Is 2011 the New 1968? On Historical Revolutions
I’m currently reading a biography of the father of Deconstruction, the French philosopher and literary critic Jacques Derrida. It’s a fascinating book (Who Was Jacques Derrida? An Intellectual Biography, by David Mikics, Yale Univ Press 2010) in its own right, but having recently passed through the period of the late 1960s, when Derrida was coming into his own at the start of his career, I was struck by the possibilities that the year 2011 might yield and the myriad ways in which history might recall this time.
The year 1968 marks something of a zenith in revolutionary fervor of the post-war, cold-war, feminist, civil rights, religious and student contexts of the day, at least in the collective popular memory of the West. Both the United States and Europe experienced upheaval in the status quo that was led and fueled by young adults. Several trajectories of unrest and discontent converged, resulting in what we now term a revolution. Largely intellectual, almost exclusively “Western,” I can’t help but wonder if the world is witnessing a similar collective liminal experience in the Near East and Northern Africa.
There are ways in which these two epochal moments in history resemble one another, as there are manifold differences. The power and vitality of the youth unwilling to acquiesce in the face of autocracy and stodgy intellectual life of the public square seems familiar, as does the new life that is sought and as well as the goal of full participation in government, society and culture.
Like certain movements and demonstrations of the 60s, recent days have witnessed the violent response of the power against which the peaceful demonstrators rally. The, to-date, successful revolution in Egypt was largely peaceful, but time will tell how long nonviolence will stand in the face of aggressive power. The potential for change is inordinate, and we are certainly living through a time that will be recalled as significant.
There are ways in which the movements are different too. While an honest look at the social and cultural milieus of both the Near East/Northern Africa and our own self-lauded Western contexts reveal that many of the impetuses for revolution in the 1960s have not yet been reconciled (civil rights continues to be a pressing issue, women continue to be treated unfairly and unequally, the role of the military is still unsettling), it is indeed a new age with different forms of communication and relationship-building. The environment of the uprisings in the Near East are vastly different in history and context than was found at Kent State, Washington DC or the University of Paris.
I am deeply interested in what the future holds and how the proceeding ten months play out. Can we appreciate the global significance of what is happening in our world beyond simply fearing violence as so many pundits provoke? What roles are we playing in effecting peaceful change in our world that makes the human family a more equitable and just community? Will what has begun in the Near East and Northern Africa lead to reverberations in the West, perhaps also in the United States, causing today’s young people to pause and evaluate the current state of affairs and seek peaceful change for positive development?
What are the religious implications for the social, cultural and political events of this age? How can, how should the Church respond?
Only time will tell. But at least, for now, we are witnessing something transformative. Perhaps you too can be a part of history.