1968: the year the dream died

The jig was up, and social revolution fell apart.

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.

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.

We tend to forget just how liberal those early student radicals were. The word "liberal" comes from the Latin root liber, which means free. That's all the students wanted. They weren't Marxists, or even socialists. They were simply liberals who wanted to put their country back in touch with the ideals of the American revolution.

To back up a bit, in 1962, the Port Huron Statement, the founding document of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), proclaimed: "We regard men as infinitely precious and possessed of unfulfilled capacities for reason, freedom, and love." On the subject of youthful alienation, the document maintained: "Loneliness, estrangement, isolation describe the vast distance between man and man today. These dominant tendencies cannot be overcome by better personnel management, nor by improved gadgets, but only when a love of man overcomes the idolatrous worship of things by man."

Unfortunately, in the supercharged climate of the 1960s, the call for freedom and love sounded dangerous. The SDS was labeled un-American, when in fact it was quintessentially American. By 1965, frustration was already apparent. A disillusioned Carl Oglesby, SDS president, admitted that, to some, his campaign might seem unpatriotic. "To [them] I say, don't blame me for that! Blame those who mouthed my liberal values and broke my American heart."

Frustration led inevitably to desperation. Thwarted at every turn, student radicals turned increasingly to violence. Theory provided justification: violence, it was claimed, would expose the authoritarian nature of the establishment.

In fact, violence destroyed the purity of the student revolt by opening it up to those who couldn't give a fig for freedom but loved the sound of breaking glass. Violence also gave every nihilist desperado the chance to be a star on the 5 o'clock news.

For the "establishment," the turn to violence was a godsend. Rebellious students could now be easily dismissed. Their misbehavior became justification for ever more repressive measures. Meanwhile, the silent majority cheered the authoritarian backlash.

By 1968, the jig was up: the revolt had been taken over by a group of lunatics in thrall to mayhem and in love with their own television image.

The great irony of the '60s is that a movement that started out as a worthy attempt to revive liberalism ended up as an agent in its destruction.

Gerard DeGroot is a professor of history at the University of St. Andrews. He is the author of "The Sixties Unplugged: A Kaleidoscopic History of a Disorderly Decade."

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