Book, Politics

Worldwide revolution!

April 14, 2013

Mark Kurlansky’s short history of 1968

by Anne Theunissen

1968-bookcover-thumb-150x227Mark Kurlanksy, 1968: The Year That Rocked The World. Random House, 2004, 441 pages.

Sex, drugs and rock and roll, the assassination of Martin Luther King, the anti-war movement, the Tet Offensive, the Prague Spring, worldwide student protests, the Black Panthers, and the beginning of the end of Communism: was there anything boring about 1968? At least nothing worth mentioning in the 383 pages of 1968, the year that rocked the world.

The title and the connotations with the sixties raise high expectations. However, those who hope for eye-openers and long-term impacts will be disappointed. Mark Kurlansky provides an amusing narrative of the important events and key figures of that year, rather than making sweeping statements and historical analyses. At the end of the book, the reader has a good idea of the zeitgeist of 1968, but is still left with the question what made it the ‘epicenter of a shift’, as the author calls it.

Take the student protests that took place in the US, Mexico, Czechoslovakia, Poland, France, Italy, Spain, Germany, Brazil, and Japan. Kurlansky shows how this worldwide protest movement emerged and how young people spontaneously rebelled against the authorities. Many students got killed, wounded or arrested when they were confronted with the police, and in the countries with free press they received a lot of media attention. But what did this all bring about? What did it change in the end? The lack of further explanation and analysis turns initial excitement about the potential world-changing power of the students into an anti-climax.

Also the way in which Kurlansky deals with the Prague Spring and the invasion of Soviet troops in Czechoslovakia does not do justice to their far-reaching impact. Although he describes the events in detail and gives an accurate insight in the dilemmas of the different leaders, only at the end of the book he refers to the fall of communism. In the conclusion the author comes up with what the reader who longs for more than a narrative has been waiting for: the influence of 1968 on the decades after.

The author’s journalistic background (he worked for The International Herald Tribune, The Chicago Tribune, The Miami Herald and The Philidelphia Inquirer) is reflected in his style. He puts down the events in such a lively way that it seems as if you were there at the very moment it happened. Sentences such as ‘The age of live television had begun’, ‘By January 1968 the dissident movement had become a major force among students at the University of Warsaw’, and ‘Under the influence of drugs, everything appeared to be a double entendre with deep hidden meanings,’ give the reader a strong feeling of the spirit of the sixties.

He discusses a broad variety of topics, from the Vietnam War to the Olympics in Mexico, from the way presidential candidates were presented on TV to the closing down of universities all over the world, and from the de-Nazification of Germany to the assassination of Martin Luther King. This extensive overview of 1968 provides a truthful impression of that period of time, though it could have been more balanced. America receives considerably more attention than other parts of the world.

Monsieur, We Think You Are Rotten
Kurlansky treats the year as an entity in itself, and does not place the events in a broader historical context. They are deprived from their meaning in relation to the time after the sixties. Martin Luther King is still honored for the role he played within the civil rights movement. Due to his contributions black and white people have equal rights today. The worldwide protests made citizens more critical towards authority, and had a huge impact on the way society is constructed today. Yet, Kurlansky took another path and decided that a book with the title 1968 should remain within the borders of that period of time.

He largely discusses the events in a chronological order and divided his book into four parts related to the seasons of the year: The Winter of Our Discontent, Prague Spring, The Summer Olympics, and The Fall of Nixon. The chapters have titles that don’t give the reader a clue about their content, such as April Motherfuckers and The Craft of Dull Politics.

