1968 – rebellions and questions of objectivity

Mark Kurlansky, 1968: The Year that Rocked the World, (New York, NY: Random House Publishing Group, 2004)


In this book, Kurlansky takes a wide-ranging look at war, culture, and politics during the year 1968 in an effort to understand not just that year’s events, but the underlying causes that led to them and the year’s lasting impact on the world.

The book follows a more or less chronological path and as such, it jumps back and forth from many different locations; from the eastern bloc to Southeast Asia, from the U.S. to Nigeria, from Cuba to Western Europe. It also jumps topics; from war to poetry to politics to fashion. It is very difficult to encompass all these different locations, different facets of culture, into one lucid and coherent narrative. And I think it is in this area that the author deserves the most credit. It does a good job of providing a slightly chaotic feeling that matches what many people felt at the time, that everything was coming apart at the seams. Yet he also ties in a lot of common threads that made people in various different parts of the world, who had little or no direct contact with each other, feel like they had some sort of communal bond.

The author compares 1968 to the rebellions of 1848 only on a global scale. But it was a very bizarre mixture of rebellions in that everyone seemed to be rebelling against everything. The demonstrators and rebels rarely agreed on much of anything except that “a change” was needed. So while everyone had a platform of their own, be it anti-war, anti-capitalist, anti-communist, or any number of others, there was no great “movement”. There was instead a stunning concurrence of a number of disparate, often competing movements.        

I thought the book was well written and accomplished its main goal of offering an understandable and intriguing explanation of a very turbulent year. It also accomplished what seemed to me a secondary goal, which also seems to be a goal of so many aging hippies, of reliving the author’s youthful glory days. Kurlansky states right from the start that he was not an objective bystander to events in 1968 but was an active participant. And after reading the book, it is pretty obvious where his political sympathies lie. Many of his ensuing interpretations and omissions made me shake my head and wish I had the author in front of me to argue with. But it also got me thinking about a historian’s obligations of objectivity when dealing with recent and current events. When writing about events of the distant past, it is usually possible to be objective but it is often difficult to relate to the context and the feelings of the times. On the other hand, when writing about the recent past, it is easier to conjure up the feelings and context but it is often much more difficult to gain enough perspective to allow for a truly objective analysis. In such a case, I am of the opinion that the author handled the situation correctly. I don’t believe it is necessary to recuse yourself from the discussion. But you have to be clear and up front about where your prejudices may lie and don’t try to hide from your audience feelings that may influence your interpretations and conclusions.       


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