Monday, October 08, 2007

Sputnik at 50

On the legacy of Sputnik at Captain
Future's Dreaming Up Daily.
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Tuesday, August 07, 2007

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Peter, Paul and Mary in more recent years. They continue to perform this song at antiwar rallies and peace events. Photo: Wolf Trap.
When Will We Ever Learn?

Those of us who experienced the 60s, though we may bore younger generations with reminicences, also tend to forget that these generations didn't go through them, especially emotionally. This was brought home to me recently by a diary at Daily Kos called "Where Have All the Flowers Gone"by Whiskey Sam.

I'm going to reproduce much of that diary here, though if you follow the link you'll get the full version as well as video renditions of the song. But of course the diary is only partly about the song--it's about what we learned, and what has not quite been passed on.

There was a comment to the diary I responded to which I'll also include here--on the matter of reviving the draft as a kind of antiwar tactic. It's ironic to me that in a diary about learning one lesson--to smell out an unjust and immoral war--there's added a proposal for something else we should have learned is pernicious: the draft.

Here are large excerpts from the diary itself:

I found myself thinking back about this war in Iraq and about how much things have changed. Back in 2002/03, the conventional wisdom was that Saddam had WMD's and he would sell them to the first Tom, Dick, or Harry who wanted them. We heard it all around, and the majority of the country believed it. I didn't, many of us on this forum smelled out the bullshit when it was being presented for us.

This diary is about how right the liberal community was on this issue, and how damn disgusting it is that we were. But it's also about how right, how MUCH MORE right, the older Vietnam generation was about this war and how some of the Gen X / Y liberals failed to realize the gravity of their warning.

In early 2003, when war became the obvious conclusion to Bush's 6 months of rhetoric, I was sitting at my UU Church in Raleigh North Carolina. The minister at the church was simply a hero in leading her congregation against the coming war. Every single sermon included talk about the distruction and the needlessness of the actions that would be taken in our names.
I remember it well. I remember also thinking it was a bit over dramatic. I found myself feeling that way often about the "Vietnam era" anti-war people. After all, it couldn't be nearly as bad as those old timers were making sound like it would be.

I was wrong, they were very much right.
One Sunday our minister began by passing out lyrics to an old Pete Seeger song, "Where Have All the Flowers Gone". Being young and dumb, I hadn't ever heard of the song. The "Vietnam People" in the room all instantly teared up. God this was all so overly draamtic!!! Even if Bush gets his war, I thought, there's NO WAY it'll last for years. How could it?
Still, I mumbled through the lyrics

Where have all the flowers gone?
Long time passing Where have all the flowers gone?
Long time ago Where have all the flowers gone?
Girls have picked them every one
When will they ever learn? When will they ever learn?

OK OK, I get the point... Vietnam was bad, and your friends got drafted and died, but that's not what's going to happen here. JESUS people, if we overplay our hand, if we over dramatize this situation then we look like a bunch of kooks!!!! Pass the tin foil!

Where have all the young men gone?
Long time passing Where have all the young men gone?
Long time ago Where have all the young men gone?
Gone for soldiers every one When will they ever learn?
When will they ever learn?

nice song, by this point the "Vietnam people" were flat out crying. This is before a single American was wounded in Iraq. Come ON folks, less than 200 American soldiers died in the first Gulf War -- we're going to hit our targets and the country will roll over!!!

Where have all the soldiers gone?
Long time passing
Where have all the soldiers gone? Long time ago
Where have all the soldiers gone?
Gone to graveyards every one When will they ever learn?
When will they ever learn?
Where have all the graveyards gone?

Long time passing
Where have all the graveyards gone? Long time ago
Where have all the graveyards gone?
Covered with flowers every one
When will we ever learn? When will we ever learn?

Almost five years later I know now why the "Vietnam people" were so moved by this song. I know now what I need to know for the next time a group of warmongers deceive our country into a war that destroys generations of our finest men and women. I know now what the "Vietnam people" knew when they used to sing this song.

