Just over fifty years ago we finally felt we were getting closer to peace and democracy, indeed for a little over twenty years it appeared to be slowly getting there. Something has happened since, the world we are in is no longer peaceful and democracy is being pulled apart. Brian Milne thinks it is time to think again.
Back in 1968 a band called the Beatles sang:
You say you want a revolution
Well, you know
We all want to change the world
You tell me that it’s evolution
Well, you know
We all want to change the world
It’s a long time ago.
As an editor and contributor I have a duty to Europa United and our readers to be open and above all else tell the truth in what is essentially an open discourse with you. As with all conversations it can be one sided, which is perhaps the greatest problem the written word presents. However, I am at a point where I am thinking some of us must start seeing then beginning to shout, which is what I want to do quietly, if you will excuse the contradiction. To make my point I am taking events from the past to compare with the present in order to beg the question why we are putting up with our world as it is becoming? The two years in question have both seen many more events, some also influential but less pertinent to the present. It is those that not only map out political events and their outcome but what some of us see as backsliding in morality in a world very much run by a small number of white, heterosexual and politically right leaning extremely rich men who appear to use every possible prejudice to their advantage, to the point that in several cases when we look closely enough we find that it is they who are encouraging the world to go where it is going.
I am getting on in years, so remember that song among other things, indeed it was a very eventful year. Without going into detail of every event but also without mentioning all that happened, some of the things that should resonate today took place, not all political at that. The Prague Spring was a period of political liberalisation and mass protest in the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic after World War II. It began on 5 January 1968, when reformist Alexander Dubček was elected First Secretary of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia and continued until 21 August 1968, when the Soviet Union and other Warsaw Pact members invaded the country to suppress the reforms.
At the end of January, the Tet Offensive begins, as Viet Cong forces launched a series of surprise attacks across South Viet Nam. The war got progressively bloodier with events like the Hà My massacre in February. In March there was the My Lai Massacre when American troops killed something in the range of 347 and 504 unarmed civilians according to different reports, including men, women, children and infants. Some women were gang raped then their bodies mutilated, likewise children as young as 12 years. It was not until the end of September that the Tet Offensive came to an end.
In March eight students occupied the administrative offices of the University of Nanterre, setting in motion a chain of events that led France to the brink of revolution a little later in May. Paris student riots: About one million marched through the streets of Paris; some of us even went to Paris to support them. On 4 April, Martin Luther King Jr. was shot dead at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. Riots erupted in major cities across the USA, lasting for several days. Ignoring all sensitivities, at the end of April in the UK, English politician Enoch Powell made his controversial Rivers of Blood speech, leading to the UK’s Conservative leader, Edward Heath, to sack Powell from his post as Shadow Defence Secretary, although there were demonstrations on the streets in protest against his dismissal.
The then controversial musical, Hair officially opened on Broadway. On 2 June student protests began in Belgrade, in then Yugoslavia. They were suppressed, although President Tito agreed with some of their demands (in the short term). There were other marches, demonstrations and riots across the world; Brazil, Czechoslovakia, France, Italy, Jamaica, Mexico, Pakistan, Poland, across Scandinavia, Soviet Union, Spain, UK (also in Northern Ireland), the USA and West Germany. They were for many reasons. I took part in protests against the Viet Nam war, what was happening in France, against racism stirred up by the Powell Rivers of Blood speech, the invasion of Czechoslovakia, in support of the new Northern Ireland civil rights movement. It was a year of turbulence.
Then on 5 June, the presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy and brother of 1963 assassinated President John F. Kennedy was shot at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles for which Sirhan Sirhan, a Palestinian Christian militant, was arrested. The next day Robert Kennedy died. At the end of June the ‘March of the One Hundred Thousand’ took place in Rio de Janeiro when people demonstrated against the Brazilian military government.
