U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Laughter

Today in the undergrad U.S. history survey, the prof screened LBJ’s 1964 “Daisy” ad.   None of the students had ever seen it before, so they didn’t know what to expect.  The prof simply framed the clip as probably the most famous political campaign ad ever, then we dimmed the lights and rolled the clip.

So there she was, in living black-and-white, the freckled little blond child of (white) American innocence, sweetly destroying a daisy, white petal by white petal, counting confusedly until there were no more petals to count.  “Nine,” she says.  “Nine,” she repeats, with puzzlement.  Where to go from here?

Ten, of course.  So the faceless countdown starts, and the little girl looks to the sky in surprise, eyes wide, frozen in frame, framing and enveloping the moment of dread.  The bomb drops, the mushroom cloud billows up, and we have LBJ’s voice-over:

These are the stakes: to make a world in which all of God’s children can live, or to go into the dark. We must either love each other, or we must die.

At this point the entire class erupted in laughter.

What does that laughter mean?

Well, for one thing, it means that they’re not afraid — at least not of the same things their parents and grandparents grew up fearing.  And not the same things that men and women their age in other parts of the world grow up fearing.  They’re not afraid of death raining down from the sky. They’re certainly not afraid of the mutually assured destruction of total thermonuclear war.

Cue the chorus:  “They should be afraid.”  Climate change, dwindling resources, genetically engineered crops, a devastating pandemic, class warfare, drone warfare, the erosion of civil liberties, poverty, privation, terror — maybe they should be afraid of everything on that list.

Maybe they should be.  But they’re not.  Or perhaps they are, and they don’t quite know how to come out and say it, and that’s why they’re laughing.

However, I think the dread of destruction is mostly out of their field of vision as a live possibility right now.  Instead they’re afraid of not being able to pay off their student loans, or not being able to find a job, or a love, or a life they would relish as authentic and good.  Like many (most?) 19 or 20 year old American college students, they are very much in the present (though they may be virtually present somewhere else).  But they do think about a future, which is not always a sign of naivety or youthful folly.

They do see something foolish, or at least ridiculous, in the campaign spot.  The stark choice between a vote for Lyndon Johnson and the certain annihilation of the entire planet’s population strikes them as perhaps a little bit exaggerated, a little bit over the top.  Through the cloud and the flame and the thundering voice, they recognize the humbuggery of the wizard behind the curtain, that Baumian window-dresser, the ad man.

It’s not that they’re picking up on some puckish tone in the spot.  While the ad works via a series of ironic contrasts — a voice for a voice, an eye for an eye, a flower for a flower — there is nothing mocking about the ad.  It is deadly serious.  And yet there is something unruly about it.   In The Conquest of Cool, Thomas Frank explains it like this:

Without giving Barry Goldwater’s name, the commercial managed to portray the 1964 contest as a choice between automated holocaust and pre-consumer innocence: a child playing with a daisy fades into a mechanical-sounding adult voice counting down to a nuclear explosion.  Over the years, the commercial has been criticized as an unfair portrayal of Goldwater’s views, and it is certainly true that Goldwater was not, strictly speaking, in favor of nuclear destruction.  But the commercial’s power has nothing to do with Goldwater, or with Johnson, for that matter.  It aimed, rather, to case the election as an expression of the archetypal cultural conflict of the age.  Its stark division of the world into flower-child and technocratic death-count couldn’t have caught the mood of the nation more accurately or more presciently.  And although it was run only a limited number of times (and DDB never did political advertising again), it summarizes the aesthetics and faiths of the consumer revolution more concisely and convincingly than almost any other document of the decade.[1]

Perhaps, then, the students’ laughter is a sign that “the aesthetics and faiths of the consumer revolution” have thoroughly triumphed, ushering in a second Eden of purchased innocence.  Or — and, I think, on a related note — I suppose one might argue that the laughter of these students is a signpost of postmodernism:  they have transcended the dialectic of hipness and squareness, and now everything is just, well, ironic.  And then one might argue over whether this laughter should be viewed as a Good Thing or as a Sign of Decay.

This laughter over the ad’s message — “vote for LBJ or we’re all gonna die” — might mean that the Sixties are still with us, or it might mean that the Sixties are gone for good.  And that too could be seen as a good thing or a bad thing.

At the very least, the sound of a whole lecture hall full of students roaring with laughter over the peculiarities of the past can serve as a small reminder that today doesn’t ever have to be like yesterday — not for these kids, nor for anybody else’s.



[1] Thomas Frank, The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counterculture, and the Rise of Hip Consumerism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997), 72-73.

