I’m just old enough to remember a bit of what 1968 felt like in the moment. Despite everything that’s happened in subsequent years, there’s never quite been another in which so much upheaval and so many traumas coincided with the expression of so much hope and wonder, as the generations clashed, and the rival forces of progress and conservatism met head-on all around the Western World, and beyond, on battlefields both civil and military.
So many shocks to the system. It was early in 1968 that Americans woke up to the ugly reality that they weren’t going to win the Vietnam War, as they watched the Tet Offensive on the news and were fed images like this one, taken during the battle for Hue:
Or this, from the siege of Khe Sanh,
and began to pay closer attention to the endless planeloads of body bags coming home. They were winning all the battles, yet still not winning, and the urge grew for an end to it all, and for a politician who could extricate the country from the mess in South East Asia. Restlessness on this and a number of scores related to all manner of cultural upheavals, and especially race, led to widespread civil protest and disobedience. Everywhere, people were rising up, most famously the youth of the post-war baby boom, who were coming of age, feeling their political and economic power grow, and looking to demolish the status quo (perhaps ironically, considering the extent to which they later embraced and then became the status quo). They made themselves heard all over the world, whether it was by way of mass youth protest as occurred during the “Student Revolt” in France,
or during the chaos that ensued as protestors descended on Chicago that year to assail conventional politics as being perpetuated at the Democratic National Convention. “The whole world’s watching“, they chanted, before being met with a crushing response from Mayor Daly’s pitiless riot cops – shock troops, practically – in a mass beat-down that was soon characterized as a “police riot”:
Protest even extended to athletics, as 200 metre medalists Tommie Smith and John Carlos, like the NFL players who today take a knee, used the podium at the 1968 summer olympics in Mexico to bring attention to racial injustice in America, raising their fists in the Black Power salute:
This cry for justice was widely portrayed as an outrage.
To the East, there was a wholly unexpected move towards liberalization inside what was then the Warsaw Pact, as Czechoslovakia under Alexander Dubček promoted a package of reforms that inaugurated what came to be known as the “Prague Spring”. In the end this accomplished nothing beyond provoking the all too predictable military crackdown from the Soviets, whose tanks rolled in while people took vainly to the streets:
Farther East still, and barely noticed by the publics of the West, Chairman Mao was ruthlessly prosecuting his Cultural Revolution in the People’s Republic of China, essentially a set of purges that would leave millions dead.
It wasn’t all unremitting horror show; there were astonishing technological advances, as exemplified by the space program generally, and by particularly awe-inspiring machines like the Saturn V rocket, and the Anglo-French Concorde, the first (and so far only) practical supersonic transport ever to provide trans-Atlantic service.
There was never a richer era for popular entertainment, either, as the Beatles continued to soar, the modern police drama was more or less invented with Bullitt (in which Steve McQueen, surely the coolest white dude ever to draw breath, tore up the streets in an epic car chase that still resonates today), and Kubrick blew our minds with 2001: A Space Odyssey, an epic work of dense and thoughtful science fiction that demanded far more of the audience than would ever be expected today:
In Canada, we had the buoyant, bubbly high of Trudeau-mania, and for a while we all believed that our politics were going to be transformed by a philosopher king who would take us into a new era of progressive enlightenment, while reconciling English Canada with an increasingly restive Quebec:
Finally, at the very end of the year, the astronauts of Apollo 8, the first mission to orbit the Moon, rounded the other side and snapped this image, which quite literally altered the general public’s consciousness of just where we stood in the Universe, all of us here on our fragile, finite, beautiful blue marble:
We’ve never been the same since. I remember seeing that photo in Life magazine, and responding, even as a kid, to the tremendous optimism at the heart of the Apollo program. I’ll never forget their Christmas message, delivered during the return voyage, when they wished peace and well-being for “everyone, everyone on the good Earth”. Not for their fellow Americans. Everyone. From where they sat, in their small technological bubble of air and warmth suspended in the void, there was no more room for the petty, yet increasingly deadly squabbles of home. There was only one pretty little blue ball, and all of us had to share it.
I’ll never forget that.
Yet it was largely a horrible time, it really was. Apart from all the wars, riots, protests, and other apparent symptoms of a complete breakdown of the global social order, there were the assassinations. The assassinations were psychologically shattering. The era’s most potent agents of change were being felled. First, Martin Luther King was shot dead in Memphis,
and then, as if we hadn’t suffered enough, as if somebody was trying to see just how much it would take to break us, there was Bobby. It’s Bobby Kennedy I’m thinking of today, and the parallels between the struggles of 1968 and the distemper of our present time seem far too close for comfort.
Young, charismatic, a gifted orator and embodiment of the hopes and dreams of so many who still wanted to believe that the political process could produce meaningful change, especially the young, Bobby bid fair to turn the world on its ear in 1968. He was going to be President, we all thought so; once he was in the White House he was going to cement the social gains achieved by Johnson’s Great Society initiatives, foster the further expansion of civil rights, end the war in Vietnam, and generally leave justice everywhere in his wake. He was exciting, he was irresistible, and having won the California primary he seemed destined to take the Presidential nomination for the Democrats in Chicago. Standing there in the ballroom of the Ambassador hotel in L.A., he basked in the adulation of the crowd, and seemed all but coronated.