They were right. My god they were right. They weren't being overly dramatic, they saw what was going to happen and they were doing everything in their power to warn people like me about the gathering storm. "

The comments included this one:

"with the hippies (4+ / 0-)
this time things are gloomy, the right has won by depressing us all. The old peace movement was filled with college kids who were against not just war but the lottery that could make them fight in one. That touched everyone, and it's why we need the draft back, so that everyone will be watching, if not for everyone's kids, for their own. If we as a nation claim the right to 'protect' ourselves with soldiers, we need to shoulder the responsibility. Our nation is so powerful that citizens need to be involved personally in the decisions our leaders make in our name. "

This is my reply to the comment:

two evils don't make a right (2+ / 0-)
unless they make it a rabid right--because the draft is as evil as the war. I am one of those "Vietnam people" who knew how bad this was going to be, and I can tell you from experience that a draft will not help, it will only ruin the lives of even more young people. First of all, the highest draft calls of the war were before the lottery was instituted, so when you turned 18 or lost your college deferement, you were facing being drafted, and basically, you were on your own. Nobody but you understood what it meant. Parents, family, women, friends were all conflicted, because the choice was to go and possibly die and/or kill, or bring shame to your family, ruin your life, flee to Canada, go to jail, etc. to resist it. Unless your family had the money and connections to buy you out of it with pull or doctors, and that believe me would not change if the draft began again. Trying to force people to go kill other people or die trying is immoral. Even slaves weren't forced to do that, and slavery is unconstitutional as well as immoral.

I'm sure you, like many others making this proposal, are well-meaning, but that's what's most upsetting to me. At least some of the people who got us into this war were well-meaning. Just wrong. They didn't see the Bushite lies and how they were going to use this war for their own ends. Those are exactly the same people who would be running the draft. If there's a war that has to be fought, Americans will fight it, without being forced. "

And another poster added:

"No draft--ever
I absolutely agree about the draft. We will institute a new draft over the dead bodies of many of the Vietnam generation who experienced it. Since I'm female, I didn't have to worry, but my brother did. So we all worried. I hate to tell you what happened to the kids I knew who were drafted. They were scarred for life though some were killed and some are still MIA. One is insane and has been since he was in Vietnam. All of them were forced to serve in the military. I will never support a draft. I agree that if we really need to fight a war, people will volunteer. We didn't really need to fight in Iraq or Vietnam. War is horrible beyond description. We should avoid war if possible and never be the aggressors."

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Choose Your Cell

The main reason companies don't market to the huge Baby Boom generation is that we're basically immune to the compulsions of fashion and conformity. They may satirize us for returning to the brand names of our past, but besides "nostalgia"-- the ripples of memory and connection to the past we get from them-- often enough it has more to do with sticking with what works, and seeing the wearying pitfalls of the new and needless.

Take cell phones. Younger folk who are still competing to be the coolest of the conformists, rushed and rushing not only to early adopt, but to keep getting the newest, fastest, fanciest and inevitably most complex of the cellular toys. Besides adding immensely to the toxic waste overflow--literally hundreds of millions of thrown away cell phones--they've been part of changing everyday exterior life for nearly everybody, and in mostly dubious ways.

I've never owned a cell phone, so the ten reasons not to own one in this Wired Magazine commentary today were already known to me. Still, I recognize this as a reasonably brave statement, especially in the place it appeared (though it didn't stop the page from being advertised by a cell phone brand.) I recognize the few advantages--mainly having to do with emergencies--and I did experience a nice moment when one of my oldest and best friends who was visiting handed me his cell phone as we walked back from a dinner celebrating our 60th birthdays, and our third friend was on the other end. It was as if he were walking with us for awhile. That was nice.

But technology is always a prison as well as a liberation. In this case, the cost, the fact that I use telephones of any kind as little as possible, and the expectation that I would be accessible to everyone 24/7, and so with no privacy whatsoever, etc. means I haven't even been tempted, except when traveling. On the other hand, I am likely to buy an Ipod type device soon--though it's going to be a lot of trouble and require a lot of time, it's either that or another portable CD player, and they have their own increasingly frustrating problems. (The best portable device I have actually is a small, sturdy tape recorder, which I use to do interviews and also to listen to audiobooks.) And I certainly was early to adopt blogging, since it suited my purposes.

