Decivilization in the 1960s
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For all the lags and mismatches between the historical trajectories of the United States and Europe, they did undergo one trend in synchrony: their rates of violence did a U-turn in the 1960s. Figure one, Homicide rates in five western European countries 1300-2000, shows that European countries underwent a bounce in homicide rates that brought them back to levels they had said goodbye to a century before.
And figure two, Homicide rates in US and England 1900-2000, shows that in the 1960s the homicide rate in America went through the roof.
After a three-decade free fall that spanned the Great Depression, World War II, and the Cold War, Americans multiplied their homicide rate by more than two and a half, from a low of 4.0 in 1957 to a high of 10.2 in 1980 (U.S. Bureau of Statistics; Fox and Zawitz: 2007). The upsurge included every other category of major crime as well, including rape, assault, robbery, and theft, and lasted (with ups and downs) for three decades. The cities got particularly dangerous, especially New York, which became a symbol of the new criminality. Though the surge in violence affected all the races and both genders, it was most dramatic among black men, whose annual homicide rate had shot up by the mid-1980s to 72 per 100,000.
The flood of violence from the 1960s through the 1980s reshaped American culture, the political scene, and everyday life. Mugger jokes became a staple of comedians, with mentions of Central Park getting an instant laugh as a well-known death trap. New Yorkers imprisoned themselves in their apartments with batteries of latches and deadbolts, including the popular “police lock,” a steel bar with one end anchored in the floor and the other propped up against the door. The section of downtown Boston not far from where I now live was called the Combat Zone because of its endemic muggings and stabbings. Urbanites quit other American cities in droves, leaving burned-out cores surrounded by rings of suburbs, exurbs, and gated communities. Books, movies and television series used intractable urban violence as their backdrop, including Little Murders, Taxi Driver, The Warriors, Escape from New York, Fort Apache the Bronx, Hill Street Blues, and Bonfire of the Vanities. Women enrolled in self-defense courses to learn how to walk with a defiant gait, to use their keys, pencils, and spike heels as weapons, and to execute karate chops or jujitsu throws to overpower an attacker, role-played by a volunteer in a Michelin-man-tire suit. Red-bereted Guardian Angels patrolled the parks and the mass transit system, and in 1984 Bernhard Goetz, a mild-mannered engineer, became a folk hero for shooting four young muggers in a New York subway car. A fear of crime helped elect decades of conservative politicians, including Richard Nixon in 1968 with his “Law and Order” platform (overshadowing the Vietnam War as a campaign issue); George H. W. Bush in 1988 with his insinuation that Michael Dukakis, as governor of Massachusetts, had approved a prison furlough program that had released a rapist; and many senators and congressmen who promised to “get tough on crime.” Though the popular reaction was overblown—far more people are killed every year in car accidents than in homicides, especially among those who don’t get into arguments with young men in bars—the sense that violent crime had multiplied was not a figment of their imaginations.
The rebounding of violence in the 1960s defied every expectation. The decade was a time of unprecedented economic growth, nearly full employment, levels of economic equality for which people today are nostalgic, historic racial progress, and the blossoming of government social programs, not to mention medical advances that made victims more likely to survive being shot or knifed. Social theorists in 1962 would have happily bet that these fortunate conditions would lead to a continuing era of low crime. And they would have lost their shirts.
Why did the Western world embark on a three-decade binge of crime from which it has never fully recovered? This is one of several local reversals of the long-term decline of violence that I will examine in this book. If the analysis is on the right track, then the historical changes I have been invoking to explain the decline should have gone into reverse at the time of the surges.
