Saturday, November 19, 2011

Organization Men: The Suburbs and the Birth of the 1960s Subculture

I am coauthor of an updated version of the college American history textbook, currently titled “American Dreams and Reality: A Retelling of the American Story.” Here, I describe how the roots of 1960s radicalism can be found in the heart of supposedly quite mid-America in the late 1940s and the 1950s.

America slouched towards Armageddon in the blandest of settings, the American suburbs. Parents in the 1960s, after living through the Great Depression, World War II, the creation of dangerous nuclear weapons and the start of a possibly world-destroying “Cold War” with the Soviet Union, craved a predictable, safe life. Instead, they found anxiety as the TV news bombarded them with fears of nuclear destruction and of communist spies hidden deep within every important American institution, from the highest level of government, to college campuses, to the church around the corner.

Disposable incomes rose by 49 percent between 1940 and 1964, but as author and 1960s protestor Todd Gitlin noted, greater personal wealth did not seem to buy everyone peace of mind. In post-war America, patients with more money in their pocket increasingly spent it on psychoanalysis. The number of psychiatrists practicing in the United States rose by a factor of six between 140 and 1964. A central icon of the era was the character Linus from the popular comic strip “Peanuts.” Highly intelligent, Linus nevertheless clung desperately to a security blanket. Linus’ older sister Lucy opened up a booth where she offered psychological services to the strip’s other children for 5 cents a pop. Anxiety, it seemed, even shadowed the newspaper “funny pages.”

As Gitlin suggested, television played a critical role in convincing Americans that chaining themselves to what was widely called “the rat race,” working long hours in return for material awards, represented a questionable tradeoff. TV commercials, comedies and dramas all portrayed the glamorous life that would come with a successful career. Yet, harsher reality made many feel like failures. “For all their comforts,” as Gitlin wrote of 1950s and 1960s suburban Americans, “the middle class parents were afflicted by ‘insecurity,’ to use another of the decade’s code words. One was not supposed to feel ‘insecure.’ It was a mark of ‘maladjustment.’

Yet no matter how much consumer debt they piled up to feed their hunger for consumption, no matter how eagerly they accumulated space and goods to convince themselves that that their self-sacrificial struggles had been worthwhile . . . they were not always convinced that their well-upholstered consumer paradise was here to stay.”

It became a sign of status for Anglos to move from crowded and dirty cities filled with unhappy racial and ethnic minorities to all—or mostly -- white suburbs. In post-war America, bedroom communities spread like mushrooms after a rain with about 1 million Americans moving from cities or rural areas to suburbs every year during the 1950s, until about 25 percent of the country lived in such communities by 1960. The number of Americans living in suburbs sharply angled upwards from around 36 million to approximately 74 million. Residents often left communities where they had longstanding family ties and friendships to arrive in a constantly changing suburban landscape where trees and other signs of nature were leveled to make way for endlessly expanding rows of houses. Discontent, however, brewed under the placid exterior of these neatly groomed look-alike homes.

In popular books such as Herman Wouk's “Marjorie Morningstar” and Sloan Wilson and Jonathan Franzen's “The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit” (both published in 1950), the male business heroes are not completely beaten down by demanding bosses, long hours, and ever-longer commutes, but they mourn the time away from wives and children and regret when they succumb to carnal temptations offered by a life spent away from the home.

In Arthur Miller’s 1949 play “Death of a Salesman,” Willy Loman discovers too late in life that, in his relentless drive for corporate success and middle class respectability, he has lost emotional fulfillment and his integrity. He can only measure his worth through the eyes of his more successful peers, and their disdain as he ages and his failures pile up proves lethal. His wife begs their sons to respect their father and his sacrifices:

I don't say he's a great man. Willie Loman never made a lot of money. His name was never in the paper. He's not the finest character that ever lived. But he's a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid. He's not to be allowed to fall in his grave like an old dog. Attention, attention must finally be paid to such a person.

Loman commits suicide, with only his wife and his ungrateful sons to note his passing. By Loman’s own measure his lack of material success meant he had become a nonentity. In addition to novels and plays, several non-fiction works in the post-war era critiqued American materialism, such as David Reisman, Nathan Glazer and Reuel Denney's “The Lonely Crowd” (1950), C. Wright Mills' “White Collar: The American Middle Classes” (1951) and William Whyte's “The Organization Man” (1956).

This simmering discontent with the values of post-World War II America bubbled to the surface during several episodes of the hit television show “The Twilight Zone,” which ran on CBS in the early 1960s. In The Twilight Zone, technology, Cold War paranoia and corporate culture turned the small towns and suburbs of America into alienated islands of poisonous suspicion. In a 1960 episode, “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street,” a peaceful, all-American suburb turns into a hothouse of paranoia after the electricity in a neighborhood goes out. A child who has been reading perhaps too much science fiction excitedly speculates that the power outage is the first step in an invasion by space aliens. Ethnic, class and social tensions arise as the once friendly neighbors remember innocent past incidents that in the heat and the darkness now seem sinister. A neighbor who tinkers with mysterious machinery in his basement is accused of being a secret space invader because he was seen one night glancing at the stars. Another whose lights come on while all the other houses remain dark becomes a new target of doubt.

One man is fatally shot, and a riot breaks out. At the episode’s conclusion, we discover that real space aliens have been turning the lights on and off, knowing that the stress of the unfamiliar would terrify these alienated suburbanites and lead them to destroy each other. The aliens can take over once the humans have done the killing for them. The episode obviously comments on the recently past McCarthy-era Red Scare, when Americans destroyed each others’ lives on flimsy or non-existence evidence of communist subversion, but it also speaks loudly of the loneliness and social isolation prevailing in the suburbs.


