1968 and all that

There are moments in the moral history of the species when everything seems to turn as if on a hinge:  what was taboo is suddenly desirable, what was virtuous becomes ridiculous.  What causes the change?

We who grew up in the twentieth century — that obsessively political era — tend to offer political explanations.  But the reality is almost certainly deeper.  Demographic changes, technological innovations, an opening or closing in the possibilities for travel and communications, these plant the seeds of a heretical thought:  the status quo can be overthrown.  Much of the rest relies on the human herd instinct.

If there was ever a human herd, it was the Baby Boomers, and if there was ever a time of moral turmoil — a transvaluation of values, Nietzsche would have called it — it was the decade of the Sixties.  The hinge on which the changes swung was 1968.  Daniel Henninger of the WSJ (but via RealClearPolitics) reviews the moral mayhem inflicted by that year.

The year began with sales of the Beatles album, “Magical Mystery Tour.” In retrospect, it was a premonition. In late January, North Korea captured the USS Pueblo and crew members. A week later, the North Vietnamese army launched the Tet offensive. On Feb. 27, Walter Cronkite announced on CBS News that the U.S. had to negotiate a settlement to the Vietnam War. On March 12, Sen. Gene McCarthy nearly defeated incumbent President Lyndon Johnson in the New Hampshire primary, aided by antiwar students that Sen. McCarthy called his “children’s crusade.” Two weeks later, LBJ announced on TV that he would not run for re-election. One week later, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. It was only April 4.

Henninger goes on to list the riots, assassinations, occupation of universities by radical students, and other horrors spewing out of the Pandora’s box that was 1968.  He believes after the Nixon-Humphrey elections the country divided among two camps, with the outlook of each side morally repulsive to the other.  Possibly so.  But in his concern with American politics, Henniger omits the worst disasters of 1968:  Mao Zedong’s bloody “cultural revolution” in China, and the brutal invasion of Czechoslovakia by Soviet troops.  Those two events began the catastrophic collapse of socialism — in that wholly unintended regard, 1968 proved a bounty to those who survived it.

I remember 1968.  I recall driving to Washington and watching the city burn.  I saw black people who looked unhappy and agitated, and white people who looked afraid.  I can still summon the wild feeling that the world was no longer solid but was melting around me.  Anything seemed possible.  Sometimes I thought that a good thing.  Most of the time I knew the truth:  destruction was easy, construction hard.

My 22-year-old son has a saying:  there is no problem in the world that can’t be solved by the Baby Boomers dying.  We Boomers, it turned out, weren’t really destroyers, but we wished to be, and we posed and postured as such.  We have taken self-obsession to new heights, and left the community-minded virtues in the past — and possibly the future.

We were too many.  We will leave fewer behind.  The extinction of the Boomers will cause a demographic upheaval.  I won’t be here to observe the consequences, but I predict the moral history of the country — of the human race — will turn around again on the hinges of time.

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