Again, Americans tend to think of 1968 as a uniquely American upheaval during a uniquely American decade of unrest. Bobby Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr. and all that. But the reality is a bit different. The 1960s saw student uprisings not only in America but in France, Britain, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Germany, Senegal, Argentina, Indonesia and Mexico. Obviously, each had its own unique flavor, but there was also something in the global water in the 1960s. What it was, exactly, is still hotly debated today. But the violence of '68ers surely had something to do with the comfort and guilt that comes from being the prosperous offspring of the World War II generation.
Not everyone in the so-called New Left was physically violent, and by no means was every young person alive then a member of the New Left, but almost everyone in the so-called "generation of '68" was intellectually violent - to tradition, to old-fashioned notions of decency, to truth, etc. And a great many of them refused to draw principled distinctions between rhetorical violence and the real thing.
In America, students took over schools like Cornell University with rifles and threatened to kill professors they considered to be "reactionary." Many older liberals had minds so open, their brains fell out. Others recognized the threat posed by the new barbarians and almost instantaneously became "conservatives" or - shudder - neoconservatives because they chose to stand firm in support of American liberal institutions - institutions that, in the new climate, were defined as right wing and oppressive. Clinton Rossiter, the decent, humane liberal scholar of American politics, tried to reconcile these competing forces, and his failure made suicide all the more attractive as an option.
Cardinal Ratzinger is a veteran of similar struggles. Whether you think Pope Benedict represents a move toward steadying the civilizational pendulum or a major counter-swing depends on your own spot on the ideological spectrum. And while it is too soon to know whose version of Ratzinger Pope Benedict XVI will become - the radical Inquisitorial "enforcer" of cold steel doctrine or the humble and curious teacher - the lesson remains the same. Civilization is a balancing act. When you lose your balance on the tightrope, you must make great swings in your stance just to get centered again. And even then, the odds are you fall off. The real trick is avoid making sudden moves in either direction.