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Effects of 1968 echo today, Gitlin says

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 29, 2012 - To grasp the full impact of the events of 1968, says chronicler Todd Gitlin, you have to go beyond the most commonly quoted lines from Charles Dickens.

The year of assassinations, demonstrations and affirmations was more than just the best and worst of times, he told an audience at Washington University Wednesday night. Indeed, he said, continuing the scene-setting paragraph from “A Tale of Two Cities”:

“It was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way.”

And though the upheavals of that year brought an inevitable backlash, Gitlin – now a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University who has recently written about the Occupy movement – said the effects of 1968 remain all around us.

Noting that in the period before the ‘60s, young black men were killed in the South on a regular basis, with little attention paid to the crimes, today’s heightened media presence has brought a whole awareness to the death of Trayvon Martin in Florida.

“We all know the name now,” Gitlin said. “Obviously, that didn’t prevent the murder. But it’s a different world.”

That world was largely shaped by 1968, said Gitlin, himself a former president of the Students for a Democratic Society, one of the groups central to the historical disruptions of a year that he termed “a rolling global thunderstorm.”

Calling the events unique, Gitlin added that it is “easier to say what it was not than what it was. It blew the mind. It was wild, thrilling and horrific. It was generous with events and astonishments; it was full, indeed overfull….

“Anticipated by virtually no one, upheaval became a norm, an imperative, a whirlwind. In one country after another, rebellion clambered to its feet and charged at authority. And authorities everywhere felt they had met the defining test of their rule in a fight against rebels with or without causes. The spirit of apocalypse was ubiquitous, although its revelations were often uncertain in the extreme.”

Adding to the juxtaposition of opposites used by Dickens to describe the era of the French Revolution, Gitlin said of 1968:

“History was either ending or beginning or both at once. Hope was planted; hope was uprooted. Heroes stepped forward. So did assassins.”

He compared the year to the era of the American Revolution and to 1848, when a similar air of rebellion swept across Europe. And it was more than protests against government, he noted, sweeping “from Vietnam to Czechoslovakia to women dumping girdles, bras and hair curlers in a trash can outside the Miss America pageant in Atlantic City.”

Above all, he said, the “’68 way of thinking held that the old structures of power could be moved if not smashed; that public and private worlds had been thrown open; that a host of forms of cooperation were possible; that boundaries were meant to be overcome and meanings remained to be made; that the American century was over and something else, however hazy, might be starting.

“Sex, drugs and rock and roll were parts of this feeling, but not the whole.”

Running down the events of the year – the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, the decision by Lyndon Johnson not to run for another term, the disorder at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, demonstrations at the Olympics in Mexico City that left many dead – Gitlin said the mood was reflected in darker tunes from the Beatles and music ranging from Janis Joplin to Jefferson Airplane.

When the year began, he said, nearly 16,000 Americans had died in Vietnam; when it ended, that figure had increased to more than 30,000.

He painted the time as one of convergence of various movements, from black militants to hippies to women, “loosely basted together by what we can now recognize as a horizontal spirit, a participatory ethos and a longing for the sense of membership in a common project.”

The dominant theme, Gitlin added, was that institutions and states were illegitimate. Young people starting out in the world felt this way: “Conquer the university, or humble it, and you moved the world. This was a highly influential idea.”

Such effects could not last, of course, and an inevitable reaction set in, with victories becoming less sweeping, more limited. “Over the next decade,” he said, “while the Right was in the process of taking Washington, the Left took the English department.”

And while protesters in Chicago might have believed that the whole world was watching, in truth many Americans were more preoccupied with Gomer Pyle and the Beverly Hillbillies, Rod McKuen and “Funny Girl.” When they watched the evening news, they may have sided more with the police than the demonstrators.

“The tragedy of 1968’s incandescence,” Gitlin said, “was that the fire got out of control. Nonviolence never went away, but it lost stamina and was outflanked.”

Still, he said, the legacy of the movement started by Gandhi and enriched by King went on to win victories over injustice that resonate today.

“There was something else afoot in the world in 1968 and it is still afoot,” Gitlin said. “It was an extraordinary intermixing of innocence and savviness, realism and ideals, the love of justice and the justice of love. It was an explosion of calcified authority and a search for deserving authority. It crystallized in a love of the Earth. It was, through all the darkness, an awakening – a search for moral renewal.”

In response to a question after his lecture, about whether today’s world shows that the gains of 1968 had been largely lost, he re-emphasized that while a backlash was natural, through what he termed the “bumpiness and twistiness of history,” progress remains.

“It was inevitable that those who suffered a loss of prestige or wealth or suffered anxiety would behold this without joy and would set out to repeal what they could repeal,” Gitlin said.

“I view the period of the last 30 years, from the Reagan election, as a period of recoil, quite literally an era of reaction. When you get action, you get reaction.”

What’s coming next? Gitlin sees an era of realization that things are not going well, that “the authorities have lost authority.”

“That doesn’t mean we’re in for something lovely,” he added. “I think we’re in for something stormy. There’s a lot of unfinished business coming.”

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