For those contemporaries sharing a length of life similar to Mary and me, we are at a fifty year mark from the year 1968 and we clearly remember the impact that year had on our lives. Anniversaries as such are instances for reflection and sometimes celebration. Is there much to celebrate in comparing the two years, 1968 and 2018? It seemed useful and interesting to me to look at that year and see how (or whether) the incidents occurring fifty years ago have been resolved or evolved to their present state.
There are three basic persons in my audience to address this comparison. There are those who are those contemporary friends who had just graduated from high school like Mary or had graduated from college like me that year, or perhaps they graduated a few years earlier…we were looking at early adulthood in 1968 and managing all those choices associated-with possible jobs, future spouses, or recent marriages, and how we were going to address the myriad issues facing the world, the States and our lives as a result. Those are not slight issues to consider. Then, there are those in the audience who had not yet been born in 68, but who, in 2018, are nearing middle age. You have already addressed those early life issues and the year 1968 may be viewed as mythical one, one in the historical rear view mirror that intrigues and brings to mind its youthful music scene, the Hippy generation, the drug scene and the time when the political world of the United States started its downward trajectory towards the lamentable state in which we find ourselves today. Then, the third audience members are those current students and recent graduates entering their early adulthood for whom 68 is ancient history, as are the antique acquaintances present in their lives who lived it and sometimes talk about it. How will they look back fifty years from now and measure this year? They have yet to make their important life stage decisions facing them in the next decade. How is 2018 going to influence those decisions? It is wearing on me, but it has been nothing like the annus horribilis of that earlier year.
In 1968 Mary graduated just after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. and two days later Robert Kennedy was shot in her home town at a venue she knew well. I had just finished my college basketball career (in that year Lew Alcindor played for UCLA and played in the first nationally televised basketball game in Houston against that team-this game was a harbinger of March Madness) and was in a car with four black basketball-playing friends when the radio announced the murder of MLK. 1968 being an Olympic year and the Games held in Mexico, basketball was still a major focus in my life, as was my getting a physical to determine my fitness for military service and the on-going draft at that time (you can imagine how important the Vietnam War was for us of draft age). Just after RFK was murdered, I and fourteen other recent graduates from the area colleges donned USA jerseys to play against the Mexican Olympic team as their warm up to the games later that summer. We traveled along the Mexican border towns playing international rules and having fun with the local cuisine and liquids. Those games in Mexico City are most remembered, perhaps, because of two raised black fists and a supporting Australian sprinter who wore their emblem on his jersey. All of us who had come of age by 1968 know where we were when JFK, MLK and RFK were killed. After MLK was shot,
the United States’ black population once again seethed, rioted, reacted to racial injustice and formed groups that were determined to make their marks. The Black Panthers, Malcolm X, Stokley Carmichael and the Black Nationalist movement all eclipsed the work of the NAACP. MLK’s relatively elevated agitation and escalation of demands paled in comparison to these more radical groups. For Latinos, La Raza was an important voice and the efforts of Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta and the National Farm Workers Union brought Latino discrimination and social conditions to the fore and into the business and governmental negotiating rooms. Recently La Raza rebranded itself to assume an altered reality in today’s America, less confrontational and hoping to still be the voice of the brown vote. Here is a rundown of the significant events by the month.
It was not only in America that youth were speaking out and carrying their arguments to the streets. In Paris particularly, but more disturbingly in Prague, the liberal ideas voiced in those two cities met with strong condemnation. One by the leadership of Charles DeGaulle and the other by the reactions of the Soviet Union. Czechoslovakia was pushed back decades in that year, not coming back to the liberal world in government until the Velvet Revolution in the early 90s. The French will have to do with the loss of their Algerian province, as well as the weakening hold on all of their colonial possessions. All countries were looking for self-rule and untethering from colonial control and they either sought out the United States or the USSR for assistance. Those diplomacy games were not played nicely and the wars fought around the world had the taint of Cold War in their prosecution. While the fall of the Wall seemed to be a harbinger of change, one could argue the US mismanaged the end of the Cold War and it is now heating up again. I could be that one of the weapons in that war is a video tape yet to surface.
