Fractured: 1968, a year like no other

Today’s tumultuous and divisive times are frequently compared to 1968. It’s a year that resonates, as other years do:

1776. 1848. 1865. 1914. 1929. 1945. Exclamation points in history’s long slog; shorthand  in the collective consciousness for momentous events that changed the course of history: The Declaration of Independence. Europe’s “springtime of the people.” The Civil War’s end and Lincoln’s assassination. The First World War’s start. The stock market crash. The Second World War’s end and the atomic bomb.

Police storm Chicago's Grant Park during the 1968 Democratic Convention.
Police storm Chicago’s Grant Park during the 1968 Democratic Convention. © Dennis Brack

Then there’s 1968. Momentous, yes, but with shifting memories and meanings that are not yet fixed. For the year itself has become a synecdoche for the Sixties, both good and bad, the annus mirabile of the Baby Boomer generation. And for many younger Americans, it beckons like the magical high water mark of a mysterious Golden Age.

The way one views 1968 says less about the year itself than about the viewer’s personality and politics. A Rorschach test for what you value. A prism through which all other years are viewed. A litmus test for liberal or conservative, progressive or traditional. Ground zero for what would become known as the “Culture Wars.”

The discordant year embodied something for everybody, from Chicago and California to Paris and Prague, from hope to despair. A retrospective look, a half-century later, can ground and inform today. How did the passions of what then felt like a never-ending (oh, so intense) present become the past, shaped into the integument of history?

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