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1968 in the Time of the Plague

The morphing meaning of a remarkable year

As a scholar of the 1960s, I had looked forward for several years to 2018 with both excitement and misgivings. 2018 would be, at last, the Big One: the 50th anniversary of 1968, widely anointed the most remarkable year in a remarkable era. The limelight beckoned for the spirited sub-field of 1960s studies to say its peace at an array of commemorative events. But if my excitement was high my wariness was double: first, at the inevitable reduction of history to clichés, as is common in popular representations; second, in the awkwardness of sharing potentially recycled wisdom with colleagues at symposia devoted to an era we have long studied.

This last year has indeed been a gala-stretch of 1968-themed exhibits, media retrospectives, and academic conferences. Each presented an opportunity to exult in and further explore a global revolt stretching far beyond the great urban centers — Paris, Prague, New York, Berlin, Mexico City — whose tumult dominated the world’s headlines.

Yet my expectations were shattered by the end of the memorial season, which concluded for me at a marquis 1968 conference at Brown University just days before the midterm elections in November. The culprit was 2018, the third of the plague years of Trump. Again it showed its power to poison everything it touches, including a special past and our familiar affection for it.

Don’t You Know It’s Gonna Be…

These are not, we daily learn, normal times. A resulting question is whether it is appropriate or even possible to whistle and think, to love and work in the usual ways, while the Republic burns.

This dismal age poses a special burden to pedagogy, heavier for anyone who deals with the United States. Teaching postwar U.S. history this fall, I have found myself ripping up lectures scarcely amended in years and putting them back together so that they might be more in tune with the current moment. One thought that one knew the structure and the prevailing narratives of this society. But now all the great storylines and analytic verities are subject to revision. It is, moreover, difficult to stick with a curriculum when every few weeks seems to bring a soul-sickening political eruption demanding immediate attention: the separation of migrant families, the Kavanaugh debacle, or U.S. support for Saudi killers — all wrapped in presidential lies. In their wake, plaintive students look to their professors for expert assurances that it all will be ok. Some assurances we cannot give.

I try at least to name the peril. For much of the last year I have pointed to the surging, illiberal authoritarianism against which Americans had thought themselves immune. More recently I have renamed the paramount threat as the unmasking, incitement, legitimation, and weaponization of ethno-racial hatred within a revitalized white supremacy. Many people of color, those most affected by white supremacy, have been least surprised by its resurgence.  Nonetheless, almost no one saw quite this coming.

Our perilous times pose a challenge as well to historical reflection – especially reflection on an outsized year like 1968, a year credited with setting the world on fire, never again to be the same. How do we remove ourselves from the miasmic fog of pressing worries to focus in a sustained way on the past and its dialectic relationship to the present? Past the fog, how might we shift our regard for 1968 in the light of the present, while also discerning a durable core of meaning, capable of surviving the intermittent shocks and setbacks in its long aftermath?

Death at the Hands of Parties Well Known

I begin my answer with a truism: the past constantly changes with the shifting sands of the present. This has certainly been the case with the 1960s, whose memory already has a rich history both in the United States and elsewhere. I remember well the 40th anniversary of 1968, when I cofounded The Sixties: A Journal of History, Politics and Culture. The momentous event at that time was the election of Barack Obama, prompting the journal to publish in 2009 a forum on its significance with respect to the 1960s. The diverse authors were generally exultant. Most obviously, Obama’s victory represented the realization of a piece of Dr. King’s dream. Some even declared Obama the Organizer-in-Chief, poised to inaugurate a New New Deal or really Great Society equally committed to racial and economic equality.  Pointing to Obama’s pedigree as a Chicago community organizer, a young African American scholar deemed Obama the heir more to Black Power than the Civil Rights Movement. Triumph indeed. Yet two elders cautioned with chilling prescience that Obama would be acceptable to white America only insofar as he did precious little for the specific benefit of black people. One warned that Obama’s “dream of unraveling the ‘racial stalemate’ may yet suffer death at the hands of parties well known.”

The next great reawakening of 1968 came with the global uprisings of 2011. Midst all the “from Tahrir Square to Zuccotti Park” euphoria were serious efforts to declare the world-historical promise of 1968 reborn in a new surge of people power. Time Magazine, as if telegraphing the connection, dubbed “The Protestor” its Person of the Year in 2011. Groaning with student debt and recalling Paul Potter’s famous 1965 naming of “the system” as “corporate capitalism,” precocious radicals now had neo-liberalism in the crosshairs. Within edgier Occupy critiques, Randian, free-market zealots and progressive Clinton Foundation-type elites were equal villains. A militant minority thought the Revolution was at hand. Dare to dream.