China was in its Cultural Revolution, shutting down any remnants of Western life in the country. It will be the last gasp of Mao before Deng Xiaoping reforms China’s markets and it opens up to the world in the 90s. The Democratic Convention in Chicago that year was a horrible example of democracy at work. North Korea captured the USS Pueblo that led to one of the most dangerous confrontations between the USA and the Kim regime. My Lai was one of our country’s worst military disasters, leading to the prosecution of its perpetrators as war criminals. Today, North Korea is still a major wart on the world’s diplomatic scene, Conventions are now no longer necessary it seems, and one wonders how the franchise is going to be protected, respected and if those voters can be trusted with the legitimacy of their efforts to gain sufficient information to make their valuable vote focused on the economic, environmental and existential future of the United States….and the world (for we Americans wield more power than most other citizens in affecting these three factors on the world stage).
While much of the world in 1968 was tense about socialism, independence movements, youthful liberal movements and frustration with the American involvement in Vietnam, America’s politicians were consumed by what was best for themselves. The Gulf of Tonkin vote demonstrated the Congress’ anemic attempts at securing the truth before escalating a war. How different was their ineptitude when compared to the spineless Congress who has not held a most reckless president accountable. In Vietnam, This was the first televised war and NBC provided video content to our home television screens that eventually became an indictment to the war’s prosecution. Imagine a news anchor today having the influence Walter Cronkite did when he called out LBJ’s administration and opined that the war was not going to be won. Johnson knew he was in trouble.
The Beatles had matured and released the White album, while the Supremes traveled to Berlin to perform in that still-walled city. Led Zeppelin performed its first public concert. 2001 A Space Odyssey was released and we are now nearly two decades past its prescient elements in 2018. Yale was about to admit its first females. The requirement to wear seat belts became law. The Jumbo Jet came into service. Rowan and Martin debuted in 1968 as a harbinger to political sketch comedy that has blossomed into the myriad voices that sometimes serve as the news in today’s comedy world. The Graduate was both a great movie and a lens on our world. Think of ‘plastics’ as a job opportunity and wonder today at how much of this stuff we have clogging up our world to the determent of everything. Then there is the duo Simon and Garfunkel and the other great artists of that year that are classic today and still revered. Women’s Rights groups became more important, more focused and more politically relevant. Today we are seeing a much needed rejuvenation of their efforts and we can hope for more progress, finally.
In comparison, then, even though race relations were raw and blacks and latinos took to the streets and the government buildings to chant their displeasure or call for their own narrow populist solutions in some instances, the black and brown vote matters today. The GOP has been very aware of this for the past fifty years and it has done a dismal job of seesawing between its Southern Strategy, trying to build a broader tent and being more compassionate, and MAGA. Today’s GOP is in complete disarray. It hopefully looks poised for a massive drubbing in November, which should take it to the point of redressing, yet again, its tent pole spreading discussion that it ignored in 2008. It banked on the white reaction to a black president, was surprised, lost some to Never Trump or leaving the party- if surprised is the correct word and historians will belabor a better phrase for decades to arrive at a satisfactory description- when Trump won and each Republican no matter how low or high has been trying to figure out who she is, what the party stands for and if they even are Republicans in its MAGA world.
Of course, the efforts since 68, with Nixon’s Southern Strategy, Reagan’s nonchalant and awe-shucks approach to ignoring the poor and disenfranchised (read blacks, latinos, LGBT and anyone who wouldn’t benefit the board rooms or the military), the Bushes mishandling of foreign policy that further alienated the US in the world, the GOP has at least been consistent in the Jack Kemp/Paul Ryan belief that Ayn Rand’s attitude of self-reliance and stepping over the body should always come first. Also, their attempts to give gerrymandered power (as did the Democrats) to their efforts and their support, starting with Reagan, to give voice to talk radio and divisive rhetoric that appealed to an angry base, successfully divided America into clear Red and Blue patches that may be our undoing. Hopefully it will only be the GOP’s undoing and the party will split into its two or three factions which will define either their economic goals first, the populist goals first, or their isolationist/social issues goals first. All of the platforms discussed by the factions in the GOP do not involve an inclusive, realistic or pragmatic solution to the future of America (thanks, George, for this link). Our country has always been one that has always allowed immigration, even while it mistreated for quite some time the then current flavor of the immigration wave. Since 68, there have been waves of Vietnamese and Hmong because of our mishandling of Southeast Asia; Somalis, Afghans, Iranians and Arabs because of our mishandling of the Middle East; South Asians because of our economic strength and their strong attraction to the higher education options and Silicon Valley’s allure; and Chinese because of their own economic miracle since 1990.
