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Child of Tet: What Can 1968 Mean Now?

February 18th, 1968, everyone has his day. For me it was birth, my dad waiting outside the maternity room, my name scrawled on a piece of paper held up to the glass for my mother to see. For Specialist Clifford Wayne Walker, 24 years old and married, it was death by multiple fragmentation wounds in Quang Ngai, South Vietnam in the thick of the Tet Offensive. For President Lyndon B. Johnson, it was a nice day of golf with General Eisenhower where, according to his journals easily accessible on the Web, they “had fresh orange juice at 1:45 as they teed off.”

Later in the evening on that same day in February ’68, the State Department announced the highest U.S. casualty toll since the Vietnam War began: 543 Killed in action and 2,547 wounded in the previous week. Gas was 33 cents a gallon and a loaf of bread, 22 cents. And public perception of the war was to reach a turning point.

By most accounts, in the world I was born into it was impossible not to be political. Books about 1968 have had subtitles like “The Year That Rocked the World,” “The Year the Dream Died,” and “Marching In the Streets.” Has there been a time since where so many events mandated each American’s opinion on war, civil rights, police violence, race, and power? Troubling things were shown on the evening news with rawness that you cannot find today. You had to know where you stood on any number of issues. Without such a whirlwind of events and politicized movements, how did young Americans over the last three decades, including myself, find the need to become rebellious? The ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s all had spurts of critical rebellion in the U.S.—only to be lost in drugs, disco, Wall Street, Cold War propaganda, the Internet or, simply, the lack of any real urgency to follow what was going on in the world.

But I want to believe that at the beginning of 2004 we are in a situation similar to 1968. Here we are with a unilateral war overseas, a contentious election underway, and a palpable political schism in the country. And something feels different. Is there finally a widespread embrace, a new translation, of the ardent pursuit of progressive ideals that so much defined the late sixties? A feeling that, after 9/11, many Americans are realizing they better know what the hell is going on. Have the actions of the Bush administration pushed Baby Boomers who remember ’68 back to vociferous politics?

February ’68, of course, was only the second step in twelve steps of chaos, a starting gun for a year of events that might even rattle the most apathetic these days. It was a year that young activists and intellectuals around the world would wear as a moniker in the decades that followed. Some, like author Tariq Ali, hold onto a radicalized vision; others, like Christopher Hitchens, would become increasingly aloof, finding themselves far too drunk on fine vintages inside the Beltway. Nevertheless, a whole generation of those coming-of-age in the amorphous sixties call themselves “’68ers,” from Parisian intellectuals to Mexican students; from African nationalists to most probably the NVA commanders who coordinated the Tet Offensive.

“Everything was disrupted,” it says on the dust jacket of one book on 1968. And while many wore the time as a badge of honor, many others would dread another year like that one—when some sense of group empowerment, maybe even vision, was once again met with violence.

The events were tremendous: The Tet Offensive, the Mỹ Lai massacre, the assassinations of MLK and RFK, rioting, Black Power. Anti-war Democratic candidate Eugene McCarthy’s surprise primary showing against LBJ, followed by LBJ dropping out of the race. The Yippies and the Democratic convention in Chicago, an event that included television images of police under orders from a Democrat, brutally beating white kids, no doubt a shock to many liberal Americans who thought that only happened to Blacks. A year of international student uprisings, from the takeover of Columbia University to the riots and strikes in France that brought the country to a standstill. Students in Prague, Rome, Berlin, Warsaw, Tokyo, Mexico City, Spain, Pakistan took to the streets demanding an end to war, corrupt government, racism. Resurrection City is built on the DC Mall, Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia ends with Soviet tanks rolling into the city. The first civil rights marches in Northern Ireland, the PLO and the term Palestinian first appear. The Olympics began after the Mexican government massacred hundreds of students who planned to protest. Two black Americans who won the men’s 200 meter raised leather-gloved fists as the medals hung around their necks and the Star Spangled Banner played. War escalated, protests escalated, Nixon won by a hair and Apollo 8 launched for the moon in December.

I used to look back on the 1960s with great envy. It was, for better or worse, The Reference Point for political action and radical politics in America.

My own political awakening happened when I was in high school during the mid-1980s. I had already gone through some Lennon-loving stage at 11 or 12, channeling the ’60s hippie vibe, wearing bandanas and growing my hair long. In high school (which was small, private, Quaker-based and where all students cleaned classrooms and engaged in “work program” twice a week) I listened to punk rock, music that had a strong political message, and became Lenin-loving. And, of course, there was a teacher who stressed reading Marx, Weber, Saul Alinsky, and William Domhoff’s Who Rules America Now. As a junior I wrote a long research paper on anti-Communist propaganda as found in the New York Times, movies like Red Dawn and Rambo II, and Wendy’s commercials that showed a Soviet fashion show where all the women wore the same smock. Even to be interested in the USSR then was an anomaly. It was the Other. And a teen wearing a beret, Che-like, with a red hammer and sickle star on it would actually elicit protestations from adults, frat boys, and the like.