An obvious place to look is demographics. The 1940s and 1950s, when crime rates hugged the floor, were the great age of marriage. Americans got married in numbers not seen before or since, which removed men from the streets and planted them in suburbs (Courtwright 1996). One consequence was a bust in violence. But the other was a boom in babies. The first baby boomers, born in 1946, entered their crime-prone years in 1961; the ones born in the peak year, 1954, entered in 1969. A natural conclusion is that the crime boom was an echo of the baby boom. Unfortunately, the numbers don’t add up. If it were just a matter of there being more teenagers and twenty-somethings who were committing crimes at their usual rates, the increase in crime from 1960 to 1970 would have been 13 percent, not 135 percent. Young men weren’t simply more numerous than their predecessors; they were more violent, too.
Many criminologists have concluded that the 1960s crime surge cannot be explained by the usual socioeconomic variables but was caused in large part by a change in cultural norms. Of course, to escape the logical circle in which people are said to be violent because they live in a violent culture, it’s necessary to identify an exogenous cause for the cultural change. The political scientist James Q. Wilson has argued that demographics were an important trigger after all, not because of the absolute numbers of young people but because of their relative numbers. He makes the point by commenting on a quotation from the demographer Norman Ryder:
There is a perennial invasion of barbarians who must somehow be civilized and turned into contributors to fulfillment of the various functions requisite to societal survival.” That ‘invasion’ is the coming of age of a new generation of young people. Every society copes with this enormous socialization process more or less successfully, but occasionally that process is literally swamped by a quantitative discontinuity in the number of persons involved . . . In 1950 and still in 1960 the ‘invading army’ (those aged fourteen to twenty-four) were outnumbered three to one by the size of the ‘defending army’ (those aged twenty-five to sixty-four). By 1970 the ranks of the former had grown so fast that they were only outnumbered two to one by the latter, a state of affairs that had not existed since 1910.
Subsequent analyses showed that this explanation is not, by itself, satisfactory. Age cohorts that are larger than their predecessors do not, in general, commit more crimes. But I think Wilson was on to something when he linked the 1960s crime boom to a kind of intergenerational de-civilizing process. In many ways the new generation tried to push back against the eight-century movement described by Norbert Elias.
The baby boomers were unusual (I know, we baby boomers are always saying we’re unusual) in sharing an emboldening sense of solidarity, as if their generation were an ethnic group or a nation. (A decade later it was pretentiously referred to as “Woodstock Nation.”) Not only did they outnumber the older generation, but thanks to new electronic media, they felt the strength of their numbers. The baby boomers were the first generation to grow up with television. And television, especially in the three-network era, allowed them to know that other baby boomers were sharing their experiences, and to know that the others knew that they knew. This common knowledge, as economists and logicians call it, gave rise to a horizontal web of solidarity that cut across the vertical ties to parents and authorities that had formerly isolated young people from one another and forced them to kowtow to their elders Pinker, 2007b: chapter 8; Chwe 2001). Much like a disaffected population that feels its strength only when it assembles at a rally, baby boomers saw other young people like themselves in the audience of The Ed Sullivan Show grooving on the Rolling Stones and knew that every other young person in America was grooving at the same time, and knew that the others knew that they knew.
The baby boomers were bonded by another new technology of solidarity, first marketed by an obscure Japanese company called Sony: the transistor radio. The parents of today who complain about the iPods and cell phones that are soldered onto the ears of teenagers forget that their own parents made the same complaint about them and their transistor radios. I can still remember the thrill of tuning in to signals from New York radio stations bouncing off the late-night ionosphere into my bedroom in Montreal, listening to Motown and Dylan and the British invasion and psychedelia and feeling that something was happening here, but Mr. Jones didn’t know what it was.
A sense of solidarity among fifteen-to-thirty-year-olds would be a menace to civilized society even in the best of times. But this decivilizing process was magnified by a trend that had been gathering momentum throughout the 20th century. The sociologist Cas Wouters, a translator and intellectual heir of Elias, has argued that after the European Civilizing Process had run its course, it was superseded by an informalizing process. The Civilizing Process had been a flow of norms and manners from the upper classes downward. But as Western countries became more democratic, the upper classes became increasingly discredited as moral paragons, and hierarchies of taste and manners were leveled. The informalization affected the way people dressed, as they abandoned hats, gloves, ties, and dresses for casual sportswear. It affected the language, as people started to address their friends with first names instead of Mr. and Mrs. and Miss. And it could be seen in countless other ways in which speech and demeanor became less mannered and more spontaneous. The stuffy high-society lady, like the Margaret Dumont character in the Marx Brothers movies, became a target of ridicule rather than emulation.
