If a month can have a motto, May 1968’s would be: “Thou shalt.” Down with all forms of authority, up with the outlaw and rebel, hurrah for guilt-free sexuality: the sixties’ Cultural Revolution, flaring up with particular intensity that spring, scorched and weakened what had seemed the solid bourgeois social order of the West, with consequences still felt 40 years later.
To mark the anniversary of May ’68, City Journal asked several regular contributors—all of them participants in or witnesses of the era’s upheavals—to reflect on that remarkable time and on what it means today. Perhaps the key lesson conveyed in our fascinating feature, which is illustrated by famed cartoonist Arnold Roth, is that jettisoning moral norms—the “thou shalt nots”—wasn’t the pure liberation that some believed it would be. For women, Kay S. Hymowitz writes, the sexual revolution turned out to be a mixed bag, with social life sometimes more a man’s game than before, as men began delaying marriage and its attendant responsibilities ever longer. Sol Stern describes how the New Left’s growing radicalism and nihilism led it to embrace a militant anti-Americanism—and even flirt with treason. Newspaper journalism abandoned the old norm of fairness and increasingly transformed into left-wing consciousness-raising, argues Harry Stein—a politicizing shift mirrored in academic life, as Stefan Kanfer observes in a hilarious memoir of student unrest at Columbia University. Yet both Christopher Hitchens (busy in Castro’s Cuba offending the revolutionaries) and Guy Sorman (busy in Paris being a student revolutionary) see something positive in the legacy of May ’68: a still-viable antitotalitarian ethos and a new emphasis on freedom.
In “Mr. Sammler’s City,” City Journal editor-at-large Myron Magnet takes the measure of Saul Bellow’s Mr. Sammler’s Planet, a 1970 novel that captured with genius a New York City spiraling into urban chaos. As Bellow understood, the sixties’ “anything goes” culture conjured up an “anything goes” city where civility withered and crime and disorder spread like a horrible virus—a cautionary tale, Magnet argues, that we shouldn’t forget in the city’s thriving post-Giuliani age.
One reason that New York City got so much safer over the last decade or so is that many fewer bad guys prowled the streets; instead, they were behind bars. But the American criminal-justice system is coming under intense fire from leftist advocates and from the Democratic Party for being racist and ineffectual. Presidential candidate Barack Obama puts it brusquely: blacks and whites “are arrested at very different rates, are convicted at very different rates, [and] receive very different sentences . . . for the same crime,” yielding “Scooter Libby justice for some and Jena justice for others.” Heather Mac Donald’s story, “Is the Criminal-Justice System Racist?,” examines the evidence and answers a resounding no. The high percentage of blacks behind bars, which no one denies, reflects crime rates, not bigotry.
Mac Donald isn’t the only myth-buster in this issue of City Journal. Max Schulz’s provocative “California’s Potemkin Environmentalism” examines the Golden State’s claim to be blazing a pathway to a green, prosperous future—a claim trumpeted by its political leaders and uncritically accepted by the national media. The reality, Schulz shows, is rampant power shortages, business-crushing costs, and an economy that depends on importing energy from other (polluting) states.
The social thinker Arthur C. Brooks has spent a lot of time crunching a lot of numbers on happiness. He outlines his central findings in the important “Free People Are Happy People.” Economic and political liberty, he points out, correlate strongly with personal satisfaction—but the happiest people of all tend to be free people who have voluntarily chosen to guide their lives by the thou shalt nots of traditional morality. With tensions between libertarians and social conservatives threatening to crack asunder the Republican Party, Brooks’s research suggests that Frank Meyer’s old ideal of “fusionism” remains a viable political project—something to think about in an election season.
—Brian C. Anderson