Letter from the editor: Radical thoughts for a gilded age

The times we live in feel like an unstable globe with various prairie fires without direction. The conflicts of today are mired in either fundamentalist fever dreams (the theocratic violence of ISIS in Iraq and Syria) or post-modern, directionless protest (Occupy Wall Street). Five decades ago, it was a different world.

In the 1960s the number of young people outnumbered the old by the largest number in history. The Doors made an allusion to this in their gritty protest song "Five To One." The draft, Vietnam and the revolutions that swept the world amid the generational aftershocks of World War II inspired a generation of students to dream of progressive, at times utopian, possibilities. My parents grew up in the latter stages of the period, at a time when the Cuban Revolution impacted all of Latin America. It was not uncommon for university students to head for the mountains and join a guerrilla movement. Bogota, Colombia and San Salvador, El Salvador had cafes and districts no different than Paris in the 1790's or 1840's.

If Romanticism today means hearts and candy, for my parents' generation it meant what it meant during the Enlightenment: The radical impulse to sweep away the old, decaying world and replace it with something new and better.

In this week's issue we feature an interview with Tom Hayden, one of the key American figures of those turbulent times. One of the founders of the Students For A Democratic Society, one of the authors of the Port Huron Statement, Hayden lived through the entire epoch of the 1960's and 1970's as a major participant. Now he has opened his archives for scholars and talks with The Corsair about what it means to revisit a revolutionary time.

Speaking with Hayden was both a reminder of what the world was like not too long ago and what it is today. The revolutionaries of the 60s were forced to commit a heartbreaking partition with their dreams as movements fizzled and even radical forces that did take power were soon voted out (the Sandinistas in Nicaragua) or fell into bureaucratic, authoritarian tendencies and sold out (China). Hayden himself admits a bleak outlook and predicts the coming of a new Dark Age as right-wing, fundamentalist groups rise within American politics, and in the Middle East the promise of the Arab Spring has descended into the nightmare of sectarian civil war and the rise of ISIS.

And yet, with such technological progress, with such rapid changes in how we relate to each other socially (the emergence of women as powerful political forces even in Latin America where Brazil and Argentina are ruled by powerful women presidents), one could say there is even more potential now for profound, radical change.

These are times when trends, a vapid form of pop culture and a shallow sense of human interaction rule our society. Even in a college environment the obsession is prestige and money when choosing a career (which is natural in a sense considering the ongoing economic situation). But if there is anything we can learn from the 1960s is that we should not fear to imagine broader horizons, critique power and create new ideas.

Maybe the storming of the Bastille won't happen today or tomorrow, but maybe in the age of social media and cyberspace, being a revolutionary means how we think, act and see the world individually. I write this as someone who generally doesn't even like humans. We tend to be cruel, cold, unforgiving, hypocritical, greedy and violent, all of us are included in this observation. Yet there's always that glimmer deep in the pit that says "it doesn't always have to be this way."

The Cuban independence hero, poet and writer Jose Marti once wrote that "all the glory in the world fits in a kernel of corn." Maybe before we try again to form grand parties and create Soviets, we need to dismiss the layers of shallowness and cynicism that rule our current epoch, and think, feel and create again.

OpinionAlci RengifoComment