By Nat Krieger
For starters, the old joke ain’t true. If you remember the ‘60s you actually mighta been there. As far as 1968 by itself goes (as opposed to being shorthand for the ‘60s’) except for Tigers fans of a certain age the revolutionary significance of the year has left deeper marks in France than the U.S.
While the immediate inspiration for the French students may have been their American counterparts in Berkeley, by the spring of ’68 it really did look like a coalition of students and workers might take down the Fifth Republic. On this side of the pond, all the radical movements put together were never even close.
As for the American 1968 shouldering the aspirations for the entire countercultural era, events and movements have never respected calendars, and for radical politics, as well as the revolutionary developments in music and film, it might be more accurate to think of ‘the sixties’ as roughly 1963 to 1971.
IWBWIWAK (It Was Better When I Was A Kid) ALERT. Spring, 1968. Afternoon sunlight is slanting through the hall windows and I’m fiddling with the padlock on my school locker humming Lady Madonna, the Beatles brand new single.
I’d been a fan ever since one of my brothers brought home the 45 (rpm) of I Want to Hold Your Hand and flipping it over I heard I Saw Her Standing There, but I remember feeling nervous when Danny told me the Beatles had a new single. How could they keep releasing great songs? They were bound to have a stinker. Yet, like Mickey Lolich, the Fab Four just couldn’t disappoint. Lady Madonna reminded me of their earlier, simpler stuff, and I loved it.
At 11 years old I had no way of knowing that being surrounded by music and movies that were both original and commercially huge was not and had never been the norm. In popular music, this meant the temporary integration of radio playlists–Aretha followed by the Stones, capped by Sam the Sham & the Pharaohs–unlikely collisions of talent, love, and money that were wonderful and short lived.
Well before the White Sox hosted the infamous Disco Demolition Night in 1979 music radio had been re-segregated.
More lasting effects. Despite all of the dreams dashed that come to mind when someone older and more cynical looks back half a century, there were lasting changes: While the African American Civil Rights movement ignited nationally and even globally in the 1950s’, the ‘60s’ did see other marginalized communities–Native American and Chicano to name just two–fighting for their rights as citizens and human beings.
And although it was in 1969, not 1968, that the Stonewall riots kicked off the Gay Rights movement, such an uprising in 1959 or 1949 would have been unthinkable.
‘If it feels good, do it.’ While it would be too much to say that the flourishing counterculture of the mid to late ‘60s is responsible for eradicating North America’s Puritan heritage, the elevation of pleasure as a life goal, based on the conviction that all Americans have a medically proven need and right to feel pleasure, has seeped into the common core.
Avid promotion of gambling in both red and blue America, and more recently the embrace of Donald Trump by the Christian Right, are among the more lurid confirmations that the pursuit of pleasure is now winked at in quarters that once railed against the temptations of flesh and lucre.
In national politics, the Democratic Party remains the most immediate venue for progress, and thankfully things ain’t exactly like they used to be. Fifty years ago Hubert Humphry ran in only a handful of primaries, the Party bosses still held the nominating process in their hands.
(While I’m convinced that RFK would have beaten Nixon in the general election, I’m not all sure he would have won the nomination. Mayor Daley liked JFK a lot, his little brother not so much. Without the endorsement from the master of a kind of politics RFK was turning against its not likely Bobby would have won the nomination in Daley’s hometown.)
Half a century later the elimination of first-round voting privileges for superdelegates marks a further blow to the corporate, establishment wing of the Party, leaving the field wide open for any natural born citizen, 35 years and older, who can raise half a billion dollars…
Heartened by the growing majority of Americans who now accept many more and different manifestations of love between consenting adults you may hope that we are progressing towards Dr. King’s mountaintop. So how deep is that crevasse just ahead?
In 1968, with many millions of G.I.s from World War II alive and kicking, the memory of the Shoah was still fresh enough that public expressions of support for Neo-Nazis, veiled or direct, were restricted to the fringes of the political spectrum and parts of the American South. In 2018 they seep out with regularity from the twitter loosened bowels of the White House.
