“It’s 2008, dear, not 1968.” Constantly I hear this of late, thrust at me in a transit board meeting when I speak about expanding service, snapped at by my doctor’s receptionist if I ask for an annual exam, laughed at by the local peace group coordinator when a young man suggests we vigil on the bridge above the freeway. “Today is a different world.”
Uh-huh. We have the Internet, computers, hybrid cars. We have important medical advances, robot explorers checking Mars for water. We have AIDS and resistant bacteria, homelessness and hunger; we have endless war . . .
To Question Fatalism
And again war: “There will always be war,” “The poor ye will always have with you.” Oh sure-but in 1968 we were finally questioning such self-fulfilling prophecies. We had not come to this questioning easily; rather, we had reached hope through action, struggling to do what seemed impossible, to stop the war on Vietnam. Possibly we could end war and poverty. But how? Seeking a better world, we attempted to build it:
• Through protest, through nonviolence, through electoral action and even a people’s “third party” that could shatter a system built for oligarchy.
• By changing ourselves. By living a new, peaceful, unselfish lifestyle. Each of us, through our own example, tending our own Zen gardens, separately or perhaps in communes, would show the way.
• And through workplace action, through infiltrating unions. Through organizing in the army, as once had worked in Russia.
• Or by attacking the warmongering system in its own fashion. (Yet the “violence” of the Weather People, for example, did not begin, except an occasional pipe bomb on an unoccupied power tower here and there, until 1969.) True, certain leaders of the venerable civil rights organization SCLC had warned “They have more guns”-but forging past such “common-sense” facts had, until this point, brought us gains. Meanwhile, the refusal of the draft by so many men and the refusal, by so many who were drafted, to fight in Vietnam could make one feel the Revolution was very near. Practically here. (In 1969 I said, “I’ll never go to Washington even when we take power,” and in 1970 I thought, “Now it’s well started, I can take time off to travel.”)
On Breaking Movements
Today, however, the main question left is how close did we come? More relevantly, what broke our movements? We may find lessons in the answers.
Fragmentation broke us. Our movements split, fought, frittered, turned brittle, weakened.
Wrong turnings broke us. So-called “violence” became propaganda for the Right, categorizing us as Crazies, Dangerous. Those gardens we tended required all our time and often a mortgage on a farm; communes took every effort and emotion and finally broke many, tore our hearts, fell to pieces. Workplace and union organizing became their own traps, a constant struggle against trade unionism and, too often, a road back into the academia that so many organizers had never quite left.
Repression broke us-and not only through the splintering of the greater movement. Repression blocked even those paths-nonviolence, protest, electoral action-that may have had the greatest chance, For not only were we splintered and weakened, but the reactionaries were now stronger. They owned the mass media, the industries, fresh technology, more guns. They had already developed new weapons of surveillance, counterintelligence, destruction from within. The Right reacted, indeed-and that Reaction came not only in North America. We know well the litany: the assassinations of King and Kennedy (and many others less publicized), the encirclement by De Gaulle’s army of the Paris Mai, the massacre of student demonstrators in Mexico City, the “police riots” at Chicago’s Democratic Convention, Russia’s crushing of the Czechoslovakian spring.
One night in late summer 1968, I stood with someone I loved and we stared at the photo in the New York Times-those kids in their jeans and long hair sitting down before the Russian tanks on the streets of Prague.
But here I was in the United States, the 1968 elections still months in the future. We who worked in the Peace and Freedom Party’s Berkeley office cheered for each token of coming victory, still assured one another we would “get there” (arguing what “there” meant), still laughed as we raced from cops on Telegraph Avenue, still worked the phones to bail out “street fighters,” and put forth every effort in the (often seemingly amorphous) “struggle.” We had cheered, that spring, while the news from Prague and Paris was hopeful; we had roared our standing ovation at a U.C. campus showing of “The Battle of Algiers.” We would sing in the ululating voice of the women of Algiers; we would ask a friend or stranger for some smelly chemical to nonviolently clear out an office; we would cry for a dampened kerchief as police loosed teargas on us; always, some comrade responded.
And yet by the end of 1969, in the United States it was harder to hope-or to keep hope focused. We were mostly young and politically naïve; we expected quicker change. I, for one, began to teach in the Free University of Berkeley; I started a collective literary magazine (“for the voices of those long kept voiceless”); we formed a women’s group, attended radical films at the San Francisco Film Festival, again went out on “dates.” I put on a skirt and interviewed for a community college job. The Revolution was coming, but meanwhile one had to live-and one could still, after all, find time to confront the National Guard when it invaded Berkeley after People’s Park. Besides, by 1969 every path seemed a possible way to Revolution’s rainbow. What happened was not exactly selfishness, not exactly ambition, not exactly the diffusion of goals into a million possibilities, not merely overconfidence or burn-out or infighting. It was all of these, but it was also fear. Fear had slid beneath the surface, but it remained-fear following the strange arrests of friends, fear from phones that muttered night threats and then no longer worked, fear of those men in dark shades who whispered “Let’s put epoxy in the locks,” fear of the deputies at People’s Park who shot innocent people on the streets.