American has always striven for innovations that made things quickly, cheaply and companies moved wherever these things could be done with those two goals preeminent. Both parties made decisions to support cheap and quick, much to the detriment of the rural dweller, the ghetto dweller, the migrant laborer, and the regions that could not adapt quickly to the shifting nature of production and supply, whether that is energy, agriculture and industry. Those goals have not always made America great, but it has made it wealthier and more diverse and more economically checker-boarded, In the last fifty years, government decisions have not looked at the pie and given every American the chance to move up its social ladder by seeking to fairly divide this enlarging custard. Both parties have not taken their political power and responsibilities on board with the whole country in their sites. Local constituencies, corporate growth and wealth, and the reactionary growth and decisions of those weakened white voters have made this country one that is a strange dichotomy. It loves charity and claims Christian values, but seems to act contrary to the teachings of Christ and nearly all of the world’s religious values often. It has become one of the most violent countries in the world with the highest prison population. Those two factors and truths should alone call for reform and redirecting our social construction efforts. The politicians, though, have taken the structure of our political institutions and made decisions that supported incumbency, local spending, resistance to national solutions and infrastructure, and continuing to choose quick and cheap over the environment and a well-ordered future. Most other developing, and certainly the developed countries, have looked further down the road in their decisions.
The view of the moon in 1968 has given way to startling discoveries in space that have changed the very paradigm of thinking and understanding, though our comprehension of the meaning of this change is not shared in a societal way, but only by those interested in what it all means. It will take more than Neil Degrasse Tyson, self-appointed spokesperson for exactitude and cosmic meaning, to focus us on things other than Breaking Bad and the newest Netflix iteration and distraction, even though I am personally a big fan and root for his success in defining excellence and wider understandings of our place in the universe.
Race relations have both improved to the point of having Black Panther become one of the most successful films of all time, while we still have significant issues when a US president can successfully equate white supremacists’ desires to speak their mind to those who took issue with their racist, separatist, exclusionary goals. From raised fists to taking a knee,
or from I Am a Man to Black Lives Matter, the discussion and the disgrace still linger at the fringes too much, though we are getting closer on some levels. From Martin Luther King Jrs’ clear voice, we now have Barack Obama, Charles Blow or Ta Nehisi Coates voicing options for America as an inclusive country, while signaling the dangers for not becoming more inclusive.
Technologically we have moved a long way from requiring seat belts which, along with other technical innovations, brought down traffic mortalities. We now are moving towards a world where we may not ‘drive’ a car anymore, and there are so many built-in distractions that take away the monotony of driving that they could take us back to the levels of the pre-seat belt deaths on the roads- think texting deaths. If Elon Musk has his way, we may shift completely off fossil fuels in the next fifty years. Self-ownership of an automobile may be either prohibitive or economically unnecessary. There are so many computer decisions made by a car today it is impossible for nearly all of us to pop the hood and find and replace an ailing part therein. Spark plugs are no longer spark plugs that we could unscrew ourselves and replace, for instance.
Oh yes, OJ Simpson won the Heisman that year….
I look forward to what that last constituency to whom this blog speaks, the recently enfranchised youth who will vote in November. While my own generation had hopes and made efforts to move the political needle in a proper direction for change and improvement, we have failed on many levels. The baton is handed over to these new adults and I like what I’ve seen so far. Hopeful, as always.
Enjoy these links to the year 1968