1914, 1939, 1964, 1989, 2014 … war and generational change

All these dates are important – aren’t they? – bar one. Two world wars started, and one – 1989, the First Cold War – finished. I’ll leave 2014 till the end, but 1964 is the most interesting because most obviously the odd one out.

If war/25 years is the connection, the Cuban Missile Crisis (14–18 October 1962) is the nearest fit, the closest to a very hot war in the middle of the cold one. But what – I simply point out, without apology, that this post is sometimes a very personal point of view – was going on in 1964?

Echoes of the Cuban Missile Crisis. From Stanley Kubrick’s MAD (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mutual_assured_destruction) comedy Dr Strangelove (1964). Image from http://cometoverhollywood.com/tag/doctor-strange-love-or-how-i-quit-worrying-and-learned-to-love-the-bomb/

Looking back, the transformations of 1964 (at least in my bit of the world) seemed cultural rather than military. The UK in 1964 was ripe for renewal, on the cusp between the old and new. The previous 13 years of Conservative government had seen a difficult time of national readjustment. Victory in war belonged to the past; the Empire had rapidly fallen away; any national conceptions of global political or military significance were humiliatingly crushed by the US during the Suez debacle. The youthful Harold Wilson – probably also the beneficiary of the UK’s grieving for John F. Kennedy, assassinated the year before – came to power on a strongly modernizing ticket, with rhetoric to match. One of his striking soundbites that has survived in popular culture was about a modern Britain and ‘the white heat of technology’: the Labour government was – shock horror – modernist and pro-science.

Harold Wilson, his wife Mary, random soft toy and   pipe arrive back in London, 15 October 1964 (election day). Image from http://goo.gl/lRXkv

Harold Wilson, his wife Mary, random soft toy and pipe arrive back in London, 15 October 1964 (election day). Image from http://goo.gl/lRXkv

In this the year that Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media was published, Wilson’s public persona was the first for a politician in the UK to be deliberately designed as ‘television-friendly’. In his public speaking Wilson had learnt to exaggerate his hand movements, which were impressive and assertive-looking from the back of large halls full of trade unionists and party members. In front of TV cameras, though, they seemed menacing, so his media advisers gave him a ‘reassuring’, traditional and TV-friendly sculptural stage prop that became his gimmick: a tobacco pipe. His private preference was for cigars, but the electorate favourably contrasted his Labrador dog, Northern accent and holidays in the Scilly Isles with the patrician lifestyle of his Conservative opponent, Sir Alec Douglas-Home. I remember some TV news footage of Douglas-Home shooting grouse on 12 August. Wearing tweed cap and weird ‘plus fours’, he had a cut-glass RP (‘Oxford’) accent and style of clothes that seemed audibly and visibly at odds with the new supposedly meritocratic Britain. Enough of the electorate agreed to give Wilson a small majority.

Like all governments, the Wilson years reflected as well as contributed to the spirit of the age. They weren’t responsible for The Beatles, the James Bond films or the widespread use of ‘the pill’, but they did legalize homosexuality, relax literary and theatre censorship, bring in race relations legislation, introduce comprehensive secondary schools and create a new generation of polytechnics intended to teach the vocational skills needed in – as people used to say – the modern world. Wilson’s finest achievement, he said when he retired, was the world’s first electronic media-based education institution, the Open University. All these mark the Wilson era as – for better or worse – recognizably ‘modern’. Or perhaps this is me showing my age.

My point here about 1964 is that roughly every 25 years each new generation presses its own image upon the world it remakes. War, mercifully, is only one of the ways to do it. Culture and ‘lifestyle’ are markers of generational change too; they’re just more diffuse and decentralized, more difficult to place on a timeline.

For this reason I’d like to run 1964 together with the more distinctive and memorable radical/political forms of the student revolts of 1968 – although the first major anti-war demonstrations were in May 1964. The unrest in the USA was ostensibly the direct result of the numbers of deaths in the fighting in Vietnam and the terrors of the draft – but note the difference in zeitgeist at the time of the Korean war, where the numbers were very similar, but there was no mass opposition. The Wilson government never, even under US pressure, offered UK military backup in Vietnam, so the UK’s version of student revolts were never about the draft – as with les evènements in France. Whatever the root cause, some of the changes were most noticeable in the realm of culture, notably innovation and experimentation in ‘progressive’ popular music.

