College Quarterly
Spring 2006 - Volume 9 Number 2
Reviews 1968: The Year that Rocked the World
Mark Kurlansky
New York: Ballantine Books, 2004

Reviewed by Howard A. Doughty

Not long ago, scholars who sought to bring their specialized knowledge to a wide audience took a big risk. If successful, they could enlighten the intelligent laity and be handsomely compensated for their efforts. The danger, however, was not so much that they would fail to produce a best-seller and thereby generate much appreciated revenue, but rather that they would succeed and suffer the consequences. The cost of fame and fortune was frequently that their learned colleagues would look far, far down their aquiline noses and sniff at the end an academic profiteer or, more contemptibly, a whore. Somewhat like those who actually enjoyed teaching introductory classes, they were dismissed by the senior intelligentsia for failing to be serious. Their professional careers could be ruined.

Worse off by far, however, were non-academics who dared to trespass upon a domain of scholarship thought immune to ordinary writers or, worse still, to “journalists.” Cheerfully ignoring the pretentiousness of the ivory towers or, more recently, of the poured concrete bunkers of academe, Canadians such as Pierre Berton and Peter C. Newman not only became wealthy but, in all likelihood, educated at least as many of their fellow citizens in the history of their country than all their gowned and mortar-bored peers with PhDs put together. True, such writers were long on spinning exciting yarns and rather short on social analysis but such, in general, is required of those more interested in engaging the attention of the otherwise distracted public than in quibbling over footnotes in arcane professional journals.

In addition to questions of professional jealousy, another limitation encountered by popular historians and commentators on current events is the question of national interest. Unless composing narratives on thematic topics of urgent global concern (pandemics, culture clashes, the fate of the oceans), most successful writing has had to have a national focus in order to win a substantial audience. Thus, in the US market, there is currently a demand for biographies of the “founding fathers.” In Scotland and Ireland, there is always a thirst for tales of heroism in failed wars of national liberation. In India, readers seldom tire of Tagore. Rarely, however, are books produced that could easily have been nativistic, if not xenophobic, but that have met instead the challenge of broadening their scope and thus providing a satisfying account of events that are of more than local importance and appeal.

An example is the book under review, which speaks with a familiar eloquence about events in 1968.

“There has never been a year like 1968,” writes Mark Kurlansky, “and it is unlikely that there will ever be one again.” Strong stuff! That kind of language could easily be written off as self-indulgence on the part of someone whose understanding of history is so limited that other recognizably interesting years (1848 comes readily to mind) go unrecalled. It is the sort of thing one might expect from superannuated hippies who smoked a lot of dope, protested some vile injustices and quietly went off to meaningful employment and mortgages as soon as the smoke cleared from Altamont, Kent State or the suburban rumpus room. It is also the sort of thing that one would expect from an American pop culture commentator.

Mark Kurlansky, unsurprisingly, is an American, but his book about 1968 is pleasantly refreshing. It is not just “all about them.”

True, both the official and the unofficial USA assumed a large part in the proceedings. “The US military,” Kurlansky ruefully reminds us, “was killing every week the same number of people or more as died in the September 11, 2001, World Trade Center attack.” This is, of course, also about the number of people who died each and every day during World War II (all the way from September, 1939 to August, 1945), but it is still something that ought to be recalled if we are ever to put the current hysteria about “terrorism” into a decent perspective.

But 1968 was not just about the Broadway production of Hair, the Jefferson Airplane, the Doors, Bobby Goldsboro’s maudlin pop hit “Honey,” Bobby Russell’s insipid Grammy-winner “Little Green Apples,” the capture of the Pueblo and the Tet Offensive. It was also about Paris, Rome and Mexico City. It was the year of Alexander Dubček and Prague Spring which, of course, carried on until 21 August when Soviet tanks crunched into Czechoslovakia’s capital. It was the year of the Tlatelolco Massacre which witnessed Mexican police and military units kill and wound an unknown number of students on the eve of the Mexico City Olympics as a preliminary to the sight of US athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising their fists in a “Black Power” salute on the medal podium.

