Politics & Policy

We Are All ‘Huitards Now

Careful picking up those cobblestones, citoyen. You could put your back out.

I remember when I was a little boy watching a parade of veterans in a town in Kansas. There were a bunch of World War I guys carrying guns up in front. They seemed very serious. Even though it had been only 40 years since the armistice, they looked so old they scared me.

But they at least had the dignity of knowing they’d accomplished something — unlike the sixtysomethings in Paris, where a month of marking (and marketing) the May ‘68 riots is already underway. In résidences des personnes âgées throughout the Île-de-France, former ‘huitards — in the full bloom of youth 40 years ago, but now mostly fat old guys with buzz cuts and morose women with Françoise Hardy in their heads but Jeanne Moreau in their mirrors — are sharing vintage kumbaya moments and thumbing through the latest issue of Marianne (coverline: “Polémique: Sarkozy est-il un soixante-huitard?”), which has the look and feel of a souvenir booklet, because that’s what it is. Nearly every page is a you-were-there-and-didn’t-you-look-fabulous reverie.

In Paris, the Sixties have gone from being romanticized to being euthanized. Steven Erlanger, writing in the International Herald Tribune, does a good job capturing the angst of the rebels, who once were aging, but now are simply aged, as they try to come to terms with all that they failed to produce: “The movement succeeded ‘as a social revolution, not as a political one,’ [Alain] Geismar said.” True, when it comes to changing the world, Facebook and NASCAR have done more.

And there’s an American parallel to this, of course: Mark Rudd, who ran the dean’s office at Columbia for a couple of days 40 years ago, now runs a blog, badly. The politics of the Sixties animates the little clay figures of the Clinton and Obama campaign dramas. Elizabeth Wurtzel, a “recent Yale Law School graduate” and writer, confessed Friday in the Wall Street Journal (“Obama’s Other Radical Friends”) how easy it was to get stuck in the rhapsodic residue of the Sixties, and how hard it is to scrape it all off your shoes later:

…like many teenagers tragically lost in the Reagan ‘80s, I had Woodstock dreams, imagining some perfect purple haze of love. By the time I got to college, the cult of latter-day hippies had become a marketing phenomenon: Urban Outfitters was selling tie-dye T-shirts and groups of us made daytrips to Walden Pond to drop acid on Thoreau’s acreage. Undergraduates lived in shanties, built in front of the university president’s office at Harvard Yard, to protest investment in apartheid South Africa; all around the campus, reprints of posters advocating the 1969 student strike were thumb-tacked on kiosks and telephone poles. I was there, one of many, in love with a dream I’d had as a kid.

Today, of course, I know what LSD really stands for: let the Sixties die.

Give it time, my dear. We are the ‘huitard generation, and we’ve still got something to say. We just forget what, exactly.

However, the glory of May 1968 is all in the retelling, not in the actual events or their consequences, so thank goodness for Le Monde’s tribute to the way things were. It’s a comic strip, appropriately enough, narrated by a white-haired lady and done in a style that I suppose is meant to be ironic but in fact nails perfectly the banality of the French Left’s great moment in the streets.

When the elderly of Paris lay awake at night and revive old memories of La Sorbonne and Daniel (“Dany le Rouge”) Cohn-Bendit, they’ll need nothing more than Le Monde’s luminous panels. That, and a madeleine will get a sentimental geezer through the night.

  – Denis Boyles is the author of Superior, Nebraska. He teaches in France at The Brouzils Seminars of Fort Hays State University.

Denis BoylesDennis Boyles is a writer, editor, former university lecturer, and the author/editor of several books of poetry, travel, history, criticism, and practical advice, including Superior, Nebraska (2008), Design Poetics (1975), ...

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