Handwritten lyrics for Bob Dylan’s ‘The Times They Are A-Changing’ (1964). How prescient! This sheet of paper was sold for $422,500 to a hedge fund manager. See http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2010-12-10/dylan-s-times-they-are-a-changin-lyrics-sell-for-422-500-at-sotheby-s.html

‘Don’t criticize what you can’t understand’: original handwritten lyrics for Bob Dylan’s The Times They Are A-Changin’ (first performed 26 October 1963). How prescient they are – this sheet of paper was sold in 2010 for $422,500 to a hedge fund manager. See http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2010-12-10/dylan-s-times-they-are-a-changin-lyrics-sell-for-422-500-at-sotheby-s.html

In West Germany, though, in a clear echo from the Second World War, the terms of surrender required the German demilitarization of Berlin, thus creating perfect conditions for young ultra-left refugees from conscription (e.g. the Red Army Faction) to foment a culture of political violence. I imagine Germany (East and West) to have been/be a place subject to particularly acute generational reassessments of history. This is from Stefan Aust, author of Der Baader Meinhof Komplex:

World War II was only twenty years earlier. Those in charge of the police, the schools, the government – they were the same people who’d been in charge under Nazism. The chancellor, Kurt Georg Kiesinger, had been a Nazi. People started discussing this only in the 60s. We were the first generation since the war, and we were asking our parents questions. Due to the Nazi past, everything bad was compared to the Third Reich. If you heard about police brutality, that was said to be just like the SS. The moment you see your own country as the continuation of a fascist state, you give yourself permission to do almost anything against it. You see your action as the resistance that your parents did not put up.

Image from http://bbs.news.163.com/bbs/history/179474062.html

‘In our great motherland, a new era is emerging in which the workers, peasants and soldiers are grasping Marxism-
Leninism, Mao Tse-tung’s thought. Once … grasped by the broad masses, it becomes an inexhaustible source of strength and a spiritual atom bomb of infinite power …’ From the foreword by Lin Piao to the second edition (1966) of Thoughts of Chairman Mao. At least a billion copies have been publishedImage from http://bbs.news.163.com/bbs/history/179474062.html

This puts my generational point very clearly. It seems to me now there was a kind of madness, connected to the past of our parents, that took over young people in the US and Western Europe in the 1960s and early 1970s. From my own experience I’m thinking of time spent reading the Thoughts of Chairman Mao (‘The Little Red Book’, first Chinese edition 1964, English edition 1966) or a weird cult of emotion-free ‘rigour’ in discussions of Marxist-Leninist theories of the state or the role of the revolutionary party. I remember many earnest hours of study in grasping the correct (the word right was incorrect) Leninist conception of the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’.

This seems embarrassing and ingenuous now. I remember an incident, shortly after I moved out of my short-life housing co-op in a gritty part of inner London in 1979, involving my next-door German neighbours. Their house was staked out by Interpol; they were arrested on suspicion of involvement in the Red Army Faction. This was particularly difficult for me to understand because – orange spiky-haired and punky leather-jacketed though they were – I thought they just made an unlikely but nevertheless lucrative living out of installing replacement aluminium shopfronts.

Looking back on my – and my generation’s – naivety/absurdity I hope I can be charitable to my young self. At least we tried to assert – yes, some people did this in a weird, horrible and morally contemptible way – values of social justice, authenticity, life. ‘The Bomb’ was such a powerful influence on our lives – instant and total destruction seemed possible at any time. We noticed and pointed out that the state’s readiness to wage war would lead to the total annihilation of the electorate. How could this be called ‘democratic’? Maybe we were trying to find a way to put our depressiveness outside ourselves, but the concept of ‘working for a living’ seemed merely to continue the exploitation endemic to ‘the profit system’ (‘the appropriation of surplus value’). Living for the day and living life to the full – sex, drugs, rock-’n’-roll rather than job, conformity, mortgage – seemed important and necessary.

