Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Remembering 1968: why do people so love to whine about "the 60s"?

More from Dissent magazine's 1968: Lessons Learned (Spring 2008) symposium.

I have to wonder if the general guidelines for this symposium didn't include instructions to go for a tone of, oh, I was young once and it was grand but now I'm tired and don't really give a s*** about any of that stuff protesters worried about in the 1960s. Because that's how most of these essays come off.

And those are the ones I'm focusing on here. One reason that the "culture war" narrative of the right has the influence that it does is that supposedly "liberal" or "left" critics have been ineffective in criticizing its version of recent history, or share too many of its premises themselves, or maybe are kind of clueless about how obsessed the "culture warriors" are with their version of "the 60s".

Historian Christine Stansell looks at feminism, dating the beginning of the contemporary women's movement from 1968 and the protest at the Miss America pageant. (She doesn't mention it; but I believe that was the only known public protest in, well, ever, which featured burning a bra. But that image has bugged anti-feminists ever since.)

Stansell's essay unfortunately shares the tone of editor Michael Walzer's contribution, griping about those dogmatic lefties and how annoying they were and are. Okay, yes, dogmatism and a self-indulgent apoliticism is found in a lot of places, not just left-leaning reform movements.

But it's hard to see more than a tired cynicism in comments like the following:

Women's liberation broke with the New Left in 1968, but militant feminism retained many of the left's habits and much of its style well into the 1980s: the heavy-handed theorizing, the scorn for compromise, the insistence that life was lived in blacks and whites and not in grays, the penchant for theatrical display, the faith that sheer will could bring about a perfect - or near-perfect - society purged of wrongs, and the scorn for liberalism and government. In 1968 it was widely assumed that nothing good, absolutely nothing, could come from government, which was a shill for the (male) (white) ruling class. In the women’s movement, liberal democracy seemed, if anything, even more alien and contemptible, since there was hardly a woman in sight in high office. ...

The result is an abiding illiberalism, a profound distrust of the normal politics of compromise and maneuver, even as ’68 feminists have done their own compromising and maneuvering working their ways into positions of great influence in the culture. Feminist politics are still seen, by definition, as pressure politics or protest politics, exerting force from outside rather than working on the inside (those dreaded dull words). Female (and feminist) politicians can be useful allies, but in the terms of ’68, by definition they cannot inspire. Which brings us to the odd story of our first serious woman candidate for president, and the feminists who decided not to support her.
Ah, the usefulness of the passive voice! "Feminist politics are still seen" as a bunch on ornery hippies, she writes. Not, "The five people I've known in the last 20 years that fit this description are enough for me to think that feminists are a bunch of sullen, unrealistic misfits." Good grief!

The contribution by Robin Blackburn of the New School for Social Research, at this writing, suffers from an HTML deficiency that leaves most of the page in italics. It's a nice read but it's not much more than a nostalgia piece, as in, hey, remember these references from the past? And there's this, which to me is just conceptually incoherent:

Madison Avenue has long heralded improbable “revolutions” in car design, clothing, and cuisine. Today it celebrates sixties counterculture. In the 1980s Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher turned the tables on the New Left with a market revolution that took "power to the people." David Stockman, Reagan’s budget director, was, like José Manuel Barroso, the market-friendly European Commission president, a former leftist. A center-right or center-left cabinet today is not complete without a Joschka Fischer or Bernard Kouchner. Scratch a neo-con and he turns out to be an ex-Trotskyist or an ex-something else. Bernard-Henri Levy was student gauchiste in 1968.
I suppose I could say it's mind-expanding to see David Stockman, whose leftism consisted of something like saying he was a leftist for a few weeks while he was in college, with Green Party leader Joschka Fischer. Mind-expanding, in the sense of more of a stretch than I can even imagine.

Lilian Rubin of the Institute for the Study of Social Change at UC Berkeley reminds us why we need to avoid oversimplifying in thinking of the women's movement as part of a vague "the 60s":

Peace, freedom, equality, justice were the watchwords of the time. Yet, even among the young male revolutionaries of the New Left, equality didn’t mean the women with whom they worked, studied, and slept.

Indeed, men’s contempt for women, their refusal to take their female comrades-in-arms seriously, was legendary. Stokely Carmichael, a leader in the civil rights struggle replied to a question about the position of women in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) with the single word "prone." A joke, he explained later. Yeah, right.

