Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Shades of 1968

Three things I came across today while misusing my time and my employer's bandwidth:

Paul Auster, "The Accidental Rebel" (NYT) -- Auster recalls his involvement in the 1968 Columbia University student strike, whose 40th anniversary is this week.

Alexander Linklater's portrait of Christopher Hitchens (Prospect UK). A well-done and highly sympathetic profile of the professional contrarian.

(Though even this sympathetic article, like all articles about Hitchens, alludes to his heavy drinking; Linklater describes him as a functioning alcoholic. When I've criticized Hitchens I have tried not to say anything about his reputation for boozing, it doesn't seem fair or terribly relevant, but Hitchens must approve of this description.)

Brian Morton, "The 'New' New Left" (Dissent) -- Morton praises a group of bloggers that includes most of my favorites (Eric Alterman, Josh Marshall, Matt Yglesias, Ezra Klein) as representing a renaissance of liberal thought and commentary.

Morton makes an observation about the youngish crop of left bloggers:

By saying they're ambitious, I mean that most of these writers share a politics that is interested in deep-going social reform—you could say it's a social-democratic politics, although few of them would use that term. (As far as I can tell, they have absolutely no interest in socialist thought, which, in my opinion, is a good thing. At any rate, I can't see that any of them has been hobbled intellectually because of a lack of opinions about Bukharin.)

Because most of these writers came of political age after the end of the Cold War, they're not afraid of being red-baited, and this fearlessness in some curious fashion makes them freer to mount radical critiques of U. S. policy than older generations of writers grouped around Dissent and schooled in the socialist tradition. It is odd, but refreshing, to see the emergence of young liberals who are blunter in their critiques of capitalist political and social arrangements than an older generation of democratic socialists could allow themselves to be.

Ezra Klein concurs, and extends the observation to Clinton and Obama: since Obama came of age in the post-hippie era, he is free from the need that Clinton often feels to self-consciously distance herself from the trappings of hippiedom.

From Paul Auster's account, the trappings of hippiedom were all he was really interested in, but he got swept up in a collective mania for student protest: "I went because I was crazy, crazy with the poison of Vietnam in my lungs." He was one of the hundreds of students who seized and occupied Columbia buildings for a week. In the end they were arrested and roughed up by the cops. "But no regrets. I was proud to have done my bit for the cause. Both crazy and proud."

Auster concludes:

I hesitate to draw any comparisons with the present — and therefore will not end this memory-piece with the word “Iraq.” I am 61 now, but my thinking has not changed much since that year of fire and blood, and as I sit alone in this room with a pen in my hand, I realize that I am still crazy, perhaps crazier than ever.

It's fascinating, the haunted ambivalence, even erasure with which he invokes Iraq and our contemporary situation. Certainly, comparisons with the present can be overdrawn. Crazy and proud, though, is a familiar combination today. Many partisans now seem proud even to go down in defeat, roughed up and bleeding. Instead of fights with the cops, we have Internet flame wars.

I really do recommend the Hitchens article, and I speak as someone who's spent the last decade feeling angry toward and betrayed by the man. Hitchens is someone else formed by 1968, for better or worse. The political traumas of his era intersected with his personal life in some complicated ways. I bet if I tried I could shoot a few holes in Linklater's account, but I don't feel like it. I feel a renewed sympathy for him, and feel that if I can "reconcile" with Christopher Hitchens I can reconcile a lot of things with a number of people. One of my daughters has declared that politics is just something that grown-ups use to make themselves seem smart. That remark really irked me at the time, which is a sure sign that it has a lot of truth. Politics, or political argument, is at one level a prissy parlor game, and however hard we try to hone our skills at it, we'll lose on some days. Every day, extremely bright people with understandable motivations, maneuver themselves into ridiculous rhetorical positions.

Which reminds me of Obama and Clinton. How tired I am of them! How dreary the flame wars they inspire have grown! But they won't go away, at least not for several weeks. Their next round of entrenched warfare is going to be here in North Carolina, and I feel like collateral damage already. A while back I was excited at the prospect of our primary being more than an afterthought, but it also feels like something less than a real election, more like an upcoming production of amateur dinner theatre, promising several overwrought and hackneyed performances, and an ending you can see coming a mile off.

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