Then there's the ergonomic questions (part of that top ten list), which I've raised here before: screens and buttons with no learnable logic especially if you can't see them. I've been certain that this alone was a market opportunity that sooner or later somebody was going to fill, and apparently it's begun. I saw an ad in a magazine for a cell phone that's marketed for Boomers as being simple and with large, easy to understand buttons. The Jitterbug phone is unfortunately ugly, and the First Street ("For Boomers and Beyond") catalog is currently pretty thin and junky, but it's a start.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

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The anniversary of Robert F. Kennedy's death comes at a dark moment of intense political polarization, in a nation roiled by an unpopular war characterized by official deceit. Many of Robert Kennedy's words on Vietnam could be dropped into the newspaper today and they would be just as relevant.

It is a time of violence in word and deed. It is a time mortal peril for this country and its institutions, the country and the institutions of which he had a deep knowledge, for which he had a deep commitment. It is a time of mortal peril for the world and its life. His son and namesake knows this--Robert Kennedy, Jr. has been and remains one of our greatest champions of our environment.

1968 was a time of political upheaval as well. In this election year it is well to remember that the revered RFK, if he were a politican today, would be criticized and castigated from one end of the political spectrum to the other, and all over the Internet. He would be charged today, as he was charged then,with opportunism, cynical and self-centered politics, and trading on his name and wealthy family.

Kennedy was himself a polarizing figure, although his words were of reconcilation. That in part was what made him polarizing. His positions on various issues did not satisfy the templates of the left or right. Yet he was the only white politician who had the passionate support and love of many blacks. He was the only political leader who spent time on Indian reservations and tiny Inuit villages as well as southern rural and white West Virgina mountain shanty towns.

He inspired passions for and passions against. People wanted to touch him, and he needed to touch others--he seemed to learn through touch. He learned through children, extending the feelings of a father to compassion for all children.

He grew up in privilege, and his early meetings with black leaders were not warm. Yet by 1968, when Martin Luther King was shot and killed, his widow asked Robert Kennedy to arrange to have his body moved from Memphis to Atlanta. His impromptu speech, passing on the news of King's assassination in a black neighborhood where he happened to be, is one of his most famous.

If we took Robert Kennedy out of time, and dropped him into our own, he would find a different country in many ways. There are nearly twice as many people in the United States. The racial and ethnic composition has changed. In 1968, one parent usually did the earning for the family, the man in most white families, and increasingly the woman in single parent poor black families. Two paycheck families, let alone two parents with five or six jobs between them, were rare.

Politically, the parties were stronger. Democrats had deep organizations in the cities, and industrial unions were strong. But the Democratic party was also coming apart. JFK knew that by leading on civil rights, the Democrats would lose their hold on the solid South. 1968 would see Richard Nixon exploit this. Vietnam was itself tearing younger people like me away from the party. Eugene McCarthy ran within the party, but he was not really of it. Robert Kennedy was, and his candidacy may have kept many young people in the party.

Kennedy's first major speech was just after King's death, and after the violent riots that torched and destroyed significant parts of many cities. In some cities, like Washington, it would be more than a decade before those areas recovered.

I could quote his Vietnam speeches, emphasizing the horror for the victims of war. But Robert Kennedy's life, and a great deal of the promise of America, was ended by an act of violence in June 1968. I remember those hours and days. The primary emotion I felt I later understood as this: loneliness. Robert Kennedy's death made this a very lonely country for me.

Robert Kennedy took on that last political fight, knowing the odds were against him, knowing that violence was in the air. He was a warrior for peace. It is important to remember even as we stand up against the cynical and cowardly violence of the rabid right, that Robert Kennedy's last crusade was this: as he said to a largely black audience in that unwritten speech on the night of Martin Luther King's assassination, "Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world."

In his next major speech, in Cleveland, Ohio, on April 4, he said this:

For there is another kind of violence, slower but just as deadly, destructive as the shot or the bomb in the night. This is the violence of institutions; indifference and inaction and slow decay. This is the violence that afflicts the poor, this poisons relations between men because their skin has different colors. This is the slow destruction of a child by hunger, and schools without books and homes without heat in the winter.