“Now it’s on to Chicago, and let’s win there!”, he exclaimed into the microphone before exiting. The last words we ever heard from him. Minutes later, this was the awful tableaux, and it’s a picture we’ve all seen, all of us of a certain age, anyway:
It was over. All that hope, it had all seemed so close, and everybody knew California wasn’t going to be the end, not before an angry kid identified in the press as Sirhan Sirhan pulled out his pistol.
We got Nixon instead.
After his funeral, they took Bobby’s remains by train to his burial site at Arlington, and that day, whoever you were, whatever your politics, race, or age, you mourned. People lined the tracks for miles to pay their respects and mark the moment. Whole families turned out to salute.
I don’t know that we’ll ever see anything like it again. Moving as it was, we shouldn’t want to.
Why does this memory resonate so powerfully with me today? I was only just barely conscious of any of it at the time, being then all of six or seven years old, and in a lot of ways it had nothing to do with me or anybody I knew, growing up in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Yet it did. It had to do with everybody, everywhere, and if it registered only faintly at the time, you learned about it more deeply in later years, and wondered at what could have been, how different everything might have turned out if it had been Bobby instead of Nixon. Today I’m reminded of that time most powerfully, because today, there is another.
Her name is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and if you’ve never heard about her, you will soon. She’s 28, just a kid out of the Bronx, and she’s come out of nowhere to become a mortal lock to win a seat in the next Congress. Having won her own primary, she then won the race in the Congressional district next to hers, even though she wasn’t a candidate, and not eligible to accept the nomination – people wrote in her name on their ballots anyway. Her influence already extends well beyond New York, and people are coming out to hear her in droves, as far away as San Francisco, where she’ll be in no position to help them much, even if she wins her seat – not yet, at least.
Not yet. That’s just it. Everybody can feel it. She’s brilliant, charismatic, and she’s going to go far. She advocates what so many millions want, and can never seem to get from the current workings of the political process. She thinks every working wage should be a living wage, that housing should be a human right, that health care should be provided free by the government to everybody, that financial institutions should be more strictly regulated, that guns should be more tightly controlled, and all kinds of things that those I’ve come to refer to as the Grey Men will oppose with every resource at their disposal. Over at Fox News, she’s already being portrayed as a seductive incarnation of the Devil, promising outrageous things that the gullible masses are too stupid to realize they can’t really have. Sean Hannity, ever the moron, displayed a graphic list of her policy proposals that was actually quite accurate, expecting that all reasonable people would of course recoil in horror from the woman’s nutty ideas:
“Pretty much!” Ocasio-Cortez tweeted in response.
To Hannity and his kind, she represents everything that needs to be contained and eradicated, a poison pill dipped in an unfortunately beguiling sugar coating. She’s young. She’s Hispanic. She’s a woman. She’s a social democrat. She’s Bernie Sanders in a new and highly appealing 28 year old package, as articulate as she is smart, and people are starting to listen to her and get all excited.
Arrayed against her is a maniac in the Oval Office; a Congress so paralytically corrupt it has almost no analog in democratic history; a white society rediscovering the atavistic joys of racism; the beneficiaries of income inequality severe enough to put one in mind of the age of the great Robber Barons; billionaires like the Koch brothers pulling all the strings; policymakers who would keep American forces in combat endlessly, all over the world; and an appalling clique of old white politicians, exploiting to the hilt the legislative seats made safe for them by relentless voter suppression and gerrymandering. Even now, sensing their moment, they’re racing to legislate repeated injustices, from assaults on the environment and the deregulation of everything and anything, to tax cuts for the rich, and they’re especially keen to stack the courts, including the Supreme Court. When they’re done, the judiciary will be lousy with grim idealogues who’ll cement the damage the Grey Men do for decades to come.
These people mean to hold tight to their gains. The more traction she gains, the more powerfully she grips the public imagination, the more they’ll lie about what she stands for, and strain to foment hatred and fear against her.
These are very troubled times, and if it isn’t yet comparable, it’s starting to feel a bit like 1968. Now, as then, a demographically massive generation, the Millennials, is coming of age, and beginning to sense its own political and economic power. Now, as then, we see widespread dissatisfaction with the status quo, and mass protests across America hoping to force change. Now, as then, endless un-winnable wars seem to have US forces mired everywhere, playing whack-a-mole with intractable enemies. Now, as then, politics are completely polarized between right and left, with a supposed “silent majority” in the middle nowhere to be found. Now, as then, a young voice arrives to promise real, meaningful change, and everybody knows that representing the Bronx isn’t going to be the end. I suppose that should make me hopeful; but I think back to 1968, and what it makes me feel most is afraid for her.