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It was a very weird year



Out of the thousands of years of recorded time, very few dates stand out as more than merely random digits. 1066, 1492, 1776, 1789, 1848, 1989, 2001 — each was an annus mirabilis, a wondrous year of extraordinary events.  (A few world historical jerks stand out as anus mirabilis, but that is another matter). It might require centuries to take the full measure of one year’s impact, but another date that thus far at least seems indelibly imprinted in the collective memory is 1968. That fitful, fateful year — of assassinations, instigations, and much else – is being commemorated and interrogated in Austin, the city that manages to function uncomfortably as both the capital of a belligerently red state and a theme park for what came to be known as “the 60s.” To “keep Austin weird” means to keep it less like the rest of Texas than like Berkeley, Boulder, and Madison, other towns in which the spirit of antic opposition lives on.

On October 7 and 10-12, the University of Texas at Austin will host an interdisciplinary conference titled “1968: A Global Perspective.” (For complete information, consult Calibrating that global perspective will be prominent scholars such as Kristin Ross of NYU, Michael Hardt of Duke University, and Diana Sorensen of Harvard University. But likely to draw the largest and liveliest audiences will be separate public talks by Daniel Ellsberg and Kathleen Cleaver. In 1968, Ellsberg, now 77, possessed a high-level security clearance as an analyst for the RAND Corporation. Disillusioned with American policy in Vietnam, on which as an official in the Pentagon and then the State Department, he had become an expert, he leaked to the New York Times 7,000 pages of classified documents that exposed callousness, cynicism, and duplicity by those committing American lives and treasure to combat in Southeast Asia. Known as the Pentagon Papers, they helped turn public opinion against the war and the Nixon administration. In 1968, Cleaver was the spokesperson for the militant Black Panthers and married to Eldridge Cleaver, a Panther leader who was then running for president as nominee of the Peace and Freedom Party. After a shootout with police, the Cleavers fled California for Algeria. Eventually, Kathleen Cleaver returned to the United States, went back to school, divorced Eldridge, and became a legal scholar. She currently serves on the faculty of the Emory University School of Law.

Complementing the conference is “Celluloid for Social Justice,” a series of nonfiction films about the 1960s. In addition, UT’s Blanton Museum is mounting two related exhibitions: “Reimagining Space: The Park Place Gallery Group in 1960s New York” and “The New York Graphic Workshop: 1965-1970.” And an exhibition called “To the Moon: The American Space Program in the 1960s“ can be seen at the LBJ Library and Museum. Furthermore, exhibitions of period Texas poster art and about the SDS are running at the UT Center for American History.

The median age of the American population is 36.7, which means that personal memories of 1968 are, like lava lamps, specialized possessions, quaint curios that arouse scant curiosity in anyone but another collector. In 1968, few cared to listen to ancients blathering about Rudy Vallee, Al Smith, Clara Bow, and other relics of 1928. And today, nostalgic rhapsodies on the themes of Tiny Tim, Don Drysdale, and Tuesday Weld seem just as quaint. Much ado is being made of 1968 merely because 40 years have now passed. Though a 40th (ruby) anniversary is less precious than a 50th (gold), it would be risky to ask some of the aging survivors to wait another ten years. But our numerical system, based on decimals, is arbitrary. If we happened to count in units of twelve instead of ten, 48 would be the new 40, and 60 would be more golden than 50.

Yet for all the whimsy of  anniversaration, we all have much to learn from 1968. Baby Boomers need to free themselves from narcissistic memory loops and meet history with honesty. Everyone needs to study the past in order to cease repeating the mistakes of the past. Consider the striking parallels and continuities between 1968 and 2008. A widely reviled Texan sitting in the White House. A secretive vice presidential candidate, exploiting fears of chaos, condoning repressive tactics (“Confronted with the choice,” declared Spiro Agnew, later forced to resign in disgrace, “the American people would choose the policeman's truncheon over the anarchist's bomb”). The United States mired in a long, costly, unnecessary war. Russian troops invading a sovereign state. The United States and North Korea growling at each other in a tense diplomatic stand-off.

