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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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Keep Your Eyes On The Prize

CRM

Your age has a direct effect on what you are taught in history class. If you were in school during the Vietnam War, chances are you weren’t being taught anything about it (save for a current event discussion or two.) If you attended school immediately following World War II, curriculum didn’t include a section on internment camps. But these gaps, in theory, should be closed by life experience. Home life, including television, and adult learning (in any form) should eventually create a seamless sense of American history.

Whether unique or not (my personal) recent experience would dispute this scenario. Conversations prompted by the 50th anniversary of The March on Washington have revealed startling ignorance of (relatively) recent American history. My (utterly unscientific) sample included people in every decade from 20s – 70s. It would be a safe assumption that those people in their late 40s to early 50s might not have a full understanding of the history of the civil rights movement. The March, which many would identify as the fulcrum of the movement, happened before their arrival or shortly thereafter. But that particular (non-random, self-selecting) sample was not lacking in information. It was the younger people who seemed to have no knowledge beyond there having been a speech. What led to the March, the climate at the time, the danger, the heroism, and the cast of characters were all news to them. Even those at the anniversary celebration on the National Mall (presumably having an interest in the subject) did not appreciate the significance of the ringing of the bell salvaged from the Birmingham 16th Street Baptist Church.

Going beyond the 1963 March and the people who brought it to life, are the politics that preceded and proceeded. The significance of speakers; Lynda Bird Johnson Robb and Caroline Kennedy was lost on those in their 20s and 30s. More than once I dutifully explained the civil rights legislation that was crafted and signed by their respective fathers. It is hard to fathom how the details of the civil rights movement and all that happened in the 1960s could not be a major part of K-12 American history. History, like most subjects, builds on prior knowledge. Without covering the civil rights movement how does one teach women’s rights, union/migrant workers’ rights and the LGBT movement? How does one cover international civil rights and racial/ethnic issues without discussing our own domestic fight?

I’ve actually no doubt that the civil rights movement is comprehensively covered in many (if not most) schools across the nation. I suspect that the reason for those blank stares and awkward silences I received was due to the time period in which the students were taught. Learning about the 1960s in the 1980s or 1990s must have seemed abstract. Growing up in a Reagan, “greed is good”, post-affirmative action, post-Title IX world, would make the black and white imagery seem archaic and less relatable. But the thing is, it’s not an abstraction. A lack of understanding about the fight (that has not yet been won) is dangerous. If we aren’t conscious we can let too many things slide. When we see things out of context we are more willing to wave our hand and dismiss bigotry or racism. When we don’t know about the Voting Rights Act we might not notice it slipping away.

What we learned in school (whether in the classroom or out) will always shape us to some degree. But that learning and understanding should just be the start of understanding our world. We need to know what came before to appreciate how best to go forward. It is worth mention that my random unscientific sample included people of varying ethnicity and race. The lack of knowledge/understanding was equally distributed. A woman standing behind me (at the 50th anniversary) referred to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s infamous speech as ending the KKK and white supremacy. Part of me wanted to live in her world, but the other part of me wanted to forcibly open her eyes.

 
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Posted by on September 1, 2013 in Cultural Critique, Education

 

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March On

bus

We are on the cusp of the 50th anniversary of the March On Washington. It is the most famous mass gathering to occur in our country. At least 200,000 people showed up to the National Mall on that late August day for a march in pursuit of equality and jobs. The march, twenty years in the making, came to life in 1963 (100 years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation.) People from all over the country heard about the march and found their way there. This was before cheap flights, social media and ubiquitous car ownership. It was also during a time in which travel could be challenging for people of color. They arrived, some traveling through the night or for days, anxious of what lay ahead. No one knew what exactly was in store and no doubt some concern for personal safety existed. Families, communities, church groups; people of all ages and colors took that leap of faith and participated in a peaceful day of inspiration and aspiration.

There were specific goals for the march including; job training, increase in the minimum wage, school desegregation, passage of a civil rights bill, and federal prohibition of discrimination. Many of the goals were realized, but what the march is remembered for is much more ethereal. People who were there, ordinarily perhaps quite eloquent, will grasp for words when trying to convey the feelings they had that day. Many of us listened to the iconic Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. I Have A Dream speech in school. The goose bumps and throat lumps hints to what being there must have been. To be standing amongst hundreds of thousands of people with a unified purpose is to be in a heightened state of humanness. To overcome the personal and join together for a higher purpose is one of the greatest gifts of life.

Those of us who weren’t there (or weren’t born yet) may never experience anything of that magnitude. But we too can pursue the power of the collective. We can seek to right wrongs by joining strangers to make some noise. The world and humans being what they are means that there will always be something worth fighting for. Those people climbing onto buses in the wee hours of the morning had no idea that they were making history. They simply wanted to join hands and march for the most basic of civil rights.

MS 2003-36  March on Washington Program - front

 
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Posted by on August 18, 2013 in Cultural Critique

 

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Let The Games Begin

photo by Lefteris Pitarakis

photo by Lefteris Pitarakis

When people join forces & lift up their voices attention is often paid. The volume of the outcry has a direct correlation to the media coverage, and that is how it should be. For the past few weeks people have begun to rise up in response to Russia’s propaganda law (enacted in June 2013.) This law is meant to curb public talk of homosexuality. The fact that Russia has a propaganda law is not only not surprising, it almost seems intuitive; for those of us of a certain Boris and Natasha age. The other 50% of the population is a bit gob smacked, and why not? The last few years have been a freight train of gay rights momentum. We are living through one of the most radical civil and human rights transitions this country has ever had. It’s little wonder that we expect Russia to get on board.

