By Crispin Sartwell
In 1968, there was a student insurrection
in Paris, and civil rights and anti-war protests on American campuses and in
American cities. Here we are again. All over America and in France and elsewhere
(London and Rome, for example), students and members of minority groups are
taking to the streets. And the causes are similar everywhere: civil rights and
One striking thing about the protests in both
countries is the alliance of oppressed minorities with idealistic young people
who can make themselves heard in the majority culture.
There are many ways to frame the
immigration issue, and it is furiously being framed in every possible way at
the moment; it is suddenly central to the public discourse of both the US and
Europe. It is an economic issue; it's a crime issue; it's a political
But it is also an issue of basic human rights
asserted in the face of prejudice, an issue of second-class treatment, of fear,
hatred, and exploitation. It is an
issue of segregation, of systematic exclusion; it is an issue of cultural
identity and of skin color.
In the fifties and sixties, there were many ways to
obscure the basic fact that people were being reviled and excluded and ignored
in virtue of their race: the issue was freedom of association, or states
rights, or crime in the inner city.
And in the overwhelming American and European
civil rights issue of this era - the treatment of immigrants - there are also a
thousand ways to obscure the basic fact that people's lives are being destroyed
by bigotry and exclusion: anti-immigrant sentiment is expressed with regard to
legal status, competition for employment, and "security."
One thing that's interesting about the
civil rights protests in both the US and France is that many of the protestors
are the children of immigrants. They are, essentially, American and French
kids, citizens, people who have never lived anywhere else. And while their
parents may have had to lay low and lead lives of quiet desperation in a
culture that both needed and excluded them, these young people feel entitled to
basic rights of self-expression.
They are here expressing their experience in a way
that we must hear, in our cities, in our schools, in our own language. One
generation, one moment, can change everything.
They are speaking for their parents
and for generations of people who have lived on the other side of the wall
between the first and third worlds; they are speaking not only to the mutating
forms of racism in Los Angeles, but to the global apartheid of rich and poor,
white and non-white.
George Bush's impulses on the immigration issue
are relatively generous, and you can tell that Bush himself feels some
connection to Mexican and Mexican-American culture and a desire to cultivate
the latter's growing political clout.
But as in the late sixties, you have a deeply
useless war combined with a situation of domestic oppression, though the
flashpoint is immigrants rather than racism against black people (of course,
black/white tensions linger still). And you have an administration sinking into
deep unpopularity, a government becoming ever-more alienated from its people.
The Bush administration - with its
militarism and concerted opposition to domestic liberty - practically demands
insurrection, and it will, I believe, get what it deserves.
France last fall and this spring has been
on the brink of anarchy, and I think you could suddenly see the same thing
happening in American high schools - which are deeply authoritarian
institutions - and on the streets of American cities.
Now the legacy of the sixties was
mixed: the sixties generation overall sank back into self-centered smugness,
and now its members are precisely the authorities. Many of its ideals ended in futility or petered out into
massive bureaucracy. John Kerry became...John Kerry, about as pitiful a fate as
could readily be imagined. But the sixties cohort also stopped the war in
Vietnam and ended Jim Crow America.
the present generation of young people leave us with similar achievements in
Iraq and among immigrants, it will have changed the world profoundly for the
better, whatever may follow.