Civil Rights And The Sexual Revolution Need A Divorce

Many in the New Left have hallucinated that white men seeking to satisfy sexual urges without guilt were like black people resisting the Ku Klux Klan. Please.

Intersectionality”—or discussing feminism always within the context of fighting racism and class inequality—is a sacred goal championed by feminists like Eleanor Robertson of the Guardian. She describes it as “one of the most important ideas that feminist scholarship has ever come up with.”

Maybe intersectionality would be possible if only the gender part of this equation did not fall under the umbrella of the sexual revolution. Second-wave feminism, punctuated by the early 1960s publications of Helen Gurley Brown’s “Sex and the Single Girl” and Betty Friedan’s “Feminine Mystique,” became something of a traffic accident.

Timing is everything. The shift to a new conception of women’s rights came shortly after rebellious white men had declared war on chastity and marriage. The early 1950s saw the launch of Hugh Hefner’s Playboy and the debut of Arthur Miller’s “Crucible,” while the late 1950s saw the publication of Norman Mailer’s seminal essay, “The White Negro.” Pornography went pop. Naked bodies became something male consumers were entitled to see for a price. The more pastors and church ladies inveighed against dirty magazines, the more boys came to see consuming porn as an act of political liberation rather than as the ancient, embarrassing habit of onanism. Marilyn Monroe was a key link between this major cultural shift and “The Crucible,” since she posed for Playboy and soon married Arthur Miller.

How Sexual Promiscuity Became Cool

Miller’s “Crucible” used the Salem witch trials as an obvious allegory for the repressions of creative people by Wisconsin Rep. Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee. Miller’s play reinforced the association in Americans’ minds between sexually judgmental Puritans and their penchant for political persecution. Puritan Hester Prynne of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Scarlet Letter” was a returning specter in the American conscience, a symbol of sexual heroism, the martyr whose defiance of oppression consisted of eroticism forbidden by snoopy matrons and emasculated hypocrites.

These strong messages converged in Norman Mailer’s chronicling of the hipster movement. While maintaining some ironic distance from the hipsters in “The White Negro,” Mailer furthers the period’s habit of framing radicalism sexually. Mailer implies that white male sexual transgression could be a revolutionary act against political repression, equivalent to black families facing fire hoses and bulldogs to enroll in white schools. Here is an excerpt from “The White Negro”:

Knowing in the cells of his existence that life was war, nothing but war, the Negro (all exceptions admitted) could rarely afford the sophisticated inhibitions of civilization, and so … he lived in the enormous present, he subsisted for his Saturday night kicks, relinquishing the pleasures of the mind for the more obligatory pleasures of the body, and in his music he gave voice to the character and quality of his existence, to his rage and the infinite variations of joy, lust, languor, growl, cramp, pinch, scream and despair of his orgasm. For jazz is orgasm, it is the music of orgasm, good orgasm and bad, and so it spoke across a nation…

Mailer celebrates the freeing effect of “orgasm” embodied in “jazz,” a black art form outside the “sophisticated inhibitions of civilization.” Yet the black civil rights movement of the 1950s was led by orderly Christian family men who wanted desegregated schools for their children, voting rights, and relief from police harassment. The fight against racism was not waged by promiscuous men ejaculating while listening to jazz.

Once, Women Deserved Honor

Civil rights as we have come to romanticize them are really more a creature of the conformist 1950s than a spawn of the chaotic 1960s. In 1954, the Supreme Court handed down Brown v. Board of Education; ten years later, Congress passed the 1964 Civil Rights Act. This mere decade saw the quantum leaps in anti-discrimination law commonly associated with civil-rights nostalgia, as well as the most heroic efforts to remedy centuries of ghastly racism.

It all begin with Brown. The Supreme Court received expert testimony from researchers Kenneth and Mamie Clark, who had observed that black children were more likely to play with white dolls than with black ones, because they thought the white dolls were prettier.

“What does the doll experiment in Brown tell us about the long-dead culture of the 1950s?” I asked my students, as we were discussing Brown in relation to the film “Show Boat” (1951), starring Ava Gardner and Howard Keel. The 1950s were simultaneously very racist and yet a time when a more conservative Hollywood had forged a powerful national consensus about marriage and family values. “Show Boat” could successfully appeal to American audiences with its tragic plot of racism, because the mulatta character Julie LaVerne (Ava Gardner) sings, “Fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly, I gotta love one man ‘til I die.” The moviegoers of 1951 had a widely understood cultural code that read Julie’s song as an ode to chastity, something everybody could embrace.

The decision in Brown v. Board of Education makes sense when we acknowledge the era’s traditional values about family, women, and children. In the early 1950s audiences worshipped women as icons of beauty and honor. The thought that little girls, the pinnacle of beautiful innocence, would be denied the dignity of envisioning dolls like themselves as lovely, prompted a country to mobilize and desegregate. There has been no comparable breakthrough since the decade after Brown.

A Chastity Culture Leads to Widely Dispersed Wealth

Racial stalemate stems partially from distorted memories of what catalyzed revolutionary change. Refashioning the 1950s through the fantastical lens of the 1960s, many in the New Left hallucinated that white men seeking to satisfy sexual urges without guilt were like black people resisting the Ku Klux Klan and state-imposed repression in the Deep South. Promiscuity and sleaziness were seen as allies of black liberation rather than as social traps.

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