By unspoken and envious contrast, my father’s generation (were we trying to copy them?) seemed to have had a completely unifying and searingly moral project: the overthrow of Fascism.

It is a curious that each succeeding generation simplifies and fantasizes about its predecessors. History is probably the only defence. For example, by contemporary moral standards it seems strange that information about the Final Solution seems to have been kept secret during the Second World War, and not used for propaganda purposes. The most shocking images of the liberation of the camps were only shown on newsreels after the war had ended. Tony Judt (Thinking the Twentieth Century, London: Heinemann, 2012) makes the sobering historical point that the climate of opinion in the UK and USA, during the ‘total war’ of hearts and minds 1939–45, was by no means sympathetic to Jewish people; their protection from obliteration was not as yet sufficient motivation for further intensification of the war effort. Going back before the war, too, Neville Chamberlain’s ‘Peace in Our Time’ pragmatic if amoral rapprochement with Germany was only subsequently vilified with the knee-jerk value-judgement, ‘appeasement’; in 1938, The Times (of London) editorials were actively advocating alliance with Germany against the Soviet Union. My point is that the hyper-morality of winning the Second World War only became so clear and so right afterwards.

The actual lived experience of the war, particularly for those fighting it, seems to have been existentially absurd, comical: SNAFU – situation normal, all f***** up. My father – peace be unto him – was very much of this opinion. This may sound odd to modern ears, but my father might have said the new sanitized and moralized history wasn’t funny enough either. Of course he didn’t have a theory about it because how can you have a theory of authenticity of experience without it already being inauthentic. More radically he hated hypocrisy and false feeling, but he was more interested in irony that was gentle on the outside for others if fierce on the inside for himself. The manic depressive but funny Spike Milligan was a great favourite: Adolf Hitler: My Part in His Downfall has the ironic tone just right, as in a typical Spike Milligan quote: ‘I was a hero with a coward’s legs.’ An anecdote of my dad’s is an example of this quietly subversive sense of humour, acute observation of human foibles, and kindness too. Recruiting sergeant filling in Dad’s conscription papers: ‘What’s your religion?’ Dad: ‘Agnostic.’ Sergeant: ‘That’ll be Church of England then.’

He was conscripted on his eighteenth birthday and saw active service, before he turned 19, in the 1944 Normandy landings. After two months of combat he was hospitalized for a year by a mortar shell. He wasn’t demobilized for another couple of years; he ran a reading and writing programme for 600 illiterate soldiers. He told me very little about his time in the army – mostly grumbles about sergeant-majors, meaningless ‘square-bashing’ and bureaucracy, disgusting macaroni cheese, dentistry interrupted by an air raid and finished after the anaesthetic wore off … but almost nothing about combat. It must have been terrifying and barbaric. I’m guessing his concealment, at personal cost, was his continuing battle for what he thought was right and good. That was the extraordinarily generous spirit of many people of his generation. Yet a wish for good is not necessarily a protection against evil. Damage has been done. I remember seeing an interview with Steven Spielberg where he said the bloody shock of the opening of Saving Private Ryan was an attempt to answer, for his own emotional completeness in a post-1960s kind of way, his questions about trauma his father wished to sidestep; yet apparently Arnold Spielberg and his surviving Air Force comrades would meet in great secrecy, once a year, simply to grieve. So please note, if you watch this clip or have seen the film already, that the younger Spielberg’s film (and this blog post, in a way) is a fight against generational exclusion and loss; the younger men mourn that their fathers’ vivid memories become the blandness and abstraction of history.

