Will 2020 Be Our 1968?
Meaning: Will it be the year that none of us ever shut up about?
1968 occupies roughly the same place in hippie folklore that the birth of Jesus does in Christianity. I once had a gray-haired record store clerk bend my ear about what a transformational year it was. “It was the Summer of Love!” he exclaimed. It was not: 1967 was the Summer of Love. “Crazy times — Woodstock, the Manson murders,” wrong again, both 1969, but this guy was such an authentic hippie that highly precise memory would have actually made him less credible. I honestly would have just politely nodded if he had said “1968! Sputnik, the Spice Girls, Jack the Ripper taught Helen Keller to read. There's a reason they called it The Reformation, my friend!”
1968 did contain several seismic events in American political history. January saw the launch of the Tet Offensive, which was the first time many Americans realized that victory in Vietnam wasn’t close at hand. Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered in April, sparking riots in more than 100 cities. In June, Robert F. Kennedy was killed in the thick of the Democratic primary, and the Democratic National Convention in August was marked by more chaos and rioting. Politics overlapped with sports; Muhammad Ali’s exile from boxing continued as he refused to be drafted, and Tommie Smith and John Carlos gave a black power salute at the Olympics. There was also a pandemic, a narrowly-decided presidential election, and Joe Biden achieved higher office in an election in which his age was an issue.
I’m not suggesting some sort of cosmic connection between 1968 and 2020. I don’t believe in that stuff. I do believe that history repeats itself, mostly because societal memory fades, so if we step on a rake and then circle back to that same rake 50 years later, there’s a chance we’ll say “gee, what’s this?” and then smack ourselves in the face all over again. I could list a hundred ways that 1968 was like 2020, but I could also list a hundred ways that it was different. One difference that leaps to mind is the music — here are some albums that came out in 1968:
I’m going to go out on a limb and say that 1968 was a better music year than 2020. Of course, these things are subjective. Except for the Miley Cyrus part; if you think that Miley Cyrus’ Plastic Hearts is better than The White Album, then you’re a dangerous person spouting toxic lies and you deserve to be shunned.
I’m mostly interested in one way that 2020 might be like 1968: I think that it might really stick in the minds of people who lived through it. Socio-political winds that had been gathering for some time suddenly formed a vortex. Personally, I feel like I just now have enough distance from 2020 — especially the summer — to look back and think “Jesus…what was that?”
Covid set the table for a psychologically taxing year. We should probably reflect on how unnatural that situation was; we’re not meant to be trapped indoors for months streaming Floor is Lava and achieving a Buddha-like state of total enlightenment about our partners’ flaws. Some people got trapped in almost-dead relationships; others were stuck indoors with their kids, who turned out to be assholes. Unemployment soared, sports stopped, schools closed, and the dating scene almost completely froze. This left us with large numbers of bored, horny young people, which is far and away the most destabilizing force in human history.
The person at the helm at that moment — the man poised to play the solid, steady, fatherly role to put us all at ease — was Donald Trump. That’s about as comforting as waking up during surgery to find the surgeon and a prostitute snorting cocaine off of your spleen. To this day, the best argument Trump’s defenders can summon is “he was joking when he suggested drinking bleach.” He was the wrong man for the events of 2020, and that was true both for Covid and also for what came next.
What came next was the murder of George Floyd. Social media is tailor-made for dramatic, viscerally arresting moments caught on video, and Floyd’s murder certainly was that. In a strange coincidence, the “Central Park Karen” video was shot on the exact same day. It’s slightly odd that those two videos — which depicted incidents with drastically different consequences — became part of the same moment. But they did, and in a country in which fears of revanchist white racism had only heightened since Trump’s election, they sparked a movement.
In the absence of Covid, the post-George Floyd protests might have been an ordinary protest movement, perhaps similar to the post-Amadou Diallo/Abner Louima police reform movement or the Women’s March of 2016. But they ended up being possibly the largest movement in American history, involving an estimated 15-26 million people. Surely, the protests were given a boost by people thinking “I oppose racism, and I’m having vivid dreams about murdering my roommate — who used to always be at work but is now stuck to the couch like a barnacle — so I think I’ll join the protests.”
Covid also made the protests odd because we were supposed to be socially distancing. In hindsight, the fact that the protests were outdoors probably made the risk extremely low, but we knew a lot less back then about how hard it is to transmit the virus outdoors. Remember: This was 22 months ago, when we were running boxes of Cheerios through autoclaves and scrubbing our hands like Lady Macbeth. Also, liberal Twitter had spent all spring mocking anti-mask protests and shaming frat dudes who went to the beach for spring break. Even though, again, hindsight makes it clear that the outdoor nature of spring break probably made 2020 not much worse than the Daytona Beach-sized petri dish of viral infection that it normally is.
