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January 25, 2004 on the year 1968

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1968: The Year That Rocked the World

Mark Kurlansky, Ballantine Books; 1st edition (December 30, 2003)

Hardcover: 464 pages  ISBN: 0345455819

I guess this is a book for the old folks, those of us who remember 1968 as a strange year.  I was a junior in college in the middle of Ohio.  The Vietnam War was raging.  Home in Pittsburgh in August I remember I was driving my nutty uncle somewhere or other and on the radio we heard the first reports of the Soviet tanks rolling into Prague.  The Prague Spring was over, and he was so angry he was purple - his side of the family was Czech and my father's side Slovak.  The elegant, soft-spoken Dubcek was out.  The Soviets were back.  One minor thing.

January, the International Cultural Congress in Cuba and the beginning of the apotheosis of Che Guevera.  Revolution in the air.  April 4, 1968 - King was assassinated.   May - the student uprising in Paris.  June 5th, 1968 - Bobby Kennedy assassinated.  Then the Democratic Convention in Chicago with Abbie Hoffman and the Yippies and Mayor Daley and his police.

In the end of this book, the author, Mark Kurlansky reproduces that famous photo of Earth with the Moon's curve in the foreground, transmitted from Apollo 8 in December 1968.  "As the craft approached the moon, it turned around and from space sent back to earth the first astonishing photos of our little blue-and-white planet.  The television broadcast and photographs from Apollo 8 gave a sense, in this first global year that this, too, like so many other milestones that year, was an event the whole world was watching."  As Kurlansky sees it, the sight of "this planet of blue seas, rich vegetation, and endless strife" gave us all a sort of epiphany as humanity saw what we have here from space (he compares this to Dante emerging from the underworld at the end of the Inferno).  The astronaut Michael Collins later declared: "I really believe that if the political leaders of the world could see their planet from a distance of... 100,000 miles, their outlook could be fundamentally changed....  The tiny globe would continue to turn, serenely ignoring its subdivisions....  The earth must become as it appears: blue and white, not capitalist or Communist; blue and white, not rich or poor; blue and white, not envious or envied."

Fat chance.  But it was quite a year.

People did extraordinary things.  And said some extraordinary things.  Bobby Kennedy, the former aide to Joe McCarthy, who, as Attorney General permitted the FBI to tap Martin Luther King Junior's phone, was by then a different guy, and a presidential candidate.  The whole civil rights movement had changed him, as had the mess we had made in Vietnam, and as had the assassination of his brother five years earlier no doubt.  Bobby said this: 

We will find neither national purpose nor personal satisfaction in a mere continuation of economic progress, in an endless amassing of worldly goods.  We cannot measure national spirit by the Dow Jones Average, nor national achievement by the Gross National Product.  For the Gross National Product includes air pollution, and ambulances to clear our highways from carnage.  It counts special locks for our doors and jails for the people who break them.  The Gross National Product includes the destruction of the redwoods and the death of Lake Superior.  It grows with the production of napalm and missiles and nuclear warheads....  It includes... the broadcasting of television programs which glorify violence to sell goods to our children...  And if the Gross National Product includes all this, there is much that it does not comprehend.  It does not allow for the health of our families, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play.  It is indifferent to the decency of our factories and the safety of our streets alike. 

Well, he's dead.  But a lot of us felt the same way.  And still do.

Kurlansky's position is this: "An attempt at objectivity on the subject of 1968 would be dishonest of the generation that hated the Vietnam War, protested against it, and has a vision of authority shaped by the memory of the peppery taste of tear gas."

Yeah, and he was twenty in 1968 - and that alone makes objectivity hard.  I was twenty-one and cannot manage much objectivity about that year.  Just bewilderment. 

Kurlansky assembles press reports, memoirs and interviews to work his way through the year, from January to December.  You get your basic demonstrations, general strikes, insurrections, assassinations, manifestos and mass resistance.  You flip from Saigon to Chicago, Paris to Prague, Berlin to Mexico City.  Does that work?

In the review below one critic says: "By the end, the old order has been shaken but is still very much in place.  Yet a new sensibility is evident and a new perspective glimpsed."  In other words, nothing much changed, but the way we saw things started to shift just a bit.

What got me interested in this book this very review I came across: You Had to Be There, by Robin Blackburn, in February 9, 2004 issue of The Nation.

Blackburn says this:

The ability of a secretive elite of "stupid white men" to run the world was first exposed to mockery in 1968.  By adopting a pro-war plank and anointing Hubert Humphrey as its champion, the Democratic Party furnished the perfect target for a Yippie put-on in Chicago.  At a press conference they nominated Pigasus the pig as their candidate.  Kurlansky explains that there were really two rival pigs and that, in a further twist, Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman could not agree which was the best contender.  To those who saw it on TV, Yippie drollery rendered even more incomprehensible the viciousness of Mayor Daley's club-wielding policemen.  The demonstrators chanted "The world is watching you," but there was no letup. 