After having been steadily beaten down by the informalizing process, the elites then suffered a second hit to their legitimacy. The civil rights movement had exposed a moral blot on the American establishment, and as critics shone a light on other parts of society, more stains came into view. Among them were the threat of a nuclear holocaust, the pervasiveness of poverty, the mistreatment of Native Americans, the many illiberal military interventions, particularly the Vietnam War, and later the despoliation of the environment and the oppression of women and homosexuals. The stated enemy of the Western establishment, Marxism, gained prestige as it made inroads in third-world ‘liberation’ movements, and it was increasingly embraced by bohemians and fashionable intellectuals. Surveys of popular opinion from the 1960s through the 1990s showed a plummeting of trust in every social institution (Fukuyama 1999).
The leveling of hierarchies and the harsh scrutiny of the power structure were unstoppable and in many ways desirable. But one of the side effects was to undermine the prestige of aristocratic and bourgeois lifestyles that had, over the course of several centuries, become less violent than those of the working class and underclass. Instead of values trickling down from the court, they bubbled up from the street, a process that was later called ‘proletarianization’ and ‘defining deviancy down.’
These currents pushed against the civilizing tide in ways that were celebrated in the era’s popular culture. The backsliding, to be sure, did not originate in the two prime movers of Elias’s Civilizing Process. Government control did not retreat into anarchy, as it had in the American West and in newly independent third-world countries, nor did an economy based on commerce and specialization give way to feudalism and barter. But the next step in Elias’s sequence – the psychological change toward greater self-control and interdependence – came under steady assault in the counterculture of the generation that came of age in the 1960s.
A prime target was the inner governor of civilized behavior, self-control. Spontaneity, self-expression, and a defiance of inhibitions became cardinal virtues. ‘If it feels good, do it,’ commanded a popular lapel button. Do It was the title of a book by the political agitator Jerry Rubin. ‘Do It ’Til You’re Satisfied (Whatever it Is)’ was the refrain of a popular song by BT Express. The body was elevated over the mind: Keith Richards boasted, ‘Rock and roll is music from the neck downwards.’ And adolescence was elevated over adulthood: ‘Don’t trust anyone over thirty,’ advised the agitator Abbie Hoffman; ‘Hope I die before I get old,’ sang The Who in ‘My Generation.’ Sanity was denigrated, and psychosis romanticized, in movies such as A Fine Madness, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, King of Hearts, and Outrageous. And then of course there were the drugs.
Another target of the counterculture was the ideal that individuals should be embedded in webs of dependency that obligate them to other people in stable economies and organizations. If you wanted an image that contradicted this ideal as starkly as possible, it might be a rolling stone. Originally from a song by Muddy Waters, the image resonated with the times so well that it lent itself to three icons of the culture: the rock group, the magazine, and the famous song by Bob Dylan (in which he taunts an upper-class woman who has become homeless). ‘Tune in, turn on, drop out,’ the motto of onetime Harvard psychology instructor Timothy Leary, became a watchword of the psychdelia movement. The idea of coordinating one’s interests with others in a job was treated as selling out. As Dylan put it:
Elias had written that the demands of self-control and the embedding of the self into webs of interdependence were historically reflected in the development of timekeeping devices and a consciousness of time: ‘This is why tendencies in the individual so often rebel against social time as represented by his or her super-ego, and why so many people come into conflict with themselves when they wish to be punctual’ (Elias 1939/2000: 380). In the opening scene of the 1969 movie Easy Rider, Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda conspicuously toss their wristwatches into the dirt before setting off on their motorcycles to find America. In a similar vein, the first album by the band Chicago (when they were known as the Chicago Transit Authority) contains the lyrics ‘Does anybody really know what time it is? Does anybody really care? If so I can’t imagine why.’ All this made sense to me when I was sixteen, and so I discarded my own Timex. When my grandmother saw my naked wrist, she was incredulous: ‘How can you be a mensch without a zager?’ She ran to a drawer and pulled out a Seiko she had bought during a visit to the 1970 World’s Fair in Osaka. I have it to this day.