But, above all, hope faded; hopelessness broke us. The point of our risks was fading; unable to continue thinking change possible, we took our eyes from the prize.
This was, of course, in the United States. In the countries of Europe and South America, where there was more tradition of political awareness and risk-and where hope perhaps demanded less than total change-the movements lasted longer. However, in most of these nations, repression came with particular ferocity. Only decades afterward, in Eastern Europe-and even later in areas of South America and Asia-were the forces in power again pushed back.
Alive in Change
Thus we come to today, after years that were like postscripts to when we did find hope, when we were most alive.
And today we see that it is in those very words, “most alive,” that we find the crux, the key to what is missing in our present movements-movements against repression, war, environmental devastation, movements dedicated and well informed yet muted or sporadic. This key is hardly a surprise; this key-this factor that once gave us vital hope and wholeness to nearly win-was almost too simple. It was this.
We too were being changed, and we accepted being changed. Both from the internalized oppression of the previous decades, and from our moment’s growing awareness, we understood that we must change, and so we risked change-and became part of a greater change, a swelling surge of actions, desperate or compassionate, that came of love. We thus came into hope and revolution.
For me such change occurred when I fought Marines to help a man I loved, a man who had blocked a weapons truck to save Vietnamese, and when this man later showed me a vulnerability that most in those days kept hidden, and said he needed me. Of course, for each of us, what brought change differed-yet the same awareness led us each to Revolution.
And for most of us, Revolution took a clear, if sometimes abstract, form. We not only sought to replace war and government with a mutually caring anarchy, or with some form of socialistic structuring (structure-ment) to serve human needs; we also fought to remove our internalized repressive structures and open to our inner love that would reach to other human (and perhaps all) life. We had to re-create, in other words, ourselves as well as our world; we had to be part of our revolution.
2008: Concepts and Pirates
Did we succeed? This is like asking, did we reach Paradise? Or perhaps it is like asking whether Obama’s speech to the Democratic Convention this August is more than a short step forward in front of a rip-tide.
Still, in one way our success appears certain; we thrust our new, caring concepts into the language. However, unfortunately most of those concepts were quickly misappropriated, caricatured, and twisted into advertising slogans, late capitalism’s most prominent form of mass propaganda. Thus, here in 2008, the world blowing hot around us, we can hear people speak of “staying whole,” “being one with all creatures,” etc., and watch individuals drive around in “green” cars, choose (for discretionary purchases like Christmas presents) “free trade” goods, pay an immigrant yard-worker a semi-decent wage. But nobody is taking days from the job to march through the streets; no one leaves a career track to struggle for peace. It is not only that “Times are harder now, dear”; it is that the idea of changing oneself, of making oneself over in total commitment to the re-creation of self and society, can no longer seriously be thought. To do so would, after all, be “hippie,” a “Sixties” idea, and “Sixties” is a cliché. A laughable cliché. To this extent, advertising and the other propaganda of the Right, the Establishment, the oligarchy that increasingly hijacks the world’s riches and would pirate even conceptualization, has indeed nearly crushed us.
But not quite. Those Big Boys have not won. That System has defeated us only to the extent that we hold laughable or forget what hopes we once achieved and what once we risked, even of self, for our victory.
2008: Risk or Fate?
Now, in 2008, through the upcoming U.S. elections and by whatever other means necessary, we must again risk change-must, above all, encourage those still young to risk commitment and self-change-in the hope that now, as in the late 1960s, such risks may lead through struggle to win back our world. This is urgent, the stakes immense, as we know; in the still powerful United States, poverty worsens, medical care collapses, and religious fanaticism and pharaonic wealth consolidate in a fascism increasingly frightened by the world’s peoples, a fascism increasingly repressive, militaristic, and recklessly warlike.
These stakes, with more and more nuclear-armed nations threatening war, and with global warming and income divergences and epidemics multiplying (and everyone, via television and the Net, able to watch the horror), are beyond any we have known.
One can say it is too late-that some SARS or avian flu, or some self-feeding loop in the Earth’s overheating, may have already set in place what will terminate human life. But does not that word “terminate” set all our hip, wise, film-consumer subroutines to tracking, reminding us there is escape from prophecies? We remember Sarah Conner, in Terminator 2, carving words with her knife as she wakes to prevent apparently inevitable nuclear war-the words: No Fate.
For catastrophe is not fated, today anymore than in the ominous decade preceding the Movement. It may be harder now to find hope, let alone hope to dare personal and political change. Yet we must, and must help the young to find this hope, hope built on awareness of love. In Auden’s too famous but accurate phrase, “We must love one another or die.”