The coming of 2008 has triggered a spate of articles about how we were 40 years ago, in 1968. 40 seems to be a magic number, packing some powerful symbolism. Maybe it goes back to the Bible. Have we been wandering, since 1968, 40 years in the wilderness? Is there some promised land at hand? It hardly seems likely.
But lots of writers are finding it instructive to reflect back on how things were 40 years ago. Or perhaps, like me, they just can't resist the temptation to draw comparisons.
The 1968 reflections in the mainstream media generally focus on the three most memorable events of that year: the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy, and the Democrat convention in Chicago. Most of the reflections find a common thread connecting those events: violence. 1968 is remembered as the year that three sudden outbreaks of violence shook America to its core.
That's a particularly convenient way to remember 1968. It suggests that these were three isolated events, connected only by the fact that they were so unexpected, like thunderbolts of violence bursting out of the blue. Such things were supposed to happen in third world banana republics, not in solid, stable, peaceable America. It all seemed so inexplicable, so senseless.
That was indeed a widespread feeling in 1968. As strange as it may seem, the label "senseless" was actually an effective way to make sense out of the violence. It made the violence seem like a superficial overlay on an unchanging essence of American life, a brief alien invasion that could not change things in any fundamental way.
"Senseless" violence was securely fixed in one corner of the public's picture of American life. So the violence could not disturb the larger picture of basically good people going about their basically pure, virtuous American lives. The idea of "senseless" violence actually reinforced the traditional American sense of national innocence.
It still does. For millions of Americans, it's just as comforting now as it was 40 years ago to put the spotlight on one piece of the picture and call it "senseless," leaving other equally important pieces shrouded in the darkness of historical forgetting.
Many find it convenient to forget that the violence of 1968 hardly came out of the blue. It came out of a complex interplay of many forms of violence that had been going on since the first white people set foot in North America. As H. Rap Brown famously said back in the '60s, violence is as American as cherry pie.
More specifically, the three great acts of violence that get remembered from 1968 all rose directly out of the larger framework of violence that surrounded American life in that year. On most days, the war in Vietnam was the lead story on the TV news, often with vivid video footage of American bombs destroying humble villages.
Yes, things have changed greatly in 40 years. Now, who even knows that the U.S. planes drop bombs almost every day in Iraq and Afghanistan?
In 1968, the Vietnam war might be eclipsed on the TV news when African-American ghettos across the nation burst into flame. Now, TV news still shows us violence in poor (often African-American) urban areas almost daily. But consider the vast difference. Today, the violence is interpreted as isolated criminal acts by individuals seeking money or revenge or having no rational motive at all.
40 years ago, there were also attempts to label the urban violence "senseless." But nearly everyone knew that the violence was in fact political: an expression of rage against an oppressive system. Nearly everyone knew -- though few had the language to say it -- that the violence in the streets was a direct response to the structural violence that had subjugated people of color for centuries.
Dr. King knew it and he did have the language to say it. By 1968 he was well into his new career, no longer a civil rights leader but a radical critic of the three pillars of American empire: racism, militarism, and materialism. He was calling for structural change on a scale that would have shaken the empire to its roots. And he was insisting that white America could no longer hide behind its familiar cloak of innocence. I'm surely not the only one who is convinced that's why he was killed.
By June, 1968, Robert F. Kennedy was beginning to talk in similar tones. Certainly he never approached the radicalism of Dr. King. But RFK was more threatening in one sense because he was an insider, a full-fledged member of the white establishment, beginning to talk like a radical. How far he would have moved if he had lived, and if he had become president, we will never know. But it's hard to resist the conclusion that there were people who wanted to make sure we never found out. In that, they succeeded.
Then there was the third great outbreak of violence, in the streets of Chicago. An official commission of inquiry later labeled it a "police riot." There's no doubt that the large majority of the violence was initiated by the police, most in uniform, some disguised as protesters seeded through the crowd.
The victims of the violence had come to Chicago largely to protest the war in Vietnam. More broadly, though, they were expressing their dawning understanding that the war was no aberration, no "quagmire" that the U.S. had entered accidentally and then become trapped in (as so many antiwar establishment figures claimed). Most of the protesters understood, at least intuitively, that the war was a logical and inevitable product of U.S. imperialism.
The police also understood, at least intuitively, that more than just the war was at stake. Their violence, obviously planned well in advance, was not specifically meant to support the war. It was meant to support the political-economic-social system that gave birth to the war, a system that was under attack in the streets. Their violence was meant to show that the prevailing system would maintain itself, using the code words "law and order," at all costs.
Now, of course, there's not much need for such official violence. The attacks on the system are rather more polite and thus much less threatening to the establishment. But the U.S. is still fighting, and losing, wars as inevitable results of its imperialist policies. And the police are still ready to use violence whenever "law and order" seems even slightly at risk.
No, we are nowhere near the promised land. The system still rolls on, using violence whenever it seems useful, and using the mainstream media to frame the violence in ways that reinforce the old idea of American innocence.
But it is a good time to stop and remember that there was a time when the violence of the system was challenged by the nation's most respected, dignified, eloquent orator, by the scion of a super-rich establishment family, and by a mob of scruffy protesters who took to the streets as an exercise in good citizenship and planned to have great fun doing it. The system's violence produced those challenges. And the system's violence snuffed those challenges out. The violence was totally predictable.
But the resistance to the system was not. It all happened so fast. Just three or four years earlier, hardly anyone in this country could have imagined the kinds of resistance that MLK, RFK, and the protests in Chicago represented -- resistance that was sweeping across the nation in 1968. That was the really unpredictable bolt out of the blue.
Now, 40 years later, we start a new year. We have been wandering a long time in the wilderness. No, we won't re-create '68. In history nothing ever really gets repeated. But who know what brand new things might happen this year?
Ira Chernus is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder and author of Monsters To Destroy: The Neoconservative War on Terror and Sin. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org