The young people’s marches in Washington, D.C., and in many other cities across the nation last weekend suggested comparison with the many such marches and other acts of protest that were led by a similarly youthful movement in the 1960s. Many commentators who are too young to have experienced the 60s are making the comparison. But as one who lived through the radicalism that demanded change some 50 years ago, I think the comparison is far from ironclad.
For openers, let’s recall what actually was going on in the 60s. The consequential part of the decade actually began with the assassination of John F. Kennedy and the arrival of the Beatles. The former event shook up a generation of young people that had experienced something akin to ignorant bliss during the Eisenhower and Kennedy presidencies. Middle class living was comfortable, if not luxurious, and rock-and-roll was still defined by Elvis Presley and doo-wop groups.
Kennedy’s death almost exactly coincided with the genesis of Beatle-mania, and while the two may seem wholly disparate, the tragedy of the assassination of a cult hero may have enhanced the sense of euphoria over the emergence of a quartet of mop head heartthrobs. At the same time, two political issues—the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War—garnered the attention of the same generation of young people. And as the Beatles moved from pop adolescence (“I Want to Hold Your Hand”) to social consciousness (“Revolution”) and cultural upheaval (“She’s Leaving Home”), a generation that was coming of age found its moral compass. And that compass pointed away from the status quo in just about every aspect of the society’s cultural, social, and political traditions.
In that respect it is a little silly to compare the fervent demand for change on gun control and gun violence that was, essentially, the sole issue mobilizing young people last weekend (and for the month since the Parkland, Florida, shooting). The upheaval of the Sixties was broadly focused on peace (in Vietnam and in reduced American hegemony worldwide) and justice (for blacks and women, as both Black Power and Women Power took hold as rallying cries). It was also a movement against repressive attitudes about sex and in favor of drug usage and long hair. It coalesced in political action with the presidential candidacies of Eugene McCarthy (“Get Clean for Gene” was the call to arms for hippies who wanted to end the war) and Bobby Kennedy (with hope he would renew the dream of Camelot lost with his brother’s assassination). And it continued into the early 1970s with the demand for Richard Nixon’s impeachment (even though, by then, Nixon had ended America’s involvement in Vietnam and had opened peaceful dialogue with both the USSR and China).
The other major difference between then and now is the age of those at the forefront of the movements. The Sixties began with teenagers, but by 1968 (generally regarded as the year the movement spiked to its highest level of youthful rebellion), those teenagers were young adults, graduating from college (as I did) and joining the workforce (or the military, as I did). Today’s movement is very much powered by young teens, and even some pre-teens, who are still awaiting graduation from high school, not college. And while their numbers last weekend were impressive, one weekend (even one month of protests) does not a true movement make.
And, then, finally, there are the issues themselves. And in no way do I intend to diminish the importance of gun control as a concern, both politically and culturally. But to compare it to the Vietnam War (with over 50,000 Americans killed) and blatant racism (with KKK lynchings still prevalent throughout the South and de facto segregation still commonplace throughout the country in the 60s) is like comparing a drizzle to a hurricane (or, if you’d prefer a different metaphor, a case of bronchitis to lung cancer).
Gun violence is horrible much as terrorist attacks are horrible. Mass shootings, such as those that make headlines on an almost weekly basis somewhere in the country, destroy the lives of those directly affected and create anxiety and apprehension everywhere else. It is no longer possible to assume that crazed attacks with semi-automatic rifles that can fire 50 rounds of ammunition without needing to reload only happen somewhere else. They can happen in everyone’s community and in any child’s school. And in the face of this new kind of reality, the position of the NRA and those who align with the NRA, is maddeningly frustrating.
That frustration has been seething beneath the surface of American society for several decades (at least since the Columbine killings in 1999), and it may be that this latest travesty in Parkland, Florida, has finally opened the floodgates of rebellion against what the NRA demands. As retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens implicitly argued this week in a New York Times OpEd column, the Second Amendment is an anachronistic provision of the U.S. Constitution. It was largely ignored until a narrowly divided Supreme Court decided in 2008 to interpret the “Right to Bear Arms” as a personal federal right that the Court then extended to the states two years later.
The result is a federal Congress and many state legislatures that are easily intimidated by gun-rights advocates, who assert that the right to own any and all kinds of firearms cannot be infringed, even if the prospective owner of the lethal weapon is someone who has a violent past or is mentally disturbed. Even the most benign background checks are opposed by that thinking, and the result, as we saw again in Parkland, can be the tragic deaths of beloved children.
And so it was great to see the young people rallying last weekend. Their passion was real, and their demands are wholly reasonable and justified. Whether they will be able to mobilize a larger segment of the populace depends in part on their staying power. In the 1960s, the numbers grew as the war and the injustice continued. Hopefully, it will not take more Parklands to get this movement to that level.
But even if these young people are successful at starting a real political rebellion against the status quo on the singular issue of gun violence, one more point bears mention: As fervent and widespread as the youth rebellion was in the 1960s, politically things didn’t really change all that much. In 1968, Richard Nixon was elected, and in 1972 he was re-elected in one of the largest landslide elections in U.S. history. That year, the Democrats nominated George McGovern for president. McGovern represented all of the issues espoused by the young radicals who had emerged in the 60s. He ran an end-the-war, tax-the-rich, quasi-socialist campaign.
He won one state, and his brand of Democrat has never really been heard from again.