This is the breaking of a man's spirit by denying him the chance to stand as a father and as a man among other men. And this too afflicts us all. I have not come here to propose a set of specific remedies nor is there a single set. For a broad and adequate outline we know what must be done. When you teach a man to hate and fear his brother, when you teach that he is a lesser man because of his color or his beliefs or the policies he pursues, when you teach that those who differ from you threaten your freedom or your job or your family , then you also learn to confront others not as fellow citizens but as enemies---to be met not with cooperation but with conquest, to be subjugated and mastered.

We learn, at the last, to look on our brothers as aliens, men with whom we share a city, but not a community, men bound to us in common dwelling, but not in common effort. We learn to share only a common fear--only a common desire to retreat from each other--only a common impulse to meet disagreement with force. For all this there are no final answers. Yet we know what we must do. It is to achieve true justice among our fellow citizens. The question is not what program to enact.
The question is whether we can find in our midst and in our own hearts that leadership of human purpose that will recognize the terrible truths of our existence.

We must admit the vanity of our false distinctions among men and learn to find our own advancement in the search for the advancement of all. We must admit in ourselves that our own children's future cannot be built on the misfortunes of others. We must recognize that this short life can neither be enobled or enriched by hatred or revenge. Our lives on this planet are too short and the work to be done too great to let this spirit flourish any longer in our land. "

Friday, May 25, 2007

late 60s poster construction by Bonnie MacLean in
Whitney Museum exhibt on Psychedelic Era. NY Times.
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Free Your Mind: Late 1960s on Display

For me and many people I knew when we were students, there was no real conflict between the politics and culture of the late '60s. They seemed to spring from the same sources, and we reconciled them in our lives as well as our approach to the world. But there was a certain distance--and sometimes tensions-- between political activists and "cultural" activists (otherwise known as hippies) at various times in the '60s, probably more extreme in cities and bigger universities than on our small and relatively isolated campus.

I still see a continuum, and certainly a common dynamic in the worldview that accompanied antiwar and pro-Civil Rights and liberation politics, and the psychedelic "mind expanding" culture of rebellious ideas, electric music and desperate yearnings for new relationships to nature, human and otherwise. "Free Your Mind" (as I recall being shouted at the beginning of a Beatles song) is total. But even in retrospect, the politics vs. culture controversies continue.

I draw that conclusion from Holland Carter's terrific New York Times essay concerning the Whitney Museum's exhibition, "Summer of Love: Art of the Psychedelic Era." It's in many ways an authentic summary of the era. And it does fault the exhibit for ignoring the political context:

Tear gas, pot and patchouli were the scents of the 1960s. You can almost detect the last two, spicy and pungent, wafting through “Summer of Love: Art of the Psychedelic Era” at the Whitney Museum of American Art. But tear gas, with its weird-sweet burn, is missing in a show that remembers a lot, but forgets much more, about what was happening 40 years ago, when America was losing its mind to save, some would say, its soul.

Carter admits that "for anyone who wasn’t around then, the period is all but impossible to know," but in a few eloquent paragraphs he suggests it, in ways that resonate with me. Yet his judgment also reflects his belief that for "anyone who was around, it’s hard to describe without sounding either nostalgic or bitter." Like many literary boomers, he tends towards the bitter. In that, I think he goes a bit far. I don't think the counterculture was, as he says, originally just a commercial venture, though he's right that it rather quickly became one, at first for promoters and record companies, and then in the larger commercial culture of the 70s.

And he's also right that as young people we were hopelessly self-centered, but contrary to his view, I believe there was altruism and "love" in the larger sense, as well as concern for the future, and even some interest in the past (just not the one packaged for us by the larger culture.) It was in fact that larger culture that considered the past irrelevant and the future not worth considering. That the larger culture continues to feel that way I don't believe is itself a byproduct of that era.

