Our Present and The Past, by Ben Alpers

Millenium Clock, National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh, 2014 by Amy Cools

Millennium Clock, National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh

At times of great political upheaval, people suddenly start paying attention to history, grasping to find past events that might provide a kind of road map for what the world is going through in the present. The last several months and weeks feel extraordinary in so many ways. The steady stream of mass killings around the world, many of which are connected to ISIS. The nomination of Donald Trump, whose candidacy is clearly unusual and seems to many unusually disturbing. Norbert Hofer of Austria’s Freedom Party nearly becoming the first candidate of the far right to win a western European presidency since World War II … and getting a second bite at the apple when the election results get thrown out. The Brexit vote and the apparent meltdown of UK politics. Cops caught on video killing African Americans in this country with seemingly little cause. The shooting of five cops in Dallas. And today an attempted military coup in Turkey. On and on it goes.

1968 seems to have emerged in recent months as the go-to historical analogy for our current global political upheavals. In the spring, it was often raised by Democrats made nervous by the Bernie Sanders candidacy who wondered if this year’s convention in Philadelphia might fall apart like their party’s 1968 convention in Chicago did. Donald Trump, too, brought back memories of 1968, though more of third-party candidate George Wallace than of Republican Richard Nixon.

As things seem to have fallen apart around the world, the ’68 analogy has been extended beyond the presidential race itself, though most Americans who lived through that year remember it as much worse. “What’s happening now is terrible. 1968 incomparably worse: RFK & MLK assass, 17k US deaths VN, LBJ steps down etc,” tweeted James Fallows last week.

Over the weekend, Vox published an interview with the journalist Michael Cohen, who wrote a recent book on America in 1968. Acknowledging that the political unrest we’re experiencing leads to the analogy, Cohen, like most others who have tackled the question in recent weeks, thinks that 1968 was much worse, both because it was significantly more violent and because we have made so much social progress since then.
But what fascinates me about this whole debate is that it misses half of what 1968 was about. 1968 is such a painful memory because it was a year of dashed hopes. Johnson’s stepping down was a triumph for the anti-war movement. Martin Luther King, Jr. began the year planning a Poor People’s March that would broaden the scope of his movement. RFK emerged as a candidate who seemed potentially capable of bringing America together and end the war in Vietnam. Of course none of these things worked out.

1968 was a year of dashed hopes around the world, as well, The Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia. Student movements in France and Mexico. The sense of political defeat that set in by the end of the year was so strong precisely because the hopes had been so high.

For 1968 to stand only for things falling apart, for political promises unfulfilled, is something that could really only entirely emerge in hindsight. And there’s nothing particularly unusual about this. In fact, that’s why we do history. In the middle of a string of events, one simply doesn’t know how things are going to turn out.

And that’s very much the case for our experience of 2016. So far at least, if the political violence and despair, at least in the U.S., seem less acute this year than they did then, so too do the hopes for change. But we really don’t know, can’t know, how 2016 will turn out, let alone how we will remember it. There is an odd comfort in reaching for analogies, even when those analogies are very negative. If 2016 is 1968 redux, if Trump’s movement is fascism, then at least we know what we’re dealing with. But history never really repeats itself. We can certainly learn from the past. But this year, however it turns out, will end up being something new.

Ben Alpers is Reach for Excellence Associate Professor in the University of Oklahoma’s Honors College, whose faculty he joined in 1998. His primary teaching and research interests concern twentieth-century American intellectual and cultural history, with special interests in political culture and film history. Among the courses he offers in the Honors College are colloquia on World War II in history and memory and film noir, and Perspectives courses on American social thought and politics and culture in the Great Depression. Alpers is also affiliated with the History Department and the Film and Media Studies Program. He is the author of Dictators, Democracy, and American Public Culture: Envisioning the Totalitarian Enemy, 1920s-1950s (UNC Press, 2002) (Bio credit S-USIH.org)

~ This piece was originally published on July 15, 2016 at U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, entirely supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Really, America? Ban the Refugees, Let the Troops Do All the Work?!?

