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Graduate and the New Left
In the United States in the 1960s, the nation was going through a change both in the psychological and sociological makeup of the population. Everything about the country was changing quickly, right down to the very moral code which makes up the identity of a culture. The American Dream and the belief that everyone could become successful if they were willing to work hard and if they lived in America was proving to be a fallacy in the wake of oppression, disenfranchisement, and racially-biased or gender-based prejudices. A group emerged who not only wished to be entirely different from their parents, but they also desired to completely upset if not outright eradicate the status quo and change what it meant to be an American citizen with an American identity. One of the components of this movement was a decidedly liberal perspective and agenda. This group would come to be known as the New Left. The ideology of this group, the inability to conform to expectations, the rejection of post-World War II ideals, and the need to create individual decisions regardless of the potential outcomes, is illustrated in the film The Graduate and the character of young Benjamin Braddock played by actor Dustin Hoffman.
The values of post-World War II America had given way to a revolutionary attitude that demanded change. Those who were reared in the post-war era were raised by a patriarchal, traditional family unit where father was the working man who dealt out the punishments and mother's job was to cook and clean and to nurture. It was expected that the man would hold a job and the woman would stay home. She would raise children who were well-behaved ladies and gentlemen who would then grow to be replications of their parents. Every child born to this dynamic was supposed to repeat it by aging, marrying, and then taking part in the appropriate activities of their gender delineation. However, for some members of the American population, this was not the kind of life they desired and instead of become carbon copies of their Ward and June Cleaver parents turned to drugs, rock and roll music, and a lifestyle of promiscuous permissive sex.
In the era between 1963 and through to the mid-1970s, the United States was in a period of nearly unparalleled upheaval. In a short period of time the country changed from being dominated by Caucasian culture wherein those of other ethnic profiles were devoid of social equalization and where the government was viewed as a benign entity designed to protect the interests of its citizens into an altogether different perspective of the country where people were legally equal and the government was full of corrupt individuals bent upon obtaining and then retaining power. The Civil Rights movement forced a complete change in the perspective many Americans had of race relations and the fallacy of white supremacy in the country. Martin Luther King, Jr. And others worked to change segregation laws and to end the oppression of African-Americans throughout the United States, particularly in the American south where many black people were still prevented from the civil right of voting. Violence erupted from the American south and spilled out through the rest of the country. Before the 1960s were over, three men who were synonymous with peaceful resolutions and change would be dead at the hands of assassins. The death of John F. Kennedy, his brother Robert Kennedy, and then Martin Luther King altered the country. Each man tried to change the world and make it a better place. JFK prevented a cold war from turning hot during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Robert Kennedy helped curb the influence of organized crime to make the country safer. Martin Luther King Jr. worked for equality of all people. These three men served as beacons of hope and righteousness for the rest of the country. Whereas these men allowed the people of the country to believe that there were individuals willing to instill positive change, their deaths marked the end of naive faith in the government.
Instead of hope and dreams, the American people began equating the federal government with Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard Nixon, and the Vietnam War. Even though the war had officially been started by the Kennedy administration, it was expanded under Johnson and then used by Nixon as a political tool. He kept the nation embroiled in war until after the 1972 reelection, promising to end the war if he retained the office, the truth of Nixon's character not emerging until the Watergate scandal broke ending Nixon's political career and forcing him to become the first president of the United States to resign the office. Many men were being sent away from their homes and their chances for the future into an inhospitable jungle atmosphere fighting a war which few Americans supported and became more and more unpopular as the years continued. Thousands of American men died all the while the media brought back full-color images of the bloodshed, the bombings, and the deaths of men, women, and young children which were occurring in Southeast Asia. Author Phil Hill writes in the article "Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out:"
What happened was Youth. Youth became it -- and it became a state of mind and a way of life, whether you were fifteen and hoping or fifty and pretending. 1967 was the year of the student riots in China, the first student protests in the West, of LBJ's disastrous decision to go all out for victory in Vietnam…All this and more happened in twelve short months. A new mood of rebellion was born -- a rebellion with a dream that Youth would overcome one day (8).
All of the social upheaval created a new psychological profile of American citizens. Each person was influenced by these events in a different way and convinced them to pursue ways in which to fix the country somehow, since the government was not doing a good enough job in this department. The young members of the educated middle class of America, and in some cases the upper and lower classes, became convinced that the violence signified a regime change; that the ways of their parents were over and that it was time for the young to make their claim as rightful leaders of the new world order.
The counterculture movement and its members all became the darlings of the media and made frequent, nearly nightly, appearances on the news and on other television programs and then in films as well. These individuals protested loudly against the status quo of their parents' generation while claiming to be interested in social mobility and the bettering of their fellow men. They claimed altruism and a desire to cast off the falseness of the past, "plastic" generation. In reality, their motives were largely selfish, bringing attention to themselves far more so than to their actual causes. Part of the diatribe of the New Left was an anti-capitalistic slant which is heavily ironic in that the majority of the people who took part in the movement were themselves from affluent families with comfortable living conditions. The New Left was mostly made of students who were dependent upon their parents' finances to pay their tuition, but still petitioned against big business and capitalism. These individuals warned of materialism and the rape of the environment while still refusing to perform actions like the African-Americans did in the American South. They were not willing to perform manual labor to support themselves, or to go on hunger strikes, or any protest technique which might cause them physical discomfort.
The character of Benjamin Braddock is a product of the 1960s. Benjamin is a 20-year-old college graduate who has returned home from school and is staring down the potential paths for his future. All around him the adults try to pressure him to determine if he intends to find gainful employment or to go back to graduate school and continue his education. If he goes to work, then he will become part of the capitalistic society in the present moment. If he goes back to graduate school, it will delay his entrance into business in the present, but will make him more valuable a commodity upon his graduation. Benjamin Braddock has never had to be concerned about the harsher realities of the world, such as poverty, hunger, or homelessness. Instead he has a Beverly Hills home and a fancy red convertible all paid for by the earnings of his father (Bapis 41). Instead of showing appreciation for what has been given to him, Ben is instead resentful. At one point in the film he tells his parents that he does not want to become them, that "he has wasted his life, that he is sick of being their 'goddamn ivy-covered status symbol,' and that is taking to the road" (Harris 26). Everything in his life is viewed in terms of financial benefit and the place…[continue]
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