AN ESSAY: HOW THE 60’S CHANGED AMERICA

AND HOW THE 80’S BEGAN THE LONG REVERSAL


I remember during the “troubles” in Ferguson, Missouri, a year ago, how many tweets and online posts there were expressing shock and outrage over the fires and destruction that was occurring following the death of Michael Brown at the hands of Officer Darren Wilson.  With live feeds showing scary confrontations between the police and demonstrators as burning buildings served as a backdrop, thousands of comments were posted about how awful, how out of control, how destructive and how counterproductive were the events in Ferguson committed by “those Black animals” the week after Brown’s death. 

Extent of riots in DC 1968
To me, all the outrage was amusing. Yes, amusing. I kept flashing back to the mid-1960’s and particularly in 1968 after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. and a dozen or more cities around the country, including my home base of Washington, D.C. our nation’s capital, exploded in flames and deadly violence.  I recall responding to one Yahoo commentator who expressed unmitigated outrage over the animal acts of ignorant, dumb, ape-like Black folks, that the fires in Ferguson were like Boy Scout campfires in the woods on a weekend camping trip compared to the fires back in the 60’s.

At the risk of sounding old, of revealing myself as an aged has been, as a nostalgic purveyor of homilies rather than offering even the most tepid insight or critical analysis about our current social milieu, I find myself compelled to offer my thoughts about how it is and why it is that many Americans don’t seem to “get it” when it comes to race.  Let’s just acknowledge, given that the “post-racial” society we were all supposed to be living in after the election of Barak Obama, is a fictional narrative that has been blown to smithereens after the shooting of Trayvon Martin at the hands of George Zimmerman or the death of Freddie Gray at the hands of the Baltimore Police Department or the shooting of Tamir Rice by the Cleveland police.   To say nothing of the total lack of historical insight that the media and a large segment of the American populace have failed to bring to our discussion of race. 
TRAYVON MARTIN
 Look, I lived through the 1960’s, got myself shoved, clubbed and tear gassed out on the streets of D.C. many, many times, so I have some legitimacy to talk about those times with authority. Admittedly, I was not born when the Great Depression hit this country like a tsunami.  But my parents lived through it and it colored their lives until the day they died.  The stories they told informed my knowledge about that terrible time and I believed them.  My grandparents, immigrants from Europe, also told stories of their tribulations both in crossing the Atlantic in “cattle class” and the discrimination and trouble they faced trying to simply earn enough money to keep them out of the poorhouse once they got here.

I was not a part of either era, I have no real world experience of those times, but through the stories of my parents and my grandparents, I was able to glean some insight into what life was like for them.   It is a vicarious knowledge but one that is valuable and one that, it seems to me, is as valid as the fact that dinosaurs once roamed the Earth.  None of us were there, no one knows why they disappeared but we do know that they existed and that, at some point, they disappeared. 

Watching the documentary “Best of Enemies,” the debates between William F. Buckley, Jr. and Gore Vidal during the 1968 Republican and Democratic conventions, I was struck by is how much we relied on the news – the three major networks at the time, ABC, NBC and CBS – to tell us what was up across the country.  We trusted that David Brinkley and Chet Huntley were telling us the truth, at least as far as they and their networks knew it. Walter Cronkite was the man we turned to when, confused about what was happening around the country, we wanted to know what the real deal was.   No one who was alive on November 23, 1963 can ever forget Walter’s reporting of the death of President Kennedy.  Today, there is no such trust, no such truth when it comes to news.  Yes, the BBC might do a better job of conveying the factual circumstances surrounding a news item than does Fox News or MSNBC but news programs are no longer about ferreting out the truth of a racial incident, the death of an unarmed man at the hands of the police, whether or not Candidate X or Candidate Y is telling the truth, much less accurately conveying the facts of any given situation. 

Today, the lack of editorial rigor that might ferret out political sloganeering, bombast and propaganda from the truth is simply absent.   Ask yourself this question:  Does fracking cause earthquakes or poison ground water?  I challenge you to come to an accurate  answer to this question based on what you’ve seen on television, heard on the radio or read online.   It is virtually impossible today to determine who’s telling the truth about fracking – if anyone is – and who is simply shilling for Koch Industries.   And the same goes for every other public issue of importance to our society.    

1963 Freedom Rider
Since we no longer have media we can rely on to tell us truth from fiction, I humbly suggest that perhaps Generation X’ers, the Millennials and those who came after us Baby Boomers, might want to turn to us for first hand, real world experience.  Just like our parents and grandparents, we were there.  I’ll give you an example.  It seems that most youngsters today believe that America has been following a liberal, socialist path of late.  Nothing, and let me repeat, NOTHING could be further from the truth.  Here’s what I mean.

