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Echoes of 1968

Reading history is one way to find clarity in the present political hell

I don’t place much stock on timeframe anniversaries, but this fiftieth year since 1968 has been thumping my brain like a Poe short story. I got another one of those college reunion notices the other day. Come celebrate, said the words. But the subtext screamed: five decades gone, mofo.

What I experienced as a youth I now think about as history. In 1968 we were trying to stop a war, confront racism, fight the con men and crooks. Nonetheless, in 1968 a crook won the election—and wasn’t gone until six years later. The war eventually stopped. Today’s crook is still in office. He is extremely dangerous, but his reckoning will come. Sooner, if we learn from old mistakes and betrayals. Not just those from the 1960s, but throughout the nation’s history.

There’s a reason why history and truth are so viciously attacked by fascists and despots. For me, finding a new old way of looking at the TrumpReich came through reading—about the same time I got my college reunion invite—two accounts of cause-and-effect in American evolution. One was in the radical magazine CounterPunch, the other in A Hard Rain, a new and fair-minded if tragically sad overview of the sixties from Southern author Frye Gaillard. Neither waves a revisionist banner, but each digs up deep roots of the present hell. All of us must find our own ways to clarity. These were mine.

Democracy still loses out to those who own the country.

An analysis of how the U.S. Constitution was framed from the beginning to tamp down democracy, by Paul Street in CounterPunch in July, reminds us that the prevailing sentiment in 1787 was John Jay’s belief that “Those who own the country ought to govern it.” A class-ridden power shift from the people to the property owners, and slave owners, pervades the nation’s legal roadmap, which accounts for so many of the amendments. That includes the first one, which means publications like this can survive corrupt authoritarian criminals who want to close them down. This ideological swerve from the more free-wheeling Declaration of Independence is well-known in academia to students of political science and history but rarely examined or even acknowledged in popular media.

It should be. Because understanding how a popular victory margin of nearly three million votes by Hillary Clinton became an Electoral College loss to Donald Trump makes better sense if you understand that democracy still loses out to those who own the country. It clarifies why the SCOTUS is the hard dick of the original rapists. The brutal party-line confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh as an associate justice on the Supreme Court is but the logical outcome of the ruling class protecting itself. The beer-loving Yale family man was really the choice of frat brother and former President George W. Bush, also a Yalie, whose father, George H.W., also a Yalie and former president, was a darling of Richard Nixon, later of Gerald Ford, and then vice-president under Ronald Reagan. Reagan, who had come out politically as a Hollywood McCarthyist and morphed into a darling of the wealthy ultra-right. And so on.

None of this just falls out of the sky. The fix against democracy has been in from the inception.

Fast forward from the eighteenth-century founders to the sixties maelstrom. Surf past rebellions, massacres, empire-building, slavery, misogyny, horrendous worker oppression, xenophobia, psycho-evangelism, paranoia, wars, diseases, genocide and corruption on a scale only surpassed by what we are witnessing today. Past a Civil War. An actual bloody one.

Some or all of this embroiled the sixties and by the time the decade was over, America had become transformed—we thought—into a nation that would seek with each succeeding iteration of itself to stay forever younger, newer, and smarter. The election of a vain, racist, misogynist, anti-intellectual, comb-over mafia puppet has rocked us all back.

I find great advantage in knowing how that time is a precursor to this one. Gaillard’s work is especially helpful because it summarizes the real sixties so well, both for those who lived it and those who may know little about the era other than clichéd references to hippies. A Hard Rain hits the main flows of the decade year by year like a riveting highlight film, but with snippets of personal commentary tracing his own interaction with events and major players.

I know Gaillard slightly. We both grew up in the South, and have both written about and advocated for civil rights and occasionally attend the same book conferences and sometimes share a publisher. But I had no idea of this work, or that it would serve me in such a profound way. I underlined passages on half the six-hundred pages and re-discovered myself and the half-forgotten country around me on nearly every one. They say all politics is local. I think all history is personal.

Now in autumn of 2018 I am sitting in a bookstore café and living in a small Texas university town. At about the same period in 1968, I was a newly commissioned second lieutenant in the Army on a short deferment from active duty while I was in grad school—political science—at Louisiana State University. I lived in an extremely poor black section of Baton Rouge, near downtown, with a freshly minted Vietnam vet whose PTSD had him hiding in the corners of his bedroom almost every night, screaming with nightmares. He taught me how to make homemade bombs from flour, candles, gas stoves, and cherry bombs. Which of course we never made. John was involved in a local bricklayers’ strike, for which the police retaliated by bursting without warrant into our $100-a-month hovel one evening claiming that a car like mine, a banged-up Triumph Spitfire, had been used in a liquor store robbery. They were of course searching for drugs, which neither of us had, and I guess I should consider us lucky they didn’t plant any and left us alone. At least me. They bothered John for quite a while.

