Echoes of 1968

Linked with Todd Gitlin – USA;

Published on Columbia Spectator online, by Todd Gitlin, March 24, 2008.

In 1976, on a visit to Columbia, I was surprised to spot, on a wall of the Journalism building abutting college walk, the spectral remains of the spray-painted initials sds. Thirty years on, those faded letters have long since vanished, but it feels to me frequently that the specter of 1968’s convulsive events still haunts the campus, dimly echoing Matthew Arnold’s alarms of struggle and flight where once ignorant armies clashed by day and night …

… For years, observers have deplored (or celebrated!) the apparent acquiescence of America’s youth, so much less committed and colorful than the insurgents of yore. But it seems to me, more often, that the practicality of today’s students is worthy and justified, though sometimes extreme. They are self-preoccupied, true. Sometimes beyond reason or empathy, they are too cynical even if they disguise their detachment as irony. But there is also a graceful compensation. Most of the more idealistic activists want results more than self-expression. They gravitate toward service – a healthy impulse.


But making a difference is largely something that individuals do when they pool their commitments. And so it is bracing to watch students reinvigorate party politics by putting movement-style energy and principle to work in institutions previously as fossilized as the Democratic Party. In 2004 and 2006, recognizing that no progress was imaginable as long as the Bush alliance of plutocrats, theocrats, and empire-builders ruled Washington unimpeded, thousands of them volunteered in favor of antiwar Democrats. Now, legions enlist in the focused insurgency of the Obama campaign.

The 00s can’t be the 60s and ought not to be, any more than the 60s could be, or should have been, the 20s. The present campaign makes plain that the commitments of 40 years ago are still working their way through our imperfect union. No wonder: what erupted then was incendiary, deep and long-burning. What was at stake, what remains at stake, were and are long-buried conflicts over American principles, over the meaning of freedom, race, nation, sex, and obligation. Since the past only exists in the present, retro politics are not what we need. We do not have ceremonies of innocence to commemorate. If we aspire to clarity and ingenuity, we do not need them. (full text).

(The author is a professor of journalism and sociology and the author of 12 books including The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage and Letters to a Young Activist).

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