Anyway, anyone who lived through the decade will find this a stimulating piece, and those who didn't will find it informative beyond the usual iconic images and simplistic distortions. And armed with this essay, the Whitney exhibit sounds like a trip worth taking if you're in New York.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Boomer Evangelicals: Expanding Soul

An intriguing article in the NY Times Magazine suggests that the American Evangelical movement is changing--moving away from obsession with gay marriage and God's Own Party to different and in some ways more traditional concerns. Though the issue of abortion continues to unite conservative Christians, some of the newer Evangelical leaders are also talking about poverty, health issues such as AIDS, and the chief illness of the earth: the climate crisis:

Members of the baby boomer generation are taking over the reins, said D. G. Hart, a historian of religion. The boomers, he said, are markedly different in style and temperament from their predecessors and much more animated by social justice and humanitarianism.

One example was the call to see the climate crisis as a moral issue which brought together some "mainstream conservative Christian leaders with prominent liberal evangelicals, such as the Rev. Jim Wallis of Sojourners and the Rev. Ronald J. Sider of Evangelicals for Social Action, who have long championed progressive causes."

Though some observers caution that this is only the beginning of a shift (and one Evangelical leader was forced to step down because of his climate crisis advocacy) and that it may take a generation to become dominant, it does suggest there is less enthusiasm for automatic party line GOP politics, which includes climate crisis denial and contempt for "bleeding heart" efforts to address poverty, disease and injustice. Within the Evangelicals (roughly a quarter of the U.S. population), this new "centrist group" is roughly equal in numbers to the far right group (according to Pew Research) and it is the centrist group that is growing.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

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R. I. P.

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

He survived Pall Malls for 84 years, and it was a fall resulting in brain injury that led to his death. Kurt Vonnegut has been part of my life and close to my soul since the 1960s, when my fiction writing teacher who'd been his student at the Iowa Workshop got us reading his early novels, just a few months before the world discovered him big time with Slaughterhouse Five.
Of contemporary writers, I felt closest in ways I can't explain to two: Vonnegut and Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

His New York Times obit is here.

Vonnegut was one of the voices we clung to in those bitter years of the late 60s. His voice was so distinctive that it was something that writers attached to rhythmic mimickry had to get loose of. No sooner had you broken the habit of writing like J.D. Salinger, Hemingway and Joseph Heller, along came Vonnegut. So it goes.

He was a countercultural voice who came by it honestly; he earned it. His use of science fiction motifs was part of it, especially for me. In later years he took on the appearance as well as the mantle of our 20th/21st century Mark Twain.

I've known so many people who knew him, and I've seen him on various screens and of course read him, so I feel I did know him, in that peculiar way in which he didn't know me from Adam. I encountered him in person at least three times I can recall. He spoke in Pittsburgh, where the U.S. Army had once sent him to study engineering. His speeches, especially at colleges, are legendary--even the ones he didn't actually deliver. They were full of wit and practical wisdom, and lots of provocation of thought and feeling, worth any 20 political or academic talks.

Before that, he passed through my mind as I was walking in Boston one afternoon, idly thinking I might run into him. Late that night, while sitting in an unprestiguous, noisy, overlit restaurant with members of a rock band I was supposed to be writing about (the drummer lamenting the absense of the groupies he had been promised), I glanced across the room and saw Kurt Vonnegut looking at us, and not real kindly. Such a coincidence is common in Vonnegut's fictional universe, where there are "leaks" between worlds and time is permeable. It actually happened to me twice within a short time; the other time I was in O'Hare airport thinking about Paul Simon, and a minute later there he was. It was weird enough to be a little scary, and so it's never happened again.

The last time I remember was in Manhattan. It was on the street and I saw him walking towards me, wearing just a comfortable indoor sweater on a cold coat-and-scarf day. I recognized him and smiled; he looked at me the way I was often looked at in New York--that ' are you somebody I should know?' look--and when he'd concluded I wasn't, he looked away. But I have that picture of him, walking the midtown streets as if from one room of his house to another.