History vanishes into caricature. The “Roaring Twenties” did not roar always and for everyone. For all its prudery, the Victorian Age was awash in pornography. To the popular imagination, 1968 is ground zero of the 1960s, and the 1960s persist as a psychedelic cartoon of resistance, rebellion, and death. An era of beatific hippies, its countercultural credo was: “All you need is love.” Hair, which called itself “the first tribal-love-rock musical,” premiered, and so did Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. An anti-war march on the Pentagon in November, 1968 drew 500,000 participants. “All we are saying,” said John Lennon a few months later, during his week-long bed-in with Yoko Ono, “is give peace a chance.” Yet, during 1968, 13,000 Americans and more than 27,000 South Vietnamese were killed in a war in which more than a million North Vietnamese eventually lost their lives. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy were each assassinated in 1968, and, though Sears & Roebuck removed toy guns from its Christmas catalog, violent crime in the United States rose 57 percent from the beginning of the decade. Racial strife exploded in urban riots in more than 100 American cities, before passage of the Fair Housing Act. Major civil disorders also erupted in France, Germany, and Jamaica. Police and military forces massacred hundreds of student demonstrators in the Tlatelolco area of Mexico City, Soviet tanks deflated the euphoria of the Prague Spring, and “The Troubles” began in Northern Ireland. It was a year of violent cataclysms and irenic aspirations. Like most others.

As a boozy member of Skull and Bones at Yale, George W. Bush experienced 1968 quite differently than Sierra Club Director Carl Pope, who spent the year as a Peace Corps volunteer in India; or than novelist Tim O’Brien, who spent it on combat duty in Vietnam; or than Debra Dene Barnes, who was crowned Miss America amid a tumultuous feminist protest; or than Julie Nixon, who married David Eisenhower, grandson of the president her father served as vice president; or than activist Daniel Cohn-Bendit, who led a student revolt in France; or than athlete Tommie Smith, who gave a black power salute after winning the 200-meter dash at the Mexico City Olympics; or than Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gurgarin, who was killed in a training flight crash; or than poet Louise Glück, who published her first book, Firstborn. The Gregorian calendar determined that there were 366 days in 1968, but population growth ensured 3 ½ billion separate stories. No conference could comprehend the entirety of a single year. The soundtrack of 1968 is a motley mix of Joan Baez, Perry Como, Ella Fitzgerald, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Loretta Lynn, Frank Zappa, Lawrence Welk, and the Beatles.

Those old enough to remember 1968 but spry enough to remain alert today tend to be possessive about it. It is their lost youth, after all, and, like The Who, who sang their resentment  of anyone else “talkin’ ‘bout my generation,” they prefer to do the talking themselves. And they often talk themselves into a Golden Age of love and freedom, in which doing your own thing was the only thing to do. Others begrudge endless talking by and about that generation. At the risk of adding another clunk to the din, I share one vivid memory of 1968. 

I was sitting in a class at the University of California at Berkeley. Professor Warren Ramsey, a solemn, elderly scholar, was lecturing, en français, about the stylistic nuances of André Malraux. It was a crisp autumn day, and the windows were open (Before air conditioning became universal oppression, windows were not just decorative devices). Suddenly, amid the echo of chants and shouts, tear gas began wafting into the room. Opposition to the war and university policies had made demonstrations, some of which I participated in, a common occurrence on the Berkeley campus, and tear gas often lingered in the trees long enough to be joined by another day’s noxious spray. On this particular afternoon, the tear gas seeping into the classroom was strong enough to justify its name, but Professor Ramsey continued lecturing, apparently oblivious to the acrid chaos invading his space.

Forty years later, a professor myself, I admire Ramsey’s stoical dedication to the life of the mind, his heroic refusal to surrender to momentary distractions. But I also remain astonished by his utter indifference to the urgencies of contemporary life. And it is possible to cherish the memory of 1968 as an oasis of passionate idealism while remaining appalled by its excesses and naïveté. 

Nostalgia was built into 1968 even as it was being experienced. “Those were the days, my friend,” sang Mary Hopkin, in a hit recording that was released on August 30, 1968. “We thought they’d never end.” But they did end. And they never will.

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