As I watched Berkeley burn on February 1 in protest against the speaking engagement of right-wing political provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos, the feeling of deja vous suddenly turned vivid and overwhelming.
I was transported in my imagination back to the same place where I had attended graduate school in the late 1960s amid all the tumult and protest of that era, which then was directed largely – and ostensibly – at the Vietnam War but today is focused on the inauguration of the Trump Administration.
Whether the two are generally equivalent is entirely another matter. The anti-Vietnam insurgency took aim at an extremely brutal and escalating military conflict in which tens of thousands of people on both sides had already died, and into which a roughly equal number of young men (including myself) were being drafted right and left without any kind of democratic recourse, especially when war had not even been formally declared by Congress and elections were at least another another eighteen months away. The present mobilization has targeted the results of a free, national election of a candidate who is loathsome to approximately half of the population largely for what he has said, though not necessarily what he has done so far.
Despite the romantic mythology that has developed over the years, the late Sixties was not even in the remotest sense a happy, let alone a hopeful, time. Even the Summer of Love (1967) in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district, in which I directly participated, was one of great anxiety, or as Hunter Thompson would phrase it, “fear and loathing.”
The popular sing “For What It’s Worth” by the Buffalo Springfield, which hit the top of the charts in the spring of ’67, captured the mood of foreboding:
There’s something happening here
What it is ain’t exactly clear
There’s a man with a gun over there
Telling me I got to beware
It also conveyed a strong sense not of righteousness, but ambivalence about the political polarization that was thickening and radiating like black mold in the basement after an inundation.
There’s battle lines being drawn
Nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong…
Sound familiar? That was fifty years ago this month. Eerily, it was also the same weather pattern that is striking the San Francisco Bay Area at the moment. The winter and spring of 1967 was one of the wettest on record, shattering a previous drought. Coincidence? Or synchronicity?
The initial months of 1967 marked the warm-up to a social explosion that kept cresting even more theatrically and violently for the next five years (from the Democratic Convention riots in 1968 to the People’s Park Riot in Berkeley of 1969 to the Kent State shooting of student protesters in 1970), culminating in the re-election of Richard Nixon in 1972, which more or less brought an end to what was called both “The Movement” and “The Revolution” with a dull thud.
By then millions had marched, broken through police lines, tossed Molotov cocktails, torched buildings and in some cases entire neighborhoods. I myself was there throughout the Berkeley melees, then moved to the East Coast where the action became even more intense with the various student strikes and the marches on Washington. I became a full-bore participant, when I was not taking graduate courses or studying for comprehensive exams, in the “resistance,” especially after I received my draft induction notice, passed the physical exam, and was never sure what I was going to do once my order to appear for duty arrived (which for some curious reason it never did).
Very few people today, including those who did not march or protest throughout those turbulent times, would in retrospect still defend the view that the Vietnam War was worth fighting for. But the eventual outcome failed to vindicate either side.
After approximately 60,000 American combat deaths during the decade-long conflict involving U.S. armed forces, the futility of the fight was driven home in 1975 when the North Vietnamese captured Saigon and took over the entire country. About the same time their Communist comrades in arms in Cambodia known as the Khmer Rouge (who later ironically in the 1980s became North Vietnam’s enemy) undertook a systematic and genocidal extermination of much of the population, resulting in anywhere from 1.5 to 3 million deaths (from a quarter to a third of the population).
The latter horror, dramatized in the acclaimed 1984 movie The Killing Fields, discredited at the same time the more radical anti-Vietnam factions, who by the early 1970s were gaining traction in leadership of the “movement” and who openly promoted the idea that a Communist revolution would be a good thing for the Indochinese peninsula.
At one level the Vietnam debacle signified the savage end of innocence for the postwar generation. The meme of America’s righteous exceptionalism, slaying the twin-headed hyrdra of fascism and Communism as the all-encompassing totalitarian threat to American democracy and what was often, but fulsomely, characterized as the “free world”, within a short span of time violently unravelled, sometimes leaving virtually imperceptible residue.
President Ronald Reagan’s “morning in America” rhetoric revived for a brief period, at least for the bulk of the population, a belief in the exceptionalist idyll. But there were already two tendencies at work to grind that vignette down slowly and inexorably to dust.
The first was shock and cynicism among the youthful left, who had been so passionate about halting the war and dramatically changing America, yet had watched, often with a jaw-dropping incredulity, how the “revolution” had come for the most part to nought. The uprising had not only been against the Cold War military machine. It had been against the culture at large with its “racism”, “sexism”, “homophobia,” etc., which most radicals at the time saw as fundamental to, and integrally entwined with, the structures of domination they perceived as fueling the “insane” war in Southeast Asia.
Ironically, the current litany of vilification against the present political regime and the current social order constitutes an almost exact duplication of what one could hear in the streets fifty years ago. The only difference is that words like “sexism” were actually minted at that time to emphasize that discrimination against women was equivalent to race bigotry.
