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Here Come the Memorials

Columbia 1968 protest

Just like clockwork, the 1968 anniversary articles have begun. For creatively-challenged journalists across the country — but especially here in the East — 2008 should prove to be an irresistible “perfect storm” of then-and-now comparisons that filter current events through the dusty lens of that fateful year. Unpopular president executing an unpopular war? Check. An election year suffused with issues of race and class warfare? Check. Columbia University planning to expand into Harlem amid protests from long-time residents? Check. The New York Times kicks off the trend with a couple of articles in their Education section that describe resurgent activism on local campuses. A red diaper baby of 60’s radical parentage, Thai Jones (now a grad student at Columbia, natch), [writes] with unrestrained sympathy about recent protests on campus that show an abiding heritage of lefty commitment at the Ivy League school, while [another article] by (surprise!) a Columbia faculty member describes the recent reanimation of the Students for a Democratic Society at the tiny New School in Greenwich Village.

What both articles evidence more than anything else is a poignant nostalgia for a radical time that passed with the demographic blip that created it. Pace Dylan, the times changed. Jones reluctantly acknowledges in his piece that the modern Columbia protests (which included a short-lived hunger strike over a perceived lack of multicultural studies) failed when a far larger number of counter-protesters who were offended by the strikers’ tactics mobilized on Facebook, and the New School kids are clearly oblivious to the ill-fated history of the group they espouse. Perhaps a field trip is in order — all they have to do is go out the back door of their college on 11th Street and walk down to the house at 18 W 11th, where the Weather Underground, the radical group that succeeded the S.D.S., blew themselves to smithereens while making bombs on a cold day in March 1970.

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