I was talking about a short story of his just the other day. Someone, I forget who, has recently written a satire in which the suggested solution to social security and medical care shortfalls because of aging baby boomers is to kill them--humanely, I assume. Apparently this idea is striking a chord, which doesn't surprise me. Vonnegut wrote about it in the 1950s, in a story called "Welcome to the Monkey House" (also the title of his first story collection.) Because of overpopulation, old people were encouraged to visit their government sponsored Ethical Suicide Parlors. It was a wicked idea, but what makes writers cherish Vonnegut is his imagination, his detail. These Parlors were housed next to Howard Johnsons, their purple roof next to the orange roof of HoJos. They all had Hostesses, stewardess-like young women who humor the old folks but efficiently hurry them along to take their injection and die peacefully in the Barcolounger. You absolutely know that when these places are established, this is what they will be like.

I've only quoted him here once, from a 2006 speech in which he said: “The only difference between Bush and Hitler is that Hitler was elected.” That's Vonnegut in a nutshell: vivid, combative, funny, outrageous, passionate, pushing at the edge but with wit and meaning.

Vonnegut often wrote about Kilgore Trout, his alter ego--a version of who he might well have been if it hadn't been for the sudden success of Slaughterhouse Five, a poor and obscure science fiction writer. In Vonnegut's last novel, Timequake, Kilgore Trout dies. He was 84.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

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The Boomers Are All Right

We've been criticized and put down since we were kids, but especially in the 60s. We were too loud, too bold, too earnest, too political, too romantic, too sexy, too idealistic, too cynical, too crazed by sex, drugs and rock & roll. We protested too much, our music was disgusting, we wanted to change the world but we didn't know how. And so on.

These days (when our awful music is everywhere, forty years later, and we're in the middle of another obscene war that if this country had accepted what we learned from Vietnam never would have happened) we're criticized again, this time by some of our own. Boomers are the self-absorbed, self-indulgent generation that talked big and instead just soaked up big money. We stay in the workforce too long and hog up all the good jobs. And now we're selfish enough to still be alive, so we're going to bankrupt the country and younger generations paying for our Social Security and health care.

Most of this is politicized crap, but the worst part of it is that Boomers themselves are joining in. Self-examination is a good thing. Self-loathing is pointless and in some ways the opposite of self-examination: it's an excuse not to bother. I think most of us understand that a lot of the anger against Boomers is right wing anger about the 1960s. Which is anger against those aspects of society that show more tolerance, more open-mindedness, compassion and idealism.

There are differences between generations, and there are different pluses and minuses between and within them. But this Boomer trashing is preposterous. We're neither the best nor the worst, if there could even be such a thing. It's fashionable to bow to the Greatest Generation but we know them as our parents generation, and they were hardly perfect.

Nor were we or are we perfect--or any other image-- as should be obvious. Here in this space will appear critiques of who we were and who we are, what we did and what we didn't do, what we went through and what we're facing now. But the baseline is this: we're all right. Some of our generation are arrogant, mindless, cruel, clueless, terminally cynical or perenially deluded. Some of our generation has been very quietly courageous, self-sacrificing, dedicated, compassionate, relentlessly true to their ideals. Most of us have sampled from both bins. Welcome to the human race.

Let's recall that the cultural phenomenon called "the 60s" never involved more than a minority of our age group in a major way. Most of us weren't protestors or hippies. (I mean I was, which is how I know we were a decided minority.) We were just such a huge generation, even a minority of us turned out to be a lot. Most of our generation were always going to have a more or less conventional life, according to the conventions of our time.

Many of us embrace the 60s now, and we should. At the same time, that many of us got a life, raised children and can help our grandchildren, not exactly cause of shame there. (I didn't manage to do any of that, but I admire my contemporaries who did. ) Sure, we all have regrets--or we should--- about overconsumption, about getting sucked in, etc. And some good things turned bad or at least awry. But Boomer self-bashing is more pathetic than any other excess we're supposed to peculiarly own.

Come around here if you want to. I hope I can break through my own barriers to discuss the aging issues that confront those of us at the head of the Boom, the first-thirders of 1946 to 1950. But don't expect either cheery nostalgia and self-congratulation all the time, or a fashionable attitude of clever but ultimately cynical self-immolation either. The Boomers are all right.

Thursday, March 01, 2007


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Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.

Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. was a respected biographer of FDR when he became an advisor to John F. Kennedy and then a special assistant to him in the White House. In the early 1960s, he transferred a phrase from Emerson to devise "The Politics of Hope" as a bold assertion that survives Camelot to still speak to some of us today.

