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The Democratic National Convention will be held in Chicago this year, from August 19–24. Perhaps you are already bracing yourself, as I am, for an onslaught of pieces looking back at the summer of 1968, when the Democrats held a notoriously contentious gathering in the Windy City, juxtaposing that happening and the state of the nation then with our present in 2024. It comes as a bit of a shock to me to realize how many of those pieces will be written by people who weren't even born in 1968.

Consider the photo (by E. Jason Wambgans) and the accompanying story that appeared “above the fold” (yes, I still read the paper “in print”) on the front page of the Chicago Tribune for Tuesday, May 21. “Campus protests evoke ‘the struggles of the past,'” the headline reads; the photo shows a beatific old couple: “Activists Bernadine Dohrn and Bill Ayers smile as they look over the University of Chicago United Students for Palestine encampment on the main quad at the University of Chicago on April 29. Ayers and Dohrn are former Vietnam-era activists who co-founded the Weather Underground.” 

I feel an absurd desire to “testify.” In 2007, I wrote a piece for the Wall Street Journal that appeared under the title “Hippie Shakeup: Remembering That Christians Were Part of the 60’s, Too.” I loved the column (if I do say so myself), but I hated the title given to it, which struck a note of wounded amour propre entirely at odds with the tone of the piece. In it, I mentioned having recently read 

a half-dozen histories of the ’60s. Every one of them mentioned Students for a Democratic Society. Only one of them mentioned the Catholic charismatic revival that began on a retreat held by Duquesne University faculty and students early in 1967. Or the parallel influence of Pentecostalism on Protestants, especially of the evangelical variety, that changed the face of worship and piety in countless American churches and connected American believers with the global surge of Pentecostalism. And what about the Lubavitchers and similar Orthodox Jewish movements that began to attract young people at the same time?

My point in addressing this “ludicrous disparity in coverage” was to draw attention to the assumption—dominant in scholarly and popular accounts of the decade’s Zeitgeist—that “what millions of people happened to be doing in churches and synagogues isn’t worthy of notice, especially if it contradicts the assumption that the trajectory of the ’60s was taking a whole generation away from organized religion. Sure, the sideshow will feature Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, but a bunch of Christians speaking in tongues? Please!” Nor was my dissatisfaction with what we could call “the discourse of ‘the Sixties’” limited to this particular blind-spot, nor was it at all limited to historians’ accounts. Having lived through that decade—Wendy and I were married in October of 1968; we were twenty years old—I have grown ever more weary and ever more irritated by the way it has been routinely characterized, mythologized (whether revered or deplored), and marketed.

In the more than fifteen years since that piece appeared, scholarship has redressed some of its earlier limitations. For a while, studying “religion in the Sixties” in its wild variety was actually trendy. (As I wrote in 2007, that could be predicted, not only because some scholars “want[ed] to come closer to the true meaning of the ’60s, but also because scholars desperately need subjects for their endless articles and books.”) Yet the familiar, skewed narratives persist.

Some readers—younger ones especially, to the degree that I have any of those—may be shaking their heads, convinced that I’ve gotten hold of the wrong end of the stick. “I feel sorry for the poor old guy. He doesn’t realize it, but he’s living in the past. For most people today, excluding the geriatric set, the Sixties are ancient history! You’d have to explain to them what they supposedly think about that decade—which in fact rarely enters their consciousness—before you explain why it’s wrong.”

Maybe so. And if that is true, it occurs to me, maybe it’s not such a bad thing. Maybe, as the sixties recede into the vast ragbag of History, interesting new accounts will appear alongside books on Regency England, say, or Japan and “modernity” (as it happens, I have several such in hand just now, and a couple of more that sound interesting are forthcoming), or letters exchanged by a pair of learned and passionate lovers in the Middle Ages.

Meanwhile, if you have the stomach for it, just wait, as I suggested above, for pieces tied in with this summer’s gathering of Democrats in Chicago. The familiar tropes will be trundled out yet again. Handle with caution.

John Wilson is a contributing editor for The Englewood Review of Books and senior editor at The Marginalia Review of Books.

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Image by Tony Webster, licensed via Creative CommonsImage cropped.

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