A few years later, the pass given to the killers of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner unleashed the Movement for Black Lives. In the tension, found in Ferguson and elsewhere, between an old guard, civil rights establishment and a younger, more militant set who rejected a politics of gradualism and respectability, in the anguished debates over whether American liberalism was the solution or the problem for Black America, resurfaced the great dialectic of Civil Rights and Black Power. Martin and Malcolm, those twin lodestars of Black liberation, became boldly visible again.

What these last two legacy moments have in common is their evocation of the rebel spirit and left-wing activism of 1968. Each was suffused with conscious references to the radical past, the helping hand of many 1960s-era activists, and with new bursts of Utopian hope. Beyond that they affirmed the legacy of the 1960s as a profoundly living one, enduringly valuable for both insight and inspiration.

Such optimism now seems light years away. History’s toxic sludge has risen to the surface, bringing evocations of a different 1968: racial backlash, typified by the presidential campaign of segregationist George Wallace; Nixonian fear mongering through racialized images of lawlessness and social disorder; and the populism of a “silent majority” believing itself to be the Americans who matter most. Each of these now appears as precedent for the white-grievance politics championed by Trump and his vaunted, highly vocal, base. As a quick index of America’s descent, Time’s Person of the Year for 2018 is not “the protester” but murdered and persecuted journalists. Such figures were clearly chosen, in part, as a rebuke to Trump’s war on the media and the truths it tries to tell.

To be sure, with the anti-Trump Resistance protest too has made a comeback. But it is as yet mostly rearguard action, not the driver of social transformation as in the 1960s. Certain movements, like #Blacklivesmatter, remain intact. But their greatest power arguably lies in their promise, waiting for the moment to more fully blossom.

The War (Still) at Home

What to make of this wild oscillation in resonances and trajectories, this dramatic resignification of 1968? Several possibilities come to mind. First, and most bracing, is to concede that the social gains of the 1960s were far more fragile than one may have thought. In 2014 I wrote an essay in which I tried to capture what I naively believed were the era’s irreversible achievements:

“[T]he Sixties marked the end of a hegemonic ideal of melting-pot pluralism, with white Christian men enjoying near-uncontested supremacy. Driven by the African-American freedom struggle – but also by the panoply of groups making political claims with new force – the succeeding aspiration is to multiculturalism. This ethos seeks to expand the American family through the conferral of both formal rights and rights of recognition on diverse subjectivities. Conflicts over the boundaries of that family of course persist, as do racialized codes for exclusion, moments of brazen backlash, and profound structural barriers to true equality. But little in public life directly contests the multi-cultural ideal.”

Today, White Nationalists – the president among them – nakedly reject pluralism as a constitutive plank of the American creed.

Related to this, there always was a reactionary 1968 that moved both beneath and against the era’s famous left-wing agitation. The “rise of the right” scholarship of the last fifteen years has only poorly accounted for this counter-legacy. The storyline of a principled, limited government conservatism running “From Goldwater to Reagan to the Tea Party” is no longer adequate, as its key patron, Rick Perlstein, outright confessed. He and other scholars missed the mutating persistence of the Klan, the John Birch Society, the warriors of Massive Resistance, the conspiracy-addled Paranoid Style, and all the other groups and tendencies long dismissed as part of the lunatic fringe. But this fringe has been reborn as the Alt-Right, with disturbing mainstream appeal among conservatives.

Finally, the last two years have made it clear that the “war at home” that roiled America in 1968, aspects of which restaged the Civil War of a century prior, never really ended. We remain locked in elemental conflicts over who Americans are and what America is, with global consequences.

Goodbye Hello

What, in turn, should we do with this new set of 1960s legacy moments connecting a frightful present to a hitherto under-acknowledged past? One screaming option is to now reverse-engineer a new, arch-conservative 1968 from the current Trump era – to turn 1968 on its head and read it as a harbinger of ethno-nationalist revanchism. Perhaps the 1968 we best know, driven by struggles for freedom and equality, must be put in abeyance, its thunder stolen by today’s great storm. Today’s populist nationalism, moreover, is a profoundly transnational phenomenon that echoes the synchronicity of global rebellion in the 1960s. It begs for structural analysis, making use of the concepts and research methods that have so productively disclosed the global reach and logic of 1960s dissent.

I hesitate to endorse this option. History may change with the present, but it is never merely at the mercy of posterity. Always an amalgam of conflicting tendencies, 1968 can endure a makeover only to a point.

What can or should be the future of this special past, now under great duress? A first step to having any influence may require owning a certain partisanship for particular, distinguishing aspects of the era. For me and other scholars, those remain the intense commitment of a sizable portion of humanity to liberation, solidarity, and hope.