Together with self-control and societal connectedness, a third ideal came under attack: marriage and family life, which had done so much to domesticate male violence in the preceding decades. The idea that a man and a woman should devote their energies to a monogamous relationship in which they raise their children in a safe environment became a target of howling ridicule. That life was now the soulless, conformist, consumerist, materialist, ticky-tacky, plastic, white-bread, Ozzie and Harriet suburban wasteland.
I don’t remember anyone in the 1960s blowing his nose into a tablecloth, but popular culture did celebrate the flouting of standards of cleanliness, propriety, and sexual continence. The hippies were popularly perceived as unwashed and malodorous, which in my experience was a calumny. But there’s no disputing that they rejected conventional standards of grooming, and an enduring image from Woodstock was of naked concert-goers frolicking in the mud. One could trace the reversal of conventions of propriety on album covers alone. There was The Who Sell Out, with a sauce-dribbling Roger Daltrey immersed in a bath of baked beans; the Beatles’ Yesterday and Today, with the lovable moptops adorned with chunks of raw meat and decapitated dolls (quickly recalled); the Rolling Stones’ Beggars Banquet, with a photo of a filthy public toilet (originally censored); and Who’s Next, in which the four musicians are shown zipping up their flies while walking away from a urine-spattered wall. The flouting of propriety extended to famous live performances, as when Jimi Hendrix pretended to copulate with his amplifier at the Monterey Pop Festival.
Throwing away your wristwatch or bathing in baked beans is, of course, a far cry from committing actual violence. The 1960s were supposed to be the era of peace and love, and so they were in some respects. But the glorification of dissoluteness shaded into an indulgence of violence and then into violence itself. At the end of every concert, The Who famously smashed their instruments to smithereens, which could be dismissed as harmless theater were it not for the fact that drummer Keith Moon also destroyed dozens of hotel rooms; partly deafened Pete Townshend by detonating his drums on stage; beat up his wife, girlfriend, and daughter; threatened to injure the hands of a keyboardist of the Faces for dating his ex-wife; and accidentally killed his bodyguard by running over him with his car before dying himself in 1978 of the customary drug overdose.
Personal violence was sometimes celebrated in song, as if it were just another form of antiestablishment protest. In 1964, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas sang ‘Summer’s here and the time is right for dancing in the street.’ Four years later the Rolling Stones replied that the time was right for fighting in the street. As part of their ‘satanic majesty’ and ‘sympathy for the devil,’ the Stones had a theatrical ten-minute song, ‘Midnight Rambler,’ which acted out a rape-murder by the Boston Strangler, ending with the lines, ‘I’m gonna smash down on your plate-glass window / Put a fist, put a fist through your steel-plated door / I’ll . . . stick . . . my . . . knife . . . right . . . down . . . your . . . throat!’ The affectation of rock musicians to treat every thug and serial killer as a dashing ‘rebel’ or ‘outlaw’ was satirized in This Is Spinal Tap when the band speaks of their plans to write a rock musical based on the life of Jack the Ripper. (Chorus: ‘You’re a naughty one, Saucy Jack!’)
