Oh, good heavens—I was so busy putting the finishing touches on a story for next Monday’s issue of Publishers Weekly that I completely didn’t realize I’d been so remiss here. I am really going to have to make up for that beginning this weekend.
In the meantime, my good friend Mark Sarvas spotted an interview between Kate Braverman and William Vollmann. Since I had just met Braverman in my role as GalleyCat co-writer, I emailed her to say I’d seen it, and she suggested that I check out the complete version of that talk, which she’s hosting on her own website.
As for me, I’m at New York Comic-Con much of this weekend, reporting for GalleyCat, but I have some guest authors just about ready to be published, so I’ll start cracking on those Saturday (or Sunday).
24 February 2006 | uncategorized |
When I saw that Oxford University Press had published Mark Lytle’s America’s Uncivil Wars: The Sixties Era from Elvis to the Fall of Richard Nixon a few months ago, as well as Philip Jenkins’s just-released Decade of Nightmares: The End of the Sixties and the Making of Eighties America, I knew I’d found two men who would have something to say to each other. (Of course, I’ve been thinking about the era they write about a lot, considering that my own book overlaps them both…and as Jenkins notes on the OUP blog, that era is quite relevant to our contemporary situation.)
Mark Lytle: You make a compelling case that by promoting issues such as drug abuse (especially crack), sexual predators, pornography, and family values, the conservatives addressed deeply felt fears among Americans, including once loyal New Deal Democrats. These attacks on crime and moral decay paid dividends at the polls as Reagan swept into the White House and Republicans made gains in Congress. So in that sense the moral crusade paid major political dividends—it was good politics. But was it not also in a sense tilting at windmills?
We’ve turned prisons and incarceration into a major industry and a form of social welfare for rural communities. The DEA throws a paper curtain across our borders without any evident impact on drugs other than maintaining high levels of profitability for dealers. As you put it, “Tthrough the early 1980s, there was a staggering disconnect between the portrayal of menaces and what could plausibly be seen as their substances.” In that light, could we not argue that the major legacy of this era, while good politics, was bad public policy?
Philip Jenkins: Many of the worst and most troubling aspects of domestic policy today do indeed have their roots in what I’ve called the decade of nightmares between 1976 and 1986 —that is, in the Carter years as well as the Reagan era. You rightly cite the boom in prisons, the drug war, and the demonization of many types of offenders. And in tracing the history of these policy distortions, I would find it difficult to draw a line between Republicans and Democrats: the Clinton presidency yielded nothing to the Reagan times in its ultra-hard line on these issues. The only defense that one could make of these trends is that things probably had gone too far in the ultra-liberal direction in the mid-1970s, when people were naive about the harm that drugs could cause, and when attitudes towards child abuse had become scandalously negligent.
But there must be a happy medium between the two extremes. I would love to see a modern political leader stand up and challenge the orthodoxies of post-1980s criminal justice, reasserting for instance the value of non-custodial alternatives to prison, and making the significant reduction of the prison population a major policy goal. Someone should also be telling the drug enforcement authorities where to get off in terms of classifying chemicals, so that substances with real medical value could and should be used appropriately, whether that is for pain control or for psychiatric purposes. Someone needs to challenge absolute prohibitionism—and who knows, maybe such a campaign could bring libertarian Republicans together with liberal Democrats.
One of the great strengths of America’s Uncivil Wars is how you root the events and controversies of “the sixties” (that is, roughly, the tumultuous era from 1963-74) in the earlier decade, and you convincingly show the longer-term continuities. Looking at the broader span of American history, many would argue that periods of intense social/cultural/political/religious/sexual activism actually recur with some regularity, and the 1960s were only one recent manifestation. I think for instance of the 1840s, the years around 1915, and the late 1940s. (In fact, maybe historians shouldn’t be trying to explain the upheavals, but should rather be puzzling over what makes the intervening years so unnaturally tranquil!) But here’s a question: The more we look at the 1960s in historical context, should we be challenging the common impression that they were an era of unparalleled utopianism and creativity? Was the era really that different or novel?
Mark Lytle: I would say that the era was novel because of the scope of public unrest, but that its utopianism and creativity were certainly not unprecedented or unparalleled. Indeed, I would argue that in the arts the 1950s were a more fruitful era. In some ways the politicizing of the arts in the 1960s had the same inhibiting effect on creativity as was evident in the 1930s. As you suggest, the 1960s certainly manifested much of the revivalist and reformist spirit of the 1840s and even the Great Awakening in the 18th century. Sixties movements we think of as primarily secular—The New Left and Environmentalism come to mind—evidenced significant religiosity. Religious leaders drove the early phases of civil rights and their connection to the church gave the movement much of its legitimacy. And there can be no question that much of the counterculture reflected a rejection of American materialism and a quest for transcendent spiritual values.
So what was novel about the Sixties? I think the war in Vietnam gave activists a sense of moral imperative that added exceptional numbers and intensity to protest. The war factor was missing in the earlier reform eras. Media would add a second factor. Through television, events of the era had greater immediacy and protestors could send their message to a far wider public. The varieties and intensity of protest distinguish the 1960s, but the era certainly echoes earlier eras of protest and reform.
17 February 2006 | author2author |