If there’s a single year in the lifetime of our baby boomer generation when the world changed — and we helped change it — it is 1968. Violence, politics, civil rights, women’s lib, war. It’s hard to believe, but 1968 is now fifty years behind us. We asked Seattle’s Ron Gompertz, the author of Life’s Big Zoo who from time to time has acted as BoomerCafé’s house historian, to take a look back at 1968. And to see where it took us.
1968-2018: “Plus ça change…”
Translation: “The more things change ….” Well, you know the rest.
1968 was a year of sharp divisions culminating in a hard turn rightward when a law-and-order Republican defeated a Great Society, New Deal Democrat.
If it sounds familiar it should. We’ve been bouncing between the two extremes ever since.
After a wave of social breakthroughs, far-reaching legislation, and dramatic protests, the “silent majority” found their voice and shouted.
What we now call the red states called themselves the “better dead than red” states back then. “Plus ça change…”
Right or left, anyone filled with nostalgia for what they look back on as an easier, happier, or simpler time is probably not black, LGBTQ, or eligible for the now nonexistent military conscription.
If you pine for that post-summer of love, pre-Woodstock era, your wire-rimmed granny glasses are a bit too rose-colored. While 1968 was the year that produced Yellow Submarine, remember that it was also the year we lost Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy to assassins’ bullets. The Deep South was slowly emerging from 100 years of apartheid and President Nixon’s promised “secret plan to end the war” actually prolonged it for another five years.
Fifty years later we have learned that Nixon secretly colluded with a foreign power to win the presidency. Unfortunately for many Americans today, that sounds eerily familiar.
Nixon. Ford. Carter. Reagan. Bush. Clinton. Another Bush. Obama. Trump. It has been quite a pendulum ride since 1968. We have had two presidential candidates win the popular vote — one also named Clinton — only to lose in the Electoral College. Prior to Gore, the first one, this hadn’t happened in over 100 years.
Independent of which side of the spectrum you’re on, it still feels like two steps forward, one step back. But despair is too cheap a response to such a rich world.
Unlike days gone by, our modern 24-hour news cycle thrives on a steady stream of negative click bait, so it’s easy to conclude that things have gotten worse since some mystical time in the past.
But with the exception of climate change or life in a decreasing number of war zones and dictatorships, it’s hard to find any metric where things are actually worse now. More people are literate, fed, free of fear, and living better than previous generations did.
The Sixties planted deep roots. Where we once had the Black Panthers we now have Black Lives Matter. The struggle for equality of the sexes now includes the fight against sexual harassment as embodied in the #MeToo movement. In a triumph for both law and love, once-closeted same sex couples can wed. Women now serve alongside men in the Armed Forces. Even pot is legal in almost half our states.
1968 was the year that American ghettos burned, French students tore up the cobblestones and nearly toppled their government, Soviet tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia. We were simultaneously mired in the muck and reaching for the moon.
The soundtrack for 1968 is still with us as are the residual vibrations of the Fifties. In his excellent book “The Soul of America,” author Jon Meacham effectively argues that our culture wars are nothing new. Our better angels are not guaranteed victory without a struggle in such a devilish world.
Nixon wasn’t impeached until midway through his second term. Now, years later, he is often revered as a great statesman. The mounting scandals of and allegations against our current president have the potential to make Watergate look like the good old days.
Boomers now criticize Millennials the way our parents criticized us way back when. And once again, young people are awakening and realizing that this is their world to shape and change, not simply to accept and inherit.