Out of the Wreckage

The Sixties wanted Paradise Now: a paradise that ignores the distant and difficult in favor of the immediate and effortless. We wouldn’t transcend life’s conflicts and difficulties by striving after a higher unity, we’d abolish them by denying them recognition. Each would do his thing and follow his bliss, and all would be well. As the slogan on the poster put it, “What if they gave a war, and nobody came?”

Ignoring conflicts meant abolishing limitations and standards, so free-floating instantly-fulfilled desire became the definition of paradise. After all, what was there to say a desire was wrong, or that something else would be better? Sex, drugs, and rock and roll became a sort of religion. We’d break on through to the other side by overwhelming the senses and blanking out reason. The story can be read in the psychedelic album covers of the period.

The dream of this-worldly paradise based on sensory overload and instant wish fulfillment went nowhere. If we want to do our own thing we must know what that thing is, so we must know who we are. Man is created, rational, and social, and making instant fulfillment his goal in life denies his nature. It’s a recipe for chaos and misery rather than paradise. It may be fun for a while, but there’s always a morning after.

Man won’t live with chaos and misery, he must depend on his fellows, and he has come to believe in technology, a form of reason from which the transcendent has been purged. For those reasons “doing your own thing” became collective and technological. It fitted itself to an industrial system of production, consumption, and diversion geared toward maximizing the satisfaction of manageable preferences. That system has become itself a sort of religion: righteousness now means Obamacare, and Nirvana has become a matter of owning the latest Apple product.

So the Sixties led to what it thought it hated most, a consumerist, conformist, careerist, and bureaucratic lifestyle, guided by the heirs of Madison Avenue and deprived of spontaneity and close human connections. The revolution had gone nowhere. Instead of the dry martinis and marital cheating of the 1950s, we had free-floating relationships and designer beers. Instead of the creativity once promised, we had commercial pop culture that only becomes cruder and more crudely commercialized. And instead of musical rebellion, the cover of Rolling Stone now features admiring images of the President.

There was a similar reversal of expectations within the Church. The moment the world turned decisively away from what transcends it was the moment Catholics decided to open the windows, leave the ghetto, and help achieve the aspirations of the day. We too would break on through to the other side by abandoning traditional limitations and disciplines, and achieve unity with God and man by lending a sympathetic ear to every demand. That would somehow bring on a new Pentecost.

The result was a denatured Church, and Catholics whose way of life is indistinguishable from that of their secular counterparts. Some people still insist on calling that progress, but it’s obvious that something has gone wrong. People talk of “changing the culture,” and that’s evidently needed. What that means first and foremost, though, is changing our own culture: the system of goals, habits, standards, and understandings by which we live as Catholics.

The most basic political and social problems must be dealt with through what precedes politics and society, so we must work from the inside out, starting with knowledge of ultimate things. On that view, the logical sequence for Catholics is first doctrine, then faith, then purity of heart, and then reform of conduct, starting with what is most immediately at hand.

It’s solid advice, because it means we start with what’s real rather than what we happen to believe, want, and do. The world of the Sixties was based on rejection of transcendent realities and their relevance to life here and now. What counted was what could be seen and manipulated, and the goal was to remake the world on the model of television. It would become a kaleidoscope of images, sensations, and connections chosen and reshuffled at will. To get beyond that sterile outlook we must reject the fantasized Paradise Now to which it aspires, and put what is central back where it belongs: first God, and then man and the world as God made them.

There are writers who can give much better advice than I on the heart of that process, the growth of a sense of God’s nature and reality, and personal transformation in view of those things. There are, however, ancillary issues that deserve comment. As I noted in the last article in this series, the upheaval of the Sixties was not a random outburst of willfulness but the outcome of a long development toward what might be called an industrial form of life. Instead of living by patterns reflecting nature and custom, and oriented toward goals higher than desire, we’d have a single overall system rationally designed to maximize equal preference satisfaction. Instead of kings and popes we’d have expert committees and regulated global markets, and instead of family life we’d have careers, contraceptives, and social services.

That development reflects developments in the accepted understanding of reason—that is, of what at bottom makes sense. Modernity tells us that what we can know is what we can see, measure, and predict. We don’t have that kind of knowledge regarding God and natural law, so God and natural law—the nature of things, insofar as it is a guide to what we should do—stopped counting as realities that should be taken into account. What counted as knowable was what we want and the most effective means of getting it. The result was that reason became identified with technology, and the managed, bureaucratized, and commercialized society now perfecting itself around us became the sole form of social life considered rational.

