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Certain years acquire an almost numinous quality in collective memory—1789, 1861, 1914. One of the more recent additions to the list is 1968. Its fiftieth anniversary has brought a flood of attempts to recapture it—local, national, and transnational histories, anthologies, memoirs, even performance art and musical theater. Immersion in this literature soon produces a feeling of déjà vu, particularly if one was politically conscious at the time (as I was).
Up to a point, repetition is inevitable. Certain public figures and events are inescapable: the tormented Lyndon Johnson, enmeshed in an unpopular, unwinnable war and choosing to withdraw from the presidential stage; the antiwar candidacies of Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy; the intensifying moral challenges posed by Martin Luther King; the assassinations of King and Kennedy; the racially charged violence in most major cities; the police riot against antiwar protesters (and anyone else who got in their way) at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago; the emergence of right-wing candidates—George Wallace, Richard Nixon—appealing to a “silent majority” whose silence was somehow construed as civic virtue. And the anticlimactic election: the narrow defeat of Hubert Humphrey by Nixon, who promised to “bring us together” without specifying how.
What togetherness turned out to mean was an excruciating prolongation of the war in Vietnam, accompanied by an accelerating animosity toward dissent. The effort to satisfy the silent majority by exorcising the demons of 1968 would eventually lead to the resurgence of an interventionist military policy, the dismantling of what passed for a welfare state, and the prosecution of a “war on drugs” that would imprison more Americans than had ever been behind bars before.
Revisiting this story is important and necessary. But difficulties arise when one tries to identify who those demons actually were. The conventional accounts of radical protest all feature the usual suspects: Tom Hayden, Mark Rudd, Abbie Hoffman, the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the Black Panthers, the Maoists, the Yippies, the devotees of Che. According to this narrative, nearly all the white protesters are privileged draft dodgers from a northern tier of universities that stretched from Cambridge and New York through Ann Arbor and Madison to Berkeley. As hopes for electing an antiwar president fade, they descend into pseudo-Marxist posturing and self-destructive fantasies of violent revolution. A few hapless Weathermen, sectarian spinoffs from the SDS, provide a coda to this story by blowing themselves up in a Greenwich Village townhouse in 1970.
This account provides a comforting balm for supporters of status quo politics, but it misses the larger meanings of radical protest—its pervasiveness, its heterogeneity, above all its religious roots and significance. The religious dimension of American radicalism was what separated it from the student uprisings in Paris and other European cities during the spring of…
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