Luckily, the meaning of the title becomes clear in the chapters themselves, and turn out to be quite humorous. He Who Argues With a Mosquito Net refers to a sentence in a Czech absurdist anti-totalitarian play by Václav Havel. He made up meaningless expressions, of which ‘He who argues with a mosquito net will never dance with a goat near Podmoly’ is an example. “Monsieur, We Think You Are Rotten” refers to something Cohn-Bendit said, a member of the protesting enragés students in France. Laurent Schwartz, a renowned physicist, had come to Nanterre to speak on behalf of the government, to explain the university reform program. Cohn-Bendit told his fellow students, who wanted to silence Schwartz: ‘Let him speak, and afterwards, if we think he is rotten, we will say: ‘Monsieur Laurent Schwartz, we think you are rotten”.

Money on fire
Content-wise Kurlansky’s narrative misses a bottom line. Observations such as ‘The great lesson of Nazi genocide for the postwar generation was that everyone has an obligation to speak up in the face of wrong’ and ‘The attitude towards sex created an even deeper gap between generation’ are helpful in understanding the upheavals of the sixties, but do not support a bigger statement. They are rather islands in an ocean full of descriptive information.

One of the rare analytical remarks that the author makes is that the Tet Offensive was a media victory for the North Vietnamese. Americans at home were confronted with bloody images of dying US army soldiers on TV, which reduced popular support for the war. However, he could have made far more sweeping statements, such as the author George C. Herring. His essay Tet and the Crisis of Hegemony was published in a book comparable to Kurlansky’s, titled 1968, The World Transformed (1998) and edited by Fink, Gassert, Junker and Mattern. Herring argues that the Tet Offensive was a turning point, since president Johnson decided to reduce the bombing of North Vietnam, open peace negotiations with Hanoi, and take himself out of the upcoming presidential race. Furthermore, he argues, it marked the first time in the post WWII-era that the US was faced with the limits of its power.

Nevertheless, Kurlansky’s remarks about the Tet Offensive give a good insight in the working of the media in the sixties. TV was still uncontrolled and played a crucial role in the war as well as in the elections. It became common for politicians to appear in TV-shows, and those who understood TV had a good chance of winning the elections. Martin Luther King became a media star, due to his ability to communicate short, dramatic messages. Eventually he lost the TV-battle, however, since violence attracts more attention than non-violence. Protest movements all around the world staged their demonstrations for television, and provoked an aggressive reaction or acted aggressively themselves to reach the news. Abbie Hofman even put money on fire in front of the camera, because of the shocking visual effect. Moreover, satellite TV played an important role in the protest movements, since their visibility on TV inspired other protestors to take action, enabled them to copy each others’ strategies, and created a feeling of connectedness.

Kurlansky also makes the reader aware of the huge differences in women’s emancipation in the sixties in comparison to the situation today. Sexism was widely accepted, even among the young left and by Martin Luther King, who prevented his wife from acquiring a prominent position in the civil rights movement. Eighty percent of the female students became a housewife, and did not use their education in a meaningful way. If women did have a job, they quit or were fired when they got pregnant. Stewardesses could even be fired when they became too fat, or too old at the age of 32!

Comparing Kurlansky’s 1968 with previously mentioned 1968 the World Transformed, it is clear that the latter is more well structured. The book is divided into three parts, and each of these parts consists of a collection of essays. The overall claim of the book is that the events of 1968 had a worldwide impact, which is supported by the individual essays. This approach provides a more coherent narrative than Kurlansky’s chronological approach, in which the information is presented in a somewhat arbitrary way. He does use a theme for every chapter, such as the situation in Cuba, or the situation in Germany, but within most of the chapters there is a lack of coherence.

A recorder of things
Kurlansky’s chronological single-issue approach had been successful, though, for other books by his hand, such as Cod (1997) and Salt (2002). Surprisingly, he fascinated a broad public with these seemingly uninspiring topics. He showed that cod and salt are commodities that have influenced the course of human history as worldwide sources of power and influence. The British policy that forbade Indians to gather salt, inspired Gandhi’s salt march to protest against the British occupation, and North America’s secondary roads are the paths that were originally cut out by animals in their search for salt. Also cod proved to be a crucial source of wealth in the past, especially for the Basque people who were the first to preserve the fish for a long time and used it for their travel and trade.

