Era of the un­hinged

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Rear View -

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.

Il­lus­tra­tion: Jon Kudelka

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