Wonderful characters and despicable villains took centre stage. From Nanterre, Daniel Cohn-Bendit went on to take the lead (or as much of the lead as his levelling nature would allow him to take) in the French rebellion that, for a few moments, looked as though it might bring down the Fifth French Republic that had been established a decade earlier by Charles de Gaulle. In Chicago, Clown Prince Abbie Hoffman led what Kinky Friedman, this year’s most interesting Texan, has called his “Yippie charge of the light brigade” against Mayor Richard Daley and squads of rioting police officers. J. Edgar Hoover lurked in the shadows. It was the year in which we saw CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite come unhinged and unofficially declare that the Vietnam war was over. In Canada, Pierre Trudeau became the country’s fifteenth prime minister. Even Pierre Berton was impressed.

Kurlansky covers it all and more with humour where possible and an appropriate gravitas when necessary. Only one complaint seems obvious to me. He devotes a scant page-and-a-half to China. Even in its quietest year, China ought not to be ignored, and 1968 was not entirely insignificant for it marked the official end of the Cultural Revolution, if not of the Red Brigades, the Gang of Four and the like.

Let me declare an interest. A couple of years ago, a woman of substantial academic accomplishment and considerable charm gave me one of the nicest compliments I can remember. She said: “Tu es un vrai soixante-huitard.” This, I like to think, did not implicate me in any particular political act, associate me with the use of any psychedelic drug whatever, or imply that I embraced any particular (counter)cultural fashion. It meant only that I had been on the scene and had been authentically engaged in an encounter with that stunningly significant year. I felt a strange tickle of pride at the notion.

For anyone who experienced 1968 directly, or would like a sensible, evenhanded and nuanced account of that tremulous year, this is a fine book. It might be especially appropriate for “baby boomers,” most of whom were far too young to be politically or culturally sentient, but who nonetheless seem to win the praise or bear the blame for the dramatic events in question.

We should keep firmly in mind that the eldest of the “boomers” had just turned twenty-one when 1968 began. Some were barely out of diapers. The majority of soixante-huitards and the vast majority of those among us who came to media prominence were actually born in the in the 1930s and early 1940s. Our respected elders included Pete Seeger, Samuel Beckett, Marshall McLuhan, Norman Mailer, Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre (we were nothing if not eclectic). We admired the beats, but we were moving on and some, like Allen Ginsberg, were coming with us. Among the cultural icons of North Americans were Ken Kesey and Tom Wolfe, Joan Baez and Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan and Mick Jagger, Jane Fonda and Julie Christie, Ingmar Bergman and Michaelangelo Antonioni, Marcello Mastroianni and Jeanne Moreau, Dustin Hoffman, Mohammed Ali, Leonard Cohen and each and every one of the Beatles. Joan Didion, Germaine Greer and Gloria Steinem were entering—stage left. Unlike Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Tony Blair and Stephen Harper, they are (or were) not baby boomers. Neither am I. It pleases me.

After all, as Philip Marchand pointed out in a recent Toronto Star article (“It was a great time to be born,” 4 June, 2006, p. D-10), what distinguished this generation and what will make it special forever is the fact that we were “the last generation to grow up without television. This, of course, does not set [us] apart from previous generations,” but it did give us an advantage over later cohorts, including our students. After all, Marchand says, we all know that television “has a hypnotic effect that destroys your mind.” If this is not intuitively obvious, he reminds us of a 2002 Scientific American survey that reported that television absorbs or sucks out our energy leaving us depleted and depressed. Concludes Marchand: “The predominant mode of television is irony and discontinuity. This helps explain why the generation to first become addicted to television has proven to be, in general, less focused, less intense, less alert, and less serious than its predecessors.”

Thus instructed, I appeal to my younger colleagues to try to appreciate why we pre-boomers are so superior and to understand why everything has been sliding down a slippery silicon slope ever since the Bee Gees replaced Martha and the Vandellas and, thereafter, there was no more dancing in the streets. Above all, urge your students to read 1968 … if they still can.


Howard A. Doughty teaches in the Faculty of Applied Arts and Health Sciences at Seneca College in King City, Ontario. He can be reached at <howard.doughty@senecac.on.ca>.

Reviews

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2006 - The College Quarterly, Seneca College of Applied Arts and Technology