have been happening since before Julius Caesar. But this one, captured on film, caused a shock rarely seen before, and birthed a thousand conspiracy theories. In fact, the concept of “conspiracy theory” itself started at that time. Yet, even today, we are no closer to a full resolution than we were back in 1963. It is a murder mystery than never ends. Together with JFK, a more innocent America died that day, never to be reborn.
Sex: They promised “free love”, and perhaps it was “free” for a few, for a while. But the future generations paid a heavy price. Today, the most incredible consequence of the so-called sexual revolution is that young people are having less sex than ever. According to recent polls, teen virginity is on the rise, as well as depression among teenage girls (some of whom decide they are “boys”), and of course the “incel” phenomenon, which is the reverse side of feminism and occasionally turns violent. The sexes seem further apart than ever before, two thirds of marriages end in divorce, and many people never even marry. Birth rates have crumbled all over the modern world. In some countries, the fertility rate is below 1.0, that is, more than half of the women are choosing not to have babies, ever.
Drugs: Although they didn’t invent it, the hippies were the one that turned drug use into a lifestyle — with a little help of Timothy Leary and the CIA. Let us not forget that CIA at the time was very much promoting modern art, LSD and a few other cultural disruptions. Today, many American states have decriminalized drugs, and marihuana is now legal in quite a few countries, but the results are far from satisfactory. Portland and Seattle, once calm cities were nothing much happened, now have a downtown full of drug-addicts, in some cases using drugs even on public transportation, and crime is on the rise. But I think the direction is towards more legalization. A drugged population is an obedient population.
But it’s not just (formerly) illegal drugs. Big Pharma legal drugs for all kinds of mental issues also started to be pushed in this period. While SSRIs came a bit later, with fluoxetine (Prozac) starting being marketed in 1987, the initial studies are already from the 1960s. SSRIs and opioids have had a huge social impact, and while they have been helpful in some individual cases, the general balance appears negative. Almost all recent mass shooters were on SSRIs.
Rock’n’Roll: Popular music also existed before the Beatles, but they gave a whole other meaning to it, with massive concerts and euphoric fans screaming or even committing suicide. The “music industry”, as we know it, was born then. Today, the industrialization of pop music is complete. I don’t follow pop music at all, but it all seems completely taken over corporations that manufacture the whole thing from scratch. I am pretty sure that soon all lyrics (and probably voices as well) will be created by AI, with a good-looking actor or actress just playing the part of fake “pop star” for the masses and the gossip magazines (perhaps it is already this way, I wouldn’t know).
Population Replacement: Some call it “immigration”, but I think “population replacement” is a more clear term, because with the extremely low birth rates mentioned above, together with the massive immigration of all kinds of people to North America, Oceania and Europe, that is the intended effect. Well, all this also started in the 1960s. In the U.S., with the Hart-Celler Act, written into law in 1965, but also Europe started bringing in its first “temporary workers” and the inhabitants of their former colonies during this period. It hasn’t stopped, and it will likely go on. It is a depressing subject, as immigration numbers keep increasing with governments doing nothing about it, and native birth rates falling even more. Populations will change, countries will change or even cease to exist. Who knows what will remain?
Youth Political Movements: The student protests of May 1968 in France gave rise to a different kind of organized protest, were young students would be at the forefront; if not as the main ideologues, at least as their face. It was a revolt against traditional society, and in general against old people, if you will, with no other authority than their own youth. Being young became a moral value in itself. (A famous Brazilian writer, Nelson Rodrigues, criticized this at the time, but few heard him) This type of protest set the tone for much later movements such as the “climate change” protests, BLM, or the pro-abortion movement.
Secularization. I don’t know if the Second Vatican Council, also known as Vatican II, was considered a big deal at the time (1962), or just some kind of internal dispute that wasn’t much on the news. But its repercussions were enormous. In retrospect, the damage it did to Catholicism and to religion in general was huge. Some even say that Catholicism doesn’t even exist anymore, but a new “Vatican II” religion took its place.
In any case, secularization was quick. Just think that in Quebec, in the 1950s, the vast majority of the population identified as Catholic. Monthly mass attendance was 90%, and it was common for Catholic families to have 5 or 6 children — and some, many more: the singer Céline Dion, born in 1968, was the youngest of 14 siblings! Now? Fertility rate is just 1.5, and “between 1986 and 2011, the proportion of Quebec’s population attending church monthly fell from 48 to 17 percent, and the weekly attendance rate today (2021) is around 4 percent.” (source here). Many old churches were repurposed for secular uses, such as pubs or gyms. (A personal note: I think I’d prefer if they had been demolished or turned into museums. There is something uncanny about church buildings being used for other means, in particular if they are old, beautiful gothic churches — I don’t care about the new ones with modern architecture).
Sure, perhaps Vatican II wasn’t the only source of all those troubles, many other things happened in the intervening decades, but it sure didn’t help. Fact is, people don’t go to church to hear the same things that they can already hear on television or to see the same things they can see in a concert hall. To give you an idea, the last time I went to mass, before the Easter Latin Mass this year, was a few years ago in a church where during communion they played a recording of Leonard Cohen singing his “Hallelujah”. I mean, I love Leonard Cohen as much as anyone, but there’s a time and a place for everything. And that was at a traditional Catholic church — I don’t know what they do today in Protestant churches, but I can imagine.
Moon landings: The decade closed with the landing of man on the moon and the planting an American flag on Mare Tranquillitatis, in an indisputable win in the Cold War. Or was it? What if it was all shot in a studio, perhaps by Stanley Kubrick? I never really questioned the official narrative, but watching certain videos makes you wonder. “We lost the technology to go back to the moon” and “we erased the original tapes”. Anyway, this one wasn’t as influential as it seemed at the time. Sure, it generated lots of movies and books about space travel in the following decades, but it didn’t have that much impact on real life, as the future ended up being more about computer networks and genetically engineered food than about interplanetary colonies. Now NASA is saying they will go back to the moon in 2030, with the first black and the first lesbian astronaut, but I think it’s just propaganda. The U.S. has other major problems now.
In conclusion: the 1960s were hugely influential, and they basically created our modern world. Now, it is true that there were many other changes in the decades after, and that it was a slow process that took time, not just a decade. We didn’t even realize that the world had changed or was still changing. In fact, comparing to today, the 1980s and 1990s of my youth seemed relatively normal. Even if big changes were happening — i.e. the AIDS scare, SSRIs, etc — it didn’t seem as bad as today.
Looking beyond the 1960s, I think two other important changes that happened more recently were: one, the creation of the smartphone and social media, in the 2000s. More than the personal computer and the Internet, this had and is still having enormous social implications, many of which we will know only much later on. And the second big change came, I think, with the Covid response in 2020, which showed that social changes and even authoritarianism could now be implemented immediately, on a global scale, and it also paved the way for the new bio-technological society that is coming. (But perhaps this discussion deserves another, separate text, which I may or may not write.)
One comment on “Revisiting the 1960s”
You dug up some amazing archival photos for this article, Tom. The photo of the old church was tragic – but still so beautiful. Thank you.
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