Evil Geniuses: The Unmaking of America: A Recent History (7 page)

BOOK: Evil Geniuses: The Unmaking of America: A Recent History
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And he connected this change in popular culture to changes in political and social sentiment, as some kind of reaction to “a deep American discontent with the present time.” This was still five years before Reagan was elected president.

The culture is partially reflecting America’s current conservative mood. A nation which always looked forward is now in the process of looking backward, with considerable longing for the real or imagined comforts of the past. Where audiences once were eager for what was novel and innovative, they now seem more comfortable with the familiar, as if they wished to escape from contemporary difficulties into the more reassuring territory of the habitual and the known.

He saw too that what made the nostalgia different than earlier blips of cultural revivalism was “its multiplicity and universality,” turning out reproduction antiques in every part of the culture.

Why, it is even becoming difficult to identify a distinctive look for our age which is not a compound of past fashions. The cut of our trousers, the shape of our dresses, the style of our furs, coiffures, cosmetics and jewelry, our very advertising techniques and printing models, are all derived from earlier periods—a mishmash of the frontier West, Art Deco, and the flapper era.

Brustein mentioned E. L. Doctorow’s fine novel
Ragtime,
a big bestseller at the time that was also esteemed by the elite, about to win the very first National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction. Historical fiction hadn’t been considered
literary
fiction for quite a while, but suddenly it was respectable again.

Seeming to be strikingly modern wasn’t exactly the same as looking like something from the future, but the two had frequently overlapped during the twentieth century, especially in design and art—in the 1930s, for instance, the concrete slabs of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater and Raymond Loewy’s streamlined locomotives were both. That overlap of the new and the futuristic maxed out in 1964 and 1965, the World’s Fair years, the years the newly coined phrases
Jet Age
and
Space Age
achieved their peak usage. The hot women’s fashion line of 1964 consisted of short Lycra-and-plastic dresses printed with giant bright stripes and dots. In fashion, Simon Reynolds suggests that 1965 was “the absolute pinnacle of Newness and Nowness.” In the later 1960s, “almost overnight, everything stopped looking futuristic” in fashion and instead became riffs on the exotically foreign or—because in the ’60s the past was an especially foreign country—the bygone “Victoriana, Edwardiana, twenties and thirties influences.” All at once, the past started to seem charming to many more people, while purely excited, hopeful visions of the future came to seem naïve or absurd.
*2

Earlier I mentioned midcentury urban renewal as an example of America’s love for the new turning single-minded and reckless. It was like an autoimmune disease, when misguided antibodies destroy healthy human tissue. But even as that demolition of old buildings and neighborhoods was going full speed, local activists (in New York City most of all) and a few enlightened owners (in Omaha, for instance) started to beat it back—another example of how American citizens have placed essential checks and balances on excessive and misguided power.
The
Death and Life of Great American Cities,
by the Manhattan journalist-turned-activist Jane Jacobs, became the manifesto of a successful and powerful new movement in 1961; by the end of the decade, historic preservation was fully institutionalized, and in the 1970s saving and renovating nice old buildings and neighborhoods was becoming the default.
*3

At the same moment, architecture and urban planning rediscovered the amusements and lessons of history. Architects were designing
new
buildings with columns and pitched roofs and pediments and colorful finishes—a so-called postmodern reaction by elite architects, who used the old-fashioned design moves and materials that the modernist elite had declared taboo for half a century. What began in the late 1960s and ’70s as fond, bemused takes on old architectural styles morphed during the ’80s into no-kidding reproductions of buildings from the good old days. Serious architects and planners calling themselves New Urbanists convinced developers to build entirely new towns (first and most notably Seaside, Florida), urban neighborhoods (such as Carlyle in Alexandria, Virginia), and suburban extensions (The Crossings in Mountain View, California) that looked and felt like they had been built fifty or one hundred years earlier, with narrow streets and back alleys and front porches. A convincingly faux-old baseball park, Camden Yards in Baltimore, established a new default design for American stadiums.

