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The Long March: Reckoning With 1968's 'Cultural Revolution,' 50 Years On

What William Faulkner said about the past -- it isn’t dead: it isn’t even past -- seems especially true about that convulsive decade, the 1960s. For many observers, 1968 was the annus mirabilis (or perhaps “horribilis” would be more accurate) and the month of May, with its many protests, student demonstrations, acts of violence, and drug-related spectacles, was the epicenter of the year. Now that the fiftieth anniversary of May 1968 is upon us, what does the wisdom of hindsight tell us about that curious moment?

I took a crack at conjuring with the meaning of the Sixties nearly two decades ago in my book The Long March: How the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s Changed America. May 2018 seemed to offer an opportune moment to revisit the issue by reprising and updating some thoughts. As with previous anniversaries of the Purple Decade and the Magic Month, there have everywhere been nostalgic backward glances: Youth! Freedom! Sex! Were not the Sixties the Last Good Time, an era of hope, idealism, the promise of emancipation from -- well, from everything? Some think so. “Only a few periods in American history,” the New York Times intoned in an editorial called “In Praise of the Counterculture”:

... have seen such a rich fulfillment of the informing ideals of personal freedom and creativity that lie at the heart of the American intellectual tradition. ... The 60’s spawned a new morality-based politics that emphasized the individual’s responsibility to speak out against injustice and corruption.

A “new morality-based politics,” eh? It seems so long ago, shrouded in a Day-Glo glaze of grateful recollection. But when it comes to the Sixties, and especially the fulcrum year of 1968, Time magazine is right: “50 Years After 1968, We Are Still Living In Its Shadow.” Indeed, paroxysms of the 1960s, which trembled with gathering force through North America and Western Europe from the mid-1950s through the early 1970s, continue to reverberate throughout our culture. The Age of Aquarius did not end when the last electric guitar was unplugged at Woodstock. It lives on in our values and habits, in our tastes, pleasures, and aspirations. It lives on especially in our educational and cultural institutions, and in the degraded pop culture that permeates our lives like a corrosive fog.

Even now it is difficult to gauge the extent of that transformation. Looking back over his long and distinguished career in an essay called “A Life of Learning,” the philosopher Paul Oskar Kristeller sounded a melancholy note. “We have witnessed,” he wrote, “what amounts to a cultural revolution, comparable to the one in China if not worse, and whereas the Chinese have to some extent overcome their cultural revolution, I see many signs that ours is getting worse all the time, and no indication that it will be overcome in the foreseeable future.”