History, politics, memory: Berkeley, 1968-1974

Late in the summer of 1968, just out of college, I packed a few belongings into a newly-purchased Volkswagen and drove from St Louis (where my family lived) to Berkeley, (where I was about to start graduate school). The classic story, right? Berkeley in the sixties, midwestern kid on a pre-Interstate cross-country drive, in a Volkswagen, no less. (Though not the beetle version, instead a Fastback– a short-lived, slightly larger model with multiple design flaws, hence its rapid disappearance from the showrooms.) The classic story continued after my arrival in Berkeley, too. Just that first year, there was a Chicano students strike in the fall, major anti-Vietnam War protests all through the winter, and People’s Park in the spring– that’s the episode where students occupied a university-owned vacant lot and started growing vegetables, sending the authorities into a near-psychotic reaction: they had a helicopter tear-gas the campus, and the local sheriffs went on a rampage that killed one student and wounded several others. Nothing so dramatic happened during my later years in Berkeley (I finished in 1974), but the political ferment continued pretty much non-stop.

Of course Berkeley’s on my mind lately, as a new era of political engagement and public demonstrations seems to be opening. I find myself thinking about those years for what they say about political moments like our own, and also for what they say about about historical knowledge. Here I’ll say more about the historical knowledge side of the story; there’ll be more about the politics next week

From the historian’s viewpoint, the Berkeley years are my personal version of a predicament we all know about and sometimes teach, but basically don’t know how to handle: it’s the disconnect between big-picture history, with its strong narratives, central themes, and clear directions, and the muddled, incomplete, fractured way every one of us real people actually experiences historical processes. I mean, maybe someone actually had the full big-picture Berkeley-In-The-Sixties experience, but if so I never met them. For me and everyone I knew, it came in bits and pieces, and it never added up to a coherent whole of any kind, let alone the Berkeley-In-The-Sixties archetype.

Our politics actually came fairly close to fitting the archetype. Everyone I knew was on the left, we were all angry about the war and about American race relations, most of us occasionally marched and undertook other political efforts. We read and discussed Eldridge Cleaver and Malcolm X, and we took it for granted that China and Cuba had something to teach us Americans, even if there was lots to criticize. I first met a banker about my age in 1971 (he’d accompanied his wife to a student conference), and even he was profusely apologetic about his line of work.

But in most other ways, our lives didn’t even approach the archetype. In my crowd of early twenty-somethings, nearly everyone was married (I myself got married that first year), and we were all trying hard to be grown-ups. We had dinner parties, we drank scotch, we tended to dress up, not super-fancy, but not indifferent, either– all in all, not exactly the sex/drugs/rocknroll lifestyle. Whatever drug-taking went on around us was pretty much invisible in our group, and our music came from the top-40 radio stations. The sex part of the triad was more complicated, because despite all the marriages, the mood of sexual revolution had definitely arrived. There was a fair amount of talk about alternative lifestyles, some flirtatious dress and behavior, and lots of interest in exploring sex, but it was mostly just talk. Other elements of the sexual revolution were completely missing. We knew one or two out-of-the-closet older gay men, but no one in our age group even talked about coming out. As for bisexuality, it was basically just a book-land concept, not something you expected to encounter in the real world.

Now, you could summarize all this by saying my friends and I just missed out on The Sixties– we were graduate student keeners eager to get on with our work and careers, just the sort who’d marry right out of college, so of course we didn’t latch on to the real changes happening around us. But there are problems with that line, some of them empirical, some theoretical. On the real-life side, there was the politics, which we took awfully seriously, and after all, we’d all chosen to be in Berkeley– it already had the aura, and we knew from day one that it wouldn’t be a Princeton-style all-professional-all-the-time program. On the theory side, the missing-out narrative requires you to see some central spirit of the age, some Real Sixties, that the actual historical actors either did or didn’t live up to. That’s the Hegel version of history, and it hasn’t been popular among historians for the last fifty years. It leaves too many real people out of the story.

An alternative that has been popular with historians goes heavier on the real-life side– but it has its own problems. Looking at an example like mine, a historian might argue that actually the sixties weren’t as wild and radical as the conventional wisdom would have it, and that it really was just a slow-motion evolution from the previous decade. Following this reasoning, the big historical breaks don’t matter as much as they seem to, and a lot of what people take to be big changes are just noise and wasted energy. Something happens, these historians might say, but it happens at the level of deep social changes.

But that doesn’t seem sufficient either. For one thing, it misses the fragmented ways most of us humans operate– we can be radical in one zone, and give candle-lit dinner parties in another. For another thing, the “it wasn’t so radical” view downgrades the value of “the political” itself, meaning all that reading, discussing, marching, and whatever else we did back then, effective or not, misguided or not. It’s a specific world when lots of career-minded twenty-somethings are reading Eldridge Cleaver and Malcolm X, and not reading them as museum pieces either, but for understanding how their own world works.

Here again, as so often in these posts, questions of historical knowledge shade into questions of real-life politics. I’ll try to pursue those in the coming week.