Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Recalling "the sixties": sometimes a sad undertaking

Groovy couple Sonny and Cher: he went on to become a Republican Congressman

I've been reading quite a bit lately about "the sixties", which in a political and cultural sense basically means 1960-1973, more or less.

This weekend I found myself thinking about the really sad and tragic aspects to that period in the US. And one of those features is that there was a massive reform movement that brought a lot of people actively into the political process that appears to have ended in defeat.

That's not really true, of course. It took forever, but the antiwar movement did have a tremendous effect on forcing a pullout from Vietnam. Or, to put it another way, forced Congress and the Nixon and Ford administrations to recognize that "victory" was impossible at any cost that remotely made sense. The term "Vietnam Syndrome" is generally use as a pejorative. But that's because a large part of our political, military and media Establishment still view war as a good and glamorous thing, so that a healthy public skepticism about military involvements is regarded as something akin to an illness.

Let's hope we can have an "Iraq Syndrome" that's even more effective in restraining the war-loving Dick Cheneys of our country in years to come. The longer the Afghanistan War goes on, the more I'm beginning to think how we come to grips with that disaster could turn out to be more decisive in the long run than how we resolve the Iraq War.


After the pathetic performance of Congress in relation to the Iraq War, it's hard to believe that in the 1980s, the Congress was able to impose on St. Reagan's administration an actual bans on US aid to Nicaraguan counter-revolutionaries (the Contras). Ollie North's infamous rogue foreign policy team was set up to evade those restrictions. As we know, that extra-legal operation became the template for the entire Cheney-Bush foreign policy. But the Vietnam Syndrome was still strong enough in the 1980s that Congress was willing to outright defy the patriotic hoo-hah from the Reagan administration and ban them from doing something destructive and extremely ill-advised.

The enfranchisement of African-American citizens and the end of the formal segregation system in the South were major advances for democracy. And they weren't won easily. That is certainly a lasting legacy of "the sixties", though the civil rights movement preceded "the sixties" and was the main political trend that gave birth to "the sixties". A stronger group consciousness and confidence among African-Americans is also an enduring legacy of that period.

But one of the things I find sobering about reading some of the contemporary material from that time, which of course also carries a flavor of the intensity of the arguments going on, is that I've been more influenced than I would like to think by the postage-stamp, "I Have a Dream" picture of the accomplishments of the civil rights movement of that time. Conventional wisdom tends to picture reaction against the civil rights and anti-poverty movements as a "white backlash". But what is called the "backlash" was actually the gruesome face of both personal and institutional racism that was there all along. It wasn't any prettier then than in 1954 or 1928. But it had finally lost some significant battles.

But institutional racism hasn't gone away. We see a new variation of it - not entirely new, actually - in the current anti-immigrant movement. One manifestation of institutional racism in the media is that way that the press just cheerfully ignores the fact that the bold Maverick McCain had chucked his previous "moderate" immigration policy and embraced the nativist line of the Republican base. Hell, to our punditocracy, it's just a bunch of low-class Mexicans, who cares what McCain actually says about them. Reporting the latest version of why they think Hillary Clinton is a "white bitch" is much more of a priority.

Is the current status of undocumented immigrant workers and their families so much different than the de facto segregation system in the South prior to 1970 or so? Some of the more insane features of the segregation system are missing, e.g., whites-only water fountains. But a large part of our economy is dependent on important workers, and specifically on workers entering the country without proper legal authorization. They can't vote. They have to worry every time they see someone representing the government about getting deported. They are vilified in the most disgusting ways by white supremacists, facilitated by media enablers like CNN's loathsome Lou Dobbs. Their legal status means that they can be arbitrarily targeted by a boss or a creditor or just some nasty person from the majority and legally sent back to their home country.

The way they are treated by immigration officials is a genuine national disgrace. See Digby's post, A Lethal Limbo 06/01/08. As long as crimes like this are routinely being committed by US officials, don't anyone ask me to call this "the greatest country in the history of the universe". I'll leave that to those for whom patriotism means only, "Yee-haw! Let's kill us some foreigners for Jesus!"

Old-fashioned lynching isn't common, though some of the nativist bigots talk as though they would like it to be. Today, we outsource lynching to the "coyotes" (smugglers) who sometimes leave their victims in lethal death traps, like locked, crowded vans abandoned in the desert. And if our Berlin Wall on the Mexican border and our rotten-to-the-bone immigration policy forces immigrants onto the most dangerous terrain and some of them die in the attempt to cross, well, I guess they just "made bad choices", didn't they?