25 Thoughts on this Post

  1. “The historian’s task is just the opposite of what most of us were taught to believe,” said historian Carlo Ginzburg, “He must destroy our false sense of proximity to people of the past because they came from societies very different from our own. The more we discover about these people’s ‘mental universe,’ the more we should be shocked by the cultural distance that separates us from them.” Perhaps now, years later after Ginzburg’s quote, the converse has happened and people have little or no proximity to times past, that they are really always, already alien. This certainly connects to your research on sensibility. Great post.

  2. I like this post a lot, too. Two brief thoughts. 1) We often laugh when we are nervous. 2) The students may have been laughing at how unmediated the flower ad seems, in the same way one might laugh at a photograph of one’s younger self really believing oneself to be meeting Mickey Mouse at Disneyworld. How did I not know it was a teenager in a cheap costume? (Maybe you did know, and it did not matter?). There is an obvious ideological charge to this: chiefly surrounding the anxiety that I am oblivious to equivalent processes in my own moment that generations from now will be obviously and unambiguously read as artlessly coercive.

  3. Thanks for the post LD.
    It could be that college kids are smart and they know that when one politician says that their opponent will likely blow up the world if you elect him it is reason to laugh derisively at the idea. The image could have existential meaning or it could just be what it was… hardball politics.

    I tend to think the ad was metaphor for what the Johnson campaign was doing to the Goldwater/Lemay campaign. They were using a sledge hammer to kill a fly. I might add we also laughed at this ad in the early 70’s when I was in college.

    • My students generally start to laugh at “the stakes are too high . . . “, I think for the reasons Paul listed above. Another audiovisual from the time which we just watched in class–Dr. Strangelove–they didn’t quite know what to make of.

      • A bit sad in a way that your students don’t know what to make of ‘Strangelove’, one of the great movies of the Cold War. Next time you screen it you might mention that the U.S. *still* has some tactical nuclear weapons in Europe, incl. “gravity nuclear bombs,” something many people I think don’t realize. There’s been some good critical/interpretive writing on ‘Strangelove,’ I’m sure, though I can’t give you refs off the top of my head.

      • How does one confront the end of all life on earth (well, above ground, at least)? Students laugh at the obvious parts–there’s no fighting in here, this is the war room; and the Coke machine–but I don’t think they see the end coming–“We’ll Meet Again” while the doomsday machine starts. Of course, who does? After I guage their reactions, I present the film as a New Left critique of the Military-Industrial Complex, which might be missing alot, too–maybe this is a subject for later post. Anyways, thanks for the information.

  4. “How did I not know it was a teenager in a cheap costume?”

    I reckon those costumes are anything but cheap.

  5. Thanks all for the thoughtful comments.

    Mitch, I think there’s often (always? always already?) a sense of both/and about the past as both familiar and alien. And it’s not as if “the past” is cut from whole cloth — there are lots of “pasts,” or notions of it, and for some of them we like to claim contiguity with our own time, while some we like to relegate (or elevate) to a stratum other than the ground on which we stand. And who “we” are can be important in that calculus. But, yes, overall, one thing that came through to me today was the sense of distance that these students have between themselves and the commercial. As I tried to suggest, that sense of distance might be the very thing that suggests how close they are. But maybe not.

    Kurt, yes on the nervous laughter. I almost called this post “Hard Laughter,” but it really wasn’t — it was a very goodnatured response to hyperbole. As Paul suggests, the commercial has all the subtlety of a sledgehammer, which is what makes it funny — cartoonish, I guess.

    Paul, it’s possible that they’re laughing at the hyperbole of campaign rhetoric in general — though they are also acculturated to find such things funny, in part because of the countercultural critique of the 1960s-70s. Just as novels taught people how to read novels, so TV taught people how to watch TV — with perhaps a little assist from The Groove Tube. Laugh-In, Monty Python, Saturday Night Live, Benny Hill — these shows taught people what is/can be funny about “serious” TV, and the “meta” shows on Comedy Central now — The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, and Tosh.0 — continue the lessons in/of the genre.

    In any case, I’m glad that some readers appreciate the post. I should note that it probably isn’t accurate to say that none of the students had ever seen the clip — maybe one or two? But it was new to almost all of them.

    And I guess it must go without saying for all of us right now, but because it is easy to lose the “sensibility” of the now when looking back at it later, I’ll say it anyway: when I wrote that today never has to be like yesterday, I wasn’t using “yesterday” in its generic sense. I had yesterday in particular — April 15, 2013 — in mind. I can hardly get it out of my mind. So I decided to dwell on this moment of laughter. Hope it helps somebody.

