Sunday, August 24, 2008

Gladly Ripping Up My Ticket For The Wayback Machine by Anthony McCarthy

It was during NPR’s report from Prague, recounting the events of 1968, that my creeping suspicions came together. Someone might be hoping to get a benefit from the usually concentrated looks back at events of that bitterly divisive year coming up to the election in November.

They reported that, as opposed to the American media, the people who went through the Soviet invasion that ended the Prague Spring showed little interest in dredging up the history. They seem to be more interested in the present. Could there be a feeling that the Czechs are negligent to not stir up that pot again for this anniversary year, concentrating on their present? You can imagine some listeners to NPR feeling nostalgic, remembering what they were up to as the tanks rolled in. Perhaps the people there are looking for ways to avoid repeating the past, sitting right on top of it right now, as it is.

Put that together with the 1948 style coverage of the Russian intervention in Georgia in our media. God help us if this the beginning of a rerun of the next fifty awful years. The superficiality of the coverage here has not shown an improvement on the press that ushered in the cold war and the red scare. You could have gotten through much of the coverage without knowing that it’s a long standing division over parts of the country which largely want out of Georgia and into Russia. There was an effective partition going back a long way and our boy in Georgia isn’t exactly smelling of roses over his handling of it this year. Maybe since he didn’t exactly get that shelling the breakaway provinces would be an invitation to Russia to intervene, the finest heads talking in New York, Washington and Atlanta bureaus might not have gotten it either. Add putting the phonied-up missile shield in Poland and you wonder if a second go-round of the Cuban crisis might not be the results. Only, we have a No-John-Kennedy sitting in the White House this time.

Then there is the planned Reenactment of Chicago 1968 Encampment. I haven’t looked too much at the effort to recreate that political bloodbath for the left, but don’t see anything good about it. Unless you happen to be a Nixon Republican, who were the direct beneficiaries of the original event.

Having experienced first hand the rage and frustration over the Vietnam War, the stalled civil-rights movement and the assassinations that year, and felt the anger of the response to seeing the police riot in Chicago, I have to report that the demonstrations around the Democratic Convention didn’t accomplish anything to make the world a better place. Political demonstrations that end up reinforcing their opposition’s hold on power, what could be stupider? Risking a rerun hoping for a better result, perhaps?

Of course, people who inadvertantly helped make Nixon president might not have fully appreciated what was to come. Some can be forgiven their shortsightedness and bad planning, though I’ll never forgive those for who it was entirely a question of their bruised egos. We don’t even have to rehash the various cults of personality on the left, though. There have been forty years of resultant bad policies stemming from the Nixon presidency and the Republican ascendancy ushered in by the left’s fragmentation in 1968, to look at dispassionately and to learn from.

Maybe the underlying issue is the difference between history and antiquities, looking at the past in order to try to understand the present as opposed to trying to experience the past, something that is impossible and so really only produces let’s pretend. The reality of those of us who were active in the anti-war movement was that we were all trying to get out of what was a real-life nightmare that led to even worse things in the years that followed. Who in their right minds going through 1968 would want to reexperience that?

Some of us learned from how the media covered us in 1968, a lot haven’t, apparently. What good will come of giving new images of flakiness and irrational chaos to TV networks which are infinitely less interested in pretending to accuracy and fairness than the decidedly pro-Republican networks of that year? There was some attempt at the appearance of objectivity back then, as they were blatantly supporting Nixon.

Experience shows that trying to use the failed tactics of the past now will produce similar results. Doing it because it just feels good is an indulgence for those removed from the resulting reaction. The number of those involved in bringing about Chicago 1968 who brushed the dirt off and went on to become Republicans is as much a part of the story as the misguided nostalgia for the event itself.

Having started out that year supporting the Robert Kennedy of 1968* but in the end having to support Humphrey wasn’t a great experience. But there is absolutely no reason to believe that the U.S. involvement in Vietnam wouldn’t have ended faster under him than it did under Nixon. Kissinger would likely not have played his evil part in a Humphrey administration, just for starters. William Rehnquist wouldn’t have become a justice of the Supreme Court. Those and countless other differences would have shaped the realities we have today. If we’re going to indulge our imaginations, trying to imagine the possible results of choices Humphrey would have made might get us a lot farther than reliving the mistakes that got us where we are now. We don’t live in a theme museum, we live in what we really get. People really end up dead here, they don’t get up and shower the ersatz blood off before going to supper with your friends.

* Robert Kennedy’s evolution during his public career carries a lot of lessons about learning from some really terrible mistakes and swallowing pride.