Thinking back to the beginning of the 1960’s, America’s preeminent historian C. Vann Woodward later wrote: “Unparalleled power, unprecedented wealth, unbridled self-righteousness—it all struck me as an ominous combination full of potential dangers to the republic.” Grainy footage of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Neil Armstrong recall a time of utopian liberal dreams, just as images of cities ablaze, protesters clubbed and a naked Vietnamese girl screaming from napalm burns remind us of the nightmarish denouement of the New Frontier and Great Society.
Born in 1956, Farber brings a fresh perspective to his topic devoid of nostalgic “Sixtophilia” or rancorous “Sixtophobia.” His most interesting conclusions have to do with the tensions and paradoxes inherent in the maturing of a national mass culture; in that light, he brilliantly dissects the popularity and charm of such supposedly lowbrow television shows as The Beverly Hillbillies and The Andy Griffith Show. The age witnessed an expansion, for many, of personal freedom of expression but a loss of a moral compass. (The central question of that time, novelist John Updike wrote, was “Why not?”)
Farber describes the postwar affluence, Cold War anxieties, and population explosion that eventually spawned a popular culture revolution. By decade’s end there was greater scrutinizing of public officials and awareness of the dangers of a runaway national security apparatus, but Richard M. Nixon was engaged in the “sordid corruption of the Presidency,” and the “obsessively evil” FBI director J. Edgar Hoover was still in charge of his fiefdom. Finally, Farber reminds readers that many movements and fashions commonly associated with the consciousness-raising 1960’s, such as feminism and environmentalism, as well as gay rights and the recreational use of cocaine, were actually 1970’s phenomena.