  6. The “Daisy” ad was part of a larger meme built against Goldwater. It would be interesting to teach the whole story to the kids and see if they still laugh.

    http://spectator.org/archives/2008/10/23/the-fire-this-time

    Barry Goldwater was a dedicated public servant, a World War II pilot, and a patriotic American who fought to end segregation in Phoenix schools and supported the NAACP. By the time November 1964 had rolled around, he was transformed into a race-baiting neo-Nazi hell-bent on nuclear war.

    Fact magazine ran a story titled “The Unconscious of a Conservative: A Special Issue on the Mind of Barry Goldwater,” which publicized the results of a bogus survey of 12,356 psychiatrists on the candidate’s mental suitability for the presidency. The survey revealed that 1,189 psychiatrists (none of whom ever met Goldwater) believed he was too unstable to be president.

    CBS produced and aired “Thunder on the Right,” a sensational documentary connecting Goldwater to the extreme John Birch Society. Though the claims were largely untrue, the show was a great favor to Johnson.

    White House tapes capture Johnson plotting with aide Walter Jenkins to use the documentary against Goldwater. “Get Stanton [CBS president Frank Stanton] to send you three or four copies of that transcript on the [John] Birch Society …and we got to get some of the editors like Palmer Hoyt [editor and publisher of the Denver Post] to make AP and UP to write features about it and ask him questions about it,” said Johnson.

    [I was unaware of this stuff except the self-selected survey of the psychologists. Some years later, the APA passed a “Goldwater Rule,” that it was unethical to pass psychological judgment on people you haven’t examined.

    Not that it would have helped Goldwater, mind you, but the Daisy ad was all part of the bigger game.]

    • Of course G. didn’t help himself w the famous acceptance speech at the convention. But in the long run the Goldwaterites won: they got Ronald Reagan, whose TV spot for G. in ’64 greatly boosted his natl profile, iirc.

      • BTW, it’s (intellectual?) historian [?!] Harry Jaffa who gets the credit/blame for “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.”

        “After a meeting where I heard Nelson Rockefeller warn about the dangers of extremism, I wrote a two-paragraph memorandum with the line about extremism in defense of liberty. Somehow that filtered up to Goldwater. Then he said he wanted his speech written around those lines.

        Celebrating extremism doesn’t seem like a way to win over undecided voters.

        Did you think Goldwater had a chance?

        The people close to Goldwater thought he had a shot, but I didn’t think so. Look at the political circumstances: The country was very prosperous, the Vietnam War was just a small cloud on our horizon, and Kennedy had just been assassinated. I thought of the Goldwater campaign as an attempt to educate the American people and the conservative movement itself, which I hoped to influence…

        http://nymag.com/news/politics/elections-2012/barry-goldwater-campaign-2012-10/

  7. Mitch, what a nightmare. So sorry.

    Auden’s poem on suffering, as framed here, helps sometimes for me.

    Things worse than amazing just keep happening. They don’t have to happen. But they do.

  8. I, too, have used this commercial in my classes — and I too have gotten a big burst of laughter in response.

    I noticed though — and forgive me if someone has already pointed this out — that the laughter came not after we hear Johnson speak, but right after the announcer quickly tells the audience to vote for President Johnson following that quote. That suggested to me that at least part of the dynamic of the laughter is how quickly students identify the cynicism going on here — they’re used to politicians using fear, particularly the fear of terror, to net votes, but this messaging is not as sophisticated as they are used to, and they seem to be laughing at just how un-hiply blunt it is about it.

  9. I don’t disagree w the post, but I think a slightly different take on this could be offered. (Haven’t read Frank so I won’t address the quote from him.)

    It might be worth recalling that two years before, in the Cuban Missile Crisis, the US and USSR had come closer to a nuclear war than they had before (or would after). In that context, the fear of nuclear war was not an outlandish thing; it was present during much of the Cold War, partly because the govt inflated the threat no doubt, but partly b.c it *was* a real possibility. The ‘threat environment,’ stoked by rhetoric on both sides of course, was both subjectively and objectively more dire than in the post 9/11 era — precisely b.c the stakes of a ‘hot’ conflict w the USSR, shd it have occurred, were so serious.

    Someone w a historical sense shd be able to empathize w the past fear of something that they no longer have reason to fear themselves.
    The fact that today’s undergrads laugh at the ad — and it’s been a long time since I’ve seen it, I shd say — indicates, among other things, how little of this historical sense they have and how little they know about the Cold War — or so one cd argue.

    (Btw these students also presumabIy don’t know about the 1983 TV movie The Day After, which contributed to the second sustained wave of public concern about nuclear weapons and nuclear war.)

    In sum, perhaps *part* of the reason the students are laughing is simply that — if you’ll forgive my using this phrase — they don’t know much about history.