That way of life divorces us from realities transcending sensation and desire. If you mention them you’re saying something incomprehensible, irrelevant, and very likely disruptive. We Catholics absorb what’s around us, so that situation is a stumbling block, and to get by it we need to inculcate in ourselves a broader conception of knowledge and reason that has room not only for the measurable and desired but for the good, beautiful, and true. That means a reform of Catholic education, public discussion, and intellectual life generally. As Confucius says, we must correct what we believe about the world and reform our way of thinking accordingly, and then we will be in a position to deal with the world as we should. The Sixties began among intellectuals and in the schools, and to overcome them we must return to those settings and transform them.

James Kalb


James Kalb is a lawyer, independent scholar, and Catholic convert who lives in Brooklyn, New York. He is the author of The Tyranny of Liberalism: Understanding and Overcoming Administered Freedom, Inquisitorial Tolerance, and Equality by Command (ISI Books, 2008), and, most recently, Against Inclusiveness: How the Diversity Regime is Flattening America and the West and What to Do About It (Angelico Press, 2013).

  • Excellent article! Returning to the idea of a Catholic education and worldview is key. As a “product” of twelve years of deprograming in Catholic schools during the sixties and seventies, I refuse to allow that lack of Truth to prevail. The only confirmed way to ensure Catholic family life and a Catholic perspective is to be doctrinally informed, faith driven, with a purity of heart. How is that accomplished? The only answer is Catholic homeschooling.

    • Ford Oxaal

      That’s our strategy through elementary school, and then we send them to a classical Christian school. There they encounter Orthodox, Calvinist, Pentecostal, etc. They get to know their Catholic faith by debating the others. Friendship first, debating second. They have a contest, for example, where the Catholics argue the Luther side, and the Protestants argue the Erasmus side. They discuss free will, merit, predestination, philosophy, etc. Great stuff. They are learning their stuff inside and out. Meanwhile, at the Catholic school, it’s a culture of hiked up skirts and handhelds. No Latin. The NYS Regents curriculum. The Catholic families are lukewarm — barely Christian. Calcification.

      • Tout

        OXAAL Catholics must wake up. I think, the bishops are at fault. I always receive H.Host on tongue. God wants to come in us, not in our hands. Luckily the FSSP keeps growing. They do only the Tridentine(Latin) Mass as before 1963, have communion-rail to kneel on, give on tongue; The TFP very active in America. I started yearly May-procession to church for Mary-crowning. Prayed openly at downtown Mary-statue,twice a month,and hang sign “Whether glad, sad or wary, pause a while, say a Hail Mary”. 2004,visit Turnhout(Belgium),prayed at Sacred Heart statue, It was in very bad shape. Back in Canada, wrote to 100+people & the Mayor there, the statue needed repairs. Was fully repaired in 2006. And other acts in public. Yes, we must live our Fath. Please, receive on tongue. Jesus wants to come in you, not in your unblessed hands.

    • Tout

      As a young man I decided that I would only marry a girl with the same faith. I did and am very glad that I did.

    • Craig

      I agree-unless you can find a traditional Catholic school.

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  • Just Me

    “The Sixties wanted Paradise Now: a paradise that ignores the distant and difficult in favor of the immediate and effortless. ”

    There was plenty wrong with the sixties, but there was also idealism and a hard-won, long-term fight to overcome Jim Crow in the south. The “distant and difficult” were energetically attacked when it would have been much easier to look the other way. The fight for women’s rights and civil rights took great dedication and commitment. As for Vietnam, many who were not drafted and had nothing to gain personally fought long and hard against a war they believed to be immoral and illegal. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” It was the twenties and the fifties that were more frivolous and materialistic.

    • Idealism is all very well but it depends on what the idea is. The point of the piece is that the ideas of the Sixties were bad and their results have been bad. General opposition to distinctions and restraints means you’ll get rid of some bad things but it doesn’t mean you’re bringing a better future.

      Specifically: if the Sixties were great beneficial racial turning point it’s hard to know why crime shot up and families fell apart in black communities. It’s also hard to know why black economic progress, which had been going on for decades, stopped dead by the mid-70s.

      Last time I looked, 78% of births to American-born blacks are out of wedlock, and on in every eight black men in their twenties is in jail. If the big achievement of the Sixties was to put things on a better track for minorities there can’t be much that was good about the period.

      As for women’s rights–abortion, contraception, and the right to be a single mom scraping by waitressing instead of a wife and mother don’t seem like such great advances to me. Judging by surveys of reported happiness they don’t seem to be working out that well for most women either.