Less than four months after Woodstock, the Rolling Stones held a free concert at the Altamont Speedway in California, for which the organizers had hired the Hell’s Angels, romanticized at the time as ‘outlaw brothers of the counterculture,’ to provide security. The atmosphere at the concert (and perhaps the 1960s) is captured in this description from Wikipedia:
A huge circus performer weighing over 350 pounds and hallucinating on LSD stripped naked and ran berserk through the crowd toward the stage, knocking guests in all directions, prompting a group of Angels to leap from the stage and club him unconscious. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Talk%3AAltamont_Free_Concert)
No citation is needed for what happened next, since it was captured in the documentary Gimme Shelter. A Hell’s Angel beat up the guitarist of Jefferson Airplane on stage, Mick Jagger ineffectually tried to calm the increasingly obstreperous mob, and a young man in the audience, apparently after pulling a gun, was stabbed to death by another Angel.
When rock music burst onto the scene in the 1950s, politicians and clergymen vilified it for corrupting morals and encouraging lawlessness. (An amusing video reel of fulminating fogies can be seen in Cleveland’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum.) Do we now have to – gulp – admit they were right? Can we connect the values of 1960s popular culture to the actual rise in violent crimes that accompanied them? Not directly, of course. Correlation is not causation, and a third factor, the pushback against the values of the Civilizing Process, presumably caused both the changes in popular culture and the increase in violent behavior. Also, the overwhelming majority of baby boomers committed no violence whatsoever. Still, attitudes and popular culture surely reinforce each other, and at the margins, where susceptible individuals and subcultures can be buffeted one way or another, there are plausible causal arrows from the decivilizing mindset to the facilitation of actual violence.
One of them was a self-handicapping of the criminal justice Leviathan. Though rock musicians seldom influence public policy directly, writers and intellectuals do, and they got caught up in the zeitgeist and began to rationalize the new licentiousness. Marxism made violent class conflict seem like a route to a better world. Influential thinkers like Herbert Marcuse and Paul Goodman tried to merge Marxism or anarchism with a new interpretation of Freud that connected sexual and emotional repression to political repression and championed a release from inhibitions as part of the revolutionary struggle. Troublemakers were increasingly seen as rebels and nonconformists, or as victims of racism, poverty, and bad parenting. Graffiti vandals were now ‘artists,’ thieves were ‘class warriors,’ and neighborhood hooligans were ‘community leaders.’ Many smart people, intoxicated by radical chic, did incredibly stupid things. Graduates of elite universities built bombs to be set off at army social functions, or drove getaway cars while ‘radicals’ shot guards during armed robberies. New York intellectuals were conned by Marxobabble-spouting psychopaths into lobbying for their release from prison (Pinker 2002: 261–262).
In the interval between the onset of the sexual revolution of the early 1960s and the rise of feminism in the 1970s, the control of women’s sexuality was seen as a perquisite of sophisticated men. Boasts of sexual coercion and jealous violence appeared in popular novels and films and in the lyrics of rock songs such as the Beatles’ ‘Run for Your Life,’ Neil Young’s ‘Down by the River,’ Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Hey Joe,’ and Ronnie Hawkins’s ‘Who Do you Love?’It was even rationalized in “revolutionary” political writings, such as Eldridge Cleaver’s bestselling 1968 memoir Soul on Ice, in which the Black Panther leader wrote:
Rape was an insurrectionary act. It delighted me that I was defying and trampling upon the white man’s law, upon his system of values, and that I was defiling his women—and this point, I believe, was the most satisfying to me because I was very resentful over the historical fact of how the white man has used the black woman. I felt I was getting revenge.
Somehow the interests of the women who were defiled in this insurrectionary act never figured into his political principles, nor into the critical reaction to the book (New York Times: ‘Brilliant and revealing’; The Nation: ‘A remarkable book . . . beautifully written’; Atlantic Monthly: ‘An intelligent and turbulent and passionate and eloquent man’).
