"I could not understand how anybody could rebel against a system so clearly benign." That authorial "I" was John Updike in his self-deluding memoir, Self-Consciousness; the rebels he was referring to were fed-up blacks, middle-class students, the working poor, disenchanted professionals, and left-wing zealots; and the "benign" system was our own in the 1960s.
That "benign" system was destroying almost two million acres of land in South Vietnam by dropping more bombs on the country than we had dropped in all of World War II and the Korean War combined. That "benign" system had local law enforcement collaborating with the Ku Klux Klan to murder "uppity negroes"--then all-white juries, heartened by defense attorneys to defend Anglo-Saxonism against its enemies, would acquit the murderers. After NAACP activist Medgar Evans was murdered in broad daylight, a representative of that "benign" system, Mississippi Congressman William Colmer, said Evans' murder was "the inevitable result by politicians, do-gooders, and those who sail under the false flag of liberalism." It was later discovered that the FBI had known the identity of Evans's murderer the whole time but did nothing to bring about his prosecution. The bureau was perhaps too busy in its counter-intelligence operations, which included ransacking labor and peace organizations, keeping reams of files on thousands of Americans, trying to convince Martin Luther King Jr. to kill himself, and coordinating with the Chicago police to assassinate Black Panther Fred Hampton. Just some of the "benign" operations of a "benign" system.
America still hasn't recovered from the sixties. Not psychologically, socially, politically, or ideologically. This is easily proven not only by how often the sixties still get brought up ("At first sign of 'trouble,'" Tariq Ali wrote in his memoir of the decade, "the lazy journalist reaches for his sixties file") but by how little we've recovered or progressed since then. For all sides--left, right, or center-- the arguments, justifications, and tactics are the same today as they were when we had troops in Vietnam (Iraq), fought the Cold War (War on Terrorism), and debated the "permissive society" ("culture wars").
In his book Road to Unfreedom, Timothy Snyder conceptualizes the "politics of eternity," where politics is always moving fast yet going nowhere. Has that been our state of politics for the last half century? Are we in some way still stuck in the sixties?
The year 1968 (a year that politically outreaches its calendar days) is turning fifty this year. For both radicalism and the reactionary backlash against it, 1968 is generally considered the pivotal year of the sixties. And looking at all that happened, it's easy to understand why.
April: Columbia University students occupy campus buildings in protest of the university's ties with the military, its plundering of surrounding apartment complexes, and the construction of a university gym on the grounds of what was once a neighborhood park. (Locals would be permitted access to a few parts of the gym, but would have to use a separate entrance than those affiliated with the university.) That same month Martin Luther King Jr. is assassinated while in Memphis, Tennessee, supporting organized garbage collectors.
May: Paris is crippled by student revolts and a general strike that involves some ten million French workers (a fifth of the country's population). The situation so alarms France's ruling elite that Prime Minister Charles de Gaulle flees to Germany to recruit non-conscripted French soldiers to invade their own country if things get any worse. At the end of May, Britain's French ambassador writes to his superior, "The French government now looks in a state of disintegration."
July: Robert Kennedy is gunned down the same night he wins the Democrats' California primary.
August: protests at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago turn into a riot. Police and National Guard use tear gas and batons to pummel protesters who are chanting slogans in support of the Viet Cong.
What Columbia, Paris, and Chicago all had in common (besides an anti-imperialist attitude) was the brutality of the police. At Columbia, they tore up the campus then occupied it for days; in Paris, the protesters and strikers garnered the general support of the country's population because the Parisian police were so indiscriminate in whose heads they bashed; and in Chicago, as one female protester described the night of chaos and carnage, "It was like the Bastille stormed us."
Put bluntly, in 1968 all hell seemed to be breaking loose. To paraphrase the ever-concise political commentator Murray Kempton, liberals weren't listening to Democrats, workers weren't listening to union officials, and black Americans had seen the inevitable fate of nonviolent resistance. Meanwhile the Right was fantasizing about authoritarianism as political responsibility. National Review's Frank Meyer wrote,
Either the forces of revolution and nihilism will bring the republic down in a welter of disorder or ... the...