For Americans who grew up after the deluge of the 1960’s, the events of that decade are genuinely mysterious: Those Americans who did live through the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights movement and the student protests seem, perhaps understandably, to have been intellectually and emotionally exhausted by all the battles real and rhetorical. Perhaps to such people, there seemed nothing left to say.
Yet younger Americans grew up in the 1970’s and 1980’s aware of a hole in their historical memory that was not of their own making. In Madison, Wisconsin, in the early 1980’s, an undergraduate attending the University of Wisconsin would have been aware that a certain building was Sterling Hall and that it had “been bombed” during “the sixties.” Marches up and down State Street to do with Central America were said to be a diminished legacy of “the sixties.” In the late 1980’s, Berkeley, California, remained a venerable outpost of a by then institutionalized culture of leftism. Blondie’s Pizza displayed signed photographs of celebrities such as the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia, activists and University of California officials still disputed the proper use of the square block of land known as People’s Park, and Berkeley’s city government was able to express solidarity with the people of Nicaragua but could not light its own streets adequately. Younger Americans who lived in such places after the deluge lived among ruins whose history they knew but dimly.
A book such as Paul Berman or a similar writer might have written would have been a welcome, if long belated, attempt to engage the minds and enhance the understanding of Americans younger than himself. Berman’s book is, seemingly, approximately such a book. Yet it is badly flawed by a self-serving rhetorical slipperiness and by an obtuse failure to acknowledge that there stretches between New York and California for three thousand inhabited miles an entire country most of whose citizens never have been, nor ever will be, convinced of what many on the coasts consider the salutary effects of the leftist movements of the 1960’s.
To start, it would be well to note that this is not a scholarly book, nor is it a strictly narrative account. For a documentary account of the actual events of 1968, see (among many other titles) David Caute’s Sixty-eight: The Year of the Barricades (1988). Berman’s work is a series of four ostensibly linked essays, and as such it is idiosyncratic and quite personal in places. It is the attempt by one American leftist intellectual who did live through the 1960’s to come to terms with the events of that decade and their aftermath. To describe it thus is not to complain; thinkers’ memoirs can be valuable books.
The book begins with a preface titled “The Dream of a New Society,” in which Berman calls the 1968 uprisings around the world “a young people’s rehearsal” for the liberal and other revolutions of 1989, and in which he poses questions that define the book’s themes. “But then, what does it mean—’revolutionary’?” he asks. And: “So what are we to think—we, the twice- revolutionary, who have seen worldwide political hopes rise and fall, rise and fall, two times in a short generation?”
Then come the four essays, which Berman takes some care to link one to the next but which do not constitute an obvious cluster. The first, “A Moral History of the Baby Boom Generation,” is a helpful and interesting insider’s history of the origins and fates of the New Left movements that flourished during the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. The second essay, “The Gay Awakening,” is a sympathetic outsider’s account of the rise and what Berman sees as the importance of the movement of homosexuals to be accepted in or at least by mainstream society that began in earnest with the Stonewall Inn riots in New York City in June, 1969. The third, “Zappa and Havel,” is Berman’s too-quirky perspective on the 1989 Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia. The fourth essay, intellectually the most interesting, is titled “A Backward Glance at the End of History” and constitutes Berman’s discussion of Francis Fukuyama’s essay “The End of History?” (1989) and book The End of History and the Last Man (1992) and of the French writer Andre Glucksmann’s earlier response to Fukuyama.
Beginning with the unhelpfully inscrutable and cutely alliterative title and misleading subtitle, there is a glibness (or, put more generously, a self-consciously literary style) to A Tale of Two Utopias that puts the reader on guard. “Why can’t he be more direct?” one asks, with some justification. Part of the answer, no doubt, is that Berman himself would like his prose to be considered “lively” as opposed to glib. Yet glib it is. Another part of the answer is that Berman is struggling through intellectual contortions that compel him to write in a less than direct way, so as not to have to admit that he is being less than fully honest with his reader and himself.
Another aspect of the book’s glibness is its structure: The essays simply do not hang together as a linked foursome. Such a structure need not fail; Milan Kundera’s Testaments Betrayed (1995) is a good example of a...
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