Historians (and other social scientists) think and work and research in two dimensions. There’s the vertical. And then there’s the horizontal. Take Pompeii as an example. The vertical aspect is the moment in time that was frozen with the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 AD. Archaeologists (primarily) and historians study the ruins to reconstruct that lost moment. The graffiti on the walls, the perfect frescoes in the long-ago atria, the petrified corpses in last gasp poses. Each remaining artifact has a place in the reconstruction. The deeper you go into the analysis the fuller the picture of that one moment. Vertical thinking digs deep.
On the other hand, horizontal thinking casts its nets across far distances — both of time and space. Wikipedia has adopted this approach with its “List of Years” pages. Each page documents known events that took place around the world during the same year. Historians need to keep both perspectives in their work. To ignore the larger context runs a risk of missing a key element in the story.
That brings us to the image above. This was a poster designed for a protest of the American Vietnam War. The protest took place on Nov 5 1966 starting at 11am in Greenwich Village in lower Manhattan, New York City. It was a march through city streets. The protesters eventually ended up in midtown Manhattan for a rally at 2pm. This was 1966 — three years after the first protest against the war organized by the War Resisters League. And seven years before all U.S. combat troops would be pulled out of a war that a generation of American youth had come to loathe.
What’s so interesting about this poster — from a horizontal historical perspective — is the moment in time. Fall of 1966. Think of what else was happening on the radical social and cultural landscape of America at that moment. In September, the Artists Liberation Front announced their program of Free Fairs in San Francisco. The Black Panthers formed in Oakland in October and issued their revolutionary Ten Point Program. The Diggers formed in the same month as the Panthers, issuing a series of street manifestos and offering the first of a series of Free community services. Lenore Kandel’s Love Book would be busted along with three booksellers in November in San Francisco, leading to the coalescence of resistance by a community that would embrace the concept of love as their siren call the following year — the Summer of Love. And as this poster clearly evidences, the American Peace Movement had fully surfaced.
The fall of 1966 thus was a moment in which the politics of ecstasy was in ascendancy. Soon, the winter of discontent would seek to erase the memory of this moment of hope. The Peace Movement would become the Anti-War Movement. As such, perhaps it was inevitable — in confrontation with societal powers, the blush of hope is soon burnished. But just as rivers can flow underground before surfacing in unexpected places, so can avant-garde culture fade then reappear. Who knows when? Who knows where? Keep a horizontal perspective to know the answer.