      I’d add that the various “hard won” fights of the Sixties were mostly a matter of media events, and they were won because they fell in line with what people at the top wanted. There were indeed dedicated people, but it was the temper of the times and the power of the media rather than their dedication that explains what happened.

      How do you think the dedication of Sixties activists compares with the dedication of pro-life activists today? How much coverage does the annual pro-life march in Washington DC get?

      • Brian

        Are you saying that EVERY SINGLE idea of liberalism is bad? If not, then what?

        • The basic principle of putting freedom and equality first, and not what is good, is a bad principle and leads to bad results. As I note in the first paragraph of my comment a bad principle can have some good consequences but it’s misleading to concentrate on them.

          • Brian

            Are you saying that freedom and equality are evil? Are you saying that authoritarianism and silencing are the way to go? Is that the conclusion?

            • No. I am saying freedom and equality are not the highest standards. That is not the same as saying they are evil.

              • handyandy2@optonline.net

                Well Said Sir, I lived those years myself and fought in Vietnam. I always wondered about those supposed antiwar people. When they’d get themselves in a jam with the law over their anti war activities, the first thing they did was run fr a lawyer. I figured if i believed as they did, I’d go to jail and tell the courts to go to h*ll. Didn’t seem they were so dedicated to me.
                As for the black people, unfortuneately, they were fooled by a bunch of people who didn’t have their best interests at heart. Now this technological society has passed them by and they have no future here. It’s a very bad situation for them.

            • Ford Oxaal

              What do you mean by equality? Equal opportunity for all? Or equal bank accounts for all?

        • Ford Oxaal

          Liberals won a long time ago. They won the Republic. Now we need to *conserve* the Republic. We need conservatives (to *conserve* the Republic). But that requires stable, intact families breeding virtue. Instead we are a divided and conquered people — divorced — wallowing in the vice du jour — unhinged, monkeys pressing buttons on handheld hypnotizing machines. We are ruled by corporate masters who have bought and sold our government ten times over. We are heading toward totalitarianism. Liberal now means statist commissar. Liberal no longer means free. The wheel of politics spins back to statism and centralized rule.

          • Tout

            Besides Liberal, Republic, etc, have you ever thought of God ?

            • Ford Oxaal

              Yes, He told me to write that.

              • Tout

                Very good. I keep ‘doing’ and ‘praying’. I fear, too many people don’t care.

      • David

        “. The point of the piece is that the ideas of the Sixties were bad and their results have been bad. ”

        So are you claiming that the ideas of Martin Luther King Jr. were “bad”? If so, that is incredibly racist! So you really want African-Americans to have to give up their seats of buses to whites? How about feminism? Do you really think women should earn less than men for the same work, should expect to be sexually harassed in the workplace, and should be denied the expression of their gifts? The advances in equality made in terms of freedom and equality for minorities and women have been good thins. You are throwing the baby out with the bath water. Sexual irresponsibility was not the result of feminism and racism, but you are attempting to hold the spirit of freedom and equality responsible for it. What is bad about the sixties is the mean-spirited backlash to it, displayed in your own article, that has hurt the advancement of minorities and women. In spite of that, we now have many more women and minority lawyers, doctors, accountants, academics, community leaders, and engineers than we had in the sixties. We also have much greater cultural sensitivity to the abuse and degradation of women. Is this something that, as a white man, you resent? I would hope that nobody is so mean-spirited as to envy the success of formerly down-trodden groups.

    • Brian

      Thank you. Thank you very much. I originally started typing a long series of rhetorical questions about what a total rejection of liberalism means for flesh-and-blood humans. I have been asking difficult questions in recent years about the implications of the Catholic Faith in recent years. Does embracing the Catholic Faith in a large scale mean going back to authoritarianism, destitution, pestilence, primitivism, tribalism, silencing, and extermination? I trust that it does not–In fact, I trust that it can lead to the contrary–but I am still searching for HARD evidence, not nostalgic anti-modernist talking-points. Pray for me as I continue searching for truth and goodness.