Capitalism as Shapeshifter: The 60s’ most enduring triumph has been a stylistic one: the overthrow of formality. The grand orator, the authoritative voice of the newsreel commentator (not to mention the newsreel itself), the coat and tie in private schools and expensive restaurants, the Anglo-American highfalutin speech of FDR and Margaret Dumont, stuffed shirts, and long sentences with lots of description and comas,—the 60’s put them all on the run, mostly for good.
This has not meant the end of the B.S., falseness, and hypocrisy that formality of all sorts was condemned for. Far from it. In the intervening half century, baby boomers have made casual market driven malarkey the lingua franca of U.S. corporations. Such forward leaning, platform agnostic innovations have been outside the box, highly impactful and totally awesome! Whatever dude.
I don’t know of any prophet who prognosticated fifty or forty years ago that the flowers and rainbows of the avowedly anti-materialistic hippies would be transformed into marking tools for auto and tech companies.
Exhibit A? Steve Jobs and Apple. No suit for Steve, just a turtleneck and jeans on behalf of a company whose Think Different ethos (another word corporatized at some point in the last 50 years) didn’t quite extend to the workers they exploited overseas in ways that would have made fuddy-duddies like Jay Gould and J.P. Morgan proud. From Starbucks to Facebook the huge new companies of the last 50 years have cleared the field of smaller, independent competitors with enough monopolistic ruthlessness to warm the cockles of any starched color robber baron.
On the rare occasions that present-day captains of industry are caught hiding billions in taxable revenue, they gush with indignation. Like empty mystic vessels, America’s semi-divine capitalist ‘innovators’ effortlessly channel the mix of single-mindedness, entitlement, and insatiable greed that was a hallmark of the Gilded Age.
If 1968 was the climax of the widespread questioning of consumerism from (some) members of the middle class, the ensuing half-century has been a testament to the resilience and seemingly endless adaptability of U.S. capitalism. Amidst all of the changes in racial, religious, and sexual mores the economic system underpinning them all has become even more productive, unequal, and cruel.
With the rise of Democratic Socialism, the U.S. economic system—which increasingly resembles Russian style crony capitalism—is facing its biggest challenge since my childhood. I fear for anyone who offers an in-depth understanding of our plutocracy, especially if she or he gets too popular.
The march Dr. King was organizing, the one he never got the chance to lead, was The Poor Peoples’ March on Washington. Going back further, even the great victories for working people won by organized labor from the 1930s through the 1950s were paid for by the expulsion of Communist and Socialist organizers from its ranks.
Memories are what make history live and matter.
Nearly all of the enduring revolutionary ideas that seemed to crescendo in 1968 were progeny, different yet similar in the ways progeny are, of programs for equality that go back to the First International. The activists of ’68 worked from blueprints for liberty and universal dignity drawn up by Carlo Rosselli, Hank Thoreau, Toussaint L’Ouverture, Zera Yacob, and many others.
At 11 years old I daydreamed of being the lone hero, grabbing the assassins’ arms, diverting the shots. In less exalted moments I’d imagine being all grown up, standing on my own two feet. Fifty years later it doesn’t feel like I’m moving on my own two feet at all, and I wonder if my feelings of vertigo are shared. Maybe we all ride on the shoulders of giants who risked everything to build a better world.
High school students from Parkland, Florida, who remember their slain by friends by following Joe Hill’s century-old advice—“Don’t waste time mourning for me boys, organize!” Fearless anti-fascist columns defending old people and children in Charlottesville from hundreds of heavily armed Nazi storm troopers. All over the country, young people are showing their courage and smarts.
As anti-fascist resistance fighter and labor leader Vittorio Foa remarked towards the end of his long life, “Nostalgia is a wonderful thing, as long as it is nostalgia for the future.”