The timing of all this is a delicious; direct to film, perfect storm of brouhaha. What exactly were the conversations Mr. Putin had with his advisors? “How do we put our Olympic hosting on the map? You know, Mr. Putin, the Queen parachuted into the London Olympic stadium. What can you do?” It’s a very odd choice to make for a country that repealed it’s law against “gay” sex in 1993 (the U.S. did not abolished sodomy laws until 2003.) It’s a bizarre law in its nature and its timing; but a great windfall for a movement. Calling for a boycott of an international event is a great way to make some noise. Actually boycotting the event is a horse of a different color.

Politics and/or human rights records are not a factor in participating in the Olympics. It is not an event designed to bring like-minded countries together, but to bridge those gaps through shared interests. Where the Olympics are hosted seems to create an unavoidable focus on the misdeeds of a country. The United States participated in the 1936 Berlin Olympics(!) and boycotted the 1980 Moscow (summer) Olympics. But the host country is such a minor concern to the athletes and all participants. Thousands of people (of all backgrounds and orientations) have worked their entire lives for these games. A boycott will mean that they, and the necessary attention to this issue, will not appear at the games and on televisions across the world.

Calling for a boycott may put sufficient pressure on Mr. Putin to repeal his shiny new anti-gay propaganda law. If not, let the noise reach a fevered frenzied pitch! Encourage athletes to visibly show their solidarity. Show up to the games in droves and wave the rainbow flag, the whole world will be watching. Plan colorful protests in cities across the land to coincide with the opening ceremonies; attention will be paid. Making a collective noise is the most powerful of civic endeavors. We can capture the eyes and ears of the world without breaking the hearts of the athletes.

 
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Posted by on August 12, 2013 in Cultural Critique

 

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Eyes On The Prize

Joey

Most people don’t have lengthy attention spans or an endless capacity or thirst for data. There’s an awful lot of information to process on a daily if not momentary basis. So we can be forgiven for grasping at headlines as if they were articles (or “reading book reviews like they was books,” to quote Madame Rose.) Quite frankly a lot of what’s buzzing around us doesn’t warrant more than a cursory glance; quinoa’s in, bulgar’s out, cycling to nowhere is in, aerobics is out, and so on and so on. But then there are those big & important things that may be too large to ponder or tackle on a regular basis; issues that mercifully may not affect us on a daily basis.

Until your life and home are threatened by nature you might not get too riled about climate change. And even then, quite frankly, the most pressing (and perhaps only) issue is reclaiming your equilibrium. If you don’t experience prejudice and/or marginalization on any kind of regular basis you might not give biases all that much thought. When a story reaches media blitz proportion you may find more school gate/dinner party conversation about racism/sexism/bigotry than you would ordinarily. But when the headlines ebb and the talking heads shift their focus to another bright and shiny topic, the volume of those conversations probably lowers. It’s tempting (and completely understandable) to look at our biracial president, our recent strides in gay rights, and think “right, well I’m glad all that’s done with.” And that would be wrong.

There is far more danger in assuming things are okay and consequently turning our attention elsewhere than there is in not recognizing a social ill as a problem. Thirty or forty years ago mainstream America was (generally speaking) accepting that perceptions needed to change. In the 1970s civil rights began to find its mainstream footing. It no longer was acceptable to use certain words in public (at least in the Northeast.) This is hardly the hallmark of equality but it is a very strong indication of the public’s embarrassment at their overt bigotry. It would be another couple of decades before a similar semantics change occurred in regards to the gay community. One need only pour through some pop culture to confirm that “gay minstrel” was alive and well during the Reagan years. You’d be hard pressed in the 21st century to see African Americans or gay men and women as punchlines. Rest assure however, there are still plenty of ethnicities, religions and orientations that are ridiculed or “minstrelled”.

When it comes to the black or gay experience you might just think that all is mostly well. That is, if you weren’t affiliated with either of those groups. Most of us, no matter where our head is in proximity to our rear end, suspect that racism is alive and if not exactly well, at least on some form of life support. You can’t live anywhere (except perhaps off the grid) and not know (or at least suspect) that the color of one’s skin affects the perceptions of others. Simply turning on the television or picking up a magazine will confirm this. You may (that’s may) see male celebrities with a rich dark skin tone, but you rarely will see a woman with anything darker than a mocha skin tone. Pop culture may not be good for much, but it does paint a picture of our collective taste/desires.

You might also think that all is great on the gay front. People are marrying; coming out all over the place and letting kids know it gets better. But they’re also getting arrested in Louisiana for agreeing to have sex with undercover police officers. And the California federal appeals court is deciding if gays can be barred from a jury. This issue has come up because a drug company (defending a drug used in the treatment of AIDS) wanted to bar a juror who seemed gay. Clearly a gay man could not be neutral about drug companies, corruption, unethical medical practices or corporate greed. After all, are such “gay” issues. The assumption that a gay man (versus anyone with an ounce of compassion or a shred of decency) would feel strongly about AIDS and our storied history with the disease is absurd. But there you have it. Our legal system (that system we rely upon more and more to make very important decisions for our society) can view people as nothing more than their most visible characteristic.

We have come a long way baby, no one can reasonably argue that. But there is a danger in letting our guard down now. Things have changed enough on the surface that we can slip into a complacency that hinders progress and may in fact turn time back. We are so close to what we can be. Just consider how far we’ve come in only forty+ years. In 1967 interracial marriage was so rare as to be the entire story line of a Spencer Tracy/Katharine Hepburn movie. It was a serious and moving message movie. There was a little bit of levity of course; like when the “Negro” groom offers proof of the naivety of the Caucasian bride: “she feels that all our children will be president of the United States!” A laugh line has become a wonderful reality. But we must be very careful to not see that and other equal rights strides as an end point. Our work is not done here.

 
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Posted by on July 30, 2013 in Cultural Critique

 

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