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Looking through a glass onion: 1968 revisited

I remember the first time I heard the Beatles’ just-released White Album. It was 1968, a cold November evening at a small prep school in New Hampshire. Then, as now, the album’s wild creative force seemed to encapsulate that turbulent time.

Now that we’ve survived 2018, let’s look back 50 years. Where were we in 1968? Will it help to see where we are going?

As one critic notes, during the album’s 20-week recording period, “Charles de Gaulle quelled the student protests in Paris; Warsaw Pact tanks rolled into Prague; Robert Kennedy was shot dead; the Democratic National Convention in Chicago was marked by chaos to the delight of Republican candidate Richard Nixon; the Ba’ath Party seized power in Iraq; and the Tet Offensive concluded in Vietnam.”

If you flip left-wing protests to right-wing populism on the world stage and replace Vietnam with the Middle East, Iraq and Afghanistan, these trends still have currency. The Soviet Union is gone but Putin remains a symbol of the rise of tyranny in powers large and small, including China and, now, the United States.

Mark Kurlansky’s book 1968 called it the year of “sex, drugs, and rock and roll,” adding to the roll the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., the antiwar movement; Black Power; the generation gap; the women’s movement; and the beginning of the end for the Soviet Union. It was also “a pivotal year for appreciating television’s influence on global events.”

In Canada, left-leaning Pierre-Elliott Trudeau defeated Robert Stanfield of Nova Scotia to become Prime Minister. Today his son is in power. On the social front, the federal Medicare Act came into force after fierce ideological battles. It was also the first year for the Montreal Expos and for IMAX, a Canadian invention based on technology that had debuted at Expo ‘67 the year before.

It was the year of 2001: A Space Odyssey, a cinematic tour de force that focused on artificial intelligence as well as space travel. Intel Corp.’s CEO Gordon Moore had just come up with Moore’s Law, about the growth rate in computing, which still holds. It was the year of ASCII and hypertext, which led, the following year, to DARPA, the precursor of the Internet.

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In Nova Scotia, the Sydney steel plant became a crown corporation. It struggled on and has since expired. The sixties marked the beginning of exploration for offshore oil and gas, a sector now in decline. Fishing and forestry were mainstays of the economy, and so they remain. Immigration is up a bit, but we still have an aging population. Locally, we can say, life is much the same.

If we go back another 50 years, we come to 1918, the end of The Great War, “the war to end all wars.” But the reparations payments Germany was forced to pay the victors bled the country dry and set the stage for Hitler, who sparked another epic war that led in turn to the Cold War that followed.

Earthrise by NASA/Bill Anders - Public Domain
Earthrise by NASA/Bill Anders - Public Domain

Let’s change scale and close with “Earthrise,” the photograph taken in December, 1968, by Apollo 8 astronaut William Anders. “The Earth we saw rising over the battered grey lunar surface was small and delicate, a magnificent spot of color in the vast blackness of space,” Anders said last December, 50 years on. “Borders that once rendered division vanished. All of humanity appeared joined together on this glorious-but-fragile sphere.”

He held up his fist and the entire image disappeared. “Our home planet was physically insignificant in space,” he realized. “Earthrise still reminds us that we are all, together, stewards of this fragile treasure.”David Holt is a writer, speaker and strategist. He is editor-in-chief of OptiMYz, a national health magazine.

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