But there was a second unrecognized strand of malignancy that began almost invisibly to grow in the late 1960s, which did not become apparent until this past election cycle. As a Pew Research study starkly shows, from 1970 onwards income inequality began to expand significantly, so that by 2013 the percentage of earners in the bottom 90th percentile received the lowest share of the national wealth since 1928.
We are all quite familiar these days with what might lie behind the explosive polarization of American politics at the moment. We constantly hear catchphrases such as “white working class” versus “global elites.” But these shibboleths are nothing more than metonymical recastings of profound fault lines and antagonisms that ran through American society from its very beginning and periodically trigger sizable, if not destructive, tremors. The 1960s was one such era. Fifty years later it is happening once more.
What few understand about the 1960s was that it more than any thing the beginning of a long “culture war.” Vietnam was merely the catalyst for an increasingly educated and broadening demographic segment, which was in the same breath youthful and outsize relative to its elders, to challenge forcefully the prevailing values and loyalties of the rest of the country. Economic factors were largely inconsequential, excepting of course the plight of racial minorities, insofar as America in the 1960s was at its postwar height of general prosperity.
The severe economic downturn of 2008 brought long-developing trends to the surface. Socio-economic well-being for both working class whites and minorities, if we measure it in terms of their positions comparable to each other over time, stagnated. Although African-Americans, for example, had made significant marginal gains up until around 1990, according to a Brookings Institute study, by 2013 they were back to where they were fifty years earlier.
Black Lives Matter, occasioned by viral news reports of presumed police brutality, brought to public awareness what had always been the case for decades in African-American communities that were de facto segregated by race. This segregation has largely been maintained by the “new urbanism” and an accelerating momentum of gentrification, fomented by what Richard Florida terms the new breed of “creative classes” in the last two decades, as Stanford business researcher Jacqueline Wang has shown.
Meanwhile, the same urban nouveau riche has been in the habit of blaming the white working class for the persistence of racism and a variety of other moral iniquities, while ignoring its own pivotal role in the embedding of social inequality (and thus creating the rhetorical atmosphere for the blowback of the Trump election).
Unlike many progressives, Canadian social activist, radical environmentalist, and globalization critic Naomi Klein recently had the temerity to declare the “emperor” has no clothes in a scathing article in Britain’s The Guardian in which she argues that “it was the Democrats’ embrace of neoliberalism that won it for Trump.” According to Klein, the Trump voters
…have witnessed the rise of the Davos class, a hyper-connected network of banking and tech billionaires, elected leaders who are awfully cosy with those interests, and Hollywood celebrities who make the whole thing seem unbearably glamorous. Success is a party to which they were not invited, and they know in their hearts that this rising wealth and power is somehow directly connected to their growing debts and powerlessness.
It is, of course, it is the same “Davos class” that arose with hegemony and wealth from the ashes of the 1960 and is now funding in large part much of a faux, dominant-class, “revolutionary” resistance, all the while diverting attention and emotion from the latest forms of economic strangulation and oppression that are both sustaining racial inequality and nurturing certain magnitudes of racism as well as xenophobia among the white working classes.
What is “happening here” is not “exactly clear”, just like half a century ago. But those of us who lived through that time and have both chronicled and analyzed the multi-decade aftermath to that period can perhaps offer a word of caution to those who mobilize politically and speak loudly without a more robust appreciation of the underlying “contradictions”, as Marxists perhaps have long been fond of saying.
The legacy of the 1960s betrays much of its now sentimentalized polemics. As Hannah Arendt pointed out famously in The New Yorker in 1970, “the most radical revolutionary will become a conservative the day after the revolution.”
At the same time, Arendt also wrote in The Origins of Totalitarianism that what we call “[fascist] solutions may well survive the fall of totalitarian regimes in the form of strong temptations which will come up whenever it seems impossible to alleviate political, social, or economic misery in a manner worthy of man.” (459)
We will without doubt succumb eventually to those temptations, whether they emanate from the right or the left, unless we are willing finally to confront critically what is happening here, not merely on the surface of things, but at the very deepest level to which we might probe.
Carl Raschke is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Denver, specializing in Continental philosophy, art theory, the philosophy of religion and the theory of religion. He is an internationally known writer and academic, who has authored numerous books and hundreds of articles on topics ranging from postmodernism to popular religion and culture to technology and society. Recent books include Critical Theology (IVP Academic, 2016), Force of God: Political Theology and the Crisis of Liberal Democracy (Columbia University Press, 2015) and The Revolution in Religious Theory: Toward a Semiotics of the Event (University of Virginia Press, 2012). He is current managing editor of Political Theology Today and senior editor for The Journal for Cultural and Religious Theory. He is also one of the current co-conspirators in the formation of a fledgling initiative known as CRI, which seeks to engage the intellectual and political crisis of our times.