Saturday, October 11, 2008

John C. William's "The 1960s Cultural Revolution"

It is hard to take a book seriously when the author, an academic historian specializing in post-WWII American history at Penn State, says:
As one of the original baby boomers (born between 1945 and 1950), I am a product of the 1960s. My coming of age occurred during one of the most eventful, volatile, and sometimes terrifying eras in American history. And I missed it. At least it feels that way. I lived through it, but I -- like most of my fellow boomers, I suspect -- was not attuned to the day's headlines and certainly not actively involved in the day's events. I was mostly oblivious to the "Negro problem" in Mississippi, the discriminatory inconsistencies of the draft, and the three days of "peace and music" at Woodstock.

If find this utterly amazing. I wasn't an academic, but I was born in the same period and I remember the "Negro problem" because I remembered arguing about it because my parents came out of the Deep South with my father a blatant racist and my mother a quiet liberal. A preacher at my church was chased out of Alabama when the KKK burned a cross on his front yard. He gathered up his two young children and left the state. I remember watching the marches in the South and the vicious police tactics. I remember visiting the Deep South an listening to a grandfather tell me that blacks had the "mark of Cain" and therefore were "animals". This from a man who made a fair amount of his income hiring blacks at low wages and taking the difference to put food on his table and feather his nest. It made me aware that racism wasn't just an attitude. It represented a cruel economic system the suppressed large numbers of people to benefit others. I listened to stories of my mother, a teacher, who would gather up the old books in her white Southern school when new books arrived. She packaged up the old, torn-up, worn-out books to be passed on to the "separate but equal" black schools as the "new" books for those students.

I don't understand McWilliams' failure to notice the great social upheavals of his youth. I remember an October day of my freshman year in high school that the American History teacher put aside the books and brought out a TV to let us watch the Cuban Missile Crisis. It was surreal. I was getting a front row seat to watch the end of the world as Soviet freighters bore down on the quarantine picket ships of the US. How do I remember this and not McWilliams? How could he become a professor specializing in post-WWII American history but show no interest in the history all around him during his youth? That floors me!

I remember going to peace marches during my college years. Some were quite dramatic such as the time we converged on a city centre (population 120,000) and closed main roads while speakers talked over megaphones and endless white crosses were passed hand-to-hand up the four converging roadways of a major multi-lane intersection, endless numbers with a life of their own bobbing and continually moving toward the centre. A graphic demonstration of the carnage in Vietnam. (Oddly, the concerns were always only over American dead, there was never any concern for innocent Vietnamese or the soldiers of the Viet Cong or NVA.)

I remember in my last year of high school being put off by Bob Dylan's move away from folk music into electrified drug-besotted music. I missed most of the hippie movement because I was at a small college too busy studying to pay much attention, but I obviously paid a heck of a lot more attention to history and contemporary events than McWilliams.

I lived in a city ringed by 18 Titan II missle sites. I knew that I had a big "kick me" sign painted on me with lots of Russian nuclear weapons aimed at me. I was reminded that my life could end in an instant every Saturday afternoon at 1:00 PM when the air raid siren just behind our backyard would blare out a "test" warning or the TV would throw up a ominous screen of the "emergency warning" test broadcast. I was at a church camp in my youth and heard vague rumours about US ships ordered to sink Russian ships on sight (this was an odd distortion of the Gulf of Tonkin resolution). I discovered political "correctness" when I took a speech class in high school the following Fall and gave a speech on the Gulf of Tonkin incident raising questions about the honesty of the story only to find that what I felt was my best-researched, most-earnest speech effort earned a failing grade. A lesson I learned in intolerance that was handed to me by the educational system. My most horrible experience was noticing unusually high activity at the local Air Force base. When I went out to observe I noticed long lines of jets taking off, other squadrons circling the valley, and others landing. When I discovered on the news that the USS Pueblo had been seized while spying off North Korea I understood that all bombers had been scrambled and were kept aloft during this "danger" period. I could walk outside and see doom hanging in the air knowing that a lot of nuclear weapons were now on a very short trigger.

