Thursday, June 24, 2010

Bernard von Bothmer's Framing the Sixties: A Review

I was prepared to love Bothmer's Framing the Sixties: The Use and Abuse of a Decade from Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush and sat down to read it with a sense of pleasurable expectation. From the opening pages, though, I was extremely disappointed. Bothmer is one of those historians who believe that writing history only has to do with the events concerning white males and nobody else is worthy of his attention. In the introduction, he declares that he has no interest in writing about "the political manipulation of gender sentiments since 1980." From his point of view, feminism has achieved all of its goals (according to Bothmer, it has to be true since even Bush Jr. condescended to women enough to talk about the need to be "concerned" about women), so there is no need to address the anti-feminist backlash that informed American politics since the Reagan presidency. He recognizes that he failed to interview a representative number of women for his book and insists that "neither the women's movement nor . . . the civil rights movement is part of 'the sixties' as that has been understood by the public." He and I must definitely be surrounded by some very different kinds of public because for everybody I know, the very words 'the sixties' immediately evoke these important movements that seem to bore Bothmer so much.Out of the handful of times Bothmer quotes a woman, Phyllis Schlafly (I kid you not) is his main source of female opinion.

The central premise of Bothmer's book is undoubtedly correct and truly fascinating. It is, of course, true that politicians manipulate the image of the sixties and their success or lack thereof in this manipulation still decides whether they would be successful politically. What is so strange is that Bothmer somehow excises the struggle over women's rights and gay rights from his discussion of the sixties. (For him, 'the sixties' last until 1974). Apparently, he believes that today's political discourse is dominated by the arguments on whether the Vietnam War was conducted properly and not on gay marriage and abortion. (I wonder if Sarah Palin would be able to point Vietnam out on a map. No, I actually don't wonder at all.)

Bothmer is right when he states that the conservatives have won the struggle over the right to narrate the sixties. Still, in no way has this important ideological victory "eventually destroyed liberalism." American liberalism has surely suffered some blows since the 80ies but it is in no way dead. Another one of Bothmer's ideas that he reiterates obsessively and for which he fails to offer any explanation is that the 60ies robbed George W. Bush of his legacy and destroyed his expectations while offering every opportunity to Bill Clinton. Seeing as both of these men ended up as two-term presidents of the US, this argument seems extremely weak.

Yet another problem with the book is that Bothmer believes that ideology is created "from above." (Some background in the theory of ideology would come in extremely useful to this author.) For this reason, he bases his analysis exclusively on what the white guys in power have to say about the sixties: presidential speechwriters, Washington insiders, and what Bothmer considers to be "the elites." Somehow, he has managed to convince himself that Americans are more influenced in their understanding of the 60ies by what some obscure lobbyist says in an interview to Bothmer than by conversations with their parents who lived the 60ies, the popular culture, music, literature, etc. If the author just stuck to narrating the opinions of these so-called "members of the elites", then I would have no objection to make. However, Bothmer follows many of the references to what some Washington insider told him by a baseless conclusion that this is what "the public thinks", "the public feels" or "the public endorses." I have no idea how he manages to find out what "the public" thinks about anything if he never asks the public. Does he consider the American people to be so stupid as to have no opinions besides those they are spoon-fed by politicians?

In terms of the writing style, the author seems to believe in the art of understatement even less than I do. :-) Every little idea that might have a tiniest speck of originality is beaten to death by constant repetition. The quotes from politicians interviewed by Bothmer are presented as gospel truth, with no attempt at criticism or analysis. Apparently, Bothmer believes that all politicians are always 100% honest, their memories never fail, and their opinions count more than anybody else's.

In spite of these severe limitations, the book has some interesting insights to offer. Bothmer demonstrates that in spite of its professed hatred for the sixties, the Right benefited a lot from that decade. The conservative movement in the US was pretty much on its deathbed until it came out with a certain mythical image of the sixties. The Right's virulent attacks on this spurious image of the 60ies allowed it to come to power in the Reagan, Bush Sr. and Bush Jr. presidencies. It is also undoubtedly true that the Kennedy presidency was romanticized on purpose in order to make the post-Kennedy sixties to look more unattractive. Still, in my opinion these insights are far from being earth-shattering and ground-breaking and they definitely do not make the book worth buying or reading.


Anonymous said...

Too bad the book's not better, because it would be good to have a well done account of how the Right got to be the one that defines the 60s (as a self indulgent project of rich and lazy baby boomers, from what I can tell). Having grown up then and in California, I can say that (a) it is true that the economy was better and one expected certain guarantees one cannot now, such as low college tuition, but (b) egotistical? when people were trying to figure out how to extend freedom for everyone? self indulgent - do people realize how much work it is to put an event together, or how much time you *don't* spend surfing (or whatever) if you *do* spend your leisure hours on a picket line? Haha!

Clarissa said...

Exactly! That's why I picked up the book in the first place. But then it turned out that the sixties only had to do with white men and women or racial minorities didn't participate at all. That kind of an account of the sixties is of no interest to me, obviously.