Like so many of you, I’m sure, I’ve been dismayed, though not really surprised, at the vitriol aimed at Syrian refugees and Muslims in general, following the shootings in Paris and San Bernardino. Much of it is voiced in the form of inflammatory but silly memes, but now, even some of our presidential candidates are chiming in. Reactionary religious and ethnic hatred are at least as old as human history, and so are political capitalizations on them.

These memes and the anti-Islamic proposals they promote, such as calls for the U.S. to stop taking in Syrian refugees, to ban all Muslims from entering the country, or to force all Muslims to register with the government, as far as I can tell, are mostly coming from some on the conservative end of the political spectrum. However, the backlash against all this reactionary hate-mongering is coming from both liberals and conservatives, and their arguments are bolstered by the best in our political system and its founding documents, focused, if not always perfectly, on the protection and expansion of human rights.

Besides the basic problem of the xenophobic, anti-human-rights nature of the anti-refugee and anti-Muslim rhetoric, there’s something about the whole thing that’s been bothering me, something that I hadn’t really seen addressed in so many words. I jotted down this thought in the notes for this piece, and I hadn’t had the chance to finish it until tonight.

Then, today, just a few hours before I planned to write this, I heard a re-broadcast of a news story that appears to confirm my suspicions. A recent poll from Harvard revealed that the majority of millennials, age 18-29, say we should send more troops to fight ISIS and say they wouldn’t even consider enlisting.

This was my thought before I heard that story: for all the rhetoric calling for an increase in the war effort against Islamist violent extremism, and all the preaching about supporting our troops, it seemed to me that many of the same people who want to send more military abroad to fight to protect people’s freedoms want little or nothing to do with the effort themselves. They want others, namely our soldiers, to take all the risks, shoulder all the burdens, and do all the work of defending and promoting American values, but don’t want to participate even in a relatively small way by helping out the people who are most victimized by Islamic radicalism, who vote with their feet by fleeing from violent Islamist groups to ethnically diverse, religiously free nations.

It looks as if this poll reveals that this ‘you go do it, brave soldiers in uniform, but leave us out of it!’ attitude is likely true for at least for one significant slice of the population.

What happened to the idea that if we, the people, decide to go to war, it’s we, the people, who should fight it? Makes me feel nostalgic, in the way that you can feel nostalgic for a time you’ve never experienced yourself and are not sure ever really existed, for the ‘greatest generation’ of World War II and earlier wars. Wasn’t it the case back then that most ordinary citizens felt duty-bound to participate in the war effort that their nation was fighting, even if in some small way at home? Didn’t they involve themselves, if necessary, in the work, the sacrifice, and the danger of doing the right thing, even if doing so meant some risk to themselves? It’s not even that they have to worry about conscription anymore! Isn’t the mission of promoting the American values of multiculturalism and religious freedom, protecting the innocents that flee for sanctuary to our shores and in our neighborhoods, worth our support and participation, even if we do face the risk that a few terrorists might sneak in among the innocents?

It seems that decades of complacent materialism and the all-volunteer military, among other things, have eroded some of that true civic pride and moral courage it takes to show the world that Americans are willing to do the right thing, no matter what.

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Sources and inspiration:

Gabriel, Trip. ‘Donald Trump Says He’d ‘Absolutely’ Require Muslims to Register’. New York Times website, Politics: First Draft. Nov 20th, 2015. http://www.nytimes.com/politics/first-draft/20

Khalid, Asma. ‘Millennials Want To Send Troops To Fight ISIS, But Don’t Want To Serve’. NPR.com. Dec 11, 2015. http://www.npr.org/2015/12/10/459111960/millennials-want-to-send-tro

Walsh, Deirdre, Jeremy Diamond, and Ted Barrett. ‘Priebus, Ryan and McConnell rip Trump anti-Muslim proposal’. CNN.com. Dec 8, 2015. http://www.cnn.com/2015/12/08/politics/paul-ryan-tru