      • Tout

        BRIAN Please continue searching. Think. First the beginning. Many say “In the beginning,there was nothing. Then ..” Then what ? ‘Nothing’ stays nothing ! If there was nothing, there still would be nothing. How could anything happen, like the Big Bang, or anything ? Nothing stays ‘Nothing’ ! That points to: something had no beginning, existed always. Now we have ‘something’ to start from. This ‘something’ had no beginning, will have no end. Now I can see that all the rest is possible. Judging by all that was ‘created’ by ‘something’, this ‘something’ must have a tremendous knowledge and power. I call this something: GOD. How does God look like, I wouldn’t know. But God presented Himself a few times in a human shape. So we present Him under the shape of a man. He created. He created the worlds, plants, animals, and finally the first humans: Adam & Eve. We can learn what followed. But search for the beginning. All that exists can only come from something that had no beginning. And it (God) will have no end either. I don’t say; belief me. I say; do your own serious thinking. Dare to accept this: you can not find that anything came from nothing. Then ease, God did not create out of hate. He created out of love. Too bad what Adam & Eve did. Humans were driven out of Heaven. After many years, God, again out of love, sent his Son, to open Heaven again. We can again be worth to enter Heaven. We are not forced to enter, one can choose going to hell. It’s our own choice. God will judge how we recognize, honor Him, use our ‘freedom’. Please, start your knowledge: “the beginning”. I’ll say a prayer for you. (Too bad,I don’t know much about Internet. Don’t know how to keep contact. Am I allowed to give my email address ? I’ll keep this for a while)

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  • Flavius

    @ Brian

    ” Does embracing the Catholic Faith in a large scale mean going back to authoritarianism, destitution, pestilence, primitivism, tribalism, silencing, and extermination? ”

    In the spirit of charity, I suggest that you are in need of a liberal education. If you believe what your question implies, you have been made over by the zeitgeist and need to start from a defensible understanding of history. You have a lot of work ahead.

    @ Just Me

    Sorry, but the idealism of sixties didn’t end Jim Crow, either in the South or in Boston; and there were many who fought in Vietnam with nothing to gain personally who believed they were doing the right thing, morally and legally. As to the former, history does often work through bursts of moral fervor and hasn’t in the painfully long dying of Jim Crow; as to the latter, I was unaware that the Vietnam war as such had been scored morally to distinguish it from other good wars. It would be useful to know the criteria employed.
    @ James Kalb
    Excellent Article. I have frequently wondered how our generation produced a time for the succeeding generations so full of rot, and so at cross purposes empirically at what it had hoped to accomplish. A simple ride onto the government reservations of Newark, Camden, or Detroit will offer all the evidence one needs to refute the mush that the ‘helping’ bureacracies dish out as to their efficacy.

    • Ford Oxaal

      Bravo. If you are a bit too young, you just can’t know how good the world was pre-60’s — how precious even the small remains of Christendom were. You could hitchhike without being abducted as a torture slave, you could let your kids walk to school without worry, the porn industry wasn’t on every kids handheld, everybody went to church on Sunday, you didn’t have to work your Walmart job on Sunday, the states each had their own flavor instead of one giant strip mall, things were made in America, we had a closed economy, immigration was pre-Ted Kennedy insanity, many movies were wholesome and had character, people had these things called families, there were parties, socializing… “And then the Borg came” (Malcolm McDowell, some Star Trek movie) — it’s a post-Christian wasteland, garbage culture, materialist beasts wading through gigantic mounds of plastic/electronic junk on Black Friday and every other day, two working parents, outsourced ‘parenting’, twelve year old girls dressed like tramps by their parents, and worst of all, political correct, drone-like thinking — and no cocktails. I recommend the country re-discover whiskey and maybe we can overthrow our corporate masters and re-discover Christianity and family life.

      • Brian

        What about Jim Crow and the ideas animating Jim Crow? Also, are you saying that modern humans are actually beasts and drones?

        • Ford Oxaal

          No, but they need to try to make eye contact once in a while. On race, blacks were on their way up with Christianity. Here’s the deal — the black family was destroyed by slavery. The key is the black family. This is not going to be fixed by snake oil peddlers buying your vote. So here’s my rant: as blacks began to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps after winning de-segregation, along come their supposed buddies, the Democrats — the wolves in sheep’s clothing who have all the answers on the macro level, and who spread their collectivist idiocy like a virus — getting your money and your vote all the way to the bank. The Democrats, the party of slavery, the party of snake oil, and now the party of abortion — which BTW is disproportionately against the black race (read genocidal), — broke up the black family with their heinous, racist (race based) programs, which strike at the very heart of human dignity. Their fruits: instead of picking cotton, black youths are doing jail time. Out of the frying pan and into the fire. Yeah, thanks Uncle Sam, you stupid “do-gooder”. The family is the only way forward for any race — there is no reason with proper incentives why anybody who wants to (if the government didn’t come along and undermine the effort) can build up a family in three generations. And on top of the diabolic idiocy, the FCC, semi-state controlled media (ABC, NBC, and CBS) to this day shoots down any black person who dares stand
          up for principles of human dignity. There is one hope for this country politically in my opinion: Christian conservative black leaders who start a new party and finally break through the near-satanic media barrier, and destroy the secularist world view that completely dominates our media and our judiciary. If they can break through and get a voice, they will find they are sitting on top of a huge pile of political capital.

