Skip to Content
Search Icon


What the Culture War Really Is

On the Sixties.


What happened in the 1960s? More than half a century on, the answer to that question remains elusive, disputed, and significant. It is significant because the latter part of that decade, what we generally mean when we refer to “the Sixties,” was the beginning of what we now call the culture war, which continues to tear the country apart in spite of the many periodic declarations that it is over.

Why did so many young Americans then, and why have so many more since, become so alienated from the nation which provided them with such astonishing affluence while asking comparatively little of them? The answer surely begins with the affluence itself.

The young parents who were raising families after the Second World War were putting the Great Depression and the most terrible slaughter in human history behind them. They wanted peace and plenty for their children, and in the post-war United States they were, to say the least, very well positioned to provide both.

We, the children of those parents, were, in our combination of numbers and wealth, probably the best provided for the world had ever seen. We took material security entirely for granted. And we also benefited from a social cohesion and a cultural stability that no longer exist, that we in fact helped to destroy. Not everyone was included in that comfortable middle-class white culture, of course, but for the vast numbers who were, it was pleasant and secure and even more free in some important ways than later conventional opinion has it: if there has been no book dismantling the fiction that the 1950s were uniformly and grimly oppressive, there should be. And it was just those who were included who constituted the great majority of the rebels. Why did we, the rebels, turn so bitterly against it all? What was wrong with us? It’s not unfair or unreasonable to grant some truth to the charge that we were spoiled children. But the answer does not not end there.

One cannot, obviously, describe the world of postwar children without discussing television, “the tube,” a term now hopelessly anachronistic. The power of what we now call “media” was already in evidence when we came along: it was not television but motion pictures and radio which, after the First World War, had inaugurated mass entertainment as we know it now. It was not in my generation’s time but in the 1920s and 1930s that the phenomenon of the young person enchanted by an artificial world more interesting and much more desirable than the real began to appear, or at least became widespread, more or less independently of education and wealth.

To bring this power into the home, where it was available every day and very soon for most of the day, was bound to have significant consequences. I think it was recognized early on that television could be stupefying—you can see this concern in films such as The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit from 1956but I don’t think it was generally seen as the subversive influence that it was.

Superficially, the television programs that began to fill our young minds participated in the middle-class social cohesion. If their creators intended to create propaganda at all, it was more often in support of convention, not in opposition to it. They, too, sheltered us. They gave us cartoons, westerns, comedies, and the Mickey Mouse Club, in which grave evil was absent or defeated, and morals were simple and decent: honesty, courage, responsibility.

Yet television began the process of separating us from the world in which we actually lived. On an elemental and unconscious level, it extended the power of moving pictures to make the present world seem less vivid and significant than the fictive one. On another and more conscious level it created a world that was just for us. There was a vast array of children’s programming, a little mental world contrived to please and to entertain, in which adults were uninterested, and which imposed upon us none of the burdens of school and work and discipline that the real world required. As we got older there was American Bandstand and the whole realm of popular music that only “the kids” liked, which separated us from our elders. Television, and the entertainment industry in general, thus helped to prepare the way for the phenomenon of youth culture that would become in ever-shifting forms a permanent feature of American life.

But it may be that the very most important effect of television was produced not by the programs at all, or by the medium itself, but by the commercials. The age of advertising had begun in earnest in the twentieth century, and as television had extended the power and reach of the entertainment offered by movies and radio, so it did with advertising. Except for the dull territory of “educational T.V.,” to watch television was to be relentlessly assailed by advertising, which is to say by falsehoods delivered skillfully, urgently, and unashamedly. Of course they weren’t generally pure, demonstrable lies—that was against the law—but how old did one have to be to understand that the messages were, in their totality, false? Ten? Eight? Six? Had one ever not known it? Was it any wonder that we suspected that we were being lied to? We were. And it fostered a broader cynicism toward all institutions.

Advertising, either as such or in the form of “public relations” and political propaganda, is now the ever-present mental environment in which we go about our business. None of it is meant to provide us with truth, but rather to create a plausible warping of truth that will drive our behavior in one direction or another; in short, to deceive and to manipulate us. And we know this, even as we are successfully deceived and manipulated. One day when some other sort of civilization has replaced ours people will be appalled that we accepted this debasement of the sacred gift of language.

