Ethan Kessler: Fifty years since '68

Wednesday, September 12, 2018 - 5:55pm

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Halfway around the world, American warplanes deliver death and destruction to a country torn apart from years of brutal fratricide. Beyond our southern border, a despotic regime silences its critics with batons and bullets alike. With equal amounts flair and frustration, women speak out against a system they view as suffocating and oppressive. And on a scale viewed by many as unprecedented, America’s youth protest Washington’s seeming indifference to the preventable deaths of their peers.

These events collectively comprise the present— the civil war in Syria, violent repression in Nicaragua, the second annual Women’s March and the March for Our Lives—and are all defining moments and stories of 2018. But they are also the past, just as easily characterizations of 1968: the pinnacle of American involvement in the Vietnam War, the year of student-led protests in Mexico City, the Miss America feminist protest and the anti-war riot in Chicago.

Half a century ago, many of the same ideological divisions and systemic inequalities that continue to plague our world came to a boiling point. The United States’ military foray into Vietnam had reached its peak, and the subsequent outrage was, for the first time, becoming popular. From Prague to Paris, from civil rights activists to students and workers, it seemed that there wasn’t enough “Enough!” to go around.

However, 1968 wasn’t just another chapter in the counterculture saga. It was a point of realization for movements that would go on to empower traditionally neglected segments of society, but it also saw many of these movements lose their leaders and face punishment for voicing dissent. The year of 1968 served as a broadcast to those less enthusiastic citizens that massive, peaceful revolt could effect actual progress on a variety of issues, but it also marked a nadir in communion between two Americas that seemed further than ever. These dynamics appear to remain all too true today.

Of course, the idea that history repeats itself is nothing new. So, what makes those events of a half-century ago so unique?  The answer lies in the youth. Those of college (and draft) age in 1968 inhabited a world still adapting to the pressures and influences of television, a technology so widespread that it fundamentally redefined how people saw each other. And just as television reshaped how citizens saw the wars their tax dollars were funding and the protests their governments were suppressing in 1968, social media and widespread internet access have overhauled old methods of mobilizing constituencies and spreading (mis)information in today’s political climate.

Similarly, just as young Americans in 1968 felt the injustice of being shipped off to participate in a war they did not believe in, all the while many were not conferred equal treatment at home, the seminal 2016 presidential election shows how younger Americans today widely feel that the current administration does not reflect their best interests.  

If the parallels between 1968 and 2018 show how well-positioned younger generations are to effect change, then the differences between then and now highlight how far that change has brought us in those 50 years. Five decades ago, America was on the cusp of achieving its current status as a fully democratic republic (in terms of which races and which citizens were granted a place in the electorate) – today, we take those universal liberties for granted as we exercise them, even begrudgingly. Students such as ourselves were the first in this country to enjoy free speech protections that we have the privilege to debate over today, and many did not even enjoy a place at the ballot box. 

So what lessons does our past, particularly that which is simultaneously so close and yet so far, offer us? 1968 shows the youth of today just how large a role was played by their predecessors in reforming the institutions that we now consider fundamental, but it also offers up a cautionary tale to those who dare to question their own ability, and with that their own responsibility, to change the world for the better.

Amid the backdrop of furious antiwar protesters who nonetheless found inadequate support in the public, the misguided presidential nomination of pro-war candidate Hubert Humphrey in August 1968 aptly illustrated the downfall of such disengagement. Enabled by a system that all but shut out the popular opinion of his party, Humphrey’s nomination was characterized by a failure to “ … realize how deep the anger and hatred of the young had become,” and ultimately cost the Democrats the election that year. The “antiwar” victor of the contest, Richard Nixon, would go on to show the liberal youth who stayed home that year the cost of their ambivalence by sacrificing tens of thousands more American souls in Southeast Asia.  

If the social crusades being waged today seem relatively inconsequential, it is because those of the present always appear to be. But we must not forget being at the forefront of public opinion, as young people, also places us at the beginning of change. The fights for better health care, fairer voting laws and more universal discrimination protections today do not loom nearly as large as their previous incarnations, but they will go down as chapters in a horrific history of complacency if they are not fought.

Just as we wonder, with shame, how our country once permitted overwhelming indifference to the lives of its own citizens, allowed states to deny suffrage to millions of voters and stood by while entire demographics were excluded from American life, future generations will not look so kindly upon a generation that does nothing to continue these quests for the sake of posterity.

Committing to a future of greater equality and fairer governance, especially in light of the struggles of a half-century ago and the activism that rose up to meet it, is a noble aspiration that must be led by those with the most to offer. That the window of ideas deemed acceptable and achievable is in a constant state of expansion means that this class of leaders will continue to be drawn from the incubators of youthful spirit, just as it was in 1968. Looking back on that historic year will prepare us to tackle the challenges that lie ahead, as we are most dutifully bound to do.

 

Ethan Kessler can be reached at ethankes@umich.edu.