Some years fade fast. Others keep coming back again and again. More than any other single year in the last half-century, 1968 is the year nobody forgets, the year everyone remembers, the year when apocalypse and the millennium both reared their heads.
Even in the midst of 1968, we knew it was special. I know I did. I was a professor of English literature at the State University of New York and at the same time a member of Students for a Democratic Society.
Thirty years ago this spring, I was arrested and locked up in jail along with nearly 700 other protesters on the campus of Columbia University.
I was 26 years old. I'd never seen anything remotely resembling 1968, and I knew I'd never see anything like it again.
The late Hannah Arendt, one of our pre-eminent intellectuals of the era, had seen a lot more than I had - she'd watched the rise of German fascism in the 1930s - and she hadn't seen anything like 1968, either. Thirty years ago, she observed, "Children in the next century will learn about the year 1968 the way we learned about the year 1848."
It's not quite the next century, but today's undergraduates - at Berkeley, Columbia, Ohio State and elsewhere - are learning from their own middle-aged parents and their college professors about 1968. It was the year when everything happened, and nothing seemed impossible, the year that everyone writes about - our poets, novelists, historians, and reporters - Philip Roth in "American Pastoral," Ed Sanders in "1968," David Caute in "The Year of the Barricades," to name just a few.
In case you weren't around then, or somehow can't remember, 1968 was the year Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy were assassinated, the year President Lyndon B. Johnson withdrew from political life, the year the Viet Cong almost penetrated our impenetrable embassy in Saigon, the year the Yippies ran a pig named Pigisus for president, the year Mayor Richard Daley's cops rioted in Chicago, the year feminism was reborn and the Miss America pageant was picketed, the year when everything seemed to fall apart, the year when Hannah Arendt looked around and saw "the disintegration of the major cities, the collapse of public service, the failure of the schools, the police, the postal service, public transportation."
For many former protesters, 1968 was the year of the Utopian dreams. I remember it as the beginning of the end, the end of innocence and naivete. It was the year I came of age on the barricades, in jail cells and in the streets.
I've never been to reunions of 1968, not at Columbia or Chicago, though many of my friends have, and I don't feel nostalgic about this time. I won't attend any of the reunions taking place this year, but I'll remember 1968 just the same, the way I want to remember it and not with any group or collective.
Thirty years ago we used say "the personal is political."
Certainly no year was more personal and more political than 1968. We are who we are today, those of us who lived through 1968, because of 1968. Know that year and you know who we are now.
If I allow myself the luxury, I can remember the meetings, the demonstrations, the rallies in the streets. Others may choose to recall those group portraits, but they aren't the memories I want to carry around with me. I prefer my own personal 1968, the year that belongs to me, the year that's all my own.
Jonah Raskin, author of "For the Hell of It: The Life and Times of Abbie Hoffman," is a professor at Sonoma State University. This article first appeared in the San Francisco Examiner.
Pub Date: 5/10/98