Saturday, May 24, 2008


In the United States and in France (as Joyce can certainly testify!), 1968 is getting attention. I wonder if there was such a display in 1998, for the thirtieth anniversary, or in 1988, for the twentieth. I doubt it. Actually, I remember D-Day being the most discussed historical event of the 1990s, a fiftieth anniversary, and falling at a time when baby boomers started to lose their parents, the Greatest Generation.

I think that the combined presidential election year and the Iraq War make this anniversary, the fortieth, more resonant. Although we don't have to scratch very far below the surface to deflate these comparisons. The Democrats are all anti-war, unlike the pro-war Humphrey who divided the Democratic Party; McCain is hardly a Richard Nixon. We have none of the urban riots of 1967-68, in fact we have just the opposite - gentrification.

I suspect, as has been suggested, that the fact that the media is largely dominated by baby boomers drives the discussion of 1968: see this French editorial in the Times.

Indeed, NPR has a whole website devoted to their stories on "The Echoes of 1968" (including Robert Siegel's interesting memories of being a student-reporter at Columbia). I like that they have a broader swath of history represented in their stories. Another NPR story covers a group that wants to "recreate '68" at this summer's Democratic Convention.

What do you think? Was 1968 truly transformational? Or more transformational than any other important election year? Does the current remembrance reflect boomer nostalgia or something else in the air?


Joyce Cheng said...

May 1968 remains indeed a mythic event in the imaginaire of the French as well as Francophile self-labeled "radicals." But Gale is right to be skeptical, and certainly very ambiguous views of the event emerge from both witnesses, scholars and journalists.

As a student of the avant-garde, I have a genuine interest in forms of public intervention that are unpredictable and unpredicted, all the more so if it is in protest of the mediocrity of bourgeois and capitalist society. At the same time, one would be making a gross error to think that there is only one way of contesting the bourgeoisie.

In my times in Paris, I have to confess that the most honest and lucid critique I have encountered against bourgeois capitalism among the common folks did not come from the "Soixante-huitards" who wear long white hair, corduroy pants and old leather briefcases. Instead, it came from Janic, the bookseller who owns the most cultivated and committed literary bookshop in Paris, Tschann Libraire in Montparnasse, who is of right-wing Catholic confession. Janic is critical of the mediocrity of capitalism without being hysterical like many reactionary idiots, nor does he wax nostalgic and bemoan the rebellious glory of his days in order to smear consumerist guilt over the face of my generation. Simply, he calls attention to the fact that we are thinking, reading, writing, reflecting, spending time with one another less and less everyday, and everyday there is less social agency to make us aware of its danger.

Similarly, my friend Alan, a painter from England, is of the same generation but does not bathe in the glory of May 1968. Alan is a socialist and comes from a working-class family. In his life, he taught painting and design to working-class students, took them to Paris, and enjoyed watching them grow. As an Englishman, Alan has little patience for class exclusions, and is convinced that everyone can understand philosophy literature and art if they only try. Alan's painting is in what we call the elitist modernist tradition of abstraction, but he believes that it is a form of idealism and not of elitism. As far as I can see, Alan's painting does not become hot property of art galleries for precisely the reason that our society is still mostly morally and intellectually lazy.

My point is perhaps that May 1968 was important as a historical event, but only people who don't have more important things to do in 2008 would spend all this time bathing in nostalgia. Things in the past are there to teach us and make us productive now. May 1968 makes us aware of the irrevocable damage of capitalism, but we also have had 40 years to come to terms with the fact that capitalism is here to stay.

Yes, the ship is going down, but what are we waiting for? Does is not make it even more urgent to figure out what is the most meaningful to do in this life, this earthly life on this exceptional planet that we share not only with our kind but with all kinds of fauna and beasts (among which are Gale's favorite, pandas)?

It is time that we liberate ourselves from the burden of changing the world. It is time to figure out first what it is about this world that is worth preserving, what it is that will make the disappearance of this world a regretful event in the universe.

gale said...

Joyce: Totally agree. It's a lot easier to look back and reminisce about how awesome you were than to come up with a new voice. I think this is why Barack Obama is so electrifying for young people. He doesn't talk like a baby boomer because he's not one.

I also had a second thought: in the United States, although I think less so in Europe (England might be an exception), the real legacy of '68 is the rise of conservatism. Reagan's rise to prominence comes when he puts down campus activism in the early '70s. Perhaps the thought that '68 did so little, at least in the US (arguably the workers' strikes in France actually did do something!), is what drives the nostalgia now.

The '68-ers in the news who start organizations like "recreate 68" are frustrated by the fact they failed. And rather than find a new way of activism, they want to rinse and repeat.

I recently watched a documentary on Ralph Nader called "An Unreasonable Man." In the sixties, he was considered a square since he and his pals all played in the system - testifying before congressional committees and such - instead of holding protests, be-ins, or whatever. But now, my dear friends, we do not have a socialist state. The military-industrial complex remains as strong as ever, but we do have seat belts in our cars.

Nader, though, has gone in reverse, his '68-isms coming out late in life when everyone else (read: Al Gore, Bill Clinton et al.) got it out of their systems as young people.