May 01, 2008

Forty Years Later, Undoing ‘68

The rush to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of 1968 (good round-ups here and here) indicates the strange reverence modern Leftists feel for that halcyon year when men were men and boys were violent Marxist radicals.  As unsettling as it is to imagine that there are people who think The Dreamers looks like a fun way to spend a summer, this swell of nostalgia only underlines why even the Left should try to undo the legacy of ‘68.

While it’s true that the SDS-Yippie-Weather Underground axis in America accomplished few of their concrete goals ? the French, at least, did get Henri Langlois hired back ? there’s nothing necessarily wrong with a purely rhetorical revolution except, possibly, that young conservatives are usually bad at it.  (From Cadres for Conservatism: Young Americans for Freedom and the Rise of the Contemporary Right: “…twenty-two YAF members occupied the headquarters of the Resistance, an antiwar group in Boston.  Inside, eight members of the Resistance ‘reacted violently to the liberation.  One member called the Black Panthers…constantly harassed the press…[and] in a final rage, stomped on the California grapes brought by the YAF as a snack.’”  Ouch.)  The real problem with a rosy collective memory of ‘68 is its effect on America’s understanding of “the youth” and their role in politics.

Thinking of the twenty-something demographic as a perpetual political vanguard is dangerous, and not just because it puts our future in the hands of the least wise and most radical.  It frames cultural history as a sequence of battles between two sides: one bright, idealistic, and free-thinking, the other fearful, reactionary, and destined to lose. In this picture of history, it is understandable that older generations should resist cultural changes because, as remnants of an passing era, they could not be expected to understand the youth agenda.  Because their resistance is based on prejudice, they cannot be persuaded to see the merits of something like second-wave feminism or Mad Pride.  This fatalism saves the youth the trouble of explaining themselves?they have only to assert their youth to be placed on the right side of history.

Thinking of history as one long march of progress is bad enough, but thinking of this progress as the gradual elimination of all constraints, stigmas, constructs and prejudices by each new and boldly open-minded generation is worse.  Whether young people are always more liberal than their elders or not, it is still dangerous to imagine that the next generation of liberals ? or conservatives, for that matter ? should be defined by the ideas they had when they were in their twenties, uncorrected by the resistance of their elders.

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