He was a political player and theorist, judicious and penetrating. In the Kennedy years he showed that an intellectual could provide inspiration as well as guidance in politics, and as a writer he showed that intellectually substantive prose could also be popular. His 60s experience informed his subsequent writing on presidential power, and he also wrote one of the better books on the John F. Kennedy's presidency, and another on Robert Kennedy. He continued his incisive political commentary as recently as his 2004 book on the historic errors of the Bush administration. As an elder and an inspiration, I pay my respects to his memory.

His New York Times obituary is here.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

The Pentagon 1968...who spit on who?
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Monday, February 05, 2007

Vietnam and the 60s: Phantoms and Realities

Dailykos the other day had prominent threads on two new books that concern the 1960s and Vietnam. One by devilstower was about The Spitting Image by Jerry Lembke, which debunks the media legend that protestors spit on returning Vietnam veterans. I have to confess that even I was taken in by this right wing smear. Emotions did run high, and I guess I could picture protests getting out of hand. Now I'm not sure what I remember versus what I saw in the movies about this. I know that there were protests at recruitment centers and draft boards. We protested ROTC and recruiters on campus (on our campus we did so by singing "Alice's Restaurant" at top volume.) But the image of protestors lined up at airports to dis returning soldiers comes not from history or reality but pernicious fiction.

I do clearly remember finding common cause with returning vets, and obviously many of them eventually became active, and became leaders, in the antiwar movement, just as Iraq vets are doing now. Even the young officer in charge of my group at my (first) draft physical closed the door at the end of it and told us that Vietnam was a crock and to stay out of it in any way we could. I also remember that protestors were spit on, as well as clubbed, gassed and punched.

As devilstower points out, the spitting on veterans lie was part of the attempt to spin the history to say that the U.S. lost Vietnam because of protestors, lack of support at home and the resulting lack of will by spineless politicians. It appears to be the argument that George Bush buys, and that informs his prosecution of Iraqnam.

The other frontpage post was by SusanG, about Jeff Kisseloff's Generation on Fire, an oral history told by 1960s activists. She also provided a link to Jeff's website , which will soon be a permanent link from this site. Susan (as usual) provides a thoughtful analysis of what she learned from these interviews (there are some on Jeff's site that aren't in the book) that pertains to progressives and activism today. I'm looking forward to exploring Jeff's site in detail and his book, but one thing is already clear: the "spitting" protestor is a phony phantam of the 60s, so it's about time to hear a little more of the reality.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Protest in Washington, again. Photo: NY Times.
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A soldier's boots and a coffin symbolize the thousands of U.S. troops killed in Iraq, and the tens of thousands maimed. Photo: New York Times.
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Today in Washington

But soldiers aren't the only victims of this insane war. These shoes symbolize the tens of thousands--and perhaps hundreds of thousands--of civilians killed and maimed in Iraq since the U.S. invasion. New York Times photo.
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“I grew up during the Vietnam War, but I never protested it and never had my lottery number called to go fight,” said David Quinly, a 54-year-old carpenter from Prairie Village, Kan., who arrived here Friday night with about 50 others after a 23-hour bus ride.“In my view, this one is a war of choice and a war for profit against a culture and people we don’t understand,” Mr. Quinly said. “I knew I had to speak up this time.”

That's from the New York Times report on today's antiwar demonstration in Washington, where "tens of thousands" of protestors focused on the Iraq war. From the podium, Susan Surandon said, according to the Times:

“We need to be talking not just about defunding the war but also about funding the vets,” Ms. Sarandon said, adding that more than 50,000 veterans had been injured while benefits for them continue to be cut.

The Washington Post has this quote:"When I served in the war, I thought I was serving honorably. Instead, I was sent to war ... for causes that have proved fraudulent," said Iraq war veteran Garett Reppenhagen.

Reuters reports that similiar demonstrations in Los Angeles and San Francisco today were attended by thousands.

Antiwar protests are all too familiar to baby boomers. On the plus size, many of us are still involved, still standing and marching. On the negative side, after Vietnam we perhaps did not significantly recognize that ending a war did not mean peace--that peace is a process requiring skills and attention. And of course, it was boomers who got us into this insane war. When will we ever learn.