Earlier in that pivotal year, America had absorbed so much bad news. It started with the Tet offensive and lengthy siege of Khe Sanh, which on the other hand began the end of the Vietnam War. Then came the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis, and then of Senator Robert Kennedy in Los Angeles. These two murders silenced the most important leaders of a generation. After that came the Democratic convention in Chicago that gave us Hubert Humphrey, who begat opportunist Richard Nixon and super-racist Spiro Agnew, with George Wallace coming up strong and Reagan rising. October saw the Mexico City Olympics, where the raised fists of medalists John Carlos and Tommie Smith set the example for the bended knee now so disturbing to Trump Republicans and other racists. My life changed forever that year, in ways I didn’t understand.

Can it have taken me fifty years to figure that out? Not entirely, but in some ways that can still leap out like some kind of social PTSD. Which brings me back to Cadet Bone Spurs. I look at him now, as President Obama recently said, as a symptom, not a cause. Because the cause runs through American history (see also Richard Hofstadter’s work on political paranoia and extremism) and had a high octane boost in ’68.

They say all politics is local. I think all history is personal.

Consider George Wallace. There are many comparisons of Trump to Nixon, but I think the more pertinent one might be to the former Alabama governor, who not only came out of failure and the fringe, but rode back to prominence sporting the unmistakable banner of white supremacy.

Wallace, a notorious segregationist, had vowed after an election loss earlier in his career that he’d never be “out-niggered” again. His strong run in ’68 as a third party presidential candidate was predicated entirely on that premise. A Hard Rain recaps a Wallace campaign appearance at Madison Square Garden in the late fall, just before the election. Nazis and Klan were outside demonstrating for the governor, but a few black protesters were inside. Wallace singled them out to put the crowd in a frenzy:

“Why do the leaders of the two national parties kowtow to these anarchists? One of them laid down in front of President Johnson’s limousine last year. I tell you when November comes, the first time they lie down in front of my limousine, it’ll be the last one they ever lay down in front of. . .”

“We don’t have riots down in Alabama. They start a riot down there, first one of ’em to pick up a brick gets a bullet in the brain, that’s all. And then you walk over to the next one and say, ‘All right, pick up a brick. We just want to see you pick up one of them bricks, now!’”

I entered the decade in 1960 in a segregated high school in Athens, Georgia, not so cool then, a part of the state where I and my family learned some hard truths about the pervasiveness of redneck racism. My dad, a veterinarian at the University of Georgia, also still segregated until 1961, almost got into a fistfight with a neighbor across the two-lane blacktop from our house who was beating his dog because it had been playing with the dog of a black family who lived down the road. My Sunday school teacher told me segregation was right because “God made blue birds and red birds.” About then is when I left the church.

Ten years later, after ’68 became ’69 and the decade reached its exit, I was at the University of Virginia. One night in mid-November I was taking a bus to D.C. for a flight home, getting talked up by a girl in the downtown bus terminal. She wanted me to skip the next shuttle to the airport so I could join the big Mobe (National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam) demonstration going on in the streets. But I was still an Army officer on educational deferment and I knew I couldn’t. That decision grew on me so much that I couldn’t concentrate in grad school and within a month I dropped out to go on active duty at the turn of 1970. If I couldn’t be a protester, I would jump into the belly of the beast and find out what I could and if I came out, I’d have a stronger voice.

Most of this I have long forgotten if not suppressed.

Just last week, I was standing in the rain on a bench at a rally in College Station a block off the campus of generally conservative Texas A&M to get a better view of Beto O’Rourke, a former punk rocker from El Paso who became a U.S. Congressman and is now challenging the spineless reactionary creep that is Senator Ted Cruz. I was surrounded by hundreds of students, and a few older supporters, like me. Beto’s powerful oratory and personal charisma comes straight out of the New Deal and New Frontier and the Obama change. Listening to him was a moment of sanity in a din of national crazy.

One line stayed with me: “This election is about the future.” Politicians routinely say something like that, but as I looked around, I could feel the truth—the line works better when there are young voters and activists in the crowd. I think about the future all the time. My granddaughters, who are Latina, will inherit a world that in part comes from me and in part from those who have followed. A world of what is yet to be done. The danger today is on a par with any since I’ve been alive, and it will outlast me. But not the girls. I want the anniversary of the next fifty years, in 2068, to be safe, decent, just—a treasure of America finally doing the right thing. And holding to it.