The 1960s are often seen to be the most important decade in the history of popular culture, and indeed popular politics. Indeed, is it even possible to imagine the what we now understand as politics or pop-culture without such figures as Bob Dylan, Martin Luther King and Marlon Brando? These figures cluster around momentous events such as the anti-Vietnam War movement, the Civil Rights Movement, and suggest an image of artistic excellence and peaceful protest. However, although this period is often thought of as one of hope and of a social push for peace, it is important to understand that it was also one of danger and of continuous antagonism. By considering the presentation of this antagonism within Joan Didion’s classic work “The White Album,” it is possible to understand how the fights of the 60s may be seen to continue to this day, along with the hopes that came with them.

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Rather than focusing directly on the supposed reconciliation that came with the movements of the 60s, Didion identifies that key cultural figures from the period suggested a degree of nihilism and of resignation. For example, she writes of the Doors that “they seemed unconvinced that love was brotherhood and the Karma Sutra. The Doors’ music insisted that love was sex and sex was death and therein lay salvation” (2009, 21). This nihilistic, self-destructive tendency is often an overlooked aspect of the counter-culture of the 1960s, which tends to focus heavily on the peace and reconciliation that was a key part of the aesthetic of bands such as the Beatles.

As well as this, Didion also finds that the political movements of the time found themselves to encounter irreconcilable antagonisms. For Didion, the most obvious example of this came in the figure of Huey P. Newton on whose arrest and imprisonment Didion reported. Newton, a founding member of the Black Panther Party in Oakland, and one of the most recognizable black faces in the country, was accused of murdering an OPD police officer and had claimed self-defence. This event happened only months after the assassination of Martin Luther King and forms a stark contrast to the image of racial politics in the 1960s as being focused on peaceful resistance. In contrast, the Black Panthers stood for armed resistance and for direct action to police oppression. It is this desire to defend themselves and to take direct action within their own communities that marked the party out a unique in the landscape of the politics of the 1960s and also led to what Didion understood as being their fundamental contradiction with the rest of the US. She writes that Newton’s testimony regarding his arrest “represented a fundamental clash of cultures, a classic instance of an historical outsider confronting the established order at its most petty and impenetrable level” (33). This is not an image of the peace and care that often characterizes peoples’ understanding of the Civil Right Movement and of 60s protest in general. Rather, it suggests a much more turbulent and unreconcilable antagonism within American society. Indeed, it suggests that if the late 1960s should be remembered for anything, it is for such antagonism.

It is to this turbulence, and its unreconciled nature that one can trace current social antagonisms in the US. Most notably nation wide movements such as “Black Lives Matter” draw consistent attention to the continued injustices that are suffered by non-white individuals in America, and do so from the perspective of conflict and of taking direct action for justice. While it is clear that the image of the 60s as being a time of peace full protest is based on some facts, it seems evident that the most dynamic contemporary social movements draw their energy from its alternative tradition of defiance and contradiction.

  • Didion, Joan. The While Album. FSG: New York, 2009.