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Critique Jonathan Leaf

A guide by mianfei

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Jonathan Leaf’s The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Sixties (The Politically Incorrect Guides) offers a contrary look at a decade that remains extremely controversial today. Leaf argues that the 1960s remained an extremely conservative decade culturally, and that the counterculture with which the decade is usually associated was very marginal but extremely destructive in the long term as it took over academia.

However, before reading Leaf’s book I knew from various sources that in fact Leaf’s view is simplistic at best and wrong at worst.


The 1960s: Not So Radical, but for the Wrong Reason
It is popularly thought that the aim of the 1960s counterculture was to dissociate Europe and North America from traditional Western culture as represented by Christianity, in favour of Eastern religions and new movements like Wicca. In fact, as James Farrell’s The Spirit of the Sixties: The Making of Postwar Radicalism (American Radicals) and Robert Inchausti’s Subversive Orthodoxy: Outlaws, Revolutionaries, and Other Christians in Disguise show, many of the roots of the Sixties lie in very traditional Christianity. Such icons of the Beat movement as Jack Kerouac (Biography (Lerner Hardcover)) and A Life of Kenneth Rexroth were very much Catholics, though they did not conform to the Church’s sexual standards. Those who still doubt the influence of Catholicism on the Sixties will be surprised that potential saint Dorothy Day: A Biography was regarded as a heroine because of her pacifism. If you read Bill Kauffman in Look Homeward America: In Search of Reactionary Radicals and Front-Porch Anarchist, you will see a rightful argument that Dorothy Day’s pacifism was conservative. Read By Little & By Little: The Selected Writings of Dorothy Day for a look at the thought of this unique if unpalatable woman.

Inchausti’s logic of the Christian roots of the 1960s can be seen even more sharply with Tolkien, whose deep conservatism led him to romanticise rural life in a way that perfectly appealed to the hippies. The Rough Guide to the Lord of the Rings (Rough Guide Reference) is a basic look, whilst Crunchy Cons: How Birkenstocked Burkeans, gun-loving organic gardeners, evangelical free-range farmers, hip homeschooling mamas, right-wing nature ... America (or at least the Republican Party) has some very helpful tidbits on Tolkien and his character.

It is notable how psychedelic rock bands would incorporate religious elements, as with Mass in F Minor. Indeed The Velvet Underground & Nico executive producer The Andy Warhol Diaries and even Maureen Tucker were practicing Catholics (thanks, Dean Zimmerman of Rutgers University).

On the other side of Christianity is Albert Ayler, an intensely religious man and a classic GI, but whose Spiritual Unity is credited with inspiring punk and was an “underground” Leaf ignores. Meditations by John Coltrane is similar if not nearly so traditional and more mystical. Ivan Illich’s Deschooling Society (Open Forum S) and Gender are two of the most influential books on conservative grassroots movements today, and come out of the same tradition as radical movements of the decade. So does paleoconservative hero Murray Rothbard, whose America's Great Depression questioned the military-industrial state of FDR like nothing else.


The Sixties and Decadent Mysticism
One factor that obscures the religious roots of the Sixties is the tendency to associate traditional Christianity with sexual repression. Whilst this is doctrinally true,, in practice this was as Decadence and Catholicism shows complicated by theologies that viewed (sexual) sin as itself a source of grace via repentance, deriving from Julian of Norwich: Mystic and Theologian and seen in the writings of Complete Poems: Charles Baudelaire, Paul Verlaine: Selected Poems (Oxford World's Classics), Arthur Rimbaud: A Biography and Eric Gill. Gill was a hippie before they existed: deeply religious, sexually experimental yet denigrating himself for it, socially radical and experimental. This decadence is exemplified in Beat poet and “Dionysian Catholic” William Everson: The Life of Brother Antoninus.


Sixties Music: Unusually Radical
Leaf argues that because of the dominance of the charts by artists like Bobby Vinton - 20 All Time Greatest Hits, rock music was not “popular” in the Sixties. However, neither was it “underground”. The real underground of the early 1960s was Free Jazz, along with Charles Mingus’ The Black Saint & The Sinner Lady, Coltrane’s Meditations and folk guitarist John Fahey’s Blind Joe Death Volume 1 which introduced improvisation in a manner completely different form the multi-part compositions of classical music but anticipated by composers like Cage in Cage: Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano and Stockhausen’s Kontakte.

These innovations in the later part of the decade became popular due to the explosion of FM radio documented by Richie Unterberger in Unknown Legends of Rock 'n' Roll and Urban Spacemen and Wayfaring Strangers: Overlooked Innovators and Eccentric Visionaries of '60s Rock. Joe S. Harrington in his “Top 100 Albums” and Sonic Cool: The Life & Death of Rock'N'Roll shows how art and commerce mixed in the late 1960s like in no other time, as does David Keenan (look for “The Best Albums Ever...Honest”).


The Real Anti-Religion Radicalism
Leaf hints that the most radical period of American history was the 1970s and 1980s rather than the 1960s. Studies, for instance of sexual behaviour show the the greatest rises in extramarital sex occurred in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Also, it was not until the 1990s and books like Peter Kreeft’s Ecumenical Jihad: Ecumenism and the Culture War that a conservative counter-counterculture emerged. The cultural forces that they were reacting to came from the late 1970s: it was AC/DC on TNT and Back in Black who really turned anti-Christian attitudes of “might makes right” and “absolute freedom to do what one wants is ideal” into the cultural mainstream. Such radical feminist works as Marija Gimbutas‘ The Civilization of the Goddess: The World of Old Europe, Andrea Dworkin’s Intercourse and Mary Daly’s Gyn/Ecology: The Metaethics of Radical Feminism challenged previously normative sexual roles, and like AC/DC and Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols (UK Version) opposed vigorously the “Personalism” upon which both traditional Christianity and the original counterculture were based. They made the “other” (either men or women) into non-persons in the same way Nazism did with Jews and Marxism with the ruling class, creating an new ideology based around the “Übermensch”. Leaf does not notice this at all, nor how Peter Singer in In Defense of Animals: The Second Wave undermined human rights to create an ethic where everything is based upon “quality of life”

The Bush Senior Era, when such metal, industrial and rap albums as Straight Outta Compton: 20th Anniversary Edition, Vulgar Display of Power and The Downward Spiral made the celebration of violence mainstream in Europe, “Blue” America, Canada and New Zealand, was the real radical hotbed of modern times. During the attempted “conservative revolution” of the Reagan Era these attitudes, despite efforts by commerical radio at suppression, became mainstream amongst youth. For example, Master of Puppets, claimed to be anti-war, actually condones it if you read the lyrics carefully, saying that people have the right to use violence without pity or restraint to preserve their uniqueness. Benjamin Wiker ought to study these albums to write a “Ten More Books That Screwed Up the World”, whilst the best book not only for the less conservative is Lords of Chaos: The Bloody Rise of the Satanic Metal Underground New Edition, where you see how radical European culture has become.

A Final Word
The evolution of culture is a complex topic, and what is politically palatable in today’s polarised world can be shown by experts to be far from the clear truth in many cases. Much of what I have suggested here took me a long time to recognise, but I feel I have gained from doing so.

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The 1960s: Not So Radical, but for the Wrong Reason
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The Sixties and Decadent Mysticism
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Sixties Music: Unusually Radical
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The Real Anti-Religion Radicalism
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Last updated: 10/20/12
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