It was a little quieter until 20 and 21 August when the Warsaw Pact countries invaded Czechoslovakia, thus ending the ‘Prague Spring’ of political liberalisation by sending in 750,000 troops, 6,500 tanks and 800 aircraft, the largest military operation in Europe since the end of WW2. On 2 October a student demonstration ended in a bloodbath at La Plaza de las Tres Culturas in Tlatelolco, Mexico City, ten days before the inauguration of the 1968 Summer Olympics. Something between 300 and 400 of mainly students were estimated to have been killed. The next day, 3 October, in Peru, Juan Velasco Alvarado, a left wing general who eventually turned into a dictator, took power in a coup d’état against the government of Fernando Belaúnde Terry. On 5 October police baton charged civil rights demonstrators in Derry, Northern Ireland, which was to be the beginning of the Troubles. NASA launched Apollo 7 the first manned Apollo mission on 11 October. That month the USA announced they would send about 24,000 troops back to Viet Nam for involuntary second tours. Then on 5 November Richard Nixon won the presidential election. Later that month ‘Plato’s Stepchildren’, episode 12 of the third season of Star Trek caused immense controversy in the USA by featuring the first ever interracial kiss on national television between Lieutenant Uhura and Captain James T. Kirk. Christmas Eve, the manned spacecraft Apollo 8 entered orbit around the moon. Astronauts Borman, Lovell and Anders became the first human beings to see the far side of the moon. They had travelled further away from Earth than any people ever and had a view of our planet nobody had ever seen before. Anders photographs Earthrise. At the close of the year, on 28 December Israeli forces flew into Lebanese airspace, launched an attack on the airport in Beirut, thus destroying more than a dozen aircraft. Many more things happened. It was though a year when things went to the edge at times.
Another major event began in July 1968 when influenza A virus subtype H3N2 was first recorded in Hong Kong. The Hong Kong was a flu pandemic through 1968 and 1969 that killed various estimates of one to four million people, globally uncountable because the world was less sophisticated at population studies and collation of statistics, and some countries were far more closed than they are today. Some population experts believe it was in fact far higher than the higher estimate of four million deaths.
I have included the controversial interracial kiss that nearly had the universally popular Star Trek removed from USA television networks and may even have been taken off in other countries because of the contrast with the Martin Luther King murder and Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech. They show that racism was very much alive and well, even where supposedly liberal and tolerant people were trying to change that. It compares with some events this year. For my part, 1968 was a memorable year. I demonstrated for a better and peaceful world, nursed friends through the pandemic and to this day have still never had flu. I was entirely optimistic, seeing a future where truth and reconciliation would bring opposed countries, groups of people and all else together, thus peace would reign; democracy would displace all of the injustice, oppression, subjection and suppression.
So, here we are in 2020. It is now August, so more than four months of events are still to come. I have found it hard to decide the most significant events of the year knowing they are not directly comparable. So I have chosen those things that make the comparison at all possible, thus providing the flesh and bones of my argument that I am dismayed by the lack of action of my fellow beings. Events that compare with Hair on stage or the first interracial kiss on TV were part of a world growing comfortable with itself, the murder of George Floyd this year marks how such tolerances are being screwed back.
January saw the continuation of protests that began in 2019 in Hong Kong when a million people participated in the annual New Year day march. In Australia, the government of New South Wales declared a state of emergency and Victoria a state of disaster amid large bushfires that have killed an estimated 5 billion animals. Then a drone strike at Baghdad International Airport by the USA killed Iranian general Qasem Soleimani and Iraqi paramilitary leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, thus heightening tensions. A few days later, Iran launched missiles at two Iraqi military bases hosting American soldiers, injuring a number of personnel. Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 was mistakenly shot down by Iran shortly after takeoff from Tehran Imam Khomeini Airport, killing all 176 people on board.
On 16 January the impeachment of Donald Trump, began. On 5 February the Senate acquitted him of the articles of impeachment. Meanwhile Trump and Prime Minister of Israel Netanyahu announced the Trump peace plan. He also signed the USA-Mexico-Canada Agreement, the North American trade agreement that replaced NAFTA. On 30 January the WHO declared the outbreak of the pandemic a Public Health Emergency of International Concern. To close the month, the UK formally withdrew from the EU then began an eleven month transition period. On 11 February the WHO named the disease COVID-19. At the end of February the Dow Jones Industrial Average plunged by 4.4%, following several days of large falls, marking the worst week for the index since 2008, triggered by fears of COVID-19.
In March, Italy placed 16 million people in quarantine, over a quarter of the population, attempting to stop the spread of the virus, next day quarantine was expanded to cover the entire country. They were the first country to try this radical approach. On 11 March the WHO declared it a pandemic. On 9 March international share prices fell sharply in response to a Russo-Saudi oil price war and the impact of COVID-19. Then the Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped by over -2,000 points, the largest fall in its history, then oil prices fell up to 30% in early trading, the biggest fall for nearly 30 years. 12 March, global stock markets crashed owing to concern over the pandemic and travel bans. Dow Jones went into free fall to closing at over -2,300 points, the worst losses for the index since 1987. On 16 March Dow Jones fell by 2,997.10, an even greater crash than Black Monday in 1929.
By 18 March the worldwide death toll from COVID-19 surpassed 10,000 as the total number of cases reached a quarter of a million; subsequently the International Olympic Committee and Japan suspended the 2020 Summer Olympics, on 30 March they were rescheduled from 23 July to 8 August 2021 – some people are claiming that is optimistic.
On 8 April the Saudi Arabian led coalition declared a unilateral ceasefire in the military action against Houthi forces in Yemen. The ceasefire supported UN efforts to end the five year long war in which almost 40,000 people have been displaced. During 2019, the UN had reported that Yemen is the country with most people in need of humanitarian aid, about 24 million out of a total of 28.5 million, roughly 85% of its population.
On 14 April, Donald Trump announced that the USA is suspending funding of the WHO pending an investigation of its handling of the coronavirus pandemic and its relationship with China. On 5 May 5 it was announced that the UK death toll from COVID-19 had become the highest in Europe at 32,313 after exceeding the 29,029 Italian death toll. At the time of writing this in late August the death tolls are UK 41,405 and Italy 35,427 respectively. 10 May the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 passes four million worldwide; it is 23,125,236 as I write.
On 25 May George Floyd an African-American man killed during an arrest after allegedly passing a counterfeit $20 bill in Minneapolis. A white police officer, Derek Chauvin, knelt on his neck for nearly eight minutes despite pleas about being unable to breath. 26 May, protests caused by the killing broke out across the USA and around the world. These were followed up by further protests and rallies on 6 June against racism and police brutality worldwide.
On 1 July, Russian voters backed a constitutional amendment that, among other things, allows Vladimir Putin to seek two further six year terms after his current term ends in 2024, effectively allowing him to remain in power until 2036. By 22 July the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 passes 15 million worldwide and the death toll exceeds 600,000. On 9 August Belarus held elections. State TV almost immediately revealed the results of an exit poll showing a landslide Lukashenko victory who claimed over 80% of the vote, clashes between protesters and riot police broke out in Minsk and spread throughout the country. The main opposition leader, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, left the country with her children, fearing her safety.
Let’s sum it up
Here we are in 2020 with leaders in a number of countries, indeed their governments in general, that are corrupt, undemocratic, retrogressive, backward looking, authoritarian, conservative, retrograde, regressive, some simply inactive, atavistic, throwbacks to a time we would rather leave in history where it belongs. They are allowing sexism to return in many forms, not just prejudice and disadvantages for women but those of ‘other’ sexuality who thought the world had come to terms with them are now caste in doubt about just how safe they are. Racism or perhaps we should simply call it xenophobia in every possible form is re-emerging in ways we should have consigned to history. Then, as in a year where revolution was a possibility, there is the COVID-19 pandemic we are still in the throes of seeing deaths and long term infirmity worldwide in vast and steadily growing numbers. But this year there is no revolutionary spirit at all. There is a great deal of fear, complacency, resignation and a lack of the honesty we stand for in EU. At face value comparing 1968 and 2020 would appear arbitrary since probably every year carries many events that could be recalled in a similar manner. The justification for the comparison naturally includes the Hong Kong flu and COVID-19 pandemics as a backdrop against which many other events occurred. To an extent the two pandemics have been used as a distraction from mainly political events that have affected many people, to a greater extent negatively and most certainly very clearly denying them or removing democracy. As it was in 1968, the world is as close to a point at which people’s tolerance could end, yet nothing is apparently going in that direction. A third of 2020 remains, it is as yet to be seen if the rest of this year continues to see racism, sexism, poverty and inequality increasing as much as they have thus far without some kind of reaction.
In my personal history I suppose I can describe myself as a peaceful revolutionary. I was perhaps mainly fighting for change through action, although in spirit I would say I am more aware peaceful work like my own may not be the solution today. I dealt with it through a career that attempted to contribute to changing the world for the better, to give us peace and end the inequality, poverty and all that we see becoming intolerable again today. I have been lucky enough to see times when things were getting better, then unfortunately have had to watch them backsliding. Right now it is depressing. So unless we talk about it there is no way we can begin to contribute to the world changing, turning all that is there at our fingertips back round if we just try. Here in Europe, we have the spirit if we are to live up to what we have inherited from the founders of what is now our EU.