“The Revolution Will Not be Televised,” mused musician and poet Gil Scott-Heron.
But it was filmed. And documentaries capturing the chaotic era are part of the Walker Art Center’s “Legacy of ’68,” a film series that includes “In the Intense Now,” which began a two-weekend run on Friday.
While ’68 might evoke Chicago’s Democratic National Convention and other domestic disturbances wracking (if not wrecking) American cities, the locations examined in this film — China, Czechoslovakia, France and director Joao Moreira Salles’ native Brazil — reflect a global protest moment.
The themes of the movement itself were somewhat similar in the West but distinctly different in China, which was spiraling into the Maoist madness of the Cultural Revolution.
Meanwhile, the Prague Spring’s “socialism with a human face” soon faced an inhuman Soviet crackdown. There was upheaval in Rio de Janeiro, and in Paris students and workers formed a tacit, temporary alliance that challenged Charles de Gaulle’s government — and French society — to the core.
Most of the scenes in this heavy, heady director-narrated film happen on the street. First, it’s impassioned idealists of a new generation challenging the old order. Later, however, it’s not protests, but processions, as youth — and seemingly the fleeting era itself — are mourned when the center holds.
Slaughter, the keynote speaker at Saturday’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs commencement, added that in Paris, even Prague, and especially the U.S., it was “a very important cultural moment in terms of rejecting a very conformist culture, but it was born much more of prosperity, whereas today it’s not born of prosperity.”
Indeed, today’s “intense now” is decidedly different.
Sure, there are similarities, including people protesting in the streets and at ballot boxes worldwide. But often the momentum is with reactionary populists such as Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, just one of several illiberal leaders who seem to tilt more toward Moscow than Brussels, headquarters of the European Union and heart of the kind of politics espoused by French President Emmanuel Macron.
Orban, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte are depicted with this week’s Time magazine cover story, “Rise of the Strongman.”
In 1967, conversely, youth movements led Time to name the “Twenty-five and Under” generation its “Man of the Year.”
Today’s dynamics are different, former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said while in St. Paul for a Books for Africa event this week. The Macalester College graduate, assessing today’s sociopolitical environment, said: “We have a situation in the world today, particularly in the West, where because of technology and innovation things are changing very fast and people are not able to keep up and governments are not able to keep up.”
Some governments, however, are keeping people down by repressing the press and curbing human rights.
People are falling behind, Annan added, “and with that sense of hopelessness and despair it is very easy to listen to these false prophets who come and promise easy solutions and make promises they know they cannot fulfill. And, of course they also are using a language that gives you the impression that they are tough guys, [that] they are going to resolve these issues.”
The complexity of those issues is sometimes simplified into nationalistic, even nativist movements manifest not just in Eastern Europe but in Brexit, the 2016 U.S. election and other challenges to sclerotic politics worldwide.
“It’s a period of enormous change on every single level you can imagine,” said Jill Dougherty, a former CNN Moscow bureau chief who is now a global fellow at the Wilson Center.
Dougherty, on a visit hosted by Global Minnesota, pointed to the global migration crisis as locus of the dislocation many in the West feel. “It’s a huge factor,” she said, adding that it may exacerbate because of climate change. Other factors, including technology and globalization, have led to “a historic period of uncertainty and dislocation,” said Slaughter, who added that such times lead some to “romanticize the past and crave order.” 1968’s “intense now” was fairly fleeting. But the current version, Slaughter said, is “a global phenomenon” that might endure “a decade or longer.”
Annan hopes “the pendulum would swing back to the sensible middle” and urges politicians “to have a little courage, and also trust their people and talk to them frankly about their difficulties and plans they have, and to stop thinking about the next election and think about the next generation.”
Now that would be revolutionary.
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:10 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.