Shades of The'60s

By Lilla, Mark | Newsweek International, June 4, 2001 | Go to article overview

Shades of The'60s


Lilla, Mark, Newsweek International


In many ways the cultural revolution we call the 1960s began in the Netherlands. There, on the streets of Amsterdam, an obscure and playful anarchist group called the Provos staged a number of "happenings" in the early years of the decade to poke fun at the hypocrisies of bourgeois life and to demand that laws regulating drug consumption and sexual activity be liberalized. The group disbanded within a decade, but its influence can still be felt by any visitor to that doll-house city who sniffs the cannabis in the air and strolls past the neon-lit sex shops.

For American visitors in particular, this is all very confusing. The image we have of Europe in the '60s is of a continent in the midst of some kind of political revolution, with stenciled portraits of Che Guevara painted on ancient walls, terrorist bombings, kneecappings and the occasional assassination of political and business leaders. The upheavals on American campuses, which ceased soon after Richard Nixon's resignation and the withdrawal from Vietnam, were tame indeed when compared with the two decades of violence and political instability that lasted until the mid-'80s in Europe.

Culturally, however, it seems that Europe survived the '60s intact, without deep social divisions or the kind of culture wars that dominated American public life in recent decades. All the changes that took place in American society since the '60s--in sexual matters, family structure, drug use--also took place in Europe. Yet somehow the transformation of European life was managed with more finesse, and without recourse to street marches, legal briefs and self-help books. European women have joined the work force in large numbers (though at different rates in different countries), and generally find it easier to balance family and career, given the presence of state-supported day-care centers and generous leave policies. They have made these advances without feminist militancy, but also without provoking hysterical fears about the decline of the family. Homosexuals today find themselves in a highly tolerant environment without having to make exaggerated claims about their identity or dramatizing their "coming out." And school curricula, which in the United States today are the litmus paper of social change, have stayed pretty much the same in Europe, on the sensible assumption that what students need to learn before entering the world has not been significantly altered.

Why these striking differences? On a recent trip to Europe I took an afternoon walk in a public park and was struck by how many young people in mod attire--pierced noses, dyed hair, combat boots--were out strolling with their grandparents after the traditional Sunday lunch. That image offers part of the answer: despite the '60s, Europe is still culturally conservative. In a strict sense, all cultures are conservative to the degree that they establish customs that grease the wheels of social life and impart those customs to new members of the society. But in a looser sense some cultures can be said to be more conservative in that they manage to decelerate changes in attitudes and behavior, moderating them in the process and weaving them into a continuous fabric with older ones by means of consensus. Modern European culture has always made room for those who rejected the consensus of the moment--bohemians, saints--because the strong centripetal force of custom has allowed the center to hold, leaving more space at the margins for those who don't fit in. The '60s posed a serious challenge to that consensus, yet it is striking today to see how successfully the new customs have been grafted onto the old. …

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