There are other aspects of real progress that came out of "the sixties". The women's movement did get a big boost during the period and emerged as a major force by the early 1970s. "GLBT" rights was not much of a mainstream public issue in "the sixties". But the hippie movement and the more openly critical attitude toward traditional repressive values around sex and relationships did give a boost to the gay rights movement, as well. Students did acquire more respect from their colleges and universities, though the administrations had to be pulled kicking and screaming in that direction. Curricula were expanded to address emerging social concerns. Eighteen-year-olds got the vote, and change that Nixon opposed as President.

Part of the reason that it can seem like the reform movements of "the sixties" failed. And in many ways, they did. There were fundamental issues in American society that were raised by the democratic reform movements of those days that have not been adequately addressed. To put it mildly.

The "culture warriors" have a schizophrenic attitude toward whether those reform movements won or lost. On the one hand, they're sure that they are part of a Silent Majority (Nixon's famous term) that rejected all that vile hippie/Black Power/antiwar stuff. And yet at the same time, they're convinced that there's a Liberal Elite that continues to shove the values of "the sixties" down their innocent white throats.

Here's a quickie version of "the sixties" from our old friend Brother Al in his 06/02/08 blog post, Ten for the History Books - Summer Reading [Part 1]. Here's Brother Al's take on a book from someone with the conservative think-tank, the Manhattan Institute, called Camelot and the Cultural Revolution: How the Assassination of John F. Kennedy Shattered American Liberalism by James PIereson(2007):

James Piereson argues that the assassination of President John F. Kennedy represented nothing less than a major turning point in American history -- but one which would take some time to become fully apparent. As Piereson, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, argues, liberalism supplied much of the energy that drove our politics during the greater part of the twentieth century. It now seems clear that Kennedy's assassination had the effect of draining much of that political energy out of the liberal movement.

Piereson makes his case that the death of President Kennedy lead to a break-up of the old liberal order, a shift to far more radical movements on the Left, and the transformation of liberalism from cultural optimism to a "punitive liberalism" that turned against the American ethos. Camelot and the Cultural Revolution is a book that helps the last four decades come into far better focus. (my emphasis)
Yeah, right, Kennedy was a "good" liberal in this version, compared to those hippie commie pinkos like Lyndon Johnson. This is a silly game. It's not hard with anyone with access to the Internet or a public library to check out what the Brother Als during the Kennedy administration thought of his handling of things like the integration of the University of Mississippi.

One of the Brother Als of that time, Billy James Hargis, ran an outfit called the Christian Crusade. They put out a pamphlet called The Truth About Segregation which declared: "The entire problem that confronts America today was bred in the pits of Communist debauchery and conspiracy. ... Segregation is one of nature's universal laws. ... It is my conviction that God ordained segregation."

Yeah, I'm sure Billy James Hargis though Jack Kennedy was one of the good liberals. Unlike the ones "bred in the pits of Communist debauchery".

A guy named Kenneth A. Rahn's has an Academic JFK Assassination Site that has a whole section on Kennedy's critics which includes The Far Left (1964) if you would like to get a flavor of what the Christian Right of that time was like. (As long as we're being hopeful, maybe a new Democratic administration can clean up the copyright laws so that Google or academic institutions or the Library of Congress can post definitive versions of historical texts like this, so we won't have to worry so much about whether they've been doctored.)

Here's one example of his turgid prose from those excerpts. The bogeyman today is Islamofascistodefeatocratunism instead of simple Communism. But the standard Republican radio ranter today often pictures a similar state of affairs being perpetrated by the new all-powerful Enemy:

However, in all fairness, the thing that should concern Americans most is not the number of Americans who vote for Communist candidates in an election or who support the Communist Party or join Communist fronts, but is the countless number of Americans who are being influenced by the seed of Soviet philosophy which is sown by columnists of the daily papers, by clever writers in magazine articles, by thousands of school teachers in the classroom, by many a college and university professor, by ultra-left clergymen, by the movies, by the television networks, by the radio networks, and, more particularly, through organizations with high-sounding, deceptive, and even appealing names. If it were not for the manner in which the left-wing press has misled people, Communism would have no possible appeal except perhaps to the destitute, to the indolent, to those who can be so easily emotionally aroused against the rich. Having nothing to lose and being promised much under the new order, such people readily listen to the Communist promoter. But the cleverness of Comintern propaganda has made Communism look good even to many men of wealth and to men of culture. As Senate Document No. 14 stated, “The Bolshevik movement in the United States would have sapped its own energies and disintegrated or have degenerated into pure anarchy if it had not been for the support and assistance it has constantly received from the so-called parlor Bolsheviks and pink revolutionists in America. They have served the function of keeping it alive and on an active footing, when otherwise the efforts of Lenin and the Communist international would have failed.” (my emphasis)
Yes, creeps like this were part of "the sixties", too. Another thing that came make studying about that period sad. His counterparts of today are still obsessing over "pink revolutionists", although in those days it meant Communist-leaning.

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