Era of the unhinged
ONE of the interesting and important things about our new Prime Minister, culturally as opposed to politically, is that he is our first post- baby boomer leader. Technically he may have been born at the very end of the boomer cohort, but he is in no sense a child of the 1960s. During the pivotal year of 1968 — the year of the Paris student riots, the Tet offensive in Vietnam, the Cultural Revolution in China, the anti- Vietnam War demonstrations in the US, the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia — Rudd was still in primary school.
Even if you regard the 60s as finishing in Australia at the end of 1975, Rudd escapes them. He was still at high school. At university he was not a radical activist but a Christian activist and a nerdy, hard studying student.
Perversely, it was the post- baby boomer generation that John Howard always thought he stood a good chance of winning, whereas the baby boomers were permanently sour on a conservative such as him.
We have all been influenced by the 60s, of course, but the hard- core baby boomers got the most direct radiation damage.
Culturally, the 60s were very toxic. I have always felt about them much as W. H. Auden felt about the 30s: I sit in one of the dives On Fifty- second Street Uncertain and afraid As the clever hopes expire Of a low dishonest decade. The 30s bore some resemblance to the 60s in that substantial numbers of intellectuals defected from the Western tradition and threw their lot in with the extremist and mad ideology of Marxism. In the 60s, many repeated exactly this error, but many also embraced a far wider series of cultural disorders than just Marxism.
But the contrast between the 30s and the 60s is more instructive than the similarity. The 30s, for all their treachery, produced some genuinely great art. Think of the writers you associate with the decade: Graham Greene, George Orwell, Evelyn Waugh, Anthony Powell. These were genuinely great artists.
Now name me a similar list from the 60s. You can’t. Very little work of any artistic consequence emerged from the 60s. Instead it was a decade of destruction and nihilism, of self- regard so intemperate and unqualified that it tore art apart, as it tore apart most cultural values.
The very worst of the 60s occurred on Western campuses, which became scenes of violence, riots and intolerance. The key idea of the 60s was to abandon all restraint. Very few of the decade’s gurus had the intellectual courage to think through what the abandonment of restraint really means. It means, in the end, the pure glorification of power. For civilisation is all about restraint.
So, too, is art. Sometimes a conservative period can be followed by a creative liberalising reaction. This is really what happened when the liberal Edwardians succeeded the conservative Victorians. That is partly why Edwardian literature and art, and the literature and art from just after that period, remain so attractive.
They were created by people who were rebelling against a previously conservative period, but their rebellion was a restrained rebellion, both in method and intent. It did not imply the abandonment of restraints altogether, or of standards.
In Australia, certainly, the 60s do not stand in relation to the 50s as the Edwardian period stands in relation to the Victorian.
For a start, the 50s were a period of incredible creative energy in Australia. Patrick White, C. J. Koch, Hal Porter, Randolph Stow, Morris West, John O’Grady all began publishing in the 50s. Martin Boyd published three of the four novels in his magnificent Langton tetralogy then. Quadrant, the most cosmopolitan and sophisticated small magazine in Australian history, was born in the 50s.
When baby boomer activists of the 60s say how boring and provincial Australia was in the 50s, they are either saying that they did not know Australia very well in the 50s or simply that they themselves were boring and provincial. The radical 60s, as they played out in Australia, were completely derivative of the US, a pale imitation of radical chic from New York and San Francisco. Even in the US, the 50s are being much re- evaluated, not least through David Halberstam’s fascinating book on the subject a few years ago.
Of course, there were elements of the 50s that were objectionable, in Australia as in the US, especially the greater tolerance of racism. But the characteristic response of the 60s was not problem- solving. Instead it was a wholesale rejection of everything that Western culture had consisted of until that point.
There was an authentically Orwellian inversion of language and meaning. Marriage was patriarchal oppression. Hallucinogenic drugs were a path to higher consciousness. Sexual exploitation was freedom. Liberal politicians were fascists. Communist totalitarians were liberators. And for most of the leaders, and many of the practitioners, of 60s culture, the whole universe became entirely self- centred.
The only thing that counted was authentic’’ experience. There was no such thing as truth, the only question was whether it was true for you. Standards of any kind were regarded as oppressive, academic standards most of all.
It is not overstating things to say there was a kind of madness abroad in the culture in those days, not a whimsical eccentricity but a wilful, self- indulgent, nihilistic and destructive madness.
Much that is wrong with our culture today — especially the hatred of the Western tradition among many intellectuals and the self- obsessive, critical sterility of much academic theory — comes directly from that time.
One of the qualities most hated under the 60s ethos was sound and orderly process. Thus if you had a grievance at university, real or imagined, you didn’t pursue it in the normal way, you smashed in the vice- chancellor’s office.
An insistence on good process is an inherently conservative virtue.
It is telling that Kevin Rudd has promoted himself so much as a politician of good process. His promise during the campaign of so many inquiries and reviews and panels and commissions can be lampooned or criticised as ineffective. But it can also be seen as the promise of sound, perhaps exhaustive, process to deliver sound policy.
This is merely one of the ways in which Rudd shows himself to be alien to the spirit of the 60s, which was above all a desperately impatient and intemperate spirit.
That Rudd is so much the polar opposite of that spirit, even emphasising his conventional religion as opposed to the militant and intolerant secularism of the 60s ethos, is, literally, a blessing.
The 60s are dead at last. Let’s dance on their rotten grave.