The 42nd anniversary of the Kent State University shootings (May 4, 1970), immortalized by “John Filo’s iconic Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of Mary Ann Vecchio, a fourteen-year-old runaway, kneeling in anguish over the body of Jeffrey Miller minutes after he was shot by the Ohio National Guard” and the Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young song “Ohio” brought to mind how much has changed in a generation.
Shifts in worldviews take time even though single events seem to mark their transition period. Seemingly unrelated events and thoughts work their wizardry to produce unfathomable results. Once the shift has taken place, only a retrospective look will reveal the philosophical ebbs and flows that erode worldview landscapes. The twentieth century began on an optimistic note but quickly lost its idealism as war engulfed the world. World War I “shattered much of Europe’s already fading optimism, and the advent of Nazis and fascists shook men’s confidence in their present and their past.”1
Confidence was regained after the Second World War. A form of secular optimism prevailed that even a police action in Korea in the 1950s could not dampen. America had never known defeat in war, and her countryside had not been ravaged by incendiary bombs or nuclear fallout. She was on a roll.
The post-war optimism continued with the inauguration of President John F. Kennedy in 1960 and dreams of “Camelot.”2
Modernism was running full throttle in the early 1960s with its great scientific advances — man was about to conquer the heavens and put a man on the moon — and official judicial statements of atheism with prayer and Bible reading removed from America’s public schools. The theistic house cleaning was now nearly complete. Since 1859, the year that Darwin’s Origin of Species was published, modern man had been trying to rid the universe of God and the supernatural. America was about to show the world what man could do without God.
On November 22, 1963, gunfire put an end to the euphoria. As one child of the 1960s put it, “When Kennedy was killed is when America changed.”3 As if overnight, everything seemed to change. “Tennessee-born photographer Jim Smith, who describes his experience of the Sixties as ‘having my world view torn apart with nothing to replace it,’ says that ‘the Kennedy assassination really was the trigger.’”4 The following social chaos was hardly encouraging to an idealistic generation:
Lyndon Johnson’s skillfully and ruthlessly imposed legislative substance — the final culmination of the old Progressive optimism — soon turned to dust in the mouths of his followers. The Vietnam war, race riots, and the deficit-induced price inflation broke the spirit of the age. Johnson could not be re-elected in 1968, just four years after he was elected President.5
A crisis of secular faith had emerged. The new generation questioned the orthodoxy of rational neutrality. The guardians of modernism had sent young men and women to the rice paddies and jungles of Vietnam, and more than 58,000 of them returned in coffins, 153,000 returned severely wounded, and an equal amount more lightly wounded. A break with the past was unavoidable. People were calling for “revolution.” They “wanted apocalypse, Utopia,”6 a world transformed. Transformed by what? That was the question. Drugs, sexual experimentation, Eastern philosophy, and the occult were all viable options. The counter culture of the 1960s wanted something more than the impersonalism offered by rationalism. In fact, the best and the brightest of the rationalists had sent America’s youth to Southeast Asia to die.7 For the first time in her history, America had lost a war.
Postmodernism is the logical outworking of modernism. Stephen Connor says that the “concept of postmodernism cannot be said to have crystallized until about the mid-1970’s. . . .”8 Modernism had received some strong criticism, and it was becoming more and more tenable to assert that the postmodern had come to stay, but it took some time before scholarship really jumped on the bandwagon.9) Events, violent events, forced the hands of the academic community.
If May 4, 1970, was the day that the war between the generations and classes of white America became a war in earnest, in retrospect it was also the day that war began to end. It was as if the rising tensions had needed to climax in the taking of life. After the strikes in the wake of Kent, the energy of confrontation began to ebb.10
But little was resolved. The four protestors who were killed at Kent State University, through no will of their own, put an end to a misguided revolution. The worldview of modernism was buried with them. The campuses in the 1970s and 1980s remained eerily quiet. The silence, however, was not a sign of inaction. A new worldview was being developed without fanfare — a quiet revolution that is reshaping our nation today.
- Gary North, Unholy Spirits: Occultism and New Age Humanism (Tyler, TX: Dominion Press, 1986), 22. [↩]
- “The phenomenon we call ‘the Sixties’ did not begin at 12.01 A.M. on January 1, 1960. It is not a chronological entity so much as a cultural or mythic one. Even if we identify the myth with the decade, it would be more accurate to say that it began on November 8, 1960, with the election of John F. Kennedy, and ended May 4, 1970, on the campus of Kent State” when National Guardsmen killed four students as a crowd gathered to protest escalation of United States military policy in Vietnam. Annie Gottlieb, Do You Believe in Magic?: The Second Coming of the 60’s Generation (New York: Random House/Times Books, 1987), 17. [↩]
- Quoted in Gottlieb, Do You Believe in Magic?, 18. [↩]
- Gottlieb, Do You Believe in Magic?, 18. [↩]
- North, Unholy Spirits, 23.)
From visions of Camelot to chants of “Hey! Hey! LBJ! How many kids didja kill today?” America was abandoning what little faith it had in the secular faith of modernism. As if tens of thousands of dead young men were not enough to destroy the worldview of modernism, the murder of two cultural icons confirmed the disintegration of society. “With the assassinations of King and Robert Kennedy, we lost our last hope of combating racism or ending the war through the System, and the System lost our consent.” ((Gottlieb, Do You Believe in Magic?, 47. [↩]
- Quoted in Gottlieb, Do You Believe in Magic?, 18. [↩]
- David Halberstam, The Best and the Brightest (New York: Random House, 1972). [↩]
- Stephen Connor, Postmodernist Culture: An Introduction to Theories of the Contemporary (Cambridge, MA: Basil Blackwell, 1989), 6. Postmodernism was becoming more and more concrete, but modernism was still flourishing. It was the fall of communism in 1989 that drove the nail into the coffin of modernism. [↩]
- At this point it is important to distinguish between postmodern and postmodernism. Postmodern refers to a period of time, whereas postmodernism refers to a distinct ideology. As Veith points out, “If the modern era is over, we are all postmodern, even though we reject the tenets of postmodernism” (Veith, Postmodern Times, 42. [↩]
- Gottlieb, Do You Believe in Magic?, 138. [↩]