To hear baby boomers tell it, the events of the 1960s—particularly 1968, a year that “changed the world,” according to a new TIME book—signaled an entire generation’s coming of age. There was a joke in my house growing up that while many of my friends’ parents were living the high life in the late ’60s and early ’70s, my parents, married at the end of the Summer of Love, were balancing their checkbook. But while they may not have marched on Washington or taken part in even the most benign of hippie-culture pleasures, they were at least politically aware. And so I asked them recently if, in relation to any other turbulent period in American history they’ve witnessed in their 60-plus years, things today are really as bad as they seem. Without hesitation, they answered with an unequivocal “no.”
I’m not sure my parents really understood the gravity of my question, or if I expressed it adequately. I wasn’t talking about the threat of physical harm at the hands of Islamic fundamentalists, which is likely no more or less of a threat than a nuclear attack was during the Cold War, but the exploitation of that fear, as well as the McCarthyite stigmatization of those who might question it, to further the Bush administration’s political agenda: the flagrant abuse of power, their steady and deliberate dismantling of our nation’s justice system and Constitution, the corporate control of our legislative branch, the systematic upward-moving transfer of wealth, the profiteering of the energy and healthcare businesses, the destruction of (and denial of said destruction of) our planet. Having only read about Nixon, Vietnam and the Civil Rights movement in textbooks, it’s difficult to put things in perspective, but for a while it has felt like the United States has been on the precipice of something very, very bad.
Even if this month wasn’t the 40th anniversary of Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination, even if media pundits hadn’t continuously evoked RFK, John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. when discussing Barack Obama, and even if you’d never experienced what an Obama rally looks, sounds and feels like, even from the distant comfort of your living room couch, it would be difficult not to view the presumptive Democratic nominee as an heir to those great, silenced political minds, as well as the inevitable collective response to—and the cosmic recalibration of—everything that’s happened since Katherine Harris helped anoint George W. Bush president. Just as the picture-perfect slumber of the ’50s gave way to the social tumult and cultural upheaval of the ’60s, those who enjoyed the peace and prosperity of the ’90s were shaken out of their complacency by the events of September 11, 2001 and everything that has followed.
In many ways, the 1960s set the stage for our more recent history: the possibility of a post-racial presidential candidate; the gay rights movement; even the roots of the modern environmental movement can be found in the anti-nuclear protests of 1968 (in Europe, that is—a fact notable because the U.S. is currently the No. 1 emitter of greenhouse gases). The Bush administration has pandered to the religious right since day one, but this government worships a wholly different, and much more powerful, god: the Almighty Dollar. As early as two months into his presidency, CNN reported that Bush reneged on his pledge to reduce carbon dioxide emissions because, as any good capitalist knows, regulation hurts companies’ bottom lines. But it’s still somewhat mentally debilitating to try to wrap your mind around the notion that, even after the “debate” over the realities of climate change seemed to be resolved, so-called conservatives are still intent on putting cash before conservation.
On Friday, Republicans in the Senate effectively killed a new bill that would have cut greenhouse gas emissions by nearly three-quarters by 2050, citing the economic impact and pushing the debate to next year. The fact is that negative economic effects can be offset, and when something is essential or, at worst, unavoidable, we have no option but to find a way to do so. (You know, like raising taxes to pay for a war that’s putting our nation into a tailspin of debt.) Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, too old and lacking of spine to attempt a Jefferson Smith-style filibuster, forced an aide to read the entire 492-page bill—wasting eight-and-a-half hours of taxpayer money just to punish Democrats for failing to approve Bush’s judicial nominees.
The right wing likes to call justices who err on the side of civil rights “activist judges,” but minorities in this country are rarely granted rights and privileges by the majority and it’s illogical to expect them to. Justices have historically protected and ensured the rights of minorities when the majority or those elected to represent that majority have failed to do so. The Supreme Court granted blacks the right to vote during World War II when it was clear the people (90% non-black) and the purported private institutions run by that majority would not. California’s Supreme Court struck down a ban on same-sex marriage in the state last month for the same reason, but critics say it’s the voters (90% straight) who should decide what gays can and cannot do.
When a presidential candidate like Senator Obama cites both gays and straights when he talks about civil rights and equality, there’s reason to hope. Hillary Clinton’s infamous reference to RFK’s assassination last month struck a nerve not only in those who cynically believed the worst about her, but in many who legitimately fear Obama faces the same dangers. American history shows us that leaders who set out to affect change by championing the underrepresented and the underprivileged are often silenced in one way or another, particularly when the well-fixed perceive those changes as a threat to their power. And one need only look at the images captured by photographer Paul Fusco of the faces of the hundreds of Americans who stood on train-station platforms to watch RFK’s funeral train pass by to understand the power of hope and the anguish that is brought when that hope is stolen.
This blog entry was originally published on Slant Magazine on the date above.