What Is Freedom?

What Is Freedom?

A personal reflection on how a generation tested the meaning of that word in 1968.


What is freedom? We who came of age half a century ago found ourselves well placed by unearned good fortune to test its limits. Our parents, having suffered the privations of the Great Depression and the anxieties of World War II, had subsequently harnessed themselves to the task of rebuilding. From their discipline emerged a world of prosperous plenty sicklied o’er with the pale cast of gray-flannel conformity and lonely crowds. We wanted more. Throughout 1968, our inchoate desire bubbled over into the public sphere.

The nature of that desire—perhaps I should call it a yearning, because it was vaguer than desire, limitless and without object—was vividly evoked by a surprising witness to what happened in Paris that spring: Yves de Gaulle, the grandson of Charles de Gaulle, who was president of France at the time of the May ‘68 student uprising turned general strike, and whose grip on power was loosened by what the French to this day simply refer to as “the events.”

In a documentary recently aired in France, the younger de Gaulle recounts a dinner with his grandfather at the height of the uprising. The 77-year-old general asked what all those strangely agitated young people wanted.

Vivre plus!” Yves, then 17, replied. (“To live more!”)

“And what can I, as head of state, do to satisfy that desire, which I fully understand?”

The general’s grandson had no answer. But he had experienced firsthand the exhilarating bedlam at the Odéon national theater, which had been “occupied” and declared a site of “permanent revolutionary creativity” by a committee of “students, artists, and workers.” Evidently, Yves came away with his blood stirred by the spectacle of so much public passion in a society he had never before seen so unbuttoned or unbridled.

He managed to convey something of this unprecedented exuberance to his grandfather, who might not have understood what those “bed-shitters” (chie-en-lit) wanted but nevertheless drew the conclusion that nothing less than a “change of society” (mutation de société) would suffice if order were to be restored. It was the classic conservative response to the perennially baffling desire of the young to “Live more!”—a stratagem memorably formulated by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa in The Leopard: “Everything must change so that everything may stay the same.” And so it did.

Somehow we bed-shitters had shaken things up, wrong-footing the guardians of the old and illuminating the new, if only by flickering match-light.

Success emboldened us, and not only in France. President Lyndon Johnson, as astonished as de Gaulle by the sudden thaw in an order of things to which the Cold War had imparted the illusory solidity of a deep freeze, had already announced in March that he would not run for reelection. Change appeared to be contagious. We might therefore be forgiven for thinking that we had scored political victories—nay, worked miracles—even if they soon evaporated when the Gaullists, capitalizing on a growing reaction against the events in May, crushed the opposition in the June elections, while Richard Nixon captured the American presidency in November.

Never mind the reversals: We had come together and things had happened, so to us 1968 seemed an annus mirabilis. Of course, it was also a year of horrors—riots, repression, racist reaction, bloodshed, assassinations, the Tet Offensive, Khe Sanh—but in our festival of fraternity, we experienced mainly one another. The rest was silence (and, as it turned out, mostly the seething, angry silence of the silent majority, appalled by our dereliction of duty).

We had discovered the ecstasy of solidarity, the joy, evanescent but indelible, of what Jean-Paul Sartre in his amphetamine-induced haze called the “group in fusion.” Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, / But to be young was very Heaven! Wordsworth had our number: He knew how “the meagre, stale, forbidding ways / Of custom, law, and statute” could suddenly acquire “the attraction of…romance.”

To older liberals, this romance was suspect. The French political theorist Raymond Aron warned that it was merely a “lyrical illusion.” We were said to be reenacting as farce what others had tragically lived.

One writer in particular had anticipated what our elders took to be the error of our ways. In 1958, Isaiah Berlin had delivered a lecture in which he famously discerned “Two Concepts of Liberty.” In 1969, that lecture was published as one chapter of a book that brought the contrast between Berlin’s two liberties—positive and negative—to wider attention. Readers discomfited by the events of the previous year could read this text as prophecy: It was the seductive allure of positive liberty that had led the younger generation astray.

