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What It Is Ain’t Exactly Clear*

flower

Fifty years ago, on November 22nd, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. It was a nationally televised horror that marked the start of turbulent times. The years that followed were tumultuous to say the least. Three and a half years later both Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy were gunned down. During this time the Vietnam War escalated, the civil rights movement gained momentum and carnage, and all of it was televised. In families rooms across our nation the evening news showed people burning in an obscure Asian country and American cities burning. It was a chaotic and troubling time in which the status quo (those over 30, non-minority and male) lost their footing. The world they helped to build and were promised by their parents was slipping away.

Throughout the devastation, or maybe even because of it, good things began to grow. Tiny saplings such as ecology, feminism, and reproductive rights began to appear amongst the ruins. The civil rights act did get signed, after a shamefully long wait and unforgivable amount of violence. There were strides in the women’s rights movement, though not a passage of the E.R.A. (Equal Rights Amendment.) The E.P.A. (Environmental Protection Act) went into effect in 1970 (as did Earth Day.) There was enough momentum to assume that the tide had turned somewhat. This progress happened in a very visible and even audible way. Fashion followed what was happening on the streets. Shirts and home decor featuring “protest posters” were for sale. Slogan T-shirts began to appear. All of this to the background of some rockin’ protest themed music. Even the softer rock songs were dotted with anti-war or anti-establishment themes. Their sound told you there was something going down.

It seems (from the distance of 50 years) that it all stopped as suddenly as it started. It’s tempting to look to Watergate as what doused the fire. Leaders being assassinated in their prime causes hurt and fear, leaders abusing power and lying causes disgust and apathy. The equation was probably a bit more complex than that. Those who were directly impacted by the events of the early 1960s (and of an age to take it to the streets) had gotten older and perhaps had moved on. Some, no doubt saw their fights as having been won and moved on. Others kept up the fight but within the system and off the streets and out of the spotlight. Whatever the exact formula the result was that the counter culture dissipated and the protests petered out. Nothing of that fevered pitch can last. But isn’t it odd that it’s never returned?

Surely there has been enough horror and inequity to stir rebellion. A 10-year war in Iraq? How about protesting that unlike Viet Nam it’s never been televised? The erosion of reproductive freedoms, the rise of poverty and unemployment and racial unrest (which is what the immigration debate really is) seems suitable for protest. We’ve never had more tools for organizing and yet we seem so disorganized. There are energetic and impactful demonstrations that happen all the time. But they are fragmented and you’d be hard-pressed to identify leadership by name. You’d have to really strain to come up with a popular song with political themes. There have been great political strides made, most notably in gay rights, in recent years. But that victory was over 40 years in the making. Trends come and go, life ebbs and flows, but do people really change? There has been so much violence, corporate corruption and political deceit in the last decade to spark something, no? Or was the outpouring of political engagement and protest of the 1960s a moment in time? Was it tantamount to the Industrial Revolution or the Roaring Twenties? It’s something to think as we approach a dark anniversary.

*For What It’s Worth (1966) – Stephen Stills

 
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Posted by on October 20, 2013 in Cultural Critique

 

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Dear Ms. Magazine

Happy Birthday Ms. Magazine!  It seems like only yesterday when you were born.  It must be annoying to hear that over and over again.  40, wow!  You look great!  Really you do.  Don’t give me that look, it’s okay to care about your looks if you’re a feminist, don’t try that on me.  You look great, really.  You know a lot of other magazines have very bloated advertising, and a rather eerie glossy finish.  But not you.  Yes you’ve freshened yourself up over the years, but that’s what keeps you modern and relevant.

Do you remember the first time you came to my house?  Me neither.  But I remember you being there in those early years.  My housewife mother must have heard about you at her consciousness-raising group and invited you home.  I’m guessing you got passed around a bit.  Household expenditures were tightly monitored (it was the 70s after all, things were tough all over.)  Come to think of it, it took some chutzpah to start a magazine outside of the standard advertising model on the cusp of the recession, didn’t it?  But you never did shy from a challenge.  They laughed at you.  I know you remember that.  Who did you think you were?  A serious magazine for women?  A business run by women?  They said a lot worse too.

It must have been hard at times, all that bullying.  They even made fun of your name.  You know, that name that is now a standard fixture in the English language; appearing on all official documents and forms?  You were the first to talk about abortion openly, instigating untold honest conversations and sharing in homes across the country.  You shone the spotlight on domestic violence, helping to place the shame where it belongs; on the perpetrators.  You gave voice to issues that often had no visible champion.  You helped us to understand our bodies and minds and how they can work.

You never have been popular.  I don’t mean that to be hurtful, it’s actually praise.  Who wants to be adored by the masses?  It’s far more satisfying to be loved by those who ‘get us.’  You did come along at the right time, that’s for sure.  No one was rolling out a red carpet or anything.  No, no.  But the swelling of bias and bigotry awareness of the early 1970s was a boon to Ms. and feminism.  Even the most misogynistic would begrudgingly admit that 51% of the population should be treated equally.  Not so far as enacting the ERA or anything, but wait, no sad stories, this is your birthday!

Milestone birthdays can be affirming but they can also be a bit jarring.  It’s a gift to age, to survive!  While no one wants to live in the past, it is the shared memories that give us a feeling of being a collective.  How many remember when grown women were routinely called ‘girls?’  Remember when we didn’t even have names?!  We were Mrs. Robert Smith or Mrs. Nathan Green.  We not only keep our first and last names now, but sometimes a man actually takes a woman’s name (gasp!)

I remember that you were the only magazine in our house, quite possibly ever.  I’ve no doubt you played some part in my mother returning to school and becoming the writer she always longed to be.  You probably had a hand in the household responsibilities being distributed to all family members (yeah that was just great, thanks!)  I can see your handiwork now, in my own outlook on life.  I struggle, like I know you do, with the backlash of some of our progress.  There are times I thought we’d be further ahead by now.  I know you know.  We still have work to do don’t we Ms.?  Maybe 40 really is the new 30!  Happy Birthday Ms. and thank you.  Now get back to work.

 
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Posted by on June 14, 2012 in Cultural Critique, Media/Marketing

 

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Betty Ford

Betty Ford has died.  I will never be confused for a political analyst, and my childhood memories are as suspect as anyone’s.  However, I am struck with the idea that Mrs. Ford was an American pioneer.  Long before the Huffington Post, the country knew Mrs. Ford’s opinions on serious social issues.  Decades (and generations) before any First Lady would be criticized for being politically vocal, Mrs. Ford made her position known on such subjects as legalized abortion, the ERA and premarital sex (remember, this was the 1970s, premarital sex was still up for discussion as a social ill.)

Before we had the luxury of watching newsreaders have their colon examined on national television, Betty Ford went public with her bout of breast cancer.  Before there were little pink ribbons, Mrs. Ford inspired tens of thousands of women to be screened and seek treatment.

Forty years before people would make a career from their public struggles with addiction, Mrs. Ford went public with her struggles.  She helped to create the treatment center which is now such a part of the American vernacular it is used as a verb.

Long before Gawker or AwfulPlasticSurgery.com, the world knew (and saw) Betty Ford’s face lift.  Almost unrecognizable to the yet untrained American eye, Mrs. Ford lifted her face proudly.

I know little, if anything of her husband’s politics (save for the pardon) but I am willing to venture that Mrs. Ford’s “firsts” outweigh her husband’s.  For better or worse, she really was our nation’s first; Public Figures, They’re Just Like Us!Bet

 
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Posted by on August 20, 2011 in Cultural Critique

 

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