Friday, January 12, 2007

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Thursday, January 11, 2007

Rebellion (and Why This is not the 1970s)

I'm not going to present a lot of tidbits with sources concerning the Bush plan for Iraq and the subsequent nearly unanimous disapproval, but some overall impressions. Even before antiwar protestors could begin mobilizing--and there are reports of demonstrations planned or accomplished in all fifty states--the reception given to the Bush plan, especially in the hearings featuring the new Defense Secretary and the old Sec. of State, Condi Rice, was nothing short of eviscerating.

Particularly striking were the Republicans and past Bush supporters, one of whom added that he not only was parting company with the Bushwar but was tired of being lied to. And he said this to Rice. While Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell talked with the confidence of old about using a fillibuster to stop the attempt to pass a resolution of (essentially) no confidence in the President's plan, it soon appeared that there were already the 60+ votes to stop that, and vote on the resolution, which at the moment seems all but certain to pass.In other words, the Congress was in open rebellion. Tom Ricks of the Washington Post said on Charlie Rose that of all the armed forces officers who are either in Iraq or were, and who emailed him after the speech, not one thought the plan would work. The polls show overwhelming public skepticism if not outright opposition. And on and on.

There seem to be two main schools of thought about the why of this policy. The first is that Bush is sincerely messianic, and his reference to aggressive moves against Syria and Iran (which other administration figures minimized today) show a very dangerous intention to widen the conflict, perhaps to divert attention from Iraq, or simply to carry out a general attempt to impose American power in that part of the world.

The second possibility is that this is cover, a face-saving measure, for troop withdrawal by the end of the year, when the Iraqis and particularly the current government don't make good on their part of the bargain in the "pacification" of Baghdad.The closest historical precedent for both of these possibilities is ironically the same event: Nixon's invasion of Cambodia in 1970. Nixon both widened the war (as he would several more times) and claimed it was in order to facilitate the withdrawal of American troops.

The 1970s also offer the precedent of Congress cutting off funds for a war that the President wouldn't end, though it took another five years after Cambodia. This and more led Republican Senator Chuck Hagel to say that the President's speech represents the worst foreign policy catastrophe since Vietnam.There are plenty of other similarities, and we're likely to see more, like large scale protests. Keith Olbermann's charge in his special comment Thursday that Bush's approach is insane recalls the feeling that Nixon was nuts, and this was pre-Watergate. Firesign Theatre ran a fake candidate for president in 1972 (George Papoon) whose campaign slogan was "Not Insane."

But there are differences. One is the speed. Everything is accelerated--especially the response of establishment politicians. Only a handful of "radicals" in Congress were talking about Nixon the same way that virtually all members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee talked about Bush today. No one in the news media was so openly, relentlessly and vociferously against the president's war as Keith Olbermann has been, or that Chris Matthews has become.This speed may be reflected in the likelihood that Congress is going to search for and perhaps find a way to cut off money to conduct this war.

There are other differences on policy that reflect the experience of Vietnam, and not only on the part of Vietnam vets like Chuck Hagel. But there is yet another difference that I find striking. That's the often repeated reason for opposition to this temporary surge or anything short of taking troops out of Iraq: it's not worth the lives of American soldiers. The idea that troops would be committed as a face-saving gesture leading to withdrawal that didn't damage American power or prestige as much as a "retreat" would have been perfectly acceptable to most Washington officials, media and academics.

It is not acceptable now, and that I believe is a consequence of antiwar activity in the Vietnam era, especially by those of my generation. This was something we stressed from the beginning, even though it would be John Kerry's testimony in 1971 or so that remains the most memorable formulation of that belief--how do you ask a soldier to be the last one to die for a mistake?

This is some progress, though not yet to the level of another of our contentions--that the war was immoral because of the death and destruction it brought to Vietnam and the Vietnamese people. There are very few voices these days outside the peace movement that make this point about Iraq and Iraqis.But these differences are not nothing. They are differences from the 1970s, caused in part by what we went through, and what we did, in the 1960s and 1970s.