    • More laughter. Late add that crossed my email today:

      “On the eve of the Republican convention in San Francisco, [legendary journalist Daniel] Schorr was asked to prepare a report on German reaction to Goldwater’s impending nomination. Why German reaction? In the nation’s news rooms, if nowhere else, the relationship seemed obvious: Goldwater means right-wing, right-wing means fascist, fascist means Germany. Schorr did not disappoint. The morning after his report aired, Goldwater’s political enemies placed a transcript under the hotel room door of every delegate in San Francisco. Goldwater denounced CBS at a press conference and barred its reporters from his campaign. Even some executives at the network, notably its founder William Paley, grumbled privately about Schorr’s reporting. (Like many great media honchos—from Henry Luce to Harold Ross to David Sarnoff?—Paley was a Republican who hired only Democrats.)

      “What happened? The untutored reader of Staying Tuned can only wonder what the fuss was all about. Schorr’s account here is, to put it kindly, incomplete. When CBS asked him for a story, he writes in his memoir, he learned from his reporting ‘that Goldwater had plans, as yet unannounced, to leave directly after the convention for a vacation in Germany as guest of .??.??. Lt. Gen. William Quinn. They would spend their time mainly at an American army recreation center in Berchtesgaden in the Bavarian Alps. Berchtesgaden was famous as Hitler’s favorite retreat. This, along with the obvious enthusiasm of right-wing Germans for Goldwater, I reported from Munich in my analysis.’

      “In his own autobiography, Goldwater gives a fuller account, quoting at length from Schorr’s actual report. Schorr opened the report like so: ‘It looks as though Senator Goldwater, if nominated, will be starting his campaign here in Bavaria, center of Germany’s right wing,’ also known, Schorr added helpfully, as ‘Hitler’s one-time stomping ground.’ Goldwater, he went on, had given an interview to Der Spiegel, ‘appealing to right-wing elements in Germany,’ and had agreed to speak to a conclave of, yes, ‘right-wing Germans.’ ‘Thus,’ Schorr concluded, ‘there are signs that the American and German right wings are joining up.’ Now back to you, Walter, and have a nice day!

      “Today Schorr’s story, with its hints of paranoia, seems merely quaint, an almost comical artifact of the era that gave us the Manchurian Candidate and Seven Days in May—except that this was broadcast as a genuine bit of news, in the middle of a real campaign.

      Schorr, a longtime dean of NPR news and opinion and an acknowledged national treasure, was surely a “public intellectual.” Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

      http://www.weeklystandard.com/articles/hugo-ch%C3%A1vez-tomb-raider?page=2#

  10. LFC –

    Thanks for your comment.

    We have been covering the Cold War for a couple of weeks, and had already looked at several documents/media clips re: anxieties about nuclear war. Plus the students had just read/turned in papers on Hersey’s *Hiroshima,* and had certainly learned something about what would be fearsome about nuclear war.

    So I don’t think the issue is a lack of knowledge, nor even a lack of sympathy per se. I think perhaps it is a lack of practice in “historical thinking” as an exercise of sympathetic imagination. My guess is that their education in history up to this point, especially if they went to public schools, has been more focused on teaching to various standardized tests. Not a lot of time to do the very difficult and tricky work of figuring out how to view the choices people made in the past from their point of view.

  11. Mark, you write, “How does one confront the end of all life on earth…?”

    One can’t — not in any immediate way. It is impossible to put this in terms that can signify.

    This problem — how to grasp the meaning of such devastation — stands at the center of one of my favorite poems.

    Written at the height of the Cold War, Richard Wilbur’s “Advice to a Prophet” tries to put the unthinkable in terms we might comprehend. He does so through a sustained meditation on the materiality of metaphors. His closing stanzas especially are incomparably fine, as beautiful and true as anything ever written.

    Here’s a link to the poem, courtesy of the Poetry Foundation:

    Advice to a Prophet,” by Richard Wilbur

    • Thanks for the link, LD.

      This is what makes Strangelove one of the greatest films of all time: The viewer MUST confront the end of the world with . . . laughter, horror, ambivalence?? How SHOULD one respond? Was there a film before Strangelove that posed this question, or an equivalent?

      I apologize: This hardly seems the place to pose such questions–We’ll meet again?

    • LD, another more analytical (as opposed to literary) effort try to think through (“confront”) the nuclear end of life on earth was Jonathan Schell, “A Republic of Insects and Grasses,” New Yorker, 1982. I read that as an 11 year old and it still gives me nightmares thirty years later.

      More recently, McCarthy’s “The Road” made it very personal…

  12. I second Mark’s affirmation, great link. Looked around a bit and saw a video of Sharon Olds reading a poem, fantastic! Sorry if I’m a bit off topic.

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