That two-step rediscovery of the past—at first amused and a bit ironic, but soon wholeheartedly sincere, making the old and uncool cool and then
normal
—was a sensibility shift made by tens of millions of lifestylizing Americans not yet known as the creative class. During the 1970s,
retro
became a trendy word.

The Official Preppy Handbook
became a crypto-nostalgic bestseller in 1980 by good-naturedly satirizing a certain archaic strain of rich white American privilege as if the 1960s cultural upheavals hadn’t happened. Everyone started using the new term
comfort food,
only a bit ironically, to destigmatize old-fashioned American dishes that were familiar, unchallenging, unvirtuous—biscuits, cupcakes, meatloaf, grits, mashed potatoes, macaroni and cheese. The meaning was soon extended to celebrate any and all of our newly unshackled and unapologetic tastes for the old and familiar. J. G. Ballard wrote that right after World War II, which ended when he was fifteen, “people simply became uninterested in the past”—
until
the 1970s, he noticed in the 1990s, when suddenly “nobody was interested in the future. Now they are only interested in the past in a sort of theme-park-like way. They ransack the past for the latest design statement.”

But as it turned out, not just for design statements and lifestyle inspirations. Thirty years ago my friend Paul Rudnick and I wrote a cover story for
Spy
about how the recent spate of “Hollywood nostalgia productions [had] portrayed the fifties and early sixties as something to be pined for, something cute and pastel colored and fun rather than racist and oppressive.” And how in the 1980s, when we were writing, the new omnipresent nostalgia meant that “you can become Dan Quayle,” the forty-two-year-old conservative Republican vice president, “or you can become part of the irony epidemic. Or if you’re of a mind to organize an absolutely nutty George Hamilton memorial limbo competition at the country club,
both
.” In other words, post-1960s irony turned out to be “a way for all kinds of taboo styles to sneak past the taste authorities—
don’t mind us, we’re just kidding
—and then, once inside, turn serious.” America in the 1970s and ’80s gave itself permission not only to celebrate the old days but also to reproduce and
restore
them. Picking and choosing and exploiting elements of the past extended to politics and the political economy.


To understand how that worked, how the opening of the nostalgia floodgates throughout culture helped the political tide to turn as well, it’s useful to look back barely a generation—when it spectacularly
failed
to work in the
early
1960s. The national political right had tried demonizing liberal modernity before enough Americans were fatigued or appalled by accelerating newness for politicians to exploit that reaction successfully.

Barry Goldwater—a conservative Republican when that wasn’t redundant, a not-very-religious right-winger when that wasn’t an oxymoron, a libertarian before they were called that—halfheartedly tried to use the incipient cultural backlash when he ran for president in 1964. He’d gotten into politics fighting the New Deal when it was still new, and ever since had advocated for the U.S. economy taking a sharp right turn or full U-turn back to the days before the 1930s. Milton Friedman, an avatar of that ultra-conservative economic strain the same age as Goldwater, was one of his advisers when he was the Republican nominee, the most right-wing nominee ever. He proposed cutting personal and corporate income taxes by 25 percent for starters, scrapping new and imminent socialist programs like Medicare and food stamps, keeping Social Security from getting any more generous, and ending “this cancerous growth of the federal government.”

The political economy (including maximum anti-Communism) was his overriding focus. But none of that appeared in the half-hour campaign ad that a team of Goldwater operatives produced and bought time to run on 150 NBC stations just before the 1964 election. The film is an extraordinary artifact, remarkably ahead of the curve for its hysterical depiction of the scary new—teenagers, black people, protests, unbelievers, cosmopolitanism run amok. It was a propaganda ur-text for today’s ongoing American culture war, which at the time almost nobody considered a war. It tied together and sensationally stoked all of the embryonic backlashes.

