May 68 and the fear of 18

May 68 and the fear of 18

Fifty years ago, in May 1968, the youth of several Western countries rose up against the “establishment,” the Vietnam War, the fact that they did not like the way things were going in their country, in their lives.

Armed with holy discontent, they were shocked to see their parents’ regimes rocked by their anger. Thus, in the West, two modern myths were established: that the young know more than their elders as to how societies must develop, and that questioning the status quo is a sacred obligation.

The young Europeans who took to the streets in 68 are at retirement age today, but the idea of their dynamic protest against the regime lives on, driven by the social and economic problems that demand immediate solutions.

Inequality, unemployment, mass migration, and the sense that young generations have less to expect from life than their parents did encourage a range of emotions, from extremism to apathy.

Sophisticated technology which nestles in everyone’s palm creates an equality of expectations even as the inequality of opportunities widens. Those who worry and protest have every reason to do so.

This right, however, should not be used as a smokescreen by those who wish to act out their antisocial feelings through violence (such as the “urban guerrilla” movements which sprang up in some Western countries and still inspire wannabes in Greece).

This, of course, does not imply that young people should not protest – rather that they should be aware that the demand for a better tomorrow is not synonymous with violence.

It is the state’s responsibility to seek solutions to society’s problems and to manage dangerous behavior; as long as leaders remain incompetent or indifferent, anger will grow.

There is, however, another anniversary that we must remember this year. On January 8, 1918, nearly 10 months before the First World War was over, US President Woodrow Wilson announced his thoughts on how the war could end and what the world should look like when the fighting was over.

Wilson’s “Fourteen Points” aimed at the eradication of problems that had led to the Great War and the adoption of mechanisms to prevent a new one.

These included banning secret treaties between countries, reducing armaments, and eradicating barriers to trade and shipping. Wilson also proposed that colonial powers treat their colonized subjects better and that minorities be allowed self-determination.

Above all, the American president wanted to see an international organization that would concern itself with collective security.

Wilson hoped that with his plan he could persuade Germany to end the war sooner and take part in the new order.

Soon, however, he learned that Britain and France were focused on maintaining as much as they could of what they had while also wringing as much as possible from a defeated Germany.

Moreover, Wilson failed in his impassioned effort to get the Senate to approve the United States’ membership of the League of Nations. He knew that without his country’s participation the League would fail and a new war would break out within a generation.

His fears were confirmed. The global conflagration which began 21 years after the end of the First World War was even more catastrophic.

When it was over, a sufficient number of countries had come to understand the importance of collective political and economic security.

The winners, magnanimous in victory, founded the international organizations which established the dominance of liberal democracy for many decades.

Today that order is being shaken from many sides, not least from the United States leadership itself.

The world needs to remember Wilson’s proposals and his fears. 2018 may not seem as fragile as 1918, when the world was still at war, nor as stable as 1968, when the globe was divided more or less into two rigid camps and supranational unions and international organizations maintained balances.

It is now up to each country to understand that whatever its domestic disputes, worries and obsessions, its safety depends on a viable global system of collective security.

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