Looking Back on ’68

If you haven’t made the Lowy Institute’s Interpreter blog a regular stop on your daily internet commute, I highly recommend that you do. And I don’t say that simply because I’ve struck up a collegial email correspondence with the blog’s editor, Sam Roggeveen (of which more later). The Interpreter’s contributors are all insightful analysts of not only Australia and Asia, but of America and the world as well. They offer a neighborhood perspective on the Asian Century ahead, and the kind of frank opinions of America’s role in the world that only a close and trusted friend can provide.

And it’s all done with what I take to be an Australian brand of roll-up-your-sleeves, pragmatic resignation to the task that is not to be confused with pessimism. Writing today, Graeme Dobell talks about a commencement address he just delivered in which he extols the virtues of beer before moving on to compare today’s bleak circumstances with those of 1968:

Looking back on ’68, the big question wasn’t about whether the West waslosing the Cold War, as it certainly was that year. And it wasn’t aboutthe choices Asia would have to make. It was — at a deeper level –about the legitimacy and moral worth of some of our institutions, evenour societies. From that perspective, the following 40 years turned outsurprisingly well. China turned to market socialism and robustdemocracies have blossomed in Indonesia, South Korea and the firstChinese democracy, in Taiwan.

This quick skip through history was not meant to offer some cheerfulview that everything will miraculously turn out OK. But the law ofunintended consequences often turns up trumps, not dumps. Nothing isinevitable.

Agreed, on both the virtues of beer and the need to avoid fatalism. I was born in 1968, and so my earliest conscious memories of the broader political landscape begin in the mid-seventies: with Nixon resigning in disgrace, mountains of garbage on the curbs of a bankrupt and dysfunctional New York City, a sense that social order had not only broken down, but was no longer even an attainable goal in cities. America’s moral authority had been seriously shaken in global opinion, and the alternatives to social democracy on both the right and left was repressive authoritarianism. And yet, somehow we muddled through, in ways no one could have foreseen.

The challenges today are numerous and great. The financial crisis is being forecasted as a once in a century affair. The war in Iraq and more generally the Bush administration’s reliance on unilateralism have severely damaged America’s standing in the world.

But as has been pointed out elsewhere, in many ways the trajectory has been reversed in the past two years by the Rice-Gates wing of the Bush administration. So when President-elect Obama takes office, his challenge will not be one of reversing course but of gathering momentum coming out of the pivot. And his very presidency will represent a vindication of the “legitimacy and moral worth” of our institutions and society.

It’s also worth noting that sometimes what doesn’t survive a crisis like the one in which we find ourselves today are the increasingly obsolete structures of thought and action that keep us from evolving to the changing circumstances. Glam rock can give way to garage bands, and disco to hip hop. The challenges our children will face as adults will look nothing like the ones we are wrestling with today, nor will the world. But that’s not to say it will necessarily be worse.

So no need for maudlin bromides, but at the same time, no call for despair. Things might look bleak. But after all, that’s what beer’s for.