Monday, May 12, 2008

Remembering 1968: Marshall Berman

Planet of the Apes: a film icon from 1968

I've been reading through the essays remembering 1968, or maybe I should put it in quotation marks as "1968", that Dissent magazine published in its Spring 2008 edition. The essays try to make some kind of link between the experiences of 1968 and today's politics. Some succeed better than others. Dissent, from what I know of it, is more-or-less a liberal hournal with hawkish leanings but not neocon.

I found only two of the ten essays to be substantial. Most of them don't rise much above the level of entertainment, reciting familiar images from the 1960s and drawing fairly conventional conclusions phrased abstractly enough so that people could read considerably different interpretations into them. Most of them also didn't seem to make much effort to root their conclusions in any careful reading of the history of that period.

I plan to do two more posts after this one on the Dissent essays. This one is about one of the two essays I really liked. The next will be about the remaining run-of-the-mill ones. And the last one will be about the one that easily stands out as the best of the ten.

Marshall Berman, who I've read is some kind of Marxist but I don't really know, (and who knows what "Marxist" may even mean these days?) manages to say something coherent about what he thinks "1968" to mean:

Charles Dickens, at the start of A Tale of Two Cities, his novel of the French Revolution, portrays 1789 as a magical year that crystallized "the best of times" and "the worst of times" within itself. Living through 1968 in America felt like this, though "the best" was concentrated in the year’s first half, and "the worst" in its last. "The best" of 1968 - indeed, the whole idea of "1968" - lay in the fusion of the mass movement against the Vietnam War with cultural currents that had flourished and grown all through the 1960s. The clichés that our mass media used to describe them - "the counterculture," "sex, drugs, rock-and-roll," "the greening of America" — for once conveyed something real. The uncanny feeling of "1968," of what it was like to be here then, was that somehow, maybe for fifteen minutes, all these pretentious labels were real.
Whatever "ism" Berman subscribes to, he has a decent observation here about the civil rights movement starting in the 1950s:

Their crucial idea, which they themselves may not have fully grasped, was doing politics in the street. Street life gradually took on a new meaning, a new gravity and depth. Early in the sixties, street fairs came from nowhere and throve everywhere, in cities all over the country; everywhere they revealed a thickness and richness of street life that nobody had thought was there. This surprise upgrading of the street was the back-story behind the great sixties street romances of Jane Jacobs, of Paul Goodman, of Motown's "Dancing in the Street." Our real "urban renewal" was that Americans came to recognize their city streets as public space, as the heart of democratic life. Without anybody planning it, the streets of the sixties became the greenhouses where both our antiwar movement and our counter-culture grew.
He recalls some of the key events that made 1968 become "1968" in terms of cultural and political events: the antiwar Presidential campaigns of Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy; Martin Luther King's Poor People's Campaign; Johnson's decision not to seek re-election over the Vietnam War (something men the caliber of Dick Cheney and George W. Bush would never have considered, obviously - and I don't mean that as a compliment to them!); the assassinations of King and Kennedy; Hubert Humphrey's nomination and Dick Nixon's victory.

Berman observes:

The presidential election that brought Nixon to power, and 1968 to an end, disclosed another crucial feature of the sixties that I and people on the left would rather leave out: our streets and our cities were turning into very violent places; if they were greenhouses, many of their plants were poison. Then as now, most discourse about urban violence (and there was plenty) blamed lower-class blacks. But the November triumph of Nixon and his demagogic "Southern strategy," a long-term disaster that still poisons American political life, grew directly out of violence perpetrated by left/liberal middle-class whites against other left/liberal middle-class whites. (my emphasis)
Here he is referring to the conflicts that shook the Democratic Party in particular, presumably including the toxic images from the "police riot" in Chicago perpetrated by Democratic Mayor Richard Daley's police on antiwar demonstrators.

That last reference provides his link to the current Presidential campaign:

Can’t they see that whoever gets nominated, these two will have to work together over the long haul? Don’t they know they need each other? They have a future together, and all of us have a future with them - and with John Edwards as well. In the winter of '08, many smart people seem to be losing touch with what they know. The learned ignorance of this moment gives me the creeps. It takes me back to the McCarthy-Kennedy campaign, and the Siege of Chicago, and "We blew it," and Nixon taking over; that’s my Déjà vu All Over Again. I hope Clinton and Obama will get a grip, and help us all overcome 1968.
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"It is the logic of our times
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