I find it very odd that a guy who honestly announces that he paid no attention to the great social struggles of the 60s has written a text on it and expects people to pay attention to his words. Amazing!

As I read the book I sense the Ouroboros of time swallowing up the past. This from a book written almost a decade ago, i.e. published in 2000:
... the Vietname experience seems to have slipped by a younger generation. According to an ABC News/Washington Post poll in March 1985, one-third of adult Americans questioned did not know which side the United States supported in the Vietnam War, and more than half did not know what the war was about. Respondents from the general public were not the only people with hazy memories, since 37 percent of the Vietnam-era veterans polled did not have a "clear idea of what the Vietnam War was about."
The author of this book not only confessed to having lived through this era while paying little or no attention to it, he also shows an lack of feeling for it of the people swept up in it. The following shows -- at least to my eye -- that this author sat of the "conventional" side of the divide between those who fought the war as a corruption of ideal and those who upheld those in power by showing conventional obeissance to government officials who manipulated information to "sell" an unnecessary and unjust war:
Regardless of who the antiwar demonstrators were or what they did, mainstream America was uncomfortable with such expressions of public dissent. Although by 1968 many Americans opposed the war, they rejected protesters whom the white, blue-collar middle class perceived as unpatriotic, spoiled anarchists unwilling to make a sacrifice for their county. When antiwar demonstrators chanted, "Hell, no, we won't go" and "Give peace a chance," the older "silent majority" counted with, "My country right or wrong," "No glory like Old Glory," and "If your heart ain't in it, get your ass out." Disagreement over America's role in Vietnam was influenced as much by social class as it was by politics. Four days after the killings at Kent State, construction workers in Manhatten beat up a group of anitwar demonstrators as police watched passively. Several day later, President Nixon accepted a symbolic hard hat from "patriotic" union leaders imprinted with "Commander-in-Chief." [emphasis added]
This same blind willingness to kowtow to "the President" has come back to bite the American people again under George Bush and his war in Iraq, a completely unnecessary and unjust war. But the same divide as in the 60s has again arisen with a dissident portion of the population angry with their leaders and protesting their decisions while a large "silent majority" blindly clings to leadership and says "my country right or wrong" while the country is marched off into the folly of another wrong war in the wrong place and at the wrong time.

McWilliams doesn't "get it" when it comes to Vietnam. He sees moral ambivalence where those who engaged with the issues in that time saw stark moral choices:
... what viewers do not see is sometimes as important as what they watch. For his on-the-spot-execution of an enemy Vietcong soldier, General Loan came to symbolize the swavagery and cold-bloodedness of the Vietnam War. Eddie Adams's Pulitzer Prize photograph created a powerful, lasting image of what was perceived as an inhumane act that many Americans thought too ruthless, even in war. The photograph captures a spontaneious, violent act, but it does not reveal that the shooting followed a battle between Loan's South Vietnamese marines and the Vietcong, that Loan was admired by his troops, and that he devoted much of his time to having hospitals built in Vietname for war casualties.
Gee... I could say something like this about Hitler: The gassing of six million people might be seen as abhorent by some Americans, but that one policy of Hitler's hides other aspects that reveal the fuller human being, e.g. Hitler was a vegetarian, he loved young girls, he believed in lots of fresh air exercise to make Aryan youth strong, he wanted to build great monuments to the heroic German people, etc., etc.

What McWilliams doesn't get, or can't see, is that the savagery of General Loan was morally evil. That the guy came home at night and kissed his wife doesn't make him into a "nice guy" just like Hitler's eccentricities can't paper over the ghastly evil he perpetrated. Similarly, McWilliams is way off base in trying to paper over the horrors of American intervention in Vietnam by trying to point out "nice intentions" or talking about "the wonderful moral character of Americans". The truth is that the US government perpetrated over two million deaths in pursuit of a policy that made no sense at the time and makes even less sense today. This can't be justified. McWilliams is a failure as a historian because he just doesn't "get it" when it comes to historical events and their meaning. He admits he didn't understand the times when as a youth he lived through the 60s. Well, guess what! He still doesn't get it. His book is filled with conventional facts and is laid out well, but there is no heart in this book. McWilliams just doesn't "get it"!

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