The 1960s, argues art historian James Meyer in The Art of Return: The Sixties and Contemporary Culture, is “the beginning of the time we are in.” By this Meyer means that our ongoing fascination with that turbulent decade serves, whether positively or negatively, as an index of our disappointment with our own era. And while there was a historical 1960s—a real decade that we can study and seek to understand—there’s also the “Sixties” in scare quotes: a mythologized era that’s held our imagination ever since. This myth, Meyer argues, deserves to be pushed back against.
Yet the myth is harder to pin down than one might expect. Take the case discussed in political scientist Nicholas Buccola’s new book on the 1960s, The Fire Is upon Us: James Baldwin, William F. Buckley Jr., and the Debate over Race in America. Buccola presents a wealth of historical scholarship to paint a detailed picture of the brewing racial tensions in the United States in that decade. In a captivating montage, the book alternates between the burgeoning careers of writers James Baldwin and William F. Buckley Jr. before their paths finally crossed in 1965 at a debate at the famed Cambridge Union in the UK. They were asked to address the motion “The American Dream is at the expense of the American Negro.”
What The Fire Is upon Us possesses in historical richness, it squanders in mythologizing the period. Buccola puts too much weight on the debate and infers from it how we got to where we are now, as if most American history of the last 50 years could be simply traced back to this butting of heads between Baldwin and Buckley and its surrounding political situation.
In the process, he treats broad categories like “white supremacy” and the “black freedom struggle” as convenient catch-alls that could explain all the complexities of the past half century. But complexities are exactly that, complex. To wager an interpretation of our present moment on two oversimplified concepts likely means to interpret very little in the end.
Thus, whereas Meyer shows nuance in distinguishing between the historical ’60s and what our present cultural imagination has made of the decade, Buccola seems somewhat stuck in time, as if the terms by which we debate American politics today have essentially been settled since 1965. On the one side are millions of unrepentant white supremacists who can’t wait to don their Klan hoods publicly again; on the other are those who valiantly “resist” this deplorable majority. Of course, the danger in mythologizing the ’60s in this way is that we lose sight of what’s truly ahead of us, which may be quite different from an eternal repeat of Mississippi Burning.
In 1964, the renegade conservative Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater captured the Republican nomination for president. He was among the few Republicans who had voted against the Civil Rights Act. In Goldwater’s nomination, Buckley saw the chance to form a realigned conservative majority in the United States by merging small-government libertarianism with the racist segregationism of the Dixiecrats in the South. The rest of the country was not as thrilled at this prospect, handing Lyndon B. Johnson one of the biggest landslide victories in American history up to that point.
Inarguably, Buckley’s conservative revolution succeeded—with a delay—in the election of President Ronald Reagan, the hawkish anti-Communist who sought to reverse many of Johnson’s “Great Society” social programs. The realignment, then, did become a reality, though the course it set was determined, in Buccola’s view, by one thing only: by nominating Goldwater, he argues, the GOP had “become the party of choice for racial reactionaries.” In this account, the history of the past 50 years can be boiled down to a single phenomenon: racism. And it explains everything we have inherited from that time on.
It is no surprise, then, that subtly, in one of the very last footnotes of the book, Buccola links that history to our current malaise, the presidency of Donald Trump, and claims that Buckley would have approved of Trump (despite the fact that the Buckley-founded National Review ran a special issue in 2016 titled “Never Trump”). Thus, Buccola’s true ambition in The Fire Is upon Us is not really documenting history: instead, it’s giving a political analysis of the Trump era from the vantage point of yesterday.
Is it surprising that today’s left has at its disposal only the explanatory modes from a time when it seems to have been at its strongest?
But the decades since 1964 have seen much more than just the steady evolution of racist views. The Vietnam War took the lives of millions of people; Watergate eroded faith in our institutions; the fiscal policies of the Carter, Reagan, and their successor administrations put a tight squeeze on wages. Meanwhile, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War opened the globe to unbridled trade; automation and the rise of China helped evaporate the American manufacturing base; underemployment in many American communities caused hundreds of thousands to drown their sorrows in opioids; the student loan crisis has smothered the ambitions of our younger generations. Many of these developments intersected to hit a number of states, like Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan, the hardest; they consequently flipped in 2016 in favor of Donald Trump. Probably the tiniest sliver of voters thought the white race superior to all others. Certainly, none was motivated by the same conditions that prevailed when Baldwin and Buckley had it out at Cambridge.
And yet, despite the intervening years, we seem haunted today by—as Meyer argues—“the gnawing sense that others have lived in historical times, that they have made history, that we cannot be so influential” (italics in the original). To many of us, “the present feels unmonumental and bland.”
The ’60s, Meyer shows, feels incomparably more heroic to both artists and activists. Especially to those on the left, the specter of the New Left and the civil rights movement—their force, influence, and general coherence—put to shame the many disparate grouplets and causes that define that political current now. So is it surprising that today’s left has at its disposal only the explanatory modes from a time when it seems to have been at its strongest?
The Art of Return is written primarily as an overview of postmodern art from roughly the last thirty years. Meyer provides extensive readings of works by a diverse number of artists—in the media of photography, the novel, painting, film, and installation art—all of whom reenvision, in one way or another, the afterlives of the ’60s against our contemporary backdrop.
A typical genre of recent artistic practice, Meyer notes, is the reenactment. In his Port Huron Project from the mid-2000s, the conceptual artist Mark Tribe took transcripts of famous speeches by New Left activists from the 1960s and restaged them in a contemporary setting. So while the real-world insurgency was raging in Iraq, audiences would see actors playing ’60s antiwar activists like Stokely Carmichael, who condemned the draft and lambasted the government for justifying the war in Vietnam on the grounds that it was being fought for the cause of freedom. Consequently, the audience was forced to compare the periods. Yes, there was no draft in America, but President George W. Bush sounded a lot like President Johnson, invoking freedom as an excuse for war.
