OAH: Slighting '68


Mr. Shor teaches history at Wayne State University. The author of Utopianism and Radicalism in a Reforming America, 1888-1918 and Bush-League Spectacles, he also remains, he tells HNN, an unreconstructed 60’s activist.

The OAH plenary on “1968” provided a large audience of historians with a variety of perspectives on the broader context and implications of that tumultuous year. However, in their desire to escape fetishizing a single year, practically all of the panelists (with the exception of Manning Marable) overlooked the actual events of that year and how they were emblematic of significant changes or on-going contradictions. What I would like to highlight, in particular, is how certain specific events in 1968 reflected and refracted emergent social movements and their oppositional potential.

First and foremost, it was astonishing that no one on the panel talked about the US war on Southeast Asia and the profound meaning of the Tet Offensive in late January and early February of 1968. While Jeremy Suri made some oblique reference to the transformation of the Cold War consensus during this period, he failed to zero in on what constituted a significant political defeat for US imperialism. Although Tet did not end US involvement -- indeed, under Nixon that intervention expanded into Cambodia and Laos with destructive long-term effects -- by the time of the 1973 Peace Treaty, the US faced a degraded hegemonic role in the world. One doesn’t have to embrace the whole of Immanuel Wallerstein and Giovanni Arrighi’s analyses of the rise and fall of US hegemony to understand that Tet and the Vietnam War eroded what Tom Englehardt has described as the “end of victory culture.”

Anti-war forces continued to expand in 1968 and gather additional constituents, including important inroads into the military which then crystallized later in the Vietnam Veterans Against the War. Both within and outside the military, increasing critiques of militarism and machismo indicated critical transformations in how war and warriors were viewed. That later right-wing efforts were predicated on propping up patriarchal and militarist values is further testament to the social and cultural contestations engendered by the anti-war movement of the long sixties (1955-1975).

Aiding the challenges to patriarchy during 1968 was the September demonstration against the Miss America Pageant by Women’s Liberation proponents. The confrontation at Atlantic City launched an era of radical critiques against objectification and commodification of women’s bodies, and of engagements with building alternative institutions such as rape crisis and reproductive rights centers. While the restriction of women’s control over their bodies was part of the right-wing backlash (beginning with the mislabeling and trivialization of women’s liberation as “bra-burners” – something that did not happen at the Miss America Pageant demonstration in September 1968), the failure to create and sustain cross-class and racial alliances led also to a narrowing oppositional body politics to the obsession with the body.

While the role of women was, for the most part, neglected by the OAH panel, the issue of racial injustice was central to a number of presentations at this and other panels, especially as a consequence of the 40th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. King. Yet, again, the impact of those April uprisings by African-Americans in some 125 cities seemed to vanish into the larger, albeit insightful, analyses of Nixon’s “silent majority” strategy and the further development of a carceral state. Just prior to King’s murder and its aftermath saw the release of the Kerner Commission report and its description of “two societies,” a description again articulated most recently by the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. Certainly, as Heather Thompson pointed out in her OAH presentation, one response by liberals and conservatives to the wrenching racial disparities of the sixties came with a punitive expansion of the prison-complex and the incorporation of young men of color into a repressive justice system. At the same time, there were efforts by African-Americans, especially through the myriad expressions of black power, and their white allies to challenge continuing racial injustices. In fact, the student revolt at Columbia University in late April of 1968 had as one of its focal points the university’s disregard for the black community of Harlem.

On another level, however, the Columbia student revolt sharpened the generational differences between young radicals and their elder elite members of corporate liberal structures of authority and power. Indeed, the student revolt was central to a global confrontation, whether in Mexico City, Paris, or Prague (or later at the Democratic Convention in Chicago). These explosive confrontations of 1968 were met with severe repression that further alienated many of that generational cohort group, sending some into sectarian sclerosis and others into rural escapes. But not all just faded away. In fact, many came back later to the university as faculty to change the curriculum and culture in profound, if not revolutionary, ways.

As we remember the 40th anniversary of these past and upcoming events of 1968, we also need to mark the distance from conditions that made 1968 such an epochal moment. What people of color, youth, and women were tentatively trying to construct in 1968 and beyond were those counterpublics that Nancy Fraser identifies as oppositional and alternative challenges to the dominant public sphere. What needs to be acknowledged is the shrinking of the public sphere and public spaces, Seattle and the massive anti-war demonstrations of February 2003 on the eve of the Iraq War notwithstanding. Neo-liberal privatization has certainly aided in this diminishing of counterpublic possibilities. However, added to this is the extension of a technological matrix which, on one hand, may facilitate oppositional voices, but on the other, limits the public space for the construction of counterpublics bodies. Thus, we may be as far from 1968 as that era was to the momentous year of 1919, not merely in chronological terms but in the capacity of specific constituent forces to build and sustain counterpublics. Recognizing the emblematic events of 1968 is, thus, not just a matter of fetishizing a single year, but apprehending what has been lost, as well as gained.

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Lewis Bernstein - 4/7/2008

"the extension of a technological matrix which, on one hand, may facilitate oppositional voices, but on the other, limits the public space for the construction of counterpublics bodies." What does this mean? Can anyone translate?

The antiwar movement since 2003 has been conspicuous for its ineffectiveness and its puerile nature. Very few are affected by Iraq and Afghanistan.

Unfortunately for Mr. Shor, I, too, remember 1968. It was a hellish year that frayed the social fabric. Tet, a victory of American arms, demonstrated to the decision makers in Washington that the prize they thought they sought was not worth any price the American public was willing to pay. The demoralization of the American military came from internal forces--a culture of lying and a suppression of professional military opinion that might contradict the current political line. That phenomenon started in the Eisenhower Administration, warnings against the military-industrial complex notwithstanding.

Victory culture is a problematic term and as much as I like Tom Engelhardt's book, Mr. Shor's point is wide of the mark. the so-called Columbia Student Revolt was truly a tempest in a teapot that changed nothing--it just showed the triviality of student revolt, rather like a student strike.

In close to 35 years of university teaching I have yet to see any good in the so-called revolutionary changes in the curriculum and culture. I see a lessening of creativity and the elevation of "feeling" as opposed to "rationality" and the disparagement of intellectual attainment if they do not fit in with the "revolutionary changes in the curriculum and culture."

One wonders what Mr. Shor's field is and what he presents to those in his classes. One hopes that he expresses himself in clear and simple English and eschews the use of jargon.