The generation of 1939–45 came back home and heroically remade ‘normality’, but in forms that seemed sometimes, to the next generation of young people in the 1960s, increasingly empty. I’m not saying that in our responses to this we felt simplistically righteous or good; we felt mean, guilty and ungrateful too. The anger in protest is an easy emotion because the problem is someone else’s ‘fault’; if you feel you have no power it’s easy enough to convince yourself it doesn’t really matter what you say or do. And there felt like a discontinuity, a breakage, in the rich succession of generations. The generational legacy of Second World War continues to ripple down through history, for good and ill, from fathers to sons. Admiration, copying, respect for the experience of older people; much has been lost. Through sharing, openness and storytelling, we men still need to do plenty of work to help heal some of these wounds and be good fathers, uncles and godfathers. Perhaps an overlong and slightly indiscreet blog post is part of what I mean.

But as Sir Thomas Browne says, ‘the iniquity of oblivion blindely scattereth her poppy, and deals with the memory of men without distinction to merit of perpetuity’; generational change is only the post facto description of different organic re-aggregations of power, different subcultures contesting under different conditions for hegemony. As Chairman Mao says, from an unusual period of liberalization: ‘Let a hundred flowers bloom, let a hundred schools of thought contend.’


Prague Spring 1968: ‘Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun’ (Chairman Mao). Image from http://goo.gl/fiYyw

Perhaps for people like my father, the official and retrospective interpretation of the moral project of the winning of the Second World War made it all seem too simple, too easy. In the world of post-1945 Germany, it must be particularly difficult trying to live decently without feeling crushed by guilt. Clearly, in Eastern Europe pre-1989, the defeat of Fascism (with a capital F) was exploited as a vindication of different kinds of simplifying and self-perpetuating power, power that is therefore comparably as anti-human as that which it claims to have replaced.

Even now, the fears of a repetition of fascism seem often overplayed and reductive of humanity in ways that are more likely to bring about the very outcome that is feared. Damagingly, the realpolitik of diplomatic ‘appeasement’ is perceived – in the widespread practice of government by opinion poll – as weakness, and therefore not available even as a tactic or temporary position. Tragically, the shadow of the Holocaust is still with us – surely some of the current complex of problems in the Middle East are only too clearly echoes of echoes of the pain 75 or so years ago.

But may we see the 1960s’ rhetoric of personal liberation as an attempt by a new generation to exorcise some of the tormented spirits of those times?

Although the confused programme of ‘the counterculture’ of the 1960s seems easy to ridicule, some of its conceptions of cultural expression, authenticity and identity in an alienating and ethically relativistic world seem – to me, at any rate – important, admirable and sustainable. These ideas are actively with us – complex and conflicted but at least usable, transformable – as the experiential compass for the next wave of young people, even those who hold the new seats of power in the mighty digital industries. And there now seems to be less of a gap between one generation and the next. At least that’s my wish and hope.

Many words too late, I realize I haven’t said much yet about 1989 – an extraordinary time politically for the former Soviet bloc. Of course I can’t talk about things outside my experience – namely the Eastern European events of this year. In Western Europe and the USA, though, I wonder if the most transformational events of this generation continuing to the one of 2014 have been the unfolding of another revolution, the digital one. 1989 was in the middle of the personal computing paradigm; it was not yet the age of the internet. I hope to say more about this another time, but I would like to finish for now with a quote from Karl Marx, ‘A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy’ (1859):

The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.

This argument still seems exciting, true and expansive, and, remarkably, applicable in the digital age. I don’t think Marx could imagine the full implications of his model under very different material – digital – modes of production and exchange. Marshall McLuhan could, though; it leads to a very different kind of outcome than the one forecast by Marx.

Have I, like shops selling Christmas decorations in September, got my 2014 anniversaries piece in first?

For Kate – 1964, the best year ever

About Propagandum

I’ve been working in book publishing for over 30 years – an industry now in rapid transition. So I’m interested in foundational principles for media, writing and language – what lessons can we learn for how we can and should communicate? How can we make sense of media/technology? Can we transfer some skills from the old to the new? I hope to share (every week-ish) some things I think are wonderful, rich and important. I write longish posts because our complex and fascinating world cannot be reduced to soundbites. Please let me know what you think – contact me at david@propagandum.com
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