White men were no better. In one of the most shameful incidents of the time, men at the national convention of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) jeered women who sought a voice in organizational policy off the stage with catcalls, suggesting that their place was either on their backs or at the coffee machines. It was an event that gave impetus to what was then the infant Women’s Liberation Movement, tagged derisively and dismissively by male commentators as “Women’s Lib.”
Unfortunately, the next part of her essay is pretty much devoted to complaining about her impression that younger women tend to have more sex than older women. Gee, young adults think a lot about sex. (So do some not-so-young adults, but let's not go there. )

But I'm at least partially on board with her on the following:

Why does the New York Times feature a half-page, over-the-fold article by Patrick Healy devoted entirely to a derisive accounting of what he calls Hillary Clinton’s various personas, without once mentioning her intelligence, her position on the issues, or her qualifications for the presidency. Why does Carl Bernstein think it’s relevant to remark on her "thick ankles?" Why is the silence deafening when, as Robin Morgan wrote in a recent post, the Clinton-hating Citizens United Not Timid (note the acronym) asked John McCain, "How do we beat the bitch?" and he answered, "Excellent question!" "Would he have dared," Morgan asks, "reply similarly to 'How do we beat the black bastard?'" Now that is an excellent question.
I say "partially", because this frequent sexism/racism comparison is often shallow, as it is in that passage. It's true that Clinton has received much more outrageously bad coverage than Obama. But once Obama became the presumptive nominee, our Big Pundits and various reporters started obsessing about his deeply troubling relationship to that very scary black preacher of his. And the Establishment press has been obsessing about race in general pretty much since the Iowa caucuses where Obama won. Sexism is part of the problem with her press coverage; but the pathology of our mainstream press over the Clintons goes way beyond that.

This photo is from a protest at Santa Clara University in 1970 but it provides a classic "culture war" image

Rubin goes on to talk about the fabled "Bradley effect" in polling, in which whites are reluctant to tell pollsters they are voting against a black candidate, apparently unaware that more recent polling results don't show such an effect in any clear way. From this less-than-solid basis, she goes on to speculate about a similar "Hillary effect", a concept which is at least original to me in that I haven't heard it before. Nor have I heard any actual basis for such a phenomenon, and it appears from the essay itself to be purely Rubin's speculation, and not necessarily a very informed one.

And Rubin, too, seems to be content with this tired piece of conventional wisdom:

Like all revolutionary political movements, feminism had its successes and failures, its excesses and mistakes. We were blind to class-cultural differences at the outset and were quickly labeled as irrelevant to working-class women and women of color. True, they became the beneficiary of our struggle, but to this day they still abjure the feminist label, even while living its gains. In our anger at the hierarchical nature of the family, we failed to grasp sufficiently the hunger for family and connection that animates most people, and in doing so, gave over the "family values" issues to the radical right. We were so concerned with our own cause that we didn’t fully grasp the pitfalls of the movement toward cultural relativism, multiculturalism, and the identity politics that flowed from that. And we enforced a kind of political correctness on ourselves that blinded us to ways of building a broader, more universal coalition.
Other than the reference to women benefiting from feminism in some unspecified way and to the "radical right", I don't see anything in that paragraph that couldn't have come out of the mouth of one of the Christianist spokespeople of today. Rush and his OxyContin-minded buddies all agree that feminists "enforced a kind of political correctness" on themselves.

For Mitchell Cohen, he could have saved himself some typing time by just saying "1968 sucked". The content would have been about the same as his Dissent essay. Except then it wouldn't include the part about the Maoists he apparently met when he was in college or thereabouts who expected a peasant revolution in America. Now, that's a new one on me, though it not clear from his text whether he met someone who actually thought that or whether its his own clever interpretation. Maybe he was talking to a LaRouchie.

Enrique Krauze also writes that 1968 sucked in Mexico, too. Although he does briefly allow:

In contemporary Mexico, thanks to ’68, we have freedom of expression, a press that can analyze and comment on and protest government actions. And thanks to ’68, Mexican women - who were numerous within that student movement - could enter public life with energy and impact, a great historical achievement in a country with Mexico’s machista traditions.
Finally for this post, Vivian Gornick of the Radcliffe Institute does make a good observation here:

Out of this impassioned sense of newness there erupted an explosion of hidden grievance from sections of the body politic - women, gays, students - that had either never, or not in a century, been driven to open rebellion. Again, it was the combination of influences at work that made the outbreak so electrifying. While the conventionally organized left delivered the analysis, it was the over-the-top counterculture brashness that pointed directly at the places where it hurt; made ordinary citizens cry out at other ordinary citizens, Don’t you get it? This is how we feel. And now that we know how we feel, this is how far we intend to go, how many bridges we’re willing to burn. (my emphasis)
When people today grump about how the protests of the 1960s supposedly did more harm than good - I'm thinking in particular of people who say that about antiwar demonstrations - they are often missing the point that the point of protest is to get people's attention and make them think about things in a new way.

When you think that in relatively antiwar cities like Cambridge and San Francisco in late 1967, antiwar referendums could only gain around 40% approval, people who wanted to stop the war had to jar people's thinking about the Vietnam War in a new way because the antiwar activists were in the minority. The same thing was true with civil rights demonstrations.

Unfortunately, much of the rest Gornick's short essay is kind of corny and vague sentimentalism. With this America-centric whopper: "In my view, the liberationist movements of the sixties are America's enduring contribution to twentieth-century internationalism." (my emphasis) I hope she read the essay by German Green Party chairman Ralf Fuecks in the same symposium. Maybe she'll discover that "1968" involved some serious democratic activism in western and eastern Europe as well. He also does a better job of putting the American democratic movements of those days in an international context. Enrique Krauze's essay is not too impressive, but it could at least remind her that "1968" had meaning in Latin America, as well.

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