Reflecting back on history associated with this week offers an odd and troubling perspective for our times. Fifty-five years ago, Martin Luther King delivered his “I have a dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. It was a moment of triumph for him and hope for millions who followed him. Five years later, he was assassinated.
It was also fifty years ago that we saw the unrest of a generation gathered at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. The New York Times published a thoughtful retrospective on this event this week that is well worth reading. These events were part of a year of unrest across much of the world.
I remember watching Walter Cronkite report, in a remarkably evenhanded way, on the tumult both within and outside the convention. The protesters, buoyed by the protests in Europe and beyond and angered by the tragic and misguided war in Vietnam, had placed their hopes on the candidacy of George McGovern. Salon has an excellent article on the convention that focuses on the experiences of Hunter S. Thompson as a journalist there. Their efforts, however, had fallen far short of gaining him the nomination. Had Robert Kennedy, who was an earlier icon of change, lived the convention’s results – and history might have been different.
I was 14 in 1968 and was discomforted over the events in Chicago that year. I appreciated the need for order to allow the democratic process to operate. At the same time, I appreciated the spirit and purpose of those calling for reform. It was a muddy and polarized time, and perhaps I too reflected the fact.
Sadly and perhaps in reaction to the unrest of the time, we saw the return and rise of Richard Nixon, a cynical and tormented opportunist who perpetuated the war and broke the law to maintain his personal interest. Today in a similarly polarizing time a similar, and almost certainly worse, demagogue sits in the White House.
What seems odd in comparing 1968 to today is that much of the extremism in our present time now comes from those who claim to be from the right, rather than the left. Some of these, who are of my generation, once shared the ideals of the 1968 protestors, but have grown to resent being left behind economically. Many have even been willing to support the political party of the wealthy, effectively cutting off their own wellbeing to spite their fate.
Chicago today sheds more lives in a weekend than most of the riots of 1968. These, no doubt, are partly the result of residents who no longer believe in a better future. What is sadder still is that the rest of us seem to have grown so numb from it all that we accept the violence as normal.
After the fall of Nixon and the end of the war, the nation seemed exhausted and settled into a quieter time, or so it seemed to me. My generation began to marry and do traditional things, like have children and a career. I read recently that Millennials now outnumber Baby Boomers. As we fade away, perhaps the discord we have sown will as well, and our children will find a better path than the set of extremes that have marked our time.