(User advisory: The following post contains no musical content, but it does have political content. Some of you don’t like my politics, and if so, you can skip it if you want. It’s also got more salty language than is customary around here. Mom wouldn’t like it, but she doesn’t use the Internet, so I’ve got that going for me.)
I wrote a couple of weeks ago that August is summer at its expiration date, a month to be endured by any means necessary. What I neglected to mention is that August is also a month when the crazy goes mainstream. In other words, weird shit happens. For instance, the controversy over the “Ground Zero mosque,” which is neither a mosque nor at Ground Zero, but has nevertheless brought out the ugliest strain of openly expressed intolerance I can recall in my lifetime. Otherwise credible people—most recently 2004 presidential candidate and former Democratic Party chair Howard Dean—have joined the parade of right-wing nutjobs demanding that the mosque, which is actually an Islamic community center with a prayer room (which makes it no more a mosque than the Pentagon, which has a designated prayer room for Muslims) be built somewhere else, or that no more mosques should be built anywhere in the United States until Americans are allowed to build Bible-beating churches in Mecca (which Newt Gingrich suggested the other day), or other such repulsive nonsense.
This issue, if the GOP has its druthers, is going to be the one on which the November election is fought. Not the economy, not the war in Afghanistan or the possibility of a war with Iran, not the ongoing rape of our civil liberties, not the end of net neutrality, but this? I wrote on my Twitter feed the other day that serving on a jury, as I did earlier this week, confirms one’s faith in the ability of randomly chosen citizens to think critically, but that when you turn on the news, that faith almost instantly dies. All the evidence you need is the poll this morning showing that growing numbers of Americans think President Obama is a Muslim.
I mean, what the fuck? Dr. Thompson said that when the going gets weird, the weird turn pro. After all this, there are no amateurs left.
Even here, at this blog, weird shit has been happening. I planned to put up another Off-Topic Tuesday post earlier this week, but I got my days mixed up and posted about the Faces reunion instead, forgetting that I’d already set the off-topic thing to robo-post at almost exactly the same time—so for several hours on Tuesday there were two new posts at this blog. I yanked the Off-Topic Tuesday post when I discovered it, but it needs to run before next Tuesday to provide some background for next Tuesday’s off-topic post.
Plus I’m low on inspiration. I have fiddled around with a couple of topics this week and they went nowhere so fast that I’m starting to think maybe I suck as a writer after all. But then I remember that it’s goddamn August, and no time to make any serious judgments about anything. It’s a month to have another drink and hope the world doesn’t explode from stupidity before Labor Day.
So anyway: After the jump, you can read the off-topic post that was up for a while on Tuesday and then got yanked. If you don’t want to, that’s OK too. It appeared on my first blog, the Daily Aneurysm, back on October 18, 2005.
Because this blog is about music as memoir, and some of the most potent music of our lives came out of the 1960s, I don’t think it’s far off-topic to explore the history of that time, even without an explicit musical angle. So, some context: Anti-Vietnam protests had begun at the University of Wisconsin as early as 1963, but the majority of students weren’t radicalized until two pivotal days in October 1967. For the next three years, Madison was rocked by ongoing antiwar protests, frequently violent.
Last night, PBS broadcast Two Days in October, a film based on David Maraniss’ book They Marched Into Sunlight. The Dow Day protests in Madison and the ambush on the Black Lions infantry unit in Vietnam, chronicled in the book and the film, happened on the same two days, October 17 and 18, 1967.
One of the things that’s happened since the protest days of the 1960s, at least here in Madison, is that many of those involved have come to regret some of their tactics, even though they stick firmly by their overarching reasons for doing what they did. In the film, many of the Black Lions find themselves in the opposite position, although a similar one. They question the overarching reason that put them in Vietnam to begin with—whether the war was right or wrong. What they don’t question is the way they conducted themselves in the jungle. What these protesters and soldiers have in common is their willingness to question. Was it right? Was I right? Even though they (and we) will never be in the same situation again, the lessons to be learned from answering the questions are valuable in living on afterward.
It seems almost impossible to avoid this interrogation of your younger self as you age. Once you acquire some perspective, you sometimes find that you didn’t have everything figured out like you thought you did. Even though your heart was in the right place, perhaps you could have done things differently. Or at least that’s the way it happens to liberals. Many conservatives, as we’ve seen again just recently with the Harriet Miers nomination [to the Supreme Court, later withdrawn], seem to think that holding the same beliefs unchanged for years is the surest sign of virtue, and that a person who doesn’t pledge in advance never to change those views is not to be trusted.
On Dow Day, university officials requested that City of Madison police officers clear students from the Commerce Building on campus [now known as Ingraham Hall], where they were staging a sit-in to stop Dow Chemical recruiters from using the building. The cops gave students two minutes’ warning to clear the building, but then, according to eyewitness accounts, almost immediately began cracking heads with billy clubs. Over 60 students were hospitalized. Many who were beaten by the cops were trying to leave the building, but were trapped in the crush.
Two Madison cops involved on Dow Day were interviewed in Two Days in October. Unlike many others who were there that day, neither of these men seems to have moderated his views on the event one iota. They were both unapologetic for cracking heads, proud of what they did, and convinced that in the same situation today, they wouldn’t do anything different. The contrast between them and others interviewed in the film couldn’t be more stark. For them, on this issue at least, it’s as if time stopped on October 18, 1967, and nothing they have done, seen, felt, or learned has reached them since.
There’s a word for that—arrogance—and it made me angry as I watched. But I also felt sorry for them. Sorry that they felt so threatened, sorry that they were physically assaulted (one of them took a brick in the face)—but sorry also that time, which can teach us a lot about ourselves and our world, hasn’t taught them much of anything. Sorry that they’ve grown from young men to old with their arrogance intact.
Our local PBS affiliate followed the film with a panel discussion featuring four of the people interviewed in the film, including Clark Welch, who commanded a company of the Black Lions. I thought maybe one of the cops would be on the panel, but neither one was. And once the discussion began, I realized that neither of them would have had anything to offer. The very idea of the film—in fact, one of the reasons we study history in the first place—is to understand what the Vietnam Era has taught us, and how to use that knowledge in our own lives today and in the future. Now, I don’t know the cops’ politics, whether they’re liberal or conservative, or even whether they supported the Vietnam War in 1967. And I have to confess that I don’t know whether they, too, have questioned their actions and decided, with perspective, that they were right then and are still right today. But I rather doubt it. The years we’ve lived through since Dow Day are among the lesson-rich in human history. It’s a rare person who can claim to be the same today as they were then. And so I see in the cops’ unchanged opinions an unwillingness to even begin questioning themselves, an unwillingness to listen to history. They believe what they believed, and that settles it, then, now, and forever.
Keep talkin’ like that, guys, and each of you could become a Supreme Court justice.
Coming Tuesday: It all blows up.