To provoke comparison was the driving idea behind The Port Huron Project. And, writes Meyer, “Comparison makes it possible to articulate the differences between things and their names.” As uncannily familiar as some of Carmichael’s rhetoric might sound to contemporary ears, much of it sounds unfamiliar as well. Audiences of Tribe’s reenactments had to process change as perhaps the only constant in history and feel tasked with comprehending their own moment anew.
Meyer laudably resists the temptation to relish the present, however, as if history had no bearing on us at all. To turn one’s back on the past, he says, would imply “a critical failure to come to terms with the centrality of the operations of history and memory.” After all, the baby boomers who came of age in the ’60s are very much still with us, occupying crucial seats of power. And, for the moment at least, they appear unwilling to let go of this power. In more metaphorical ways too, the ’60s live on, as what appears to be a promise unfulfilled, a dream of peace and equality unattained.
The great achievement of Buccola’s The Fire Is upon Us is to make one such moment—in which this promise was fought over—come to life. When the BBC originally aired the Baldwin-Buckley debate, it did so in abridged form. For the longest time, this was the only version available. Through meticulous efforts, Buccola managed to uncover an old reel-to-reel recording of the event, which he transcribed in full and reprinted in the appendix to the book, performing a great scholarly service.
The debate pitted two sides against each other that couldn’t have been more different: Baldwin, shy and soft-spoken, lectured the captivated audience on the psychological toll of American racism; Buckley, by contrast, brought out an extreme version of his famed transatlantic drawl, gesturing awkwardly as he defended his home country against Baldwin’s allegations. The audience was then asked to vote. It wasn’t close. Baldwin’s side won overwhelmingly.
Baldwin’s role as the psychologist of American racism has endeared him to successive generations of antiracist activists.
What had he said? Jim Crow was bad enough for blacks, he opined, but what happened in the mind of a white Southern sheriff who “put a cattle prod against a woman’s breast … is, in some ways, much, much worse.” Racism served beleaguered whites as a coping mechanism against the prevalent status anxiety underlying the capitalist order. The “consolation” available to those left behind was: “At least they are not black.”
In concentrating on its psychology, Baldwin had diagnosed racism as structurally necessary to American society, for as long as its citizens are pitted against one another (and against immigrants) in a zero-sum struggle over scarce resources. Congress had attempted to right the wrongs of segregation through the civil rights legislation of the mid-1960s; in Baldwin’s eyes this was slapping a legal bandage on a spiritual crisis.
Baldwin’s role as the psychologist of American racism has endeared him to successive generations of antiracist activists. He has been a major influence on the popular race commentator Ta-Nehisi Coates; Baldwin’s long essay The Fire Next Time is a staple on contemporary college syllabi; and in Raoul Peck’s 2016 documentary I Am Not Your Negro, Baldwin was given a cinematic monument that dramatically asserted his topicality in the face of present-day police killings of young black men. Buccola falls squarely into this camp of thinkers.
What’s often left out of these accounts is Baldwin’s nuance, his cautioning against the more militant forms of racial separatism, his own deep-seated humanism that left him to oppose race-first politics because, in Buccola’s paraphrase, whoever forged their identity on this basis “was thoroughly unfree and therefore could never possibly find fulfilment.” Buccola, to his credit, gives this side of Baldwin ample space to make an appearance.
At the same time, Buccola is forced to juggle another version of the writer in the book, a Baldwin he subsumes under the vague moniker of the “black freedom struggle.” The move is ahistorical: “There is no singular, transhistorical ‘Black Liberation Struggle’ or ‘Black Freedom Movement,’” objects political scientist Adolph Reed Jr., “and there never has been.”
Such terminology forces under one imperfect label what were, in fact, a multiplicity of struggles for equality that unfolded throughout American history. The rise of legal segregation in the South, for example, came with a violent repression of interracial working-class politics; voter disenfranchisement measures left most black people, and also a substantial number of poor whites, without the vote. What we have come to call the “black liberation struggle,” Reed reminds us, we have inherited largely from black nationalist rhetoric in the late ’60s. This rhetoric was meant to rewrite the history of American working-class militancy into, instead, a raced phenomenon. Its success is how the economic policies of a Bernie Sanders, for example, can be discarded by some as blind to the plight of black voters: policy proposals like Medicare for All are not pitched exclusively to help redress a distinctly “black experience.” Only reparations, it seems, can do this.
The book, in the end, leaves us with two Baldwins: both the historical James Baldwin, to whose understanding Buccola has contributed tremendously, and the Baldwin whose image has become warped by the mythical “Sixties.” The version so popular with Coates and his followers is probably the mythological one. This Baldwin can be unproblematically fit into a transhistorical, homogeneous “black freedom struggle” that has been waged since about 1619 against a similarly transhistorical, homogeneous “white supremacy.”
History never runs in such predictable courses. We would be better off if we cut through the myths. This might even help us understand the year 2020 on its own terms, as a crucible of near-unprecedented technological changes that lie ahead. The way we respond may decide the future well-being of all Americans, but we may fail in the face of this challenge if we remain stuck in time.
This article was commissioned by Annette Joseph-Gabriel.
Featured image: Marchers with signs at the March on Washington, 1963 (1963). Photograph by Marion S. Trikosko / Wikimedia Commons