The film starts without narration for ninety seconds, just an exciting quick-cut montage of young people doing the Twist, a crowd of black people singing on a city street, cops arresting people, a pair of apparently gay men, topless go-go dancers, all intercut with shots of a recklessly speeding car and with a soundtrack of frenzied rock guitar riffs. As the narrator begins his voice-over, cut to the Statue of Liberty, a small town and its church, white children obediently pledging allegiance to the flag—then cut back to another frenzied montage of black people protesting and being arrested and some white people having too much fun, in particular dancing women shot from behind or without tops. That’s the structure of the entire thirty-minute film, three parts decadence interposed with one part good-old-fashioned America, back and forth. “Now there are
two
Americas,” the narrator begins,

the other America—the other America is no longer a dream, but a
nightmare
….Our streets are not safe, immorality begins to flourish—we don’t want this….The new America—ask not what you can give but what you can
take
….Illegitimate births swell the relief rolls….Teenagers read the headlines, see the TV news, anything goes now….They see the cancer of pornography festering.

Cut to an extremely long sequence of porn film posters, strip club marquees, and paperback covers including
Call Me Nympho, Jazz Me Baby,
and
Male for Sale
. All of which were, in fact, public rarities.

But the new America says, “This is free speech.” In the new America the ancient moral law is mocked. “Nation under God—who’s He?”…No longer is a uniform a symbol of authority. The rules of the game have been changed now….Up through the courts of law, justice becomes a sick joke, new loopholes allegedly protecting freedom now turn more and more criminals free on the nation’s streets….By new laws it’s not the
lawbreaker
who is handcuffed, it is the
police
….Vigilante committees, good citizens, grope for a solution.

Cut to shots of the U.S.-Mexican border—from more than half a century ago.

Over the borders—
dope
. Narcotics traffic setting a new depraved record. And the victims so often are the defenseless—the kids….How did this happen? Is there a reason we seemed to have changed so much in so short a time?

A
really
short time—according to this film, the moral decay got bad only during the previous eleven months, since the assassination of the “young, inspiring” President Kennedy. After NBC asked for deletions of “60 of the most risqué seconds,” Goldwater at the last moment decided not to air the film, even though his campaign sent two hundred prints to conservative groups to show all over the country.

He lost by a landslide to President Lyndon Johnson, of course, whose share of the vote remains the largest ever. At the time one takeaway was that right-wing economic ideas were a total political nonstarter, anachronisms that would remain so. But in fact the Goldwater campaign was just the first rollout of a new American political template, an unsuccessful beta test. It tried to exploit popular unease with the culturally new as a way to get a green light for the rollback that Goldwater and the serious right
really
cared about—a restoration of old-style economic and tax and regulatory policies tilted toward business and the well-to-do.

That lashing of cultural fear to political economics was just ahead of its time. Because 1964 was before the proliferation of hippies and marijuana and psychedelics, before a large feminist movement emerged and workplaces started filling with unprecedented numbers of women. It was before U.S. combat forces went to Vietnam, before the antiwar movement blossomed. It was before violent crime really shot up—murders in the United States increased by half during the five years from 1964 to 1969, and in New York City by that much in just two years, from 1966 to 1968.

Goldwater’s landslide defeat was before the epic black uprisings that came later in the 1960s (Watts, Newark, Detroit) along with the black power movement. But it was just after a couple of years of spectacular civil rights demonstrations and confrontations and
immediately
after the Civil Rights Act became law—which is why the Goldwater film had so many shots of unruly black people and why five of the six states Goldwater won were in the Deep South.

It was also before a critical mass of white people outside the South started feeling the way most white Southerners felt—besieged by blacks, their whiteness no longer quite such a guaranteed all-access VIP pass. It was before wallowing in nostalgia for a lost Golden Age ruined by meddling liberal outsiders from Washington and New York, previously a white Southern habit, became such a common white
American
habit. It was before respectable opinion, having spent a century trying to make ethnic tribalism seem anachronistic and wrong, began accepting and embracing a lot of it. “One of the central themes in the culture of the 1970s was the rehabilitation of ethnic memory and history as a vital part of personal identity,” the leftist professor Marshall Berman wrote in his wonderful 1982 book
All That Is Solid Melts into Air: The Experience of Modernity
. “This has been a striking development in the history of modernity. Modernists today no longer insist, as the modernists of yesterday so often did, that we must cease to be Jewish, or black, or Italian, or anything, in order to be modern.”

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