Thursday, Jun. 18, 2009

1968: A Good Year

In the very month that he became Britain's Prime Minister, Gordon Brown published a book on political courage. Among his eight profiles were men and women who had struggled against the Nazis, South African apartheid and racial injustice in the U.S. Brown wrote that these heroes "have done more than almost any other men or women I can think of to advance the great causes of our times."

But one great cause was missing: anticommunism. So no room for Andrei Sakharov, Nien Cheng, Vaclav Havel or Pope John Paul II. Brown isn't the only member of the governing élite to identify more with the '60s than with the fall of the Wall. The 1968 generation, of which the Prime Minister was a member as a precocious Edinburgh student, just doesn't dig 1989.

The celebrations in the West of the greatest explosion of political freedom in our lifetimes, the collapse of the hideous ideology of communism, will be muted. Sure, there will be books, and state television companies will dutifully broadcast box-ticking documentaries. But the political class does not seem unduly moved by the date.

Compare and contrast. Last year, France enjoyed an orgy of '68 retrospectives in print and on TV. In Britain the BBC's airwaves were jammed with excited chatter about what you wore to the great anti-Vietnam War demonstration in London's Grosvenor Square. Op-Ed columns across the U.S. groaned with reflections on youth rebellion by aging hipsters.

The personal is political, wrote the New York feminist Carol Hanisch in an influential essay. The Me generation took her all too literally. All those radical soixante-huitards subsequently enjoyed a long march through the institutions of the establishment, seizing control of the culture. Eventually they got to commission programs about themselves and their more outrageous and talkative friends. They could relive the heady days of their youth. To adapt Wordsworth on the French Revolution: Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to look back on it all later, armed with a fat production budget, was very heaven.

To these guys — they usually are men — 1989 happened over there, in the East, a place of which '68ers know little and care less. But the events of 1968 were here, spilling onto the streets of Paris, Chicago, Berlin, Rome and dozy London. For many, too, the '60s are still sexy and 1989 is, well, just worthy. The music and clothes were definitely better in 1968. Even kids today can get a kick out of the Rolling Stones' "Street Fighting Man." But bland, boppy singers like Kylie Minogue or the plastic soul of the Fine Young Cannibals? Forget it. (The anticommunists dressed badly, too; no flowery shirts or flared trousers.)

Thanks to the '68 generation, Western youth by 1989 had all manner of personal freedoms just as capitalism was entering upon one of its turbocharged moments. Les événements in Paris had begun over the right to entertain girlfriends overnight on campus, long before they matured into an assault on President De Gaulle. The students threw rocks to get their rocks off. East Germans in 1989 didn't want for sex — communist societies provided abortion on demand — but there were other kinds of freedom that mattered to them, too.

The harsh truth may also be that not enough people died in that final struggle in the East to make Westerners commemorate its heroes as they should. In its heyday, communism concealed its monstrous crimes rather well from those who didn't want to know the truth. The Oscar-winning film The Lives of Others was such a hit because it came as a genuine surprise to many educated Western viewers that the Stasi in East Germany was so oppressive. The tendency to give communist systems the benefit of the doubt was ingrained on the anti-American left.

Then the end came with a peaceful rush. Except at Tiananmen Square and in Romania, the streets didn't run with the blood of democratic martyrs. The demonstrators in Leipzig, Prague and a score of other cities weren't to know that the authorities would balk at the last moment at mowing them down in a hail of bullets. Their courage was extraordinary, but complacent Westerners just don't appreciate the risks they had been running for decades, blighting their job prospects, putting their children's places in universities at stake. The quiet heroes of this revolution were to be in found in churches, peace groups, factories and intellectual seminars. Real bravery is hard work and unglamorous, the sort of struggle that is harder to maintain than throwing stones at police in Grosvenor Square.

Still, don't despair. One day the torch will pass from the '68ers. That's the good thing about being an '89er; our time will come.

Ivens is deputy editor of Britain's Sunday Times