Why do so many people today dismiss the courage and imagination of
the struggles that shook every corner of the globe in 1968?
by Mark Steel
May 5, 2008
THE SPIRIT of 1968 was lost on me, because at the time I was in an
all-white junior school in Kent. I wish I could remember the
headmaster bawling in assembly, "Whoever it was who used fuzzy felt
to make surrealist graffiti will be severely punished," but I don't
think it happened.
Somehow the atmosphere found its way through, though. Most of us
loved Muhammad Ali and Martin Luther King, although we can't have
known anything about civil rights. And even if we'd been told about
segregation, we'd have gone, "Wow--they get to sit at the back of the
bus all the time--can we be negroes, miss?"
Clearly something big and exciting was happening, yet the most common
appraisal of the time now is to dismiss it as a frivolous episode
involving a few hippies and students.
Partly this is because many of the articles are written by posh
ex-radicals, who fill magazines with pompous drivel like, "For I and
my fellow compatriots of the Harrovian Order of Revolutionary
Iguanas, it was a time of infinite mental universalness. We'd read
Pitkin's essays on biscuitology, we staged a production of The
Tempest in which all the characters were spring onions, and debated
'This House supports Woldemort's theories of elongatable pugnocity'
with such vivacity we had to capture the cleaner and bury him alive
in the forest to calm ourselves down."
Another problem is that some figures from the time are now prominent
members of the establishment. And they try to claim they're still
pursuing the egalitarian ideals of their youth, but in a modern
globalized setting, which is why they're thrilled to have landed the
contract for selling land mines to the military police in Burma.
And then there's the image of the whole period as revolving around
hippies and rock festivals. But they were only one side of a movement
that shook dozens of governments, undermined wars and threatened both
major superpowers. It would be like saying the period between 1939
and 1945 mostly involved a concert in Oldham by George Formby.
For example, in May 1968, the French general strike was the biggest
to have ever taken place in the world, and started with a mass
meeting of autoworkers. Or maybe the union meeting began, "Brothers,
sisters, dudes, hey, look at the colors on this carburetor. Those in
favor raise your hand." And the strike's demands were five vibes an
hour, rising to seven and three-quarters for overtime.
Similarly, in the United States, the antiwar campaign involved more
than the festival at Woodstock. By 1968, the most prominent
characters were ex-soldiers who'd been in the war and the Black
Panthers, which eventually caused disarray in the U.S. Army, as
one-third of soldiers were Black and were unenthusiastic about
fighting for a country that didn't let them eat at the same table as whites.
The sense of revolt spread to almost every country, so hundreds of
Mexicans were gunned down for opposing the regime, and a civil rights
movement began in Northern Ireland to challenge discrimination
Then, in Czechoslovakia, a reforming government was crushed by
Russian tanks, and protesters put flowers in the barrels of the
soldiers' guns. Even this, while sounding hippieish, would be an
ideal way to protest in today's busy, time-conscious world, because
even if you were too rushed to demonstrate, you could send your
protest by Interflora.
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YET ALL this courage and imagination is dismissed by so many, such as
one columnist who recently derided the whole movement as
So Martin Luther King and the protesters in Prague and the French
strikers could have stopped themselves getting so worked up if they'd
just learned to enjoy a little "me" time. And then the Viet Cong
could be laid out, one by one, while a shrink said gently, "So when
your family owned half an acre of a rice field and shared a mule, and
then the mule was napalmed--did this make you angry in any way?"
Another writer complained that 1968 was a vile year because it had
saddled us ever since with "horrid anti-authoritarianism." Because
life's so much less horrid if people just put up with having tanks
roll over them, or with being made to wait for a Blacks-only
ambulance without making a fuss.
The other accusation made against 1968 is that it made no difference.
But in one regard, it must have done, because from the antiwar
movement and gay liberation campaigns to its wildest hippiest forms,
the events of that year suggested to a generation that if you're
unhappy with the unfairness of the world, the best thing to do is
something yourself. Alternatively, you could hope it's put right by
Gordon Brown, or David Cameron, or that other one.