Yes, I reached some kind of political awareness through middle-class Bohemian privilege rather than the working class radical tradition (though my father barely graduated high school). Besides, it’s hard to get a hold on that tradition anymore. Michael Moore can cop to that from the left and Bill O’Reilly can lie about his working class credibility on the right. Nonetheless, I worked as a carpenter and put money I earned toward college, ending up taking a year off to work and then travel in Central America and especially Nicaragua days after the Sandinistas lost. Back in university, student activism seemed perfunctory at best. I remember crawling into the window of the same building at Columbia that was famously occupied in 1968. It felt silly. But I couldn’t imagine not being political, not looking outside (and inside) the U.S. and realizing how screwed up and unequal the world was.

But how wonderful, I would think, to have been the scrappy student that felt part of some worldwide rebellion back then, when the naïve idealism trapped in adolescent poetry might actually translate to the real world. Ideas of Free Love and general permissiveness—sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll—there for when world events weren’t stimulating enough. Oh, to be remembered in the history books as part of a youthful movement trying to make real change! 1968!

But it must have been terrible on one level: groups constantly splintering, ego, orthodoxy, and hubris. The idea of fundamental change once again met, and answered, with gun barrels and clubs. But the energy generated by weighty events, by vociferous division in the country and world, by the knowledge that around you people shared a vision and agreed that things had to change, that must have intoxicated. For decades, protests in America have been tainted by the romance of that time. The “golden age” felt like it made the activism that characterized an answer to the Reagan culture of infotainment and Cold War politics feel all the more like small cells of solidarity and an aging sense of sign-making and chanting.

Sure, it can still feel that way. But the recent characterization of the U.S. in domestic and foreign press as a “split country” is based on a large segment of our population’s pointed criticism as well as calls for change here and abroad. I get the impression that more Americans are now politicized or re-politicized. Over the last year, a worldwide protest movement has focused on the United States and its war, an event that has helped create a schism in the country as a contentious election cycle gets underway. Progressive politics seem to be in the air, even the mainstream, more prominently than I can ever remember. Critical, even radical, books become bestsellers. Internet e-mail lists become the basis of powerful political force that helps sidestep corporate media. Sometimes it seems the current administration and its unmitigated agenda of corporations, Christianity and closed-door politics has once again propelled forward the notion that to be political is not a choice but a necessity, that to speak out is what will make a difference.

Yes, the current insurgents in the Middle East stand for ideas very different than the Vietcong and the liberation movements all over the world in 1968. Similar to the Cold War in the ’80s, it is about the Other now, a “with us or against us” strategy of perception management that discourages investigation into the policies and strategies of Us. With great effect, terrorism is the catchword that is wielded like a great scarlet letter on panoplies of people, places, and concepts. And we are far from the radical international student movement of that day. The Bush administration has capitalized on political apathy that has grown over decades. They govern from a cocoon and act in a frightening unison that becomes unbearably creepy when one learns some of them think they are chosen by god. There is an orthodox, blinder-wearing, fear-inducing pomposity that exudes from their words and actions. There is no place for context, no place for multiple points of view. They are the anointed.

Hopefully, for progressives who look back to the sixties, this is a lesson in how not to act. Blind militancy and strident orthodoxy left a nasty taste in many a mouth. And much of the academic left since has accepted the idea that whomever arbitrates Truth with the capital T should always be looked on with suspicion—and that struggle with orthodoxy is a good character trait. Postmodernism, deconstruction, relativism: they are good tools if used wisely and are even embraced and developed by some of those ’68ers who saw the danger of absolutism on any side. But some things are just common sense and, if you’re an idealist, they become the basics: be good to other people, believe that society should care for all, and don’t like war. Can something so sadly simple be inspiring again?

We don’t know what events may transpire during the rest of 2004. If it’s anything close to 1968 I am both excited and frightened. It’s hard to tell if the country will become even more divided and if the GOP convention next summer will be a significant political event for a generation, much like the ’68 Democratic convention. 1968 was a year of rebellion. So much so, some felt they could write a book about it. There was international solidarity in dissent, an embrace of the idea that politics is that rickety bridge between ideas and actual change which cannot be shunted off.

On February 18th, 1968 Sergeant Clarence F Lii Maas, a Texan, died single at 22 at Phuoc Long, South Vietnam from multiple fragmentation wounds. I don’t know who he was, just as I’ll never know the hundreds of Vietnamese who were most likely evaporated by munitions dropped from the sky that day, the last sounds they heard, a wheezing high pitch cutting through the air. No, I don’t believe in astrology or reincarnation. But I do believe that a good day would not have such needless death or a President golfing with a general. And that day is something worth fighting for.


Williams Cole


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2004

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