From a bruising presidential battle to bloody mayhem on the streets, America seems to be reliving the conflict of 1968, and it’s time once more to challenge injustices, writes Maurice Isserman    

According to the Chinese zodiac, 1968 and 2016 are both the Year of the Monkey. But maybe we should call this the Year of the Ghost Monkey of 19

From the US presidential primaries to the convention platform battles to bloody mayhem in the streets, 1968 is the go-to, default metaphor for what we seem to be reliving.

This year, like 1968, is certainly one of bitter conflict and wrenching change. And why is that a surprise? Some things don’t change. A nation of several hundred million people, drawn from all over the world, can never exactly become a peaceable kingdom, a beloved community. Creeds differ, values clash; rival factions, communities, and priorities compete.

Harmony would be nice — and an end to bloodshed is a goal to which most Americans can subscribe. But bear in mind that it has always been through conflict that Americans have decided who they are as a nation, discarding old assumptions and redefining identity and mission.

I’ve been thinking about one of my favourite 1960s writers, the remarkable Vietnam War correspondent Michael Herr, who died two weeks ago. He covered the Vietnam War for Esquire in 1967-68, and his book, Dispatches, remains one of the greatest works about that troubled conflict. (Herr also contributed to the screenplays of two iconic Hollywood movies on the war, Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket.)

Dispatches is more than a war memoir, however. It offers genuine insight into American history and the American character. “There was such a dense concentration of American energy there,” Herr wrote of Vietnam in the late 1960s. “American and essentially adolescent, if that energy could have been channeled into anything more than waste and pain it would have lighted up Indochina for 1,000 years.”

I can’t think of any other American writer who has managed to pack into one sentence so much love for his country — and so much disdain for the folly in which, in that instance, it was engaged.

Another passage in Dispatches also came to mind last week. Herr describes the first time he went on a mission with a company of Marines, and ended up caught in a fire-fight, hugging the ground for hours, “listening to it going on, the moaning and whining and the dull repetitions of whump whump whump and dit dit dit, listening to a boy who’d somehow broken his thumb sobbing and gagging, and thinking ‘Oh my God, this fucking thing is on a loop!...’ ”

Here’s last week’s loop: Tuesday, whump whumpwhump, black man in Louisiana pinned to the ground by police officers then shot to death. Wednesday, dit dit dit, another black man, this time in Minnesota, shot and killed in the front seat of his car as, his girlfriend said, he tried to produce the driver’s licence demanded by a police officer — she sat in the seat beside him, her four-year-old daughter in the back seat.

Thursday night, dit whump dit, five Dallas policemen targeted and murdered by a vengeful rooftop sniper, seven others wounded. Senseless death of innocent victims, brought home in disturbingly graphic detail via cable news and social media. Is it apocalypse now in the streets of America?

And all this in the context of recent years of fervent protest over issues of racial injustice, in a nation beset by repeated acts of violence, both random and targeted, in the midst of a presidential campaign running off the tracks, with one candidate in particular displaying an ability to stir up as much rancour and discord as possible.

If history is on a loop, are we back in the world of Dispatches? Is this 1968 redux? Do we really have to sit through this movie again?

Not likely. Fifty years have indeed changed America. The country is more diverse, ethnically, racially, and religiously. There is a far more substantial black middle class than in 1968. (While at the same time the problem of black poverty, and, for that matter, white poverty, seems more intractable than ever.)

Although it’s sometimes hard to remember with all the noise generated by polarising politicians, the United States is more tolerant than it was half a century ago — when the idea that there would someday be a black president seemed impossibly remote, and the notion of gay marriage unimaginable.

In 1968, America was still adjusting to the US Supreme Court’s wonderfully named decision Loving v. Virginia, issued the previous June, which overturned laws that banned interracial marriage. Until then, nearly one third of US states had such laws on their books. Today at least 12% of all new marriages in the United States unite interracial couples, and the trend is expected to expand as millennials, least concerned of all Americans about race, reach marriage age.

Reminded by the Iraq invasion of the consequences of national hubris in international affairs, a lesson learned and then forgotten after Vietnam, Americans are again skeptical of “boots on the ground” scenarios for remaking the world in their own image.

The fact that this skepticism, even in the absence of a draft, is shared across the generational spectrum is another difference between 1968 and today.

Americans are also asking important questions about economic policies and decisions taken in Washington and corporate board rooms, that have increased income inequality to levels not seen since the 1920s. Americans as a people, many of them anyway, are more self-aware and thoughtful in this second decade of the 21st century than has been the case for some decades.

It’s true that the presumptive presidential candidate of the party of Abraham Lincoln wants to make America “great again” by turning back the clock to the imagined splendor of an era of racial and ethnic homogeneity. But come November, after all the shouting and posturing, there will come a great moment of clarity, when the diverse population of America votes.

Speaking of clarifying moments in American history, in his first speech as president in March 1861, the first Republican president of the United States beseeched his fellow countrymen to listen to the “better angels of their nature” and avoid the looming Civil War. That did not, Lincoln assured Southerners, mean the end of slavery, at least in the short run.

His appeal fell on deaf ears. But just two and a half years later, in a November 1863 address at Gettysburg, Lincoln proclaimed a “new birth of freedom”, carrying on and transforming the meaning of the American experiment, in which there no longer was a place for human servitude. And, in doing so, changed the nation.

History was not on a loop in the 1860s.

Nor in the 1960s. In a Memphis church on April 3, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr reflected on the possibility of his own death. He had been nearly killed by a deranged assailant in 1958, and he explained why he was glad to have survived — and not just because he loved life.

“I wouldn’t have been around here in 1960,” King recalled, “when students all over the South started sitting in at lunch counters.”

What those students were doing, he said, was making America great again by setting out to challenge and change its injustices. “They were really standing up for the best in the American dream, and taking the whole nation back to those great wells of democracy … the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution,” he said.

Lincoln and King lived in difficult times, as we do. It is in just such eras that Americans have rediscovered and refashioned the best traditions bound up in our national experience.

Can we resolve in the years that follow the tumultuous election year of 2016 to listen to the better angels of our nature, and turn the dense concentration of American energy away from waste and pain — and use it instead to light our world?

Maurice Isserman teaches history at Hamilton College. He is the co-author of America Divided: The Civil War of the 1960s

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