American Spring: 2018, the Year of Revolution
By Madeleine H. Burnside
I expect great things of 2018. Although I dread the impact of the continuing Trump presidency, it has sparked a resurgence of commitment to social change and the progressive agenda. Democracy is no longer something that most people feel can be safely left to others, but something that many of us will have to get off our couches and work to keep.
One of my best friends uses 1968 as her pin number. It’s not her birth year, or the year she graduated from anything, or the year her daughter was born—it’s the Year of the Revolution. I had just turned twenty, she was a few years older. Around us, trouble was brewing, not only in the United States, but throughout Europe as well.
It was a terrible year. In January, the Tet Offensive marked the height of the Vietnam War. That same month, the Irish Troubles reached a crisis point. The Paris Revolution rose and fell in May. In Czechoslovakia, the short-lived Prague Spring was crushed by Soviet troops in August. Progressive leaders were under physical attack. Martin Luther King was gunned down in April. Rudi Dutschke, leader of the German ’68 movement, barely survived being shot that same month. Robert Kennedy was assassinated in June.
Like today, the events of 1968 were a clarion call. In the U.S., those of us who were too young or too late to the struggle for African American rights took up the fight for peace in Vietnam, better jobs for women and minorities, equal pay, reproductive rights, and equal educational opportunities. Racism, discrimination, rape, and child abuse became better defined and openly discussed.
By 1973 the Vietnam War was over. Peace, we thought, had won. We had made progress and believed it must continue as we grew up to become teachers, politicians, scientists, writers, and parents, carrying our values into the future. We hadn’t yet achieved everything we wanted but we got it all onto the table, at least.
Political activism usually skips a generation. One group will agitate for significant social change and their children will reap the benefit while wondering what all the fuss was about. By the late 1980s I was running into young women who proudly stated that they “were not feminists.” Their antiquated moms were feminists. To them, it was unnecessary, nagging, and argumentative. For those young women, everything was fine. It was better to keep the peace and enjoy life.
Today, another generation has come to the fore. This time, outrage has provoked a new Women’s Movement in the wake of the inauguration of a president who boasts about groping women. It has progressed into a renewed fight against racism, immigration bans, global warming, preserving national parks, and the war on science. It continues with the #metoo movement.
There are a lot of issues to combat. So, why am I confident that the Resistance will succeed? Because of the history of social progress. Every fifty years—alternating generations—it starts up again as regressive forces try to take us back to a meaner time.
What happened fifty years before 1968? Notably, the end of World War I—a dire conflict from which the old guard of Europe never recovered. In Germany, Kaiser Wilhelm II was forced to abdicate. In Russia, his first cousin, Tsar Nicholas II, was executed by the Bolsheviks. Southern Ireland successfully threw off British rule. In the U.S., President Wilson announced his support for women’s right to vote, and the first anti-lynching bill was introduced to Congress. All of these were part of a worldwide revolution of sorts.
Before that? How about the American Civil War? You can keep going back—every other generation. The dates blur but the pattern remains.
In this process, leaders rise and fall, but these are less revolutions of government than they are of consciousness. They draw into focus the most egregious issues of the day.
Here’s one moment in the success of the Resistance: in 2017, Alabama did not, after all, elect Roy Moore. Even with the strong African American turnout, the outcome was close—Doug Jones won against a racist child molester by just 1.6% of the vote. But that’s not the only important point. A wider margin of the electorate wrote in their own candidates, ranging from Jesus Christ to Mickey Mouse. I assume these voters were white. I assume they were Republicans who could not bear to cross party lines. But they bothered to show up and ostentatiously not vote for Moore. It wasn’t a joke, it was a statement. Perhaps that’s the most encouraging thing.
A crocus, heralding the American Spring.