To simplify Berlin’s arguments brutally, negative liberty was “freedom from,” or the enjoyment of a zone of noninterference, of guaranteed exemption from coercion, while positive liberty was “freedom to”—the freedom to be (or, more sinisterly perhaps, the freedom to choose) one’s own master. These, Berlin argued, might seem to be “concepts at no great logical distance from each other,” but in fact they were in “direct conflict,” because the adept of positive liberty might conceive of “the real self” as “a social ‘whole’ of which the individual is an element or aspect.” In pursuit of the will-o’-the-wisp of positive liberty, in other words, the individual risked surrendering herself to voluntary servitude, indentured to some seemingly transcendent cause; and then, sliding down a slippery slope, she might feel herself entitled to coerce others too “blind or ignorant or corrupt” to recognize what was in their own best interest.

For Sir Isaiah, such thoughts of coercion-for-good, when not mere “political claptrap,” could all too easily pave the road to serfdom. The heedless expansion of positive liberty could compress the zone of noninterference, or negative liberty, which in Berlin’s estimation was nothing less than the “mark of high civilization.”

These ideas, wrapped in a characteristically erudite package, summed up the wisdom of a certain Cold War ideal of liberal democracy. It was implicitly conceded that actually existing liberalism hadn’t achieved the best of all possible worlds, but in the aspiration to live more allegedly lurked a danger to liberty itself. Since we had the best of all existing worlds, it was selfish not to revel in our good fortune.

We, of course, weren’t buying it—but who, exactly, were “we”? Seekers of enlightenment or self-indulgent draft dodgers? Blissed-out hippies or deviant subversives? Or, again, perhaps merely the herd of veaux (calves) disparaged by de Gaulle, capable of bellowing our discontent but not of dispelling it by concerted action over the long haul—unfit for “the strong and slow boring of hard boards” that Max Weber told us defined real politics.

Certainly, most of us knew, even at the time, that politics was not our vocation. We were famous, after all, for our insistence on “doing our own thing”—the very antithesis of the collective action that politics entails. In the United States, unlike in France, few even among the leaders of the countercultural left were indoctrinated in the ways of sectarian political infighting. Few except the veterans of the civil-rights movement had any experience of jail or police violence, and most of us never did much more than lend our bodies on occasion to the symbolism of mass protest, interpreting the political as the public expression of private moral conviction rather than as a daily chore, as frequently unavailing as it was unedifying.

Yet that “own thing” we prided ourselves on doing wasn’t purely an individual undertaking. No matter how far short it fell of being “collective,” it was nevertheless social. We complained about the way we were governed, but what we actually had the power to change was the way we lived. We did our own thing not alone but in the nurturing company of small groups, rejecting the individualism that Tocqueville had feared would sap the vitality of democratic public life. In place of suspect domestic tranquility, we substituted collective improvisation.

Above all, we sought connection—not just to family and colleagues in the cocoon of home and workplace, but to a kaleidoscopic variety of others thrown together by the changing times. There was the “straight” world, with the reliable regularity of something made by machine, and our world, as brave in our eyes as it was new, which had somehow retrieved from the savorless ambient sameness “the crooked timber of humanity” (Kant, as repurposed by none other than Isaiah Berlin). This, and not the May uprising in Paris or the August riots in Chicago, was the heart of the ’60s, the enduring legacy of 1968.

The unique conditions of the postwar boom had provided—temporarily—history’s first mass escape from work and family, enlarging the space and time within which interpersonal connections could be multiplied and explored. Between 1940 and 1970, the percentage of Americans age 25 and older with a college degree doubled. The war had created opportunities, accelerated scientific discovery, perfected new technologies, and consequently forced the gatekeepers of the temples of knowledge to open their doors to the children of immigrants and workers (provided they could pass what the journalist Nicholas Lemann dubbed the “Big Test”—that is, do well on the recently introduced Scholastic Aptitude Test, which was expressly designed to expand opportunities for higher education). Campus life and its extended aftermath prolonged the interregnum between the constraints of childhood and parenthood. GDP per capita increased by nearly 100 percent between the end of the war and the end of the ’60s. Prosperity had liberated us to live for a time among friends.

The “Me Generation” was thus also the “We Generation.” We were accused of consumerism, but much of what we consumed we’d made. We made music on our guitars and banjos, cooked for crowds, baked bread, and talked through the night. Raised on Sinatra or South Pacific, we discovered the Delta bluesman Mississippi John Hurt or the brilliant jazzman John Coltrane, to each according to his enlarged and diversified tastes. We invented traditions, syncretized cultures. We aspired not only to live more but also to live differently. Accustomed to Friday brisket or Sunday ham, we shared platters of Sichuan shrimp and passed around sauce-stained copies of Julia Child. The variegation of the sociocultural universe was mind-blowing. Children of the burgeoning postwar suburbs (sanctimoniously mocked as “ticky tacky” in a 1962 song by Malvina Reynolds), we fanned out into the ever-widening world and shared with one another the pleasures of discovery.

