Thursday, May 7, 2009

The Ascent of Conservatism

By Luis K. Feliz

History follows a trajectory that reflects the growth of individuals. Change manifests itself through the relationship of individuals to their government and their society. From the 1950s to the 1960s, the growth was apparent in the different facets of deviant social behavior. While Democratic liberalism challenged the existing codes of civility used as tools of Southern oppression, Republican conservatism bemoaned the breakdown of law and order as a consequence of the social change. The era was marked by two revolutionary outcries—one evolutionary, another reactionary.

The evolutionary

As early as the 1920s, the deviance from Victorian mores found subtle forms of protest through “freer association between the sexes,” the bobbed hair, changes in skirt length, and the rejection of ideals of domesticity, noted Paula S. Fass. But the turning point in the evolutionary revolution was 1958. As a prelude to the 1960s, 1958 was, according to the New York Times Book Review writer Rachel Donadio, “the war of the intellectuals.” This struggle was embodied by the Beat movement. “Was the Beat rebellion in the exuberant American tradition of Whitman and Emerson, some wondered, or was it a kind of anti-intellectualism and abdication of adult responsibility?” Asked Donadio. Actually, the Beat rebellion was a harbinger of the contrarian voices that were going to find amplification in the 1960s American political scene, which began with the obscenity trials of 1957, following the publication and subsequent ban of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl.

Therefore, the 1960s arrived with a bang. Both social and political change entered the corridors of power through the reevaluation of appropriate behavior. Consequently, the first battleground was civility. Civility was the weapon of choice for the oppressor because it masked oppression with a courteous smile. African Americans and others were co-opted by the Southern genteel standard, even though it did them injury. Therefore, when Dr. Martin Luther King defended his moral obligation to disobey unjust laws against the criticism from white religious leaders, he was redefining behavior and using it to defeat social and political injustices. According to Kenneth Cmiel, “to the overwhelming majority of white southerners, the assertion of civil equality by civil rights protesters was in a fact a radical break in decorum.” Dr. King provided a context and a vehicle for social and political reform.

Counterculturalists approached political reform differently. Students sought to disrupt the monotony of civility through self-exploration and new modes of expression. The “dirty speech” protest at the University of California at Berkeley was such an example of pushing the boundaries of self-expression to the limits. As a result, art and literature was released from bleak uniformity that characterized the 1950s. Socially, self-expression redefined the old definition of an American. Politically, students who volunteered their time in the civil rights movement also sought their freedom through “informalization,” according to Cmiel. Students wore jeans and work shirts as a mode of style that rejected the formal monotony enforced by mainstream society. Therefore, the political and the cultural meshed together to send a message of that there was a revolution, which sent shivers down the spine of self-satisfied politicians.

The reactionary

In response to the dynamic overturning of polite society during1960s, the reactionary backlash of the Right led to their victory by the close of the era. The 1960s was not a mild disruption—it was a revolution. Conservatives who witnessed it set out to reclaim America from the Left and ensure their control of the American political system for years to come. According to Dan T. Carter, the general feeling across the South was to restore law and order. By the message to restore law and order, the Right sought to camouflage the counterattack that followed the first revolution led by the Left. Therefore, during the 1960s, there were two revolutions, only that the latter won without a bang.

To understand how this happened, we have to understand the politicians who were the architects of the reshaping of America. The first was George Wallace, and the second was Richard Nixon. George Wallace was a skillful demagogue and virulent racist. According to Carter, Wallace exploited grievances of the uneducated minds of Jim Crow. Carter explained that “it was Wallace who warned of the danger to the American soul posed by the ‘intellectual snobs who don’t know the difference smut and great literature;’ it was Wallace who railed against federal bureaucrats who …wasted the tax dollars of hard-working Americans.” In other words, Wallace gave America the context for the “bipolar system of good and evil, right and wrong,” noted Carter. While Dr. King provided the context for social reform through civil disobedience and a unifying moral purpose, Wallace set out to undercut the progress made with the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act with an ideology of “us against them” and a context for divisive politics.

Nixon, by contrast, was an opportunist who saw that this line of thinking was gaining currency and adopted it as wining strategy for his candidacy. The different modes of behavior and self-expression that characterized the counterculture were weeded out of the system by the crusading conservatism that emerged from the ashes of the New Left.

The New Left’s agenda of “heightening the contradictions” came to a close with the skepticism that Wallace introduced into the American political consciousness. People lost faith in government. But instead of seeking liberalism, people put their trust in an emerging conservative movement that exploited their grievances and thus legitimized them. As a result, politicians who berated Washington for political gain while running for a seat in Washington’s halls of power became the crusaders for the restructuring that followed the Right’s revolution.

First, the Right found a reliable base of support to ideologically march on Washington. Then, when they finally arrived, the restructuring began. It took the shape of policies to reinstate what the Left’s revolution had overturned. For example, according to Carter, “it was no accident that the groups singled out for relentless abuse and condemnation were welfare mothers and aliens, groups that are both powerless and, by virtue of color and nationality, outsiders.” We can also take the Reagan Administration’s criminal neglect of the AIDs epidemic during the 1980s that devastated the homosexual community in America. Even to this day, liberals look in bewilderment at the success of the conservative movement.

The 1960s was a period of discontent; but it was also an era of possibility. With the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, there was greater citizen participation in the future of our country. However, it was a terribly misunderstood power granted to a youth and people caught in an idiosyncratic time of possibility and restlessness. The 1960s was an era of frustration and audacity that begat the Black Panther Party, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the Weather Underground, and radicals such as Abbie Hoffman among others because it was revolutionary period of liberation from the constricting forces of oppressive civility and uniformity. Hair length, dress code, upended creativity, and the landmark civil rights marches of the day are all examples of the revolutions’ conquered territory. But since then, social and political change has been challenged and undermined in an attempt to discount the fact that 1960s redefined America. During the 1960s, America matured and walked out of the simpler cast of the past into the complexity of the future. Liberalism accomplished that in a tumultuous environment of revolutionary fervor. Conservatism has been trying to turn back the clock to those oppressively simpler days ever since.

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