About a month ago, I received a puzzling e-mail from County Commissioner Bill James. The message was addressed to me alone, and provided a link to a video, over which James had written, "I ran across this and thought of you." I clicked on the link, and here came an excerpt from an episode of Dragnet 1967. An expert of some sort was talking about why the younger generation (baby boomers) was going down the tubes. Here's the key passage from the "expert":
"What it boils down to is the new morality, doesn't it? A whole new set of values. The kids see it on television, in magazines, and even hear from the pulpit. God is dead. Drug addiction is mind expanding. Promiscuity is glamorous, [speakers voice lowers ominously] even homosexuality is praiseworthy."
At the time, I thought the e-mail was probably just an awkward joke on James' part, so I replied, "Thanks, I think. I have to say, though, that getting life lessons from old Dragnet episodes isn't something I'd thought of before." The next message from James showed that he was serious. He "explained" that the Dragnet snippet pretty much said it all about what had happened to baby boomers and, in effect, to the United States. I've lost the text of the message, but it was along the lines of: "Kids were exposed to that kind of liberal thinking all the time through the media, and look what happened." I let it go and got back to work, but thinking about the exchange later, I was, and still am, astonished that anyone could have such a superficial view of how the social upheavals of the 1960s and '70s came about.
I am, I believe, a couple of years or so older than Bill James, so we're both baby boomers. Now, I don't know which 1960s he was living in, but I'll tell you that I was definitely not exposed 24/7 to ultra-liberal or radical views about God being dead, the merits of premarital sex and homosexuality, or the joys of drug use. In fact, progressive or, frankly, any non-Southern Baptist-type thinking was so scarce where I grew up, I had to go looking for it when I got old enough. And look for it I did, along with friends who, like millions of others at the time (although not James, evidently), were weary of the repressive, 1950s-style, narrowly defined views of life and morality we had hammered into our skulls, day in and day out, all our lives. At that time, the way I remember it, any views that opposed conformist reality, when they were reported at all in the mainstream press, were delivered with a somber, frowning scorn, reminiscent of Miss Grundy, the mean schoolteacher in Archie comics. In that social atmosphere, my discovery at age 17 of a book on nuclear disarmament by Bertrand Russell was more than an interesting read; it was like a whole world of independent thinking opening up, confirming my growing discomfort with accepted "truths."
Conservatives today, many of whom are old enough and have a good enough memory to know better, look at the 1950s as some kind of golden era. True enough, if you were a straight, white adult male who was making money and felt guilty about sex, the '50s was your decade. Everyone else — that is, independent women, racial minorities, homosexuals, liberal teachers, and anyone who didn't bow to that era's ironclad conformity — were out of luck, shunned, and even, in some cases, imprisoned, simply for thinking differently.
Part of what happened by the late 1950s was a growing realization, by many who liked to think for themselves, that the rules of the game were rigged; and not just rigged, but harsh and, frankly, backward. Those realizations grew in the '60s, as the civil rights movement pulled back the veil on the officially sanctioned, "righteous" abuse of an entire race, which was vigorously defended as "the way God planned it." Follow that by a popular president being assassinated, and the next president obviously lying through his teeth about the foreign war he'd started, and it's no wonder the latter part of the decade was marked by wholesale disillusion. And not just disillusion over politics, but over the "eternal truths" the boomers' elders were supposedly living by.
Ironically, many of us wanted to see deep changes in order that our country could really be what we'd been told it was all along: a force for good, with liberty and justice for all. Others, however — I'd guess it was at least half of my generation — thought things were fine the way they were. I guess my friend Bill was one of those.