Kurlansky is too inclined to celebrate American radicals' weakness for expletives of the "Off the pigs" variety.  A movement that fails to express its aims better than this has a problem.  The language of European radical leaders like Daniel Cohn-Bendit in Paris and Rudi Dutschke in West Berlin was different.  Of course, the assassinations of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. showed that eloquent leadership carried its own risks.  And if European revolutionary thought was more theoretically ambitious, American activists had a stiffer fight on their hands, from the early battles of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, in which life and limb were at stake, to the later exertions of a many-sided - and ultimately successful - antiwar movement. 

What were the '68 rebellions really about? The Prague Spring had its 2,000-word statement.  The French movement of May, triggered by police brutality, escalated to a frontal assault on Gaullist capitalism.  The Situationist slogans spoke the movement's dreams but the attack on the "personal power" embodied by the Fifth Republic's presidential system probably evoked the widest popular response.  Campus revolts throughout the West attacked US militarism but also sought to achieve "student power" and "participatory democracy."  In the 1960s there was a lot of mileage to be obtained by denouncing the established order for not living up to its own ideals.  Just as American SDS stood for Students for a Democratic Society, Czechoslovakia's Dubcek called for "socialism with a human face."

Yes, quite a year.  Confusing.

The review is long and detailed, and covers a lot of ground.  There is much about February 1968 and the Situationists at the University of Strasbourg, then the happenings in Nanterre, and that moves to a discussion of the May student uprising in Paris. 

That whole arc of events in France didn't register with us in Ohio.  But we should have been paying attention, as Blackburn points out:

How twenty-five mischief-makers turned into a force of one thousand...  [and] in a matter of weeks became fifty thousand and by the end of May ten million, paralyzing the entire nation, is a testament to the consequences of over-zealous government.  Had the government from the beginning ignored the enragés, France might never have had 1968.

There was scarcely a week, let alone a month, in 1968 when images of the pitiless US war in Vietnam did not provoke demonstrations and other solidarity actions, both in US cities and campuses and around the world.  The best-reported demos were in Europe, where a wing of the established order thought Washington must be stopped.  Kurlansky quotes the words of a liberal French editor, Jean-Jacques Servan-Schreiber, alarmed at the US combination of technological and military prowess with a messianic sense that only its own way of life could save the world: "If Europe, like the Soviet Union, is forced out of the running, the United States will stand alone in its futuristic world.  This would be unacceptable for Europe, dangerous for America and disastrous for the world....  A nation holding a monopoly of power would look on imperialism as a kind of duty, and would take its own success as proof that the rest of the world should follow its example."

Damn, Jean-Jacques, that sounds familiar!  But that was 1968 and Vietnam, not 2204 and Iraq.  How odd.

Well, all politics is, indeed, local.  And we weren't paying much attention, in 1968, to what was being said in France.  Tant pis.

Too much to attend to! 

Blackburn adds that Africa's decolonization meant that battles over civil rights in the American South - and the riots erupting in Northern slums - were far more embarrassing to Washington than ever before.  And the new women's movement first gained some public notice in the United States in the 1960s with the founding of NOW, though this was only a hint of the wider horizon of "women's liberation" that was to come. 

What else?  Blackburn adds this:

Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev involuntarily helped Nixon win the election by invading Czechoslovakia. 

Well, I suppose.  I hadn't thought of that.

But Blackburn says it all comes down to how nothing much came of all the revolutionary chatter and demonstrations -

It is a weakness of Kurlansky's book, as it was of the movements of the time, that too little attention is paid to the power-holders, who contained the challenges of 1968 and subsequently launched offensives of their own.  In the aftermath of the 1960s, it was to be the right, not the left, that reinvigorated capitalism and the urgency of an ideological struggle to defend and extend it.  From their positions on the frontlines against campus revolt, Ronald Reagan, then governor of California, and Margaret Thatcher, education minister in 1970, saw the need to rediscover the virtues of the market and roll back a welfare state and an organized capitalism that had both enabled the postwar boom and spawned the 1960s revolts.  The neoliberals and neoconservatives were not above stealing the watchwords of their antagonists.  The calls for "power to the people," or for citizens to control their own lives, were adapted to become war cries of the right, by means of the privatization of all aspiration.

Ah, yep.  Read that paragraph again.  Read that last sentence again.

Reading this book, however, Blackburn says, "I was prompted to ask myself whether another global upheaval like 1968 could happen again.  I came to the conclusion that it is almost inevitable."


The reasoning is we really have now reached "the interactive stage of the communications revolution."

In 1964 Marshall McLuhan put it this way:

Wealth and work become information factors and totally new structures are needed....  With electronic technology, the new kinds of instant interdependence and interprocess that take over production, also enter the markets and social organizations.  For this reason markets and education designed to cope with the products of servile toil and mechanical production are no longer adequate.  Our education has long ago acquired the fragmentary and piece-meal character of mechanism.  It is now under increasing pressure to acquire the depth and inter-relation that are indispensable in the all-at-once world of electric organization. 

Yes, all these processes are far more advanced today than they were in 1968.  The world is no longer divided by the cold war.  Yes, the Islamic world is "culturally resistant" to the West, but it is now within the same global communications space.  All this persuades Blackburn that there is a greater potential today for a type of "global storm" - just like in 1968.

Could be.  I sense it coming.  Don't you?

Oh, and by the way, Kurlansky and Blackburn don't even discuss the music of the sixties.