Speaking to the first, a veteran of the Prague Spring described 1968 as a time “when people were gradually doing away with all sorts of nonsense and pushing the boundaries of what was possible.”  “All sorts of nonsense” may stand in for a great variety of oppressions meeting diverse struggles for liberation. Third World efforts to throw off colonial domination inspired freedom struggles the world over. The Second World of the Soviet Bloc saw the push for freedom from a sclerotic socialism that liquidated human liberties in the pursuit of coerced equality. And in the First World the desire was liberation from everything from institutional racism to militarism, from soulless education to mindless consumption to the everyday strictures placed on the body, sex, sexuality, and the mind. Taken together, these interlocking efforts represent a transcendent leap in the human imagination of freedom and in the partial realization of new freedoms through intense social activism and cultural experimentation.

As to solidarity, it is an axiom of global 1960s scholarship that the world was newly linked through commerce, technology, mass culture, geo-politics, movement alliances — through all the ways that global currents of power began to flow through “local vectors” like world-important cities or contested colonial spaces. Yet for many of the era’s activists this interconnectedness was not just a historical fact but a conjoined moral destiny. The broad name for this sense of mutuality is solidarity. Its predicate is that one is one’s brother’s and sister’s keeper, regardless of differences of nation, race, and social status. The 1960s as we know them were arguably “made” by the repetition, thousands of times over, of moments of solidarity within and across groups, and in countless acts and settings: in street protests, in sit-ins, in occupations, in the days and nights spent on various barricades, in consciousness raising and mind expansion, and in shared work aimed at creating and holding a space or practice of uncommon autonomy and connection.

And then there was hope. As if speaking for an entire global cohort of activists, the selfsame Czech rebel reflected some 40 years later: “The year 1968 emerges from the fog of oblivion as a dim but beautiful dream. What people mostly remember is that it was the last time they believed the world could be a better place.”  So much of the enduring fascination with the era stems from efforts to understand the historical conditions for — and to try to recapture — that hope.

And in the End

I summon this great trinity — liberation, solidarity and hope — to signal that this 1968 can never be taken away from us, cannot be purged from historical experience or current political desire. The salience of these qualities, always under threat from forces of reaction, depends as much on what we do with the present and the future as how we choose to regard the past.

The Resistance, moreover, may go better if it is not just holding one’s finger in the dyke to slow a consuming flood or rebuild what has been quickly destroyed under Trump and his authoritarian ilk.  This approach seeks the restoration of a liberal establishment — a strategy, as an activist friend of mine jokes, to Make America Suck Less Again. Recalling the world-changing vision of 1968, the work must also be to tear down old walls to create new vistas of freedom. The rise of Trumpism is in part a reaction to the profound inequities of neoliberalism. Some minimal revival of the rule of law and genuine attention to national security, as the Mueller probe and related investigations promise, is urgent and necessary. But the violations of law and morality endemic to empire — think of the crimes of Guantanamo, of legitimated state torture, immunized by Obama, and ruthless proxy wars waged by liberals and conservatives alike — must also be addressed.

At the same time, enduring affection for the radical ‘60s begs tempering as well. I was born in 1967, with the glory of the decade mostly out of reach. (I vaguely remember the Vietnam War in American living rooms and the vindication of Watergate.) From a near distance, I found the era so exciting precisely for its unsettled quality born of irreverence — the sense that everything was up for grabs; nothing held sacred. Crisis can be generative. But it can also be, as we are learning anew, disorienting and frightening, with violence at its edges. Dynamism, disruption, and transgression were hallmarks of the 1960s as they chipped away at all establishments and hierarchies. But these things are not intrinsically good (nor bad), and norms can be important moral and political guardrails. When asked how he copes with the chaos perpetually surrounding him, Trump famously whispered, “I am the storm.” Not all storms are equal, and some beckon the serenity of common decency.

Finally, so much of the ferment of the 1960s came through extra- or anti-parliamentary agitation. To legions of radicals in the democratic world, formal representative politics were considered all but irrelevant, part of the political order to be torn down. An equivalent view today seems plainly wrongheaded; even intolerable. The renewed enthusiasm for voting, among the young especially, testifies to the power of this lesson, whatever its historical source.

Fifty year later, 1968 can survive, as exuberant and relevant as ever. It has given the future all it could and then some. What it means depends on what we make it mean, on how we weather and whether we defy the storm. Nothing is fixed about the past, nor certain for the future.

Let’s do our work, then. Let’s suffer and love. And in ten years talk again.

Jeremy Varon is a Professor of History at The New School, editor of  The Sixties: A Journal of History, Politics and Culture , ­­and a member of Witness Against Torture. To read an interview with Jeremy Varon on Research Matters please click here

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