The twist in all this for the revolutionary movement is that the movement was in part a rejection, or at least an attempted rejection, of the media environment of unreality, and yet was dependent upon it. The media did not create or cause the movement, but it could not have happened as it did without that environment. The uniformity of dress and hair and slang and thought which made a hippie instantly identifiable anywhere in the country and in much of the world would not have been possible if modern communications—journalism, advertising, and entertainment—had not enabled the rapid spreading of images and ideas. Above all we were united and shaped by the popular music which was produced and distributed by large corporations to their great profit. Woodstock was not Woodstock until the record and the film were released. We were aware of this disturbing symbiosis but generally preferred not to think about it.

Television also brought us the news. Is that how we were introduced to the possibility of nuclear war? I really don’t know. But certainly our awareness of it disturbed the stable and secure world I have described.

There was more fear and anger in the youth rebellion than was or is generally recognized. The flowers and the bright colors and the whimsy, the self-conscious cultivation of wonder and of joyful spontaneity, the sentimental anti-war slogans—all were shadowed by apocalyptic fears. Their principal source can be identified in the phrase which may have had more currency and more power then than now: the Bomb. (Today climate change seems to be the source of similar fear for some young people.)

Those two words were for us a synonym for “the end of the world.” I have often suspected that knowledge of the possible destruction of the entire human race had more effect on the alienation, and sometimes the derangement, of postwar youth than anyone seemed to realize. It was one thing to face personal hardship, danger, and loss, as our parents and grandparents had recently done, as people of all times have done. It was something else to face the definite possibility, not based on anyone’s prophecy or hysteria but very coolly appraised, that at any time, perhaps quite soon, we and the entire human race might be swallowed up by fire and poison. Our generation had seen the former concern replaced by the latter. And the end of the world would be not a miraculous act of God, to be followed by a new and blessed order, nor the sort of natural calamity that we resignedly refer to as “an act of God,” but an act of human madness and folly, seeming both simple and impossible to prevent: a maddening predicament. The world has always been threatening, but this threat made it seem futile as well.

Everyone alive at the time knew and felt this, of course. But we were the first to be born into it, to grow up with it, to know and feel it from childhood on, and it must have had some effect, imparting to us a sense of uneasiness, not just darkening the future but holding up the possibility that the future itself might not occur, and should perhaps, in anticipation, be removed altogether from the mental landscape.

I have mentioned fear and anger. The fear can be at least partially explained in a straightforward way. But anger? What anger? And why? What reason had we to be angry? Words like “hope” and “love” and “idealism” are commonly associated with the youth rebellion by its admirers, with anger, implicitly righteous, associated only with political protest. There was much injustice in the world, as there always is, and many of us would have said that we were angry about it, and we would not have been lying. But that was in part something enabled by our very station: being comfortable ourselves, we were at liberty to take note of all that seemed wrong with the world around us, not at all diffident about demanding and expecting that it be promptly fixed, and prone to tantrums when it was not. And there was also something deeper and more personal, a feeling that we, too, were somehow subject to some injustice.

Did anyone ever really believe that middle-class American life was truly and seriously oppressive? Yes, they did—we did. That the real problem was the human condition itself, for which there is no remedy, did not occur to us, nor would we have entertained such a view if it had. Many of the young people of my generation believed they—we—were suffering from oppression at the hands of “society” and related forces: “religion” (meaning as a rule Christianity), family, school, nation. And if we noticed that we were angry, it was these vague entities that we blamed.

It is my contention that we were suffering, not so much from oppression as from decline, and we therefore misplaced our anger. This was the decline of the animating spirit that had given life to these institutions. For we were born at a time when the skeptical and clever pragmatism, the immanentism or this-world-ism, of the modern world, which had been so successful in its political and technological enterprises, was reaching simultaneously the height of its material power and the depth of its spiritual emptiness.

For several hundred years now the most powerful cultural forces in Euro-American civilization have tended to deny, explicitly and implicitly, the existence of any reality apart from the physical. In this it may be an actual new thing under the sun, as civilizations go. Or if it is not entirely new, it must be somewhat rare. All or most civilizations have seen themselves, have seen human life, as having a spiritual component, and their material life as connected to that spiritual reality. And this is considered, so to speak, a real reality; it is not an aspect of psychology; it is as real as the earth. Conceptions of this reality and of both the collective and individual relationship to it are as varied as civilizations themselves, but I think I am correct in saying that it is almost always there. And it is difficult, in the long run impossible, to establish a meaning for human life without recourse to the spiritual.

