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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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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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It’s All About We

me

Individual freedom is at an all-time high in our country. It’s actually been on the rise for quite sometime. You may be old enough to recall the ‘Me’ generation. Elders were alarmed to see the younger folk intone that ‘greed was good.’ There was hand wringing and prophesying that our nation was going to hell in a hand basket. Many of the beleaguered moaners had been genuine placard carrying protesters and sitter inners. “What means this ‘in it for me’?” the asked. How can those so young be so cynical they wondered? But in many ways this new generation was just a product of social evolution. Their values seemed alien on the surface, but at their core they were really quite familiar.

The individual and the declaration of his/her pursuit of happiness is as old as, well, as our nation. It’s what constitutes happiness that has changed over time. Our individual rights, many of them the result of hard won fights by protesters and sitter inners, have brought a new reality. One need only take a quick look around to see how we have changed our orientation to the larger world. It is not one single thing, but the mosaic of; S.U.V.s, double-wide strollers, texting while walking, driving or in religious service, grooming or performing personal hygiene in restaurants, standing in the doorway of the subway car, letting doors slam on faces and behinds, that lead us to consider that the individual now reigns supreme.

There is much to say for individualism of course. It is a sign of creativity and a self-actualized life to stay true to oneself. But there is tricky terrain to tread when we consistently choose our individual rights over the collective good. Legally we have the right to arm our entire family and ourselves as if the British are coming. We also have the legal right to shelter our children from public services and mental health care. Do either of these individual rights benefit society in any way?

Legal rights are designed for the betterment of society. They reflect our collective ideals and values. Is enacting law a panacea? No, but it’s a start. It’s true that seat belt laws don’t make good drivers, but they might just protect you from the bad ones. What car laws do (and we have many of them) is say; “No, your individual rights cannot infringe upon the rights of others.” All reasonable people can agree that in fact that is where we draw the line.

No, you may not own any and every kind of gun you desire because doing so infringes upon the rights of others. No, you may not deny your child care and support because doing so infringes upon (his/her and the) rights of others. We must collectively provide such care and support with a fervor. We must remove the stigmas and euphemisms surrounding mental illness. We must agree that the only shame in any illness is that of a culture that doesn’t care. If we care, we must find a way to move on from the ‘Me’ and towards the ‘We.”

 
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Posted by on December 20, 2012 in Childhood, Cultural Critique, Well-Being

 

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