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1968: the year the dream died

The jig was up, and social revolution fell apart.

By Gerard DeGroot / May 13, 2008

St. Andrews, Scotland

History Often provides an excuse for a party. In Europe and America, romantics are celebrating 1968. It seems that every hotel in Paris is booked for this month's festivities – even the Ritz. Anniversaries have a way of cleansing the past of unpleasantness.

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But what was 1968? In New York, Chicago, Mexico City, Berlin, Paris, and London young people rose up in protest against social and political confines of the time. The ubiquity of revolt encouraged illusions of righteous solidarity.

In truth, instead of being the time when "the movement" came together, 1968 was the year it flew apart, its pieces scattering weird directions. The year was more a death rattle than a glorious birth.

If we must celebrate, let's honor a different year, say 1964. On Dec. 2 that year, Mario Savio stood on the steps of Sproul Hall at the University of California and gave the best speech ever uttered by any '60s radical. "There's a time," he shouted, "when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can't take part. You can't even tacitly take part. And you've got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus – and you've got to make it stop. And you've got to indicate to the people who run it … that unless you're free, the machine will be prevented from working at all."

Those early 1960s radicals revolted against the tyranny of conformity. In an essay, Mr. Savio had complained that "America is becoming ever more the utopia of sterilized, automated contentment. The 'futures' and 'careers' for which American students now prepare are for the most part intellectual and moral wastelands." He essentially questioned the worth of 20 different brands of deodorant if the freedom to shape one's life had disappeared.

When I ask my students today to read Savio, they invariably agree with him. They admit that they live in a world of "sterilized, automated contentment" in which meaningful choices are few. But they also see no point in revolt since, unlike Savio, they have decided that fighting the system is inevitably futile. It's so much easier to stick their headphones in their ears and retreat from the world.