The 1960s and 1970’s were tumultuous times, America was very divided, probably more so than today when dozens of cities went up in flames year after year, students were shot and killed for protesting the Viet Nam war, Black Americans were still being lynched, but our of that tumult came: 

The End of the Viet Nam War

The Civil Rights Movement

The Civil Rights Act

The Housing Accommodations Act

The Voting Rights Act

Man On The Moon

The Environmental Movement

The Woman’s Rights Movement

Establishment of the EPA

Medicare and Medicaid

The Peace Corps

The War On Poverty

Camp David Accords

SALT II Arms Treaty

Jim Crow Laws Struck Down

Interracial Marriage Bans Struck Down

Martin Luther King, Jr. “I Have A Dream” Speech

Prague Spring in Eastern Europe

Roe v Wade Making Abortion Legal

Independence of African Nations from their European Colonizers


Liberalism was on the rise pricking the conscience of a then very conservative America and the movements that began in the 60’s reverberated through the next two decades until the slow slide into our current neo-conservative situation began a reversal of the progress made in the previous decades with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980.  And for the next thirty years both Democrats and Republicans were caught up in the thrall of Free Market Economic theory as reality.   And what has this new “individual initiative and personal responsibility” “cutting taxes creates jobs” conservative era brought us as a nation?  Here’s a partial list: 

The US Has More Of Its Citizens In Prison Than Any Other Nation On Earth

Public School Educational Outcomes Have Fallen So Far That We Lag Behind More Than 30 Nations Including Viet Nam And Estonia

Voting Rights Have Been Reduced In 32 States Through The Passage Of Voter ID Laws

Median Family Incomes Have Remained Flat Since 1980

Top 10% Took 33% of National Wealth in 1980; 46% In 2008

Top Marginal Tax Rate: 1980: 70%.  2013: 39%.

NASA’s Space Program Has No Manned Programs

The Rise Intolerant Religious Fundamentalism

282 New Abortion Restrictions Passed Since 2010

33% Of American Workforce Were Union Members; 12% in 2015

Cost Of College Has Increased By 550% Since 1980

The 1980 median income of $16,166 Would Be  $88,913 in 2015 At Same Rate of Increase.  2015 = $51,900

There are between 270 and 310 million guns owned by Americans

2015 Student Debt of $1.2 Trillion Is Second Only to Home Mortgage Debt

Hundreds of public schools teach Creationism across the country

The Culture Wars

The Enthronement of Free Market Corporate Greed and Malfeasance

And finally, here’s a key piece of data that shows just how our Free Market Economics, in reality, has worked:

1948 - 1973: Productivity Increased 96.7%; Hourly Compensation: +91.3%

1973 - 2014: Productivity Increased 72.2%; Hourly Compensation: +9.2%


Now one could defend the results of the past three decades of conservative rule if such social, economic and political policies had resulted in a more confident, resilient, prosperous and well-functioning nation.  The evidence, the facts, however, point decidedly in the opposite direction.  We have lost our once solid standing in the world of nations while at home we have the most un-equal society we’ve had since the late 19th Century era of the Robber Barons.  This is not progress by any definition.  Defunding Planned Parenthood, Overturning the ACA, Cutting Taxes, Denying Marriage to Gay Men and Woman, Restricting Woman’s Rights, War on Christianity, Building a Wall Between the U.S. and Mexico, Disenfranchising Legitimate Voters, are all top issues that the right wing conservative crowd champions.

 Education, excepting anti-Common Core bullshit, income inequality, unfair tax policies, our national crumbling infrastructure, student debt, $8 an hour wages, domestic spying by NSA, global warming, international trade imbalances, decline of industrial and manufacturing jobs, and Congressional dysfunction are some of the issues that most liberals believe are important to the country.  None are anywhere near the top Republican agenda items.  It’s as if the dismal condition of the country’s social, political and economic systems simply don’t exist for conservatives and Republicans. 

Vladimir Lenin in 1917
The eventual outcome of the continuation of concentrating power and wealth in the hands of the few at the expense of the many?  Well, for those of us who believe in history not as reworked by fact-deniers like Rush Limbaugh or the old Soviet Union, but as lessons to be learned even if always written by the winning side, the answer is pretty easy.  The French Revolution in 1789. The Russian Revolution in 1917.  The Chinese Revolution in1949.  The historical examples of what the end result will be if we continue along this path, are legion.   

So when you think about the progress that we forged out of the chaos that was the 1960’s and 1970’s does it mean that until we go through another such crisis with more cities burning – and I mean BURNING not the Boy Scout campfires that were Ferguson - nothing is going to change?

Who knows?  But if history (real history, not the fake history of Fox News) is any guide, it’s not going to end well.


Have a good day!

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