To paraphrase Eliot, human kind cannot bear very much meaninglessness. What is it for? What does it mean? we instinctively ask of everything, and if no answer can be found, we consider it unworthy of preservation. Most of all we ask this question of ourselves and our lives. And in that case, though we may start with the mundane—you must go to school so that you can get a job so that you can support yourself—we want to be able to follow a chain of purposes until it ends in some absolute purpose, the one which is an end in itself, which is the final answer to the question What is it for? And Absolute Purpose requires Absolute Meaning. If there is no absolute meaning, there is in the end no meaning at all, only temporary consolations. This is apparent, I think, to anyone who gives the matter much thought, especially post-religious Western man haunted by the Christian expectation that history is on a path toward a rapturous consummation.

Maybe to speak of a need for meaning is to consider the matter in a sense that is overly abstract. There is something even more elemental: the need to worship. This is, in a paradoxical sense, a very down-to-earth thing, in that it is an obvious anthropological fact. To worship, to adore, to revere, to pray, and even sometimes to fear That to which one prays: it is undeniable that these impulses are almost universally a part of human nature, even if you do not believe that their object is real. Even our atheists frequently succumb to this impulse, rhapsodizing about nature and the cosmos in an obviously devotional register, sometimes suggesting that this as a superior alternative to religion and thereby betraying their want, in both senses, of a religion.

But really we prefer to elide the question. Our attention is turned away from such matters because they are irrelevant to the real business of life, which is to improve its material conditions. In this endeavor we have been spectacularly successful. But the homeliest and most pragmatic truth of all was at work, and preparing a sort of revenge: nature will not be denied, not in the long run. It is the nature of man to seek the spiritual absolute, and the very success of skeptical pragmatism created the conditions for a rebellion against it.

America in the period immediately after the Second World War is thought to have been a very religious country, and it was. But its religiosity was tenuous and unsure of itself, dramatically weakened by very plausible skeptical attacks, above all attacks on the idea of divine creation. It tended already to turn either to defiant and anti-intellectual fundamentalism or to compromises which ceded the intellectual ground to skepticism, justifying itself to the world as an assistant in the project of its betterment and as a provider of psychological comfort.

At a superficial glance the nation may have appeared to have been of one mind on these questions, but this was an illusion. Skepticism, though the minority party in numbers, had the greater strength, energy, and prestige, and was attracting more converts than its opposition. Historical momentum, whatever that may be and however it may operate, was with it. That was why Flannery O’Connor could say in 1955, in the face of church attendance numbers and Billy Graham crusades and everything else marking the age as religiously observant, that “if you live today you breathe in nihilism.”

To return to television for a moment: there was one important feature of the bourgeois consensus that was almost entirely absent from television, and that was religion. For the most part religion simply does not exist for the characters. It is puzzling that this should have been the case in a country that was overwhelmingly if nominally Christian. Perhaps it was a simple commercial calculation, based on the rule of manners that discourages talk of religion or politics. At any rate it seems that the subject usually appeared only when it was essential to some more important aspect of the story: when a dithering clergyman must be brought in for a wedding or a funeral.

Whatever the immediate and conscious reasons, though, the absence of religion was almost certainly connected to the thing we call secularism, or practical atheism. A sort of bland theologically liberal Protestantism may have been the general cultural default, but it was a thin and feeble convention, on the verge of complete surrender. My generation, in its numbers and its affluence, was born at the end of two centuries of this movement. We accused our culture of hypocrisy, but there is always an abundance of that in the world. The deeper problem was that by a process not easy to name or understand ancient beliefs had lost their hold on the mind and imagination and were being rejected, or, worse and more effective, simply forgotten. Religion had become a withered old man grumbling in a corner.

“Religion is a very personal thing.” “Keep your religion to yourself.” And so forth. This seemed to be the culturally dominant view, and even if it was not numerically dominant it could be found even among the observant. It is true that millions of Christians, Protestant and Catholic, took their faith quite seriously and expected that it would be taken seriously by others, especially in public affairs. But at the most prestigious and influential levels of culture, religion, especially Christianity, had become a matter of indifference. A certain squeamishness had set in. The irreligious and the merely conventionally religious found the subject distasteful and preferred that it not be mentioned; the faithful were a little embarrassed in the presence of the cultured despisers.

God himself seemed to be in retreat, on the run, shrinking into something which almost deserved the label of superstition which the skeptics applied to Him, or disappearing and leaving behind only a vague ethic of benevolence. The earth was not His living creation but the fortuitous repository of “natural resources.” The heavens were impressive but empty, their significance to declare not the glory of God but the insignificance and futility of man. The cosmos had no essential meaning and in the end it would not be, as Saint Paul promised, death that would die, but life, and not just the life of every man but life itself; there would be no miraculous resolution and revelation at the end of the human story, after which would come a new heaven and new earth, but only the long slow extinguishing of life and then of light itself, as the cosmos wound down to its heat death.