Many white children growing up from the late 1940s through the 1950s saw the frustrations of their mothers, felt the unhappiness of their parents, were horrified by the monotony and emotional coldness that accompanied the pursuit of material wealth, and witnessed the thrilling black struggle for freedom in the South unfolding on their television screens. As they entered their teens, they demanded a life less conformist and with more immediate emotional rewards. They eagerly read books like the 1951 novel “The Catcher in the Rye” by J.D. Salinger, in which an angry teenager named Holden Caulfield furiously condemned adults he considered “phonies.” Holden hates materialism. “Goddamn money,” he grumbles at one point. “It always ends up making you blue as hell.”

Caulfield lives in a society dominated by cars, in which kids escaped the supervision of their parents by “cruising,” making out in “lovers’ lanes” and at drive-in movie theaters. If other teens found sexual freedom behind the wheel, Caulfield saw the car as one more expensive toy that brought only temporary happiness and failed to fill the spiritual emptiness of modern life, one more oppressive machine that commands time and money. "Take most people, they're crazy about cars,” Caulfield says. “They worry if they get a little scratch on them, and they're always talking about how many miles they get to a gallon, and if they get a brand-new car already they start thinking about trading it in for one that's even newer. I don't even like old cars. I mean they don't even interest me. I'd rather have a goddam horse. A horse is at least human, for God's sake."

Some Sixties rebels wondered if the entire adult world was a fraud. Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22,” another favorite book of Sixties youth, mercilessly satirized Army bureaucracy during what the older generation already saw as a sacrosanct crusade, World War II. The hero of the novel, Yossarian, has already flown dozens of dangerous missions in the European theater of the war. He doesn’t want to put his life at risk any further, but the Army can grant this request only if he is diagnosed as crazy. Yossarian goes to ‘Doc” Daneeka hoping to get certified as insane. Daneeka won’t cooperate. “Anyone who wants to get out of combat duty isn’t really crazy,” Daneeka declares, stating the quirky rule – “Catch-22” – that is the title of the novel. Yossarian questions everything, up to the existence of God. “Don’t tell me God works in mysterious ways,” Yassarian spits out in disgust.

There's nothing mysterious about it, He's not working at all. He's playing. Or else He's forgotten all about us. That's the kind of God you people talk about, a country bumpkin, a clumsy, bungling, brainless, conceited, uncouth hayseed. Good God, how much reverence can you have for a Supreme Being who finds it necessary to include such phenomena as phlegm and tooth decay in His divine system of Creation? What in the world was running through that warped, evil, scatological mind of His when He robbed old people of the power to control their bowel movements? Why in the world did He ever create pain?"

Not just religion, but the entire American value system would be up for reappraisal in the 1960s and the young would be inspired by 1950s pop culture. In the 1953 movie “The Wild One,” Marlon Brando played a character named Johnny, the leader of a motorcycle gang. Brando and his crew upset a quiet, sleepy town. At one point, he’s in a bar standing next to a jukebox. A young woman asks, “Hey, Johnny, what are you rebelling against?” Brando looks at her with amusement and says, “What've you got?”

Children and teenagers who admired these actors like Brando and James Dean and films like “Rebel Without a Cause” would later lead the so-called “New Left” of the 1960s. These young people would aim their revolutionary zeal at a much broader range of targets than the “Old Left,” which focused on union organizing and opposition to segregation and other pragmatic issues. The New Left had a broader agenda, tackling conventional thought not just on race and economic class, but also questioning traditional definitions of masculinity and femininity, the structure of the family, and the morality of private property. New Leftists would incorporate Eastern religions like Hinduism and Buddhism as alternatives to middle class Christianity and Judaism. More explicitly political and goal-oriented than the Beatniks of the 1950s, early 1960s political dissenters, according to historians Maurice Isserman and Michael Kazin, advocated:

• Rejection of militarism, the Cold War, and the deepening American misadventure in Vietnam.
• Racial and class equality, overturning the traditional America hierarchy based on wealth and status.
• Direct democracy bypassing the well-financed interest groups that dominated the adult political world.
• Sexual frankness instead of phony modesty and moral hypocrisy.

If American society was oppressive, and the older generation brought the world pollution and war, young dissenters argued what was needed was a new culture, what came to be known as the “counterculture.” The rebels of the 1960s raged against Willie Loman-style anonymity, and proclaimed that “less is more” as they questioned the value of big institutions ranging from public schools to supermarkets to the federal government. Older Americans, the New Left believed, falsely equated consumerism with happiness, ever-harder labor with moral rectitude, and loyalty with knee-jerk flag-waving.

The New Left would eventually question existing power structures: the political dominance of the West over the developing world in Africa, Asia and Latin America; the vestiges of white power that trampled the rights of blacks, browns and Native Americans; the political and economic dominance of men over women; the oppression of gays and bisexuals at the hands of heterosexuals. At its best, the 1960s counterculture would become an expansive, inclusive movement, as the era’s premiere troubadour, Bob Dylan sang, ringing chimes of freedom for “each an' ev'ry underdog soldier in the night,” tolling

for the rebel, tolling for the rake
Tolling for the luckless, the abandoned an' forsaked
Tolling for the outcast, burnin' constantly at stake
An' we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing.

Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

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