Thursday, May 17, 2007

The past is not a theme park.

The past is not a theme park. Remember, the past was someone else's present. Whenever the nostalgia pimps get a hold of very select chunks of your elders' lifetime, you can bet they're doing some VERY heavy spin-doctoring of the facts, absurdly exaggerating the good points (and sometimes fabricating ones which never existed) and obscuring the bad points, making peoples' lives and indeed our very history look as glitzy and artificial as Disney World's “Main Street USA”.

Take for example the 1960's. the decade of my own childhood. Many of you have experienced it only through the popular media, so to most of you it's the decade of flower power, sexual abandon and drug orgies. To be certain, the latter part of that decade did see some downright revolutionary changes in attitudes toward sexuality. It saw the rise of a drug culture built at least partly around mind-expansion rather than anesthesia. It saw the maturation of rock music, the rise of fusion jazz, the establishment of electronic music as a serious art form rather than a novelty, and the mainstreaming, however briefly, of avant-garde music (the Columbia Masterworks and Nonesuch Explorer catalogs from that era were and still are something to check out). The first flickerings of what we now think of as “outsider” art happened in that decade. There were plenty of good times to be had, no doubt, the likes of which have never been seen before or since. But make no mistake, the 1960's were anything but a party. Sometimes they were downright scary.

Only two years into the decade, the world stood at the brink of Doomsday. The Cuban Missile Crisis, sparked by then-Soviet Premier Nikita Krushchev's decision to station nuclear missiles not 90 miles from our shores in Cuba, threatened to touch off an all-out nuclear confrontation. The only things that saved us were then-President John F. Kennedy's cool-headedness and Premier Krushchev's wise decision to back off. I remember being sent home early from school on the first day of the crisis. I guess they must have thought that if World War 3 was going to break out that we should be vaporized along with our loved ones. I also remember those dumb-assed duck-and-cover drills you might have heard about, where you ducked under your desks and put your hands on the back of your neck in a laughable attempt to protect yourself from a nuclear blast. My home town had a lot of defense contractors in it, so it was reportedly in the top-20 targets favored by the Soviets. I remember asking my teacher what would happen if a Soviet missile scored a direct hit on the school. I never got an answer to that question.

A little over a year later, President Kennedy was assassinated, under what are still considered extremely shady circumstances. My 4th grade recess was interrupted by a hastily patched-through radio announcement on the school's public address system, “The president is dead. The president is dead from his bullet wounds. Let us pray ...” My initial thought was “OK, whose idea of a sick joke is this?”, followed a few microseconds later by “Holy shit, it's not a joke...” Again, they sent us home early. I remember walking home with what felt like a hole in the pit of my stomach. I was only a kid, I knew nothing about politics. All I knew was that some bad man had killed the president, and I was scared.

The civil rights movements of the 60's is rightly regarded as a high point in our history. It was a time in which people who had resigned themselves to non-personhood or worse for decades (if not centuries) finally decided that enough was enough. Week after week there were reports of appalling violence perpetrated against people who were only demonstrating non-violently for the right to be treated as human beings.

Of course there was the
Vietnam War, the olive-drab cloud which hung over the whole decade and then some. The arguments in favor of it were quite shaky (sound familiar?). Thousands of men were drafted to fight and die in a war which was billed as a defense against Communist expansionism, but was really meant to maintain American control over that region by propping up a corrupt dictatorship. About 58.000 Americans didn't make it back. In early 1970, then-President Richard Nixon compounded the folly of the Vietnam War by invading neighboring Cambodia, and then claiming in a TV address that it wasn't an invasion.

And then there was Kent State. It happened in early 1970, so technically it wasn't a 60's event. But it was part and parcel with everything that had gone before. It was my generation's 9-11. The picture of victim Jeffrey Miller lying dead on the pavement is just as appalling and stomach-turning as those replayed-to-death clips of hijacked jet airliners plowing into the World Trade Center. I was a high school junior when I heard that Ohio National Guardsmen had opened fire on students demonstrating against the Cambodia incursion. Thirteen people were wounded, four killed. Some think it was an accident or a breakdown in command. Others have cited a direct order from the White House to then-Ohio Governor James A. Rhodes to “discipline” the demonstrators at Kent State (and recent revelations would appear to bear that theory out). My first thought on hearing of the massacre were “That's it. My country has finally lost it.” My adolescent mind pictured more such massacres, concentration camps, and martial law. Other shootings later that month at Jackson State University did nothing to dispel my paranoia. Universities all over America shut down. Political pundits on both sides of the issue went ballistic. Impromptu talk shows on the local university's 10-watt student radio station varied from teary-eyed commentary to angry calls for justice, if not revenge. Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young hastily cut a song about the massacre, You've probably heard it a million times. To the program director at your local “oldies” radio station it's just another song in rotation. To some of us back then, it was more like a primal scream.

“...Gotta get down to it, soldiers are cutting us down
Should have been done long ago...” - Neil Young, “Ohio”, 1970 Silver Fiddle Music

I didn't realize it at the time, but what the band is singing about is revolution. It was fashionable to talk about revolution in those days (Frank Zappa referred to it as “This year's 'Flower Power'”). It was quite another to even consider an October Revolution-style uprising against the world's most powerful nation. No revolution ever materialized.

My take on the shootings is that the Nixon administration on down was simply resorting to one of the oldest crowd-control techniques that there is: If you want to keep 100 slaves in line, kill one of them, in a very public manner, I believe that the lethal firepower directed at students was purposely meant to terrorize dissidents into submission.

Go ahead and enjoy the music, the retro fashions and the other trappings of the 1960s and 70s. Just keep your head screwed on and take care not to be fooled by the tendency of the popular media and the advertising industry (same thing) to romanticize that era, or to trivialize the very real struggles of the very real people who lived in it.

ADDENDUM: In my haste, I neglected to mention two high-profile political assassinations, those of Robert F. Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. That was due to error on my part. I certainly didn't intend to discount or minimize the importance of these events.