Writing autobiographically is painful. What does a life mean? Amongst the gift of opportunities I was given, did I make the right choices along the way? Maybe I “failed to live up to my full potential,” as my grade school teachers predicted. My ambitions certainly were larger than my accomplishments. We wanted to change the world. Did I fail to recognize limits on my abilities? Should I have shot lower, expected less, settled for a comfortable haven when I had one? Or did I join with the right people and nudge the world a little?
Another question the autobiographer asks himself is who gives a damn about his story anyway? Why should anyone care about my personal trek through the 2nd half of the Twentieth Century?
I remember sitting on the back porch surrounded by the piles of my old Marxist books. It was rather like sitting on the floor in the dusty corner of used book shop. These were just a pile of books. They held no magic. Was my life simply a pile of experiences with no inner coherence … which I supposed is magic?
The American people are attracted to bullies, from Christopher Columbus, from our early “settlers” (invaders would be a more accurate term), through the Indian killer Andrew Jackson, George W. Bush and Donald Trump who outdoes all of them. We are an insecure people, uprooted from our territorial homelands, living on somebody else’s land, and underneath all our blustering and the distractions of the public circus, we are scared, but maybe if we cozy up to a bully, he’ll keep us safe and sound. It’s very late Roman Republic, early empire
I was born in the middle of the greatest crisis capitalism has ever faced, the great depression of the 1930’s. All over the world, people were looking for a viable alternative. In this country, many thoughtful people turned to communism, a utopian dream of course. The majority favored trying to tame capitalism with powerful oversight and regulation. What saved Capitalism, however, was World War II.
After the war, the wave of reform picked up again, as evident in the post war union struggles, but the progressive movement was brutally suppressed in the name of an anti-Communist crusade. The children of that generation, the so called boomers, launched their own reform movement in the second half of the 1960’s (around the time they were turning twenty), inspired (whether they knew it or not!) by the sacrifices and heroism of their parents.
This second great movement, almost a children’s crusade, was even more brutally suppressed than the McCarthy witch hunts of the post war progressives. Regan summed up the elite’s position at the time. In 1969, he called on National Guard troops to quell a protest on the University of California at Berkeley campus, saying, “If it takes a bloodbath, let’s get it over with, no more appeasement.” He later said he was joking. What a sense of humor!
We all knew about blood by 1969. We had seen the assassinations of Jack Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, Malcom X, and Martin Luther King. We had watched riots in Rochester, Harlem, Los Angeles, Cleveland, Omaha, Philadelphia, Newark, Plainfield, Detroit, Mineapolis-Saint Paul, Chicago, Washington, and Baltimore. Black Panthers were gunned down in their beds. The National Guard used live ammunition against college protesters killing 4 students and wounding nine others at Kent State. Virtually every media outlet that informed the American people had been co-opted and 58% of Americans approved of the killings! I fled to a remote village and started subsistence farming.
The United States seemed to be falling apart. Radical fringes that tried to keep going blew their minds on drugs or turned to violence. Violence on the left was romanticized. When we first heard about a group of hippies riding around on sand buggies in the desert under a guru called Charles Manson, we thought it was cool. Then, of course, he killed Sharon Tate and four others. We were thrilled when the Weather Underground broke Leary out of jail and smuggled him out of the country. There were mixed feelings about blowing up labs and serious thought about the consequences of killing people by accident or on purpose. By the time it came down to sordid bank robberies and Kathy Boudin was caught, the movement’s idealism had been shattrered.
It was clear that the center would actually hold. The crackdown on the anti-war and progressive movements had worked. By the late Seventies those who had dropped out, gone underground and after Jimmy Carter pardoned them, even exiles who had fled abroad, were all creeping back into the mainstream. Many kept their values. But few believed any longer that they would change the world. My friends who stayed in the mountains of New Mexico have replicated the lives of their parents, which they once rejected, although they live with far more grace and creativity.
Ideas may endure but does it matter? Mankind hurtles forward with little thought to the long term. Thoughtful people point to coming catastrophes, but they have little impact on history because no one listens to them. Just like the movies, Americans seem to think there will always be a happy ending, when something miraculous comes to save us.