1968 Is Now Forty Years Gone
1968. For many an old story. For others, a story they don’t want to hear. Assassinations and turmoil. Kennedy, King. Revolutionary fervor. Protest against the Vietnam War, racial, gender and class inequality. Rioting in the cities and on campuses, in Chicago at the Democratic Convention. “Something is happening,” Dylan sang, “and you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones?” Things could not go on as they had before. “The entire world was on the verge of radical transformation,” Eliot Weinberger writes, “from the structure of society and state to the details of body ornament.” The Stones and bellbottoms. Free love and free spirits. Equality as never before, possibility unthought of. In the streets of Paris in May, 1968, students took for their slogan a Situationist International cry, “Beneath the Paving Stones, the Beach,” to emphasize the need to discard the old ways of doing business and finding a way to live that was free, fulfilling, just.
For those of us who found our lives shocked and buffeted by the Sixties, the current beatification of that decade is disturbing. To make of it – as movies, television, magazines and newspapers have – something to make an evening pass in an entertaining, even vaguely enlightening, manner is to betray what that experience was. To see it as nostalgia is even worse, sleazy. I do not want nor intend to repeat the practice of my parents, who used their experience of the Depression as a club over my childhood. But I cannot help but feel that what we are doing today about that time guts that period badly.
In his poem, “Memory at the ‘Modern’,” George Oppen says, “I am a man of thirties, no other taste shall change this.” 1968 is now forty years gone, and whatever else I am, I have been formed and informed by that decade, as Oppen was by the Depression. I went to jail, marched with Spock, heard Malcolm, taught Sylvia Plath with teargas seeping in the windows of the classroom, heard Jimi ask, “Are You Experienced?” It was not an uncharacteristic life.
In 1776, Americans overthrew the rule of the King of England and became an independent country. In 1789, the French overthrew the King to bring about not a new government but new lives. 1968 was, whatever else it was, an unprecedented reordering of private lives. Students stepped outside their ivory towers and used their privileged status to question what was happening to the less fortunate. Open enrollment at universities – college to anyone who showed up – became the norm. Men let women step forward. Love became whatever love was, not what society determined. Sure. 68ers wanted to defeat LBJ. They wanted the Vietnam War to end. They wanted everyone to have a place at the table. But more than anything else they wanted lives that were free. How do we live? It is the battle still fought today, but ever, always, crucial. “Revolt is indispensable,” writes Julia Kristeva, herself a child of ’68, “both to psychic life and to the bonds that make society hang together, as long as it remains a live force and resists accommodations.”