          • Brian

            What about the Southern Strategy? What about politicians who play footsie with the notorious Council of Conservative Citizens? What about stereotypes of blacks as parasitic thugs? What about the ideas animating Jim Crow?

            • Ford Oxaal

              The Republicans nip around the heels of evil, but the Democrats found the ace in the hole of corrupt politics: the brazen, out in the open, vote purchase. Shove it right in their faces. Let it control the conversation. There is nothing more corrosive than this. The hard, cold, cash handout.

            • Tout

              BRIAN What do you DO to improve our lives ?

          • Tout

            Return to God. In any color. Too few dare. I always make sign of cross before meals, also in restaurant. Just one example of my evangelizing in public, without preaching.

  • Pretty cute to accuse the 60s of “ignoring conflict” and favoring the “effortless” under a photo of 60s people being BEATEN BY THE POLICE. Because everybody knows that risking your body to protest a war is just a cover for mindless hedonism.

  • W.E.B. Dubois

    “Joseph Stalin was a great man; few other men of the 20th century approach his stature. He was simple, calm and courageous. He seldom lost his poise; pondered his problems slowly, made his decisions clearly and firmly; never yielded to ostentation nor coyly refrained from holding his rightful place with dignity…

    He was attacked and slandered as few men of power have been; yet he seldom lost his courtesy and balance…Such was the man who lies dead, still the butt of noisy jackals and of the ill-bred men of some parts of the distempered West.”

    • Tout

      DUBOIS You must be kidding.

  • What people also don’t realize is that even the sixties weren’t the sixties in full ugly flower. The flower came later.
    A student just asked me last night about growing up black in Philadelphia — he’d been assigned a book on it by his sociology professor. Now here’s the thing. Philadelphia is a hell-hole. Everybody in Pennsylvania knows this. It’s our Detroit, though not quite as bad. But Philadelphia was not a hell-hole in 1940 or 1950. Why not? Racism was worse then, no question. Yet somehow Philadelphia was a nice place to grow up in, back then. Bill Cosby’s comedy routines are all about growing up in Philadelphia. A close friend of mine who died last year grew up in the city in those same years — quite poor, but happy, and he enjoyed the freedom of the city and all the towns around it. So what happened? The sexual revolution happened, and the collapse of the black family, followed by the collapse of lower class families generally, and now blue collar families generally.
    As late as 1968, if you’re attending the World Series in St. Louis, in early October, with the temperature in the nineties and humid, you are wearing a dress if you’re a woman, and a white shirt, even a white shirt and tie, if you are a man. Check out the film of Game 1 of that series (Gibson’s 17 strikeout performance). As late as 1968, there were many millions of ordinary American people who had never once uttered any of the fifty common obscenities of our day, who had never seen a porno magazine, who never used an illegal drug, and who had never had sexual intercourse outside of marriage. By then, they might have been considered a little old-fashioned, but they were there.
    I have a hard time now even listening to the music I liked when I was young, because I know where it all led, and can see the miseries in the seed and the seedlings and the young trees. I won’t ever be able to cleanse from my memory the music of that demonic genius Morrison, blaring in my ears while I was shooting pool in the upstairs of my eating club at Princeton — lonely, angry, destructive, and reinforcing everything that was selfish in me, which was plenty already.

    • Flavius

      When I was a child, growing up in Manhattan in the 50’s, on Sunday afternoons my father would drive my mother and six children to my grandfather’s home on Loring Place in the West Bronx. On Sunday evenings, after it had become dark, he drove us home down Broadway through Harlem. There was de facto segregation in New York; many inequalities described the circumstances of the races, but also many equalities, such as having to do with religion and comittment to the integrity of the family and the neighborhood. When the Capeman and the Umbrella man mistakenly killed two teenagers in a Hell’s Kitchen Park, the details dominated the news for days. The year was 1959. New York was a hard place. Yet, a white family of eight could drive through the heart of Harlem at night.

      I would only ask that, in the accounting of victories won in the War on Poverty to achieve a Great Society for All Americans regardless of Race, some attention be accorded as to how it all turned out on the mean streets of Harlem, Newark, Detroit, Asbury Park, Camden. No. I would ask one thing more. I would ask the Big Thinkers to drive into Newark some night down South Orange Avenue and come back to explain to me how in the name of God they can be so smug and righteous over what the idealists of the 1960’s brought into actual being.