This was the year of the children’s crusade, when young Baby Boomers across the globe took to the street in the hundreds of thousands, demanding a perfect world.
Students stormed Columbia University to protest the Vietnam war, igniting unrest in other US campuses. Chinese youngsters, calling themselves Red Guards, sought to impose a cultural revolution by means of violence and mayhem. Prague demonstrators caused a shift in the Communist government, from Stalinism to “socialism with a human face.”
In France, student-led riots and general strikes paralyzed the country during May 1968, nearly toppling the regime of that old guard icon, Charles de Gaulle. French Boomers were so pleased with the event that they named themselves after it: soixante-huitards, or 68ers. Since then, and in the fullness of time, the 68ers have gained control of French political and cultural institutions. They are the power they once sought to overthrow.
The question arises: what have they done with it?
A good method for finding an answer is to go to the next generation. Here is an account, in the French language, of what the 68ers have wrought in France, in the opinion of someone born eight years after that much-applauded event. To spare the stress on my rusty French, I will paraphrase.
The 68ers came to power filled with a profound contempt for history, and the desire to implement the words of the Communist anthem, the Internationale: “We will make a blank slate of the past.” They themselves, the author observes with some bitterness, were educated in the classics, and in the rich religious and regional traditions of France. The graffitti of 1968 was highly erudite, citing St. Augustine, Napoleon, and Ambrose Bierce. But the transmission of culture appeared to the protesters, as it has to many Boomers, a kind of sin against youth and progress.
“Like all spoiled children,” the author writes of his elders, “they destroyed everything they had received.” Given a diverse tradition of provincial memories, manners, and dialects, the 68ers rejected and forgot them all, and did the same to classical learning, religious knowledge, and the history of France that did not fit their ideological schemes. They forgot the greatness of French culture in medieval and monarchical times; and they forgot Napoleon, who reminded them too much of Hitler (an Anglo-Saxon prejudice, the author rightly notes).
In the place of history, the 68ers deployed a few manipulative symbols: the French Revolution, the Resistance, and some small fraction of the country’s artistic and culinary traditions. All else was burned in a bonfire of forgetfulness.
Above all, however, they wanted to remember themselves, their moment of glory, their year of wonder. Again and again, they have sought to relive 1968, and now that they are too old, too wrinkled and feeble for street fighting, they want their rebellious youth recalled in endless public commemorations.
In truth, beyond this passionate attack on the Boomers by one of their successors, all I have seen is a ream of articles about personal experiences of 1968. This ex-privileged student and agitator from Columbia University, for example, insists he was “crazy” then — which “was a perfectly sane response to the hand I had been dealt” — and is “still crazy” now. 1968 was all about this wild and whacky guy.
Other examples of such human self-licking lollipops can be found here. Ideologies are less extreme, but the narcissism can’t be beat.
So what happened?
It’s hard to conceive of a failure more colossal or complete than that which befell the actors of 1968. In the US, student unrest helped elect Richard Nixon president and Ronald Reagan governor of California. In China, the Red Guards became a lost generation, and cultural revolution had to wait until the country welcomed an untrammeled form of capitalism. In Czechoslovakia, socialism with a human face folded without a fight before socialism with a more bellicose disposition.
In France, old De Gaulle kept power, and his Fifth Republic still dodders on. The rule of the 68ers has made the French a timid, fretful, inflexible people, unable to move forward even as they forget the past. Here is a country of old men, who drone on incessantly about their lost youth, and rage with envy against those who actually possess it.
History, like memory, persists, and forgetting means being condemned to pathological behavior.
Not that I’m worried. Salvation is at hand, in a way that was explained to me by my eldest son, the Sophistpundit: “There is no problem in the world, the solution to which isn’t the Baby Boomers dying.”