"Why don't we just vote to strike tonight, and we'll decide tomorrow what we're striking for?"
Those were the words of a student protester thoughtfully deliberating at Yale University, as recounted by Roger Kimball in his book on the left, "The Long March." It was a question that captured much of the heedless spirit of the student demonstrations of the 1960s, for which "May 1968" is shorthand.
That spring 40 years ago saw a radical takeover of Columbia University -- eventually duplicated at other elite campuses -- and student protests around the world. In France, the government was rocked to its foundations; in the Eastern Bloc, a crevice was opened up in the Berlin Wall; and here at home, campus life became synonymous with a straitened leftism, and the post-World War II political consensus shattered.
Before we had our long national nightmare (Watergate), we had our long national temper tantrum. In the U.S., student protests were an indulgence of the privileged, a wail by baby boomer kids raised in unprecedented affluence against the authority of their parents. To accuse of "fascism" a generation that bled in the mud of Normandy fighting the Axis took a massive historical ignorance and overweening self-regard; the New Left had both.
Now, we honor the parents of the baby boomers as "the Greatest Generation," but we haven't given up the romance of their kids. We remember the '60s protesters as beatific flower children, aching idealists opposed to the Vietnam War. Airbrushed from the popular imagination is the nihilism, the thrill of the wrecking ball, that animated the vanguard of the New Left.
Means relate to ends. If a movement thrives on the takeover of buildings, non-negotiable demands and threats of violence, it is an unmistakable sign it is coercive and illiberal, no matter how vehemently it invokes "liberation."
The Columbia protests were led by Mark Rudd, whose idea of a bon mot was "Up against the wall, motherf--!" From Columbia's relationship to a Pentagon-affiliated think tank and its plan to build a gym on a city park, Rudd's compatriots concluded that the school was irredeemably militaristic and racist. They occupied university buildings and took a dean hostage before being cleared out (none too gently) by the cops.
Elsewhere, university officials gave in to their tormenters, most notoriously at Cornell a year later. When black students occupied a university building -- ostentatiously arming themselves -- and demanded that disciplinary action against three black students be dropped, the faculty initially stood its ground. When the students escalated their threats, the faculty reversed itself in a signal act of cowardice.