As the rationalizations for criminality caught the attention of judges and legislators, they became increasingly reluctant to put miscreants behind bars. Though the civil liberties reform of the era did not lead to nearly as many vicious criminals ‘going free on a technicality’ as the Dirty Harry movies would suggest, law enforcement was indeed retreating as the crime rate was advancing. In the United States from 1962 to 1979, the likelihood that a crime would lead to an arrest dropped from 0.32 to 0.18, the likelihood that an arrest would lead to imprisonment dropped from 0.32 to 0.14, and the likelihood that a crime would lead to imprisonment fell from 0.10 to 0.02, a factor of five.
Even more calamitous than the return of hoodlums to the street was the mutual disengagement between law enforcement and communities and the resulting deterioration of neighborhood life. Offenses against civil order like vagrancy, loitering, and panhandling were decriminalized, and minor crimes like vandalism, graffiti-spraying, turnstile-jumping, and urinating in public fell off the police radar screens 9Fukuyama, 1999). Thanks to intermittently effective antipsychotic drugs and a change in attitudes toward deviance, the wards of mental hospitals were emptied, which multiplied the ranks of the homeless. Shopkeepers and citizens with a stake in the neighborhood, who otherwise would have kept an eye out for local misbehavior, eventually surrendered to the vandals, panhandlers, and muggers and retreated to the suburbs.
The 1960s decivilizing process affected the choices of individuals as well as policy-makers. Many young men decided that they ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more, and instead of pursuing a respectable family life, they hung out in all-male packs that spawned the familiar cycle of competition for dominance, insult or minor aggression, and violent retaliation. The sexual revolution, which provided men with plentiful sexual opportunities without the responsibilities of marriage, added to this dubious freedom. Some men tried to get a piece of the lucrative trade in contraband drugs, in which self-help justice is the only way to enforce property rights. (The cutthroat market in crack cocaine in the late 1980s had a particularly low barrier for entry because doses of the drug could be sold in small amounts, and the resulting infusion of teenage crack dealers probably contributed to the 25 percent increase in the homicide rate between 1985 and 1991.) On top of the violence that accompanies any market in contraband, the drugs themselves, together with good-old-fashioned alcohol, lowered inhibitions and sent sparks onto the tinder.
The decivilizing effects hit African American communities particularly hard. They started out with the historical disadvantages of second-class citizenship, which left many young people teetering between respectable and underclass lifestyles just when the new antiestablishment forces were pushing in the wrong direction. They could count on even less protection from the criminal justice system than white Americans because of the combination of old racism among the police and the new indulgence by the judicial system toward crime, of which they were disproportionately the victims. Mistrust of the criminal justice system turned into cynicism and sometimes paranoia, making self-help justice seem the only alternative (Wilkinson, Beaty, and Lurry 2009).
On top of these strikes came a feature of African American family life first pointed out by the sociologist Daniel Patrick Moynihan in his famous 1965 report, The Negro Family: The Case for National Action, for which he was initially vilified but eventually vindicated (Massey and Sampson 2009). A large proportion (today a majority) of black children are born out of wedlock, and many grow up without fathers. This trend, already visible in the early 1960s, may have been multiplied by the sexual revolution and yet again by perverse welfare incentives that encouraged young women to “marry the state” instead of the fathers of their children. Though I am skeptical of theories of parental influence that say that fatherless boys grow up violent because they lack a role model or paternal discipline (Moynihan himself, for example, grew up without a father), widespread fatherlessness can lead to violence for a different reason. All those young men who aren’t bringing up their children are hanging out with one another competing for dominance instead. The mixture was as combustible in the inner city as it had been in the cowboy saloons and mining camps of the Wild West, this time not because there were no women around but because the women lacked the bargaining power to force the men into a civilized lifestyle.
Steven Pinker is a Harvard College Professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University. He has won prizes from the Royal Institution of Great Britain, the National Academy of Sciences, and the Cognitive Neuroscience Society for his research on language and cognition, and many prizes for his eight books, including The Language Instinct, How the Mind Works, The Blank Slate and The Stuff of Thought, He has been named Humanist of the Year, and listed in Prospect’s Top 100 Public Intellectuals and Time’s Hundred Most Influential People in the World Today.
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