Paris 1968 - the wrong story
Associate since 1991
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April 24, 2008
LONDON - If May '68 in Paris was a turning point in European-American culture, which I doubt, when did the mood begin? With the songs of the Beatles who started in 1961? (And to my mind the most enjoyable film of the last decade, "Across the Universe", makes that claim as well as it can be made.) Or was it the founding of Amnesty International in the same country also in 1961 which brilliantly merged the growing post war sense of the importance of the individual with the urge to browbeat the collective will of both left and right wing governments?
Or was it Martin Luther King's March on Washington in 1963 when he said, "I have a dream". Or was it earlier in 1955, the year of the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott that first precipitated Dr King to fame and which was catalyzed by a middle aged black lady, Rosa Parks, refusing to give up her seat on a bus to the white male who demanded it - an act of individual defiance, the like of which helped precipitate the forming of Amnesty International and which defined all that was best, but was too often forgotten, in the West's supposedly democratic culture?
Or was it 1964, the year of the first serious student protests over university governance, which first took off in Berkeley, California? Or was it the growing mass of anti-Vietnam protests in American universities in the following years which were fueled mainly by fear of the draft, even if they borrowed the tactics and idealism of the civil rights movement?
Surely it can't be the cobble-stoning days of May '68 in Paris, when only three months later Warsaw Pact tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia to be met by the most effective campaign of non-violent resistance seen on European soil since the Danes refused to allow the transportation of their Jews to German concentration camps, and most people in the West, even on the left, realized that the capitalist West, for all its serious faults, was a much better place to live in than "socialist" Russia.
Yet 40 years later, if my journalistic antennae are still in working order, I sense that the May '68 coverage, just as it did at the time, is going to crowd out the memory of these other events. It still gives off a romantic glow - Jean Paul Sartre arm in arm with Simone de Beauvoir, after breakfasting on croissants and fine coffee at the Cafe Lipp, at the head of mass columns of students.
They shouted a handsome range of pithy anti-capitalist slogans, although they were only really protesting the petty rules of their fine universities and appeared to have little concern about the emancipation of America's blacks, the war in Vietnam (which their country had started), or the growing paranoia of the Soviet military. Hundreds of journalists descended on Paris to watch and record them throwing Hausemann-laid cobblestones at Les flics under the light of ancient gas street lamps.
The press loved this story with a passion. But what did it mark? At the time I was doing quite a lot of reporting on the civil rights and black power movements in America and I asked the militant leader Stokely Carmichael this question and I think he got it exactly right: "They don't seem to be fighting for a distribution of wealth." he said scornfully. "They are fighting for sex, pot and the freedom to curse. I'm sorry . But I don't think one is revolutionary just because one curses publicly, or if one smokes pot, or if one is promiscuous. As a matter of fact, I hope a revolutionary will strive for the best in humanity, not the worst."
I've worked in the media for 41 years and I still detest the way it often makes its priorities. The fickle and fast-moving eye of television, and to a lesser extent the newspapers, can demand attention one minute, only to ignore the issue the next. This is reporting dangerously close to entertainment. The danger is cumulative. As we are fed a random diet of suffering and upheaval, based on misleading criteria of what is important, we lose over time not only our discernment but our confidence in our ability to make intelligent priorities.
So when the re-cycled Paris '68 story starts to break early next month I will not take much notice of it. Instead I'll be focusing my nervous energy (I have no vote) on the election of Barack Obama to be the first black president of America. It was Martin Luther King's remaining words on the Washington march that define our age: "I have a dream that one day my children will be judged by the content of their character not by the color of their skin."
With America in sight of electing Obama - because its society has remarkably matured to this dream point - it has made the cultural history that really counts.
Copyright © 2008 Jonathan
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