Many liberal social distancing absolutists sang a very different tune in response to the protests, thus betraying a hypocrisy apparent even to single cell amoebas and creatures in distant galaxies. This may have been the first sign that liberals were terrified to appear to be anything less than one thousand percent with the program. Which became a real problem as the program got increasingly nuts. We may never know who first uttered the phrase “defund the police”; that person is lost to history, much like whoever fired the first shot of the American Revolution, or the first fan to yell “Jeter sucks!” at a Red Sox game. But “defund” was not immediately laughed off by everyone on the left, and therefore ended up being on Fox News more than My Pillow or female anchors who look like they answered a casting call for “mean cheerleading coach”. In the summer, the deeply ridiculous and ultimately deadly Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone experiment happened in Seattle, which ended up being a master class in dangerous lefty nonsense that I, as someone on the left, view in much the same way that I imagine Japanese Americans view Mickey Rooney’s character in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
There was also violence. Early protests produced numerous videos of police violence against protesters, which spread like wildfire on social media and heightened the tension for everyone. Despite this, the protests were actually less deadly than similar events in American history — 25 people died in the 2020 protests, versus 63 in the Rodney King riots, 43 in 1968, and 35 in the Watts riot of 1965. It’s also worth considering those numbers in the context of the protests’ enormous scale. Still, “not as deadly” is still “deadly”. Plus, there was property damage — $1-2 billion worth — and “I’m going to burn down this Blinds 2 Go for justice” is not a position likely to win many converts.
As the protests continued, several high-profile firings reinforced liberal fears that there might be consequences for not being completely on board with every plank in the activist platform. James Bennett was forced out as Editorial Page Editor of the New York Times. Matt Ygelsias left Vox shortly after a kerfuffle over him signing a letter about free speech. An employee revolt led to Andrew Sullivan’s exit at New York Magazine. There were many other incidents, but the high-profile ones in media probably had the biggest impact. After all, if the ax could fall for a high-level New York Times editor, the co-founder of the publication he was forced out of, and a guy whose “I give zero fucks about what anyone thinks” style led him to call for gay marriage way back in the Paleolithic Era, then surely nobody was safe.
This likely contributed to embarrassingly obsequious media coverage of anything with a “social justice” label attached. When the idea that Covid may have escaped from a Wuhan lab was labeled “racist”, too few journalists asked the obvious follow-up: “Yeah, is it, though?” The shooting of James Blake was crammed into the same narrative template as George Floyd even though the specifics were very different. Many outlets initially reported the Kyle Rittenhouse incident as an unprovoked shooting spree by a white supremacist. Meanwhile, Ibram X. Kendi and Robin DiAngelo appeared in a seemingly endless series of interviews in which they were treated as our era’s preeminent thinkers, instead of as the King and Queen of a vast empire of pseudo-intellectual bullshit. It was a period of blatantly ideological media, the fault lines of which were perhaps best described in the letter Bari Weiss wrote upon leaving the New York Times, which differed from the way that Jennifer Aniston’s character in Office Space quit her job at Chotchkie’s only in the level of eloquence.
2020 was bad for media credibility, but it was great for ratings. Perhaps because sports were mostly shut down, our combative politics got a massive ratings boost. Here’s how ratings for the three major cable networks jumped in 2020 while ESPN’s fell (and ESPN would have done much worse if not for the wildly popular The Last Dance documentary):
The politics-as-sports atmosphere intensified during election season. On the balance, Democrats underperformed, but they were still able to unseat a president who had recently been impeached (remember that?) and who, at one point, tried to infect his elderly opponent with a deadly disease (what a scamp!). Trump staging an inept campaign to overturn the election proved to be the capstone on a chaotic year, and though the January 6 insurrection happened in 2021, the indelible image of a guy with a painted face, no shirt, and Fred Flintstone Loyal Order of Water Buffalo hat standing atop the House Speaker’s rostrum will always philosophically belong to 2020.
2020 saw a confluence of events that created a deeply weird political atmosphere. I’d say it was the second-weirdest atmosphere of my lifetime (I’m 41), behind the post-9/11 months. It was different from 9/11 in that the left, not the right, was energized. But it was similar in that the highly emotional nature of events, combined with their roots in very real problems, caused many sensible people to bite their tongue. And as a result, the nutcases ran wild.
1968 — and the late ‘60s/early ‘70s generally — might have caused American politics to shift to the right. The ‘68 riots seem to have helped Republicans a small amount. 1968 also saw Republicans start a remarkable run of victories in presidential elections — five out of six, interrupted by the post-Watergate election of 1976 — that only ended when Bill Clinton moved Democrats to the center. I don’t have a sense of what, if any, long-term effect 2020 might have. But as someone on the left, I’m obviously hoping that it didn’t push the country to the right. Though, when I see polls like this that show Hispanic voters divided evenly between Republicans and Democrats, I worry.
The good news is that sanity seems to have pushed back. You can’t really measure “nuttiness”, so no hard numbers are available, but the frequency of stupid and sometimes-violent activist nonsense, ridiculous firings, and clearly insane arguments in mainstream outlets seems to have lessened substantially. Joe Biden just gave an extremely normal State of the Union speech. I wouldn’t say things are “back to normal” (was normal even good?), but the trend line is headed in the right direction. The tide of insanity that washed ashore in 2020 is receding.
As a Substack writer, part of me wants things to stay crazy; columns about loud morons get numbers. The responsible citizen in me values fairness and reason, but the soulless click-scavenger in me craves tales of unsympathetic dipshits showing their bare ass to the world. When I look at 1968 and 2020, I see a pattern that goes: incident in the winter > murder in the spring > riots in the summer > election in the fall. That pattern seems to create an environment in which the craziest among us run wild. But if I’m right that things are getting less insane, then the click-scavenger part of me will have to acclimate to more-normal levels of dipshittery, because we’re unlikely to see another year like 2020 for quite a while.