Demand the Impossible (Again), Colltalers
It’s May, again, and if it wasn’t for our brain’s obsession with patterns, it’d would be just like the previous 49. But May 1968 was nothing like the ones before it, so it still resonates half a century later. Was it really a revolutionary year, at least for the West, or just our mind tricking us?
‘History repeats itself,’ said Karl Marx, born 200 years ago last Saturday, but the second time around is as a farce. Still, we’re bound to take these odds, regardless any inherent Apophenia, because times may be ripe for the kind of change that that month in the Sixties seemed to promise.
In reality, the causes for the explosive events led by students that took place in France, had little to do with other mass movements elsewhere in Europe, or the U.S. that year, except for a familiar denominator: people taking to the streets and demanding to be heard by powers that be.
The Paris rallies brought together pupils, unions and political parties for education and social reforms, but did not change much the French status quo. The bloody clashes with police did force a government reshuffling: president Charles de Gaulle replaced long time prime minister, George Pompidou. It didn’t last, though, as Pompidou replaced de Gaulle the following year, and remained in office until his death, in 1974.
The former Czechoslovakia was also on fire around that time, with reforms promoted by its leader, Alexander Dubcek in what became known as the Prague Spring. But the experiment and optimism it generated were crushed when Warsaw Pact tanks and troops occupied the country.
Protests against Soviet control were also neutralized in Poland and Yugoslavia, just as resistance against U.S.-backed Latin American military dictatorships, rose in Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, and many others. But it all contributed to an atmosphere
of resettling and new possibilities. Granted, more was happening in Asia, Africa and around the world that didn’t get reported then and it’s almost forgotten now.
In the U.S., the year was marked by protests against the Vietnam war, and as it’s wont to be in America, the gun assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. Repercussion of these sinister highlights of 1968 far outweighs all else that happened then in this country.
So it was, in fact, a year stuffed with small and large developments, whose imprint on our collective conscientiousness has yet to be fully understood. Still, the tendency to group it and label it as a ‘special’ time may have more to do with our cognitive bias than with an objective observation of natural phenomena. Which, in any case, may not always be scientifically sound, as it’s often riddled with undue assumptions.
The point is that May 2018, despite being so pleasantly symmetric to the same month 50 years ago, is a completely different time and world. It could as well be taking place in another planet too, as most of the living were not born then, and life itself is arguably more intense now.
For starters, we have more than doubled the 3.5 billion who were alive in that era, and even as science and technology have experienced a quantum leap, natural resources are much less abundant now. We breathe a more polluted air, suffer through a harsher climate, and haven’t solved even the most basic quests to our survival as a species. Instead, war and widespread mass killing have grown to a state of permanence.
Fear was a by-product of the Cold War, but in retrospective, it was also an effective tool to manage the threat of a nuclear war. What’s scarier today is the fact that it’s unclear whether people are afraid enough of nukes, so to pressure and prevent world leaders from ever resort to them.
There was nothing in the Sixties like the power of a free Internet, or the sophistication of social networks, to link the world and connect human knowledge, so to make us all one. At the same time, these are the very constructs which are threatening to irrevocably drive us apart.
While youth is still a condition to rebel and challenge old structures, and students are reawakening to their potential for leading the charge, it remains to be seen whether they can overcome a scarcity of humanistic values, or a deeper appreciation of what it means to be a revolutionary in times of need such as these. One hopes that the young seek inspiration from hope and optimism, and not from a place of revenge and hate.
They won’t count with the power of organized labor now, and in the U.S. case, neither with the two major political parties, which have all but anything to do with mass movements. Also, the revolution, if any, won’t be televised by mainstream media or reported by the few papers left.
Instead of what was known then as counterculture, or the myriad of alternative publications, weekly tabloids, and independent sources of information – the Dadzibao in China, for instance – all we have now is the Web, being assailed as we speak by corporations seeking to own it.
While in thesis, the power of computers to link the world and make information available to almost anyone, is many times bigger than a sketchy network of isolated groups can deliver, even if unified by a common goal, once they manage to pull the plug on it, all that is gone.
Still, just as it’s no longer practical to hold mass rallies against every war the U.S. and its allies are currently involved, let’s not underestimate the multiple ways citizens have to grasp reality, circa May 2018, and the power of awareness as a lever for radical transformation. Cynicism and mendacity may puncture daily our faith, but it’s not yet time to quit or stop believing on what’s possible when we dare to give it a damn.
‘Let’s be realistic; demand the impossible,’ sprayed on the walls of Paris in 1968, was often part of inflamed speeches by a seminal figure of that time, student leader Daniel Cohn-Bendit, a.k.a. Danny le Rouge. But the call for action belonged to Ernesto Che Guevara, another anti-hero, of whom a romantic view of his life and fight did not resist the reassessment of the history, naturally, as told by its perennial victors.
Halfway through the year, and the world is as disheartening as ever, and ever more distant from the idealism that permeated the 1960s. As an absolute lack of dignity takes hold of the U.S. presidency, there’s a global, equally shameful wave following suit. Perhaps fittingly, this May marks also the sad bankruptcy filing by Gibson, the maker of the legendary guitar used by some of the greatest musicians of the century.
May the mourning for the end of many beloved dreams segue into another way of calling for peace and justice, on this earth and in our time. We’re still signed on with those committed to leave this world better than we’ve found it. That’s not impossible. But are you with us? Cheers WC