Friday, November 18, 2011

"Prophets of Doom are as Common as Girls in Bikinis": American Culture in the Late 1960s.

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 the extremes of optimism and gloom that pervaded 1960s American culture.

A musical celebrating hippies, drugs, the anti-war movement, and free love, “Hair” became one of the surprise Broadway hits in the late 1960s. Opening at the Biltmore Theater in April 1968, the play shocked audiences with its occasional nudity, frequent profanity, embrace of interracial sex and tolerance of homosexuality. The production mixed an almost naïve hope for peace and love with acidly cynical putdowns of establishment political figures like Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon.

Hair opens with “The Age of Aquarius,” a song destined to become a Top 40 hit. The song brimmed with optimism. The lyrics proclaimed the dawn of a new era of human consciousness.

When the Moon is in the seventh house
And Jupiter aligns with Mars
Then peace will guide the planets
And love will steer the stars

Like so much of the 1960s and 1970s, paradox almost overwhelmed Hair. In spite of the sunny mood of the opening number, by the climax one of the major characters has decided to not dodge the draft, reports for duty, is sent to Vietnam and, by the closing number, lies dead on the stage as the rest of the cast sings with sadness, “Let the Sunshine In.” The emotional kaleidoscope of 1960s always mixed hues of activism and alienation, new frontiers and apocalyptic doom.

The historian Rick Perlstein noted that if one scanned the American bestsellers lists as the Sixties shaded into the Seventies, it would seem that America had fallen into terminal decline. Books predicting stock market crashes, death-dealing ecological disasters, and even the imminent Second Coming of Jesus sold in the millions. Observing the cultural landscape in California, New York Times reporter Steve Roberts noted in 1971, “Prophets of doom are as common as girls in bikinis (there are even a few prophets of doom in bikinis). Some predict the whole state will break off and sink into the Pacific – probably this month.”

Twentieth century Protestants increasingly embraced “pre-millennial dispensationalism” – the belief that the Bible predicts that soon Christians will be taken up to heaven in an event called “the Rapture” so they would not suffer a seven-year series of natural disasters and wars causing millions of deaths (a period believers call “the Tribulation.”) The Tribulation would end, such evangelicals believed, with the emergence of a Satanic figure called the Antichrist who would become a dictator of the world before being defeated by Jesus and his angels. Hal Lindsey, a former tugboat captain and graduate of the Armageddon-oriented Dallas Theological Seminary, brought these ideas to a broad audience and became one of the 1970s’ most successful prophets of doom, writing that decade’s bestselling non-fiction book “The Late, Great Planet Earth.” Formerly an evangelist for the Campus Crusade for Christ, Lindsey grew sideburns, a moustache and longer hair and filled his book with the language of the 1960s youth counterculture, using a popular term for LSD hallucinations when he described the Rapture as “the ultimate trip” and calling the Antichrist “the weirdo beast.” Lindsey frightened his audience, insisting that images of fire and blood in the Book of Revelation were predictions of nuclear war. The Bible, Lindsey insisted, was as current as today’s headlines. “The rebirth of Israel, an increase in natural catastrophes, the threat of war with Egypt and the revival of interest in Satanism and witchcraft . . . were foreseen by prophets from Moses to Jesus as being the key signals for the coming of an Antichrist. And a war which will bring man to the brink of destruction.”

California cult leader Charles Manson led his followers on a killing spree that claimed seven victims in the summer of 1969. Their intention was to produce a race war between blacks and whites he believed that the Bible predicted. Religion did not inspire all late-1960s and early 1970s doomsday prognosticators. A novel, “The Andromeda Strain” by Michael Crichton, depicted the human race as threatened with extinction by a killer virus delivered to the planet by a fallen space satellite. According to Perlstein, a non-fiction book called “The Population Bomb” by Paul Ehrlich “went into a new paperback printing every couple of weeks.” The book predicted a human population explosion leading to mass famine and warfare over diminishing resources. “While you are reading these words, four people will have died from starvation,” the back cover grimly proclaimed, “most of them children.”

Dread of religious or secular Armageddon haunted movies and music as well. One hit film, “The Planet of the Apes”, takes place after a nuclear war has allowed mutant apes to take over Earth and enslave a human race that has lost the power of speech. Meanwhile, a 1969 number one song by the folk duo Zager and Evans, “In The Year 2525,” warned listeners that, “In the year 6565/you won’t need no husband/won’t need no wife/You’ll pick your son, pick your daughter too/from the bottom of a long glass tube.” As the author Perlstein notes, “The public appetite for doom was bottomless.”

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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