The author’s eye for detail and feeling for amusing anecdotes that is present in his bestsellers, can be found in 1968 as well. An example is the story about Eartha Kitt, a black cabaret singer who was invited to a ladies’ lunch in the White House. She told Mrs. Johnson right in her face that the American youth could not be blamed for rebelling in the streets and taking pot, because they would be send to Vietnam to be shot. This section was quite witty and characteristic for the situation at the time. The same goes for the story about policemen running after a pig that was released in a park near the Chicago Convention. The protesting hippies who were responsible for the pig, used the word ‘pig’ to refer to the police, which gave the situation a satirical character.

Another appealing aspect about the book is that the author moves between meta-perspective and personal stories of key figures. This zooming in on individual experiences gives the book liveliness and variation. An example of such a story is the case of a Bernard student. She had lied to the administration of the university to live off campus with her boyfriend, while female students were obliged to live in the women’s dormitories. The secret came out and she was expulsed, which resulted in big student protest, media attention and national debate. This single case represents the broader conflict between traditional and modern views on sexuality and the widening gap between generations.

In relation to the existing body of literature on the sixties, 1968 is not a book that would be missed. Except from Kurlansky’s view on the role of the media and women’s emancipation, it lacks revealing insights and captures nothing truly novel or mind-blowing, nor bears a strong relation to other authors or theories. Since the year’s 30th anniversary in 1998 there is a trend in which scholars attempt to approach it in a more objective manner, though authors who base their work on their own experiences are still numerous. Kurlansky clearly belongs to the latter, since he states in his introduction that he was part of the sixty-eight generation, and that ‘an attempt to objectivity on the subject of 1968 would be dishonest’.

As the author Wilfried Mausbach puts forward in his essay Historicizing ‘1968’ (2002), the body of literature on the sixties can roughly be divided into three categories: works that interpret protest movements through social movement theory, works that take an ideological approach, and works that focus on the global character of the international upheaval. 1968 could be interpreted as a book that belongs to the last branch, due to the fact that Kurlansky stresses the simultaneous nature of revolts in different countries and parts of the world. The book could also be part of the first category, since the biggest part of it is devoted to protest movements. Either of the two seems rather to be a coincidence, since Kurlansky does not show awareness of these categories.

In an interview Kurlansky once said that he sees himself as the recorder of things. He wants to get things before they vanish. Maybe that is why he chose to publish his book in 2004, a year in which enough time had passed to look back on the sixties, but also a year in which many eyewitnesses (like the author himself) are still alive.

After the publication of Kurlansky’s book, the economic crisis occurred. The Occupy movement showed that today’s generation can do what their parents did in their youth: protesting and standing up against authority. Occupy, which started in New York, spread out all over the world in cities like Berlin, Washington, Tokyo, Mexico City, Madrid and Seoul.

A year after the movement’s birth most of the camps that the Occupiers had build next to economic centers were gone, and Wall Street and the capitalist system are still there. Even so, Mirjam van Putten states in an article in de Volkskrant on September 17 2012, that sociologist Cordero-Guzman thinks the movement has been successful to some extent. Many politicians took over their slogan ‘We are the 99%’, and themes such as unequal incomes and the influence of Wall Street are now on the political agenda, says Cordero-Guzman. So just like the sixties anti-war movements who could not stop the war, Occupy could not change the bank-system, but they both influenced public opinion and the way in which these topics were presented in the media.

Ironically, it is this very same sixties generation that ‘rocked the world’ when they were young, that created the bank-system, lavish lifestyle, and neoliberal ideology that made Wall Street crash when they got older. They turned from international solidarity and socialist sympathy to individualism and consumerism. They created a world with multinationals, privatization and a shrinking welfare state, which stands in sharp contrast with the world they were fighting for in their twenties. How had this 180º turn of a generation been possible? Perhaps Kurlansky’s generation can ask themselves, when reading his book.