Like some drug or poison in the water or the air, this mood had come upon us unnoticed. It was not something we reasoned out, and not necessarily even something consciously noticed; above all it was felt, and therefore quietly powerful.

What lay before us? If we escaped the bomb, a job and a house and a car and a family. Was that not enough? Not alone, no. What was to the survivors of the Depression and the war a longed-for stability and peace seemed to many of their children merely dull. We had grown up assuming that affluence, peace, and freedom were the natural conditions of life and could be taken for granted. And then we asked Now what?

Part of our response to that question was hedonism. The good life as so many elements of our culture presented it seemed to be a matter of acquisition, pleasure, and status. Since we lacked very little, it was easy for us to profess disdain for material acquisition. We were all for pleasure, except that we wanted more of it and had no tolerance for moral obstacles placed in the way of its pursuit. The so-called sexual revolution was already in progress—the first issue of Playboy had appeared in late 1953, when we were children—and we joined it eagerly. And it was not only hedonism: we were young, and wanted the romance, color, and excitement that seemed missing from the everyday middle-class life that bohemians had long scorned.

But there was more at work for those of us who joined in the impending revolution: the promise of a world made new, not at the end of time but very soon, within our lifetimes, perhaps next year. Perhaps there was some cultural memory of a thoroughly Christian and sacramental culture in us which made us want every aspect of life to be touched with the sacred. We wanted that contact, even, in a fumbling and weak way, to give ourselves to it, not only for a sense of salvation from the futility of the godless world but for itself.

It has been pointed out so often as to be tiresome that the modern Western world is standardized, mechanized, commercialized, regimented, and bureaucratic, and that it tends to produce a uniform “mass man,” ready to give up his individuality, and afraid to exercise it. The desire to break out of what was vaguely called “conformity” was one of the powerful forces driving the revolution. But the real enclosure was metaphysical.

The modern world is a plain extending horizontally for vast distances, but closed vertically by an oppressively low roof which admits very little natural light. Driven by that which is in the hearts of all men and which can never be satisfied by the things of this world, longing to believe that beyond that roof there was something more rich and pure and strange and sweet than anything we could see around us, but accepting it as an impassable barrier, we came to believe that by revolutionary will and ardor we could and should transform the plain into the image of the beautiful vision of peace and love and beauty that haunted us. This set us in opposition to everything that told us to accept the limits of that closed world, whether the metaphysical limit in the vertical dimension or the practical limit of what could be expected and achieved in the horizontal dimension, that phantasmagoria of vanity which is generally referred to as “the real world.”

The essential feature of the youth rebellion of the Sixties is that it arrived at the point at which the simultaneous decline of Christian culture and the rise of secular materialism produced a mass movement which was in fact a new ersatz cultus, the Great Awakening of a religion of human liberation. It has attracted converts ever since and gone a great way toward converting the culture of which it is an antagonist, recapitulating the conversion of the Greek and Roman world to Christianity. It is for many a feverishly impassioned faith. Like the Church it looks with fervent longing for a world to come. If it stops short of explicit utopianism, it nevertheless postulates an “arc of history” which is an asymptotic approach to utopia.

Its great hymn, which is also its statement of doctrine, is John Lennon’s “Imagine.” The song describes precisely the same transformation of the closed world into an earthly paradise which I sketched above. Its hold on the imaginations and hearts of millions of people is not fully grasped by those who do not share its faith. To call this movement by one of its political names, such as “progressivism,” is to miss its essence. (To call it Lennonism would be a little too cute; “imaginism” might do.)

The militant and irreconcilable opposition of the new religion to Christianity makes what we call the culture war primarily a religious conflict, not a political one. It is a political conflict not only because every society naturally seeks to organize itself around some encompassing idea of its reason for existing, but because politics is the primary means by which the new religion pursues salvation. The salvation it promises is collective and of this world. To refuse to be part of it, therefore, is to diminish or damage it. The more it succeeds, the more opposition to it becomes a threat not merely to an earthly order assumed to be always deficient, as it is in Christian societies, but, since the earthly order is the heavenly order, to the salvation of all: its opponents are not just sinners but, in a sense, sin itself. And that is why the culture war is a war, not an argument.

Maclin Horton is the author of Sunday Light, a collection of essays.

To continue reading, subscribe to The Lamp.

Get unlimited access to our complete archive when you subscribe.

Already a Subscriber?
Maclin Horton is the author of Sunday Light, a collection of essays. For many years he has maintained a blog at He writes monthly for the website of The Lamp.