The Democratic Surround: An Interview with Fred Turner (Part Three)

Henry: At a time when schools are also closing their arts programs, it is striking to read about how much importance were placed on children’s arts education during the Cold War era. Can you share with us what the rationale for such programs would have been?

Fred: It goes back to the notion that the personality of the individual mirrored and could actually shape the nation to which they belonged. The adults of the 1950s had seen a generation of Germans fall into line behind Hitler and many thought they were seeing the same thing in Russia with Stalin. Social scientists often explained these trends by arguing that these nations had inculcated authoritarian personality styles in their children. Authoritarian children were rigid, obedient, unable to reason or create independently, and above all, intolerant of those who were different from themselves. Democratic children were meant to be flexible, independent, reasoning, creative and collaborative.

In this context, the arts offered an ideal venue for producing the kinds of children who would grow up to be democratic citizens. The Museum of Modern Art in New York, for instance, not only created arts programs for local children, but took those programs to trade shows and fairs around Europe – particularly in formerly fascist Italy. They built these odd, aquarium-like rooms into which only children and a teacher or two could enter. Parents waited outside, watching their children make art together, through portholes. Foreign and American journalists who saw these environments thought they were marvelous examples of the ways that the next generation could escape the authoritarianism that haunted their parents’ childhood.
Henry: You close the book with the line, “the children of the 1960s did not only overthrow their parent’s expectations. They also fulfilled them.” Explain. What did they overthrow? What did they fulfill? Are there some senses in which the 1960s counterculture was less radical than its parent’s generation?

Fred: For a long time, I think we’ve imagined the years after World War II as a single, long episode of Leave It To Beaver – a colorless world, racially segregated, emotionally repressed, blind to the myriad differences between people, cultures, nations. And we’ve imagined that it was only in the 1960s that Americans freed themselves from its shackles.

As I hope this book shows, that story is at best half-true. The social movements of the 1960s and 1970s had an extraordinary impact on American life. But they could not have happened I think without earlier calls for sexual liberation from Margaret Mead, or for aesthetic democracy from John Cage and Herbert Bayer, or racial diversity from Ruth Benedict. These figures called for the very society that the counterculturalists of the 1960s tried to create: a creative, collaborative, individual-centered polity, designed to help every member achieve personal fulfillment. They also called for kinds of media that would help create that society. The New Communalists in particular knew these calls well and took them to the communes with them. So did the makers of Happenings and Be-Ins.

Along the way though, they also lost track of the radical political vision that animated so many in their parents’ generation. For the members of the Committee for National Morale, the Bauhaus refugees, and even key figures in the Cold War USIA, the goal was not simply to increase individual self-fulfillment. It was to build an America and a world that celebrated its diversity – racial, sexual, religious, political. And it was to do it by bringing together the power of the state, the power of the university, and the power of the corporation.


Fig 4 Human Be In Hippie

Hippie at the Human Be-In, January 14, 1967, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco. Photograph by Gene Anthony© Used by permission.


Within the New Communalist movement at least, the children of the 1960s turned away from embracing racial, sexual, and political difference. And they turned away from the state and to some extent, the university, as well. They turned toward personal style, a politics of expression, and to the world of business. There, I’m afraid, far too many pursued self-fulfillment as if self-fulfillment alone constituted social change. In that sense, the most expressively radical movements of the 1960s helped set the stage for the conservative neoliberal society we inhabit today.

Henry: What could today’s intellectuals learn from their counterparts during this post-war period? Are there virtues we as scholars have lost that are worth reclaiming?

Fred: Courage! And faith in the power of ideas.

I think that one of the legacies of the Vietnam era for our generation has been a fear that engaging with state policy or trying to directly influence public life will somehow harm either our ideas or the state itself. Having seen what happened at CENIS in the 1960s, I very much understand that fear. But I think we’ve taken it too far.

Our ideas, even our most academic ideas, can have a far wider influence that we think. In the 1940s, professional anthropologists’ belief that cultures had modal personality styles became the basis of very popular campaigns for creativity and democracy across the United States and Europe. The idea itself emerged within the research world; it travelled beyond thanks to the determined efforts of figures like Margaret Mead to speak to the wider world in a public idiom.

But it also travelled because Mead and others like her were not afraid to mix it up with people in power. Today we need to do two things I think: first, campus-based writers like you and I need to keep trying to speak outward, to the world beyond the walls, in plain English. Second, we need to work with and if necessary build new kinds of institutions to support the kind of society we want. New social networks, new peer-to-peer collaborations are nowhere near enough. What we need are places where people who are unlike one another can gather and work together, slowly, over time. We are far too entranced with the power of networks today. What we need are not better ways to contact others like ourselves, but better ways to work across our differences. What we need are not better networks, but better institutions.

With that said though, I’m hopeful. If the kind of civic imagination I’ve chronicled in The Democratic Surround could have flourished at the height of the Cold War, it can certainly come back to life today.


Fred Turner is an associate professor of communication at Stanford University. He has written several books about media, technology, and American cultural history, including the widely acclaimed From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism.