The religious dimension of American radicalism was what separated it from the student uprisings in Paris and other European cities during the spring of 1968. American radicals lacked the anticlerical animus of Europeans; priests, rabbis, and ministers enlisted in the front ranks of the civil rights and antiwar movements. King’s decision to bear witness against the war was central to legitimating resistance to it, while provoking government counterattacks as well as denunciations from both liberals and conservatives.
“Religion” may be too solemn a word for many 1960s radicals, but it helps to capture the depth of their motives: above all their longing for a more direct, authentic experience of the world than the one on offer in midcentury American society. What made radicals mad, what drove their deepest animus against the war, was their sense that it was a product of the same corporate technostructure—as John Kenneth Galbraith called it in The New Industrial State (1967)—that reduced everyday life to a hamster cage of earning and spending. The tribunes of the technostructure were men like Robert McNamara, who shuttled from the Ford Motor Company to the Defense Department to the World Bank, and who seemed to know everything about managerial techniques but nothing about their ultimate purpose, if indeed there was one. Elite managers were the high priests of an orthodoxy with a blankness, a vacancy, at its center.
The fundamental expression of this vacuity was the war machine that multiplied corpses in Vietnam and nuclear weapons throughout the world. King acknowledged the connection between managerialism and militarism at Arlington Cemetery in February 1968, when he said, “Somewhere along the way we have allowed the means by which we live to outdistance the ends for which we live.” A society of means without ends was a society without a soul.
Antiwar radicals, recoiling from soullessness, challenged the church of technocratic rationality. Taking this challenge seriously, recovering the mood of an extended moment, requires beginning earlier and ending later than 1968. [Continue reading…]