Marx, who had accused philosophers of wanting merely to interpret the world when the point was to change it, would have been astonished to see understanding itself become change. Abetted by jet travel, we became “rootless cosmopolitans” partaking of a moveable feast.

Of course, the rise of the American imperium would have de-parochialized America without us, and our global propagation of a youth culture imbued with homegrown democratic cheekiness stealthily disarmed resistance to American hegemony. “The Yanks have colonized our subconscious,” as a character in Wim Wenders’s film Kings of the Road would later put it. Paradoxes inevitably ensued. French gauchistes protested American imperialism in Vietnam, but so did General de Gaulle, whom they despised. Meanwhile, they dreamed of California beaches and reinvented Elvis in their own image (Johnny Hallyday was as much an icon of the era as Danny the Red). The ’60s rebellion thus hit the far-flung archipelago of postwar Americanization like a wave of colonial uprisings, in which young Americans joined the natives in rebellion against older versions of themselves.

Rock and roll penetrated the Iron Curtain far more effectively than did Radio Free Europe. To the east, the United States stood for national liberation, while to the west, it was stigmatized as its scourge. I recall arriving in Ljubljana, in then-Yugoslavia, in the summer of 1968. The group of children who surrounded the car I was driving demanded to know where I was from. (A 21-year-old American driving a British sports car was a rare sight in Ljubljana in 1968.) “Boston,” I said. Immediately they began shouting, “USA! JFK! USA! JFK!” In my own eyes, I represented the American counterculture, searching the world for an idea of liberty more congenial and expansive than the one I’d grown up with. But for those Slovenian youngsters, I stood for what they could only ogle and covet from afar: freedom as wealth and power and domination, precisely what I thought I was fleeing.

For me, 1968 ended abruptly. on November 12, one week after Nixon was elected, I was drafted. I spent a year in South Vietnam and discovered among the ranks a very different kind of solidarity, born not of freedom but of its radical absence.

It became impossible to apply the pronoun “we” to the entire baby-boom generation in the breezy, capacious sense I’ve been using it so far. The birth cohort to which I belonged contained multitudes. I had always known this, but in my rosy-fingered Wordsworthian bliss, I’d lost sight of those for whom the postwar decades had been less glorious than they were for us, we happy few celebrants of the cult of post-Berlinian liberty—the cult from which I had been so peremptorily snatched by that unwanted “greeting” from Uncle Sam.

My new comrades and I, united by the absence of freedom, were divided by our sense of the world we had left behind in that winter of ‘68. I saw rupture; they saw continuity. I thought a new kind of life might just be possible; possible for you, they thought, but not for us.

If they thought of my good fortune as a privilege, they did not resent me for it—not yet. Indeed, my privilege proved in their eyes that they were right, that 1968 had changed nothing. The privileged had always been with them—or, rather, apart from them—and always would be. For them, the only anomaly was that I should be temporarily sharing their misfortune. When they learned that I’d been drafted out of an elite graduate school, they were incredulous: “Sheeee-it, man, you’re supposed to be smart—how did you wind up here with us?”

Such commiseration was comforting, but over the ensuing half-century I watched that tolerant accommodation of privilege curdle in some of those former comrades into a deep suspicion not only of inequality, which is justified, but also of difference, which is more problematic. For a part of America, 1968 was a watershed year; for another part of America, it was not. This—along with, intertwined with, the racial and class differences that figured into the separation of the happy few from the increasingly unhappy many—has been a factor in all the subsequent eruptions of resentment, all the culture wars, Tea Parties, and Trump rallies that have given us the sullen, polarized, stalemated society in which we live today. Having broken bread with those embittered ex-grunts when they were young and scared, before their hearts hardened, I can almost understand why they think I’ve become their enemy, one of the despised liberal elite whom the jeunesse dorée of the ’60s grew into. Even when I shared their hardship, I already bore the mark of the beast: I had been one of those to whom so much had already been given but who still demanded to live more. As America’s collective good fortune waned, such hubris, such aspiration to a freedom beyond Berlin’s polar pairing, became unpardonable.

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