Friday, June 13, 2008
It Was Forty Years Ago Today: Arendt in 1968
This past year the news media have occasionally noted the fortieth anniversary of various momentous events of 1968. It was, in obvious ways, the most tumultuous year of the late 20th century. More about that in a moment.
The Mothers' We're Only In It For the Money "now-less-remembered"? Clearly, you don't care about beer. (See What's in Season? for April to June 2008.)
"For better or worse -- the European century after 1848 is not much to celebrate."
Is there a Hall of Fame for understatement?
I suspect that the folks who did not live in the 60's who were born after it or during it have little interest in it because of the way the folks who think they remember it have been at the center of American navel gazing since they started being born in the 1940's (i.e. the Baby Boomers).
I respect the younger person's sense of us as a terribly oppressive group that keeps warping culture from toys when we were kids to viagra today.
Possibly our grandkids will be more willing to listen to our stories of that period as they contemplate why grandpa or gramma is so strange.
On Dany the Red and Mai 68 the best slogan from that period I always thought was the
"Soyez Realiste, Demandez l'Impossible"
"Be a Realist, Ask for the Impossible"
Arendt and Schmitt are both somewhat arid bookends. Much better are the Grateful Dead, Martha and the Vandellas, and that Memphis Sound, Detroit Sound, Philly Sound, San Francisco Sound, and other efforts by so many citizens to change the world in the face of all that negativity.
THAT hopefulness for helping to build a better uncynical future is a hallmark of some of the 60's memories.
Of course, for what it's worth (Buffalo Springfield) serves as a caution against the politics and violence.
The important thing is that we stop, children, what's that sound, everyone look what's going down. Again and resist. If we do not, then we are acquiescing in evil.
Peace and love,
I think the comparison to 1848 is spot on. What's notable in each case is the reaction (anyone want to write a book called "The Eighteenth Brumaire of Richard Nixon"?).
In this country, at least, 1848 is not a notable year and nobody teaches it, best I can tell, not even in the context of mentioning Kossuth's tour of the US. As for 1968, it's rare for even high school history teachers to get much past WWII. Vietnam is apparently still too politically sensitive for most of them. Give it another 10-15 years; that brings it under my own personal rule of thumb that 40 years need to elapse before we can teach "history". Any earlier and it's still politics.
Helluva year to live through, though.
I'm not sure that 1848 and 1968 were sufficiently similar to be easily compared.
1848 Europe was largely a response to the conservative reaction after Napoleon was defeated, together with an abortive response to the excesses of the early industrial revolution. But the conservatives hadn't been able to bring feudalism back and the industrial revolution was still being created. All that really happened was that the European conservative governments were able to put the lid on social unrest until 1914 (often by Empire Building, and in Germany's case by creating social retirement and other safety-net programs along with mass public education) while the industrial age became a more powerful social force.
1968 was much more complicated. It was a reaction to the Pill and to the rapid increase in middle class wealth after WW II, as well as to the
Civil Rights movement that essentially laid out the criminal behavior of America towards Blacks even after the Civil War had freed them. Add to that the demographic changes caused by the baby boom. It was also a reaction to the unending purposeless war in Vietnam and to the equally unending Cold War. Then there was also television. The counter-reaction to 1968 was really the consumer society in which everyone individually stopped being social and tried to create their own private life by building little personal worlds out of what could be sold to them with the wealth that the 50's had shown them was their due just for being born.
We were frankly sold a bill of goods that said that our own individual decisions were all that mattered and any organization that disagreed with our individual decisions was a tyranny to be ignored, not changed. That left the only organizations that were legitimate as big business (because no one supposedly has to buy from them or sell to them) and for some, evangelist churches.
The conservatives and the Libertarians have hopped onto the consumption society and carried it past all reason, making it a mark of being unAmerican to believe or act as though there are social goals that required large scale cooperation with political action and government guidance. Since political action is not a market-transaction between two individuals, such political action became suspect as government "interference" or tyranny.
1968 was quite significant. It converted the government from being socially beneficial to an enemy of the individual. It led to Reagan's destruction of the union movement, to the self-isolation of the wealthy and the well-to-do in their gated communities, and to the lower middle class retreating into evangelist religion to find a non-government alternative to rational society.
1968 was also the high point of the Great Society, before it had had a chance to show what could be done. From then on it was dismantled piecemeal to be replaced by individuals who lived under a regime of social Darwinism.
I haven't had time to read Rick Perlstein's "NixonLand" yet, but from what I have heard that is the case he is making.
If I am correct, then 1968 is (for America) in many ways as important as 1848 as a time of change, but 1968 was a lot more diffuse than 1848 was. There were a lot more social threads coming together in 1968 than in 1848.
In Europe, 1968 did not lead to the counterrevolution that it has in America because Europe did not have to dig its way out of the American history of slavery - segregation - racism, and Europe has not been the kind of militarized and Imperialist society America has been. They let us fight the Cold War and hunkered down and worked to rebuild from the destruction of WW II. That was a bit easier since the (by their very nature conservative) wealthy families of Europe were destroyed in ways not true in America. Their societies could and did focus on building successful middle classes because the conservative and powerful wealthy families couldn't screw that up. We weren't as lucky.
Given those conditions, I'd say that 1968 was a greater turning point than 1848, but because it was a lot more diffuse, dealing with a lot more social forces, the nature of the changes simply are not yet clear.
One other point. 1848 was largely an after-effect of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, mixed with growing industrialism. A similarity was that 1968 was an after-effect of the extended WW I and its resulting WW II wars, again mixed with rapidly advancing industrialism and the (Enlightenment and industrialist society based) science that the twentieth century has been based on. Neither year was decisive, but each of them laid out and helped to organize the social forces that were going to be the source of conflict for the next half century or more.
This is, of course, entirely my opinion. I can't blame any historian if I am wrong, and since my formal training has been Economics, business and management (a branch of social psychology), I can't claim any certified expertise in history.
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