Thursday, December 20, 2018

The Violence Of Political Hate

I am a survivor of the 1960s. “Survivor” may seem a questionable descriptor. But when I look back to those times, it seems appropriate. The 1960s changed everyone who passed through those times and events, even if with different outcomes. Some came away with their existing thinking reinforced and hardened. Others came away with wholly new views and perspectives than before. Everyone encountered a picture of America not seen before; all were confused about what was going on, their role in it, and where the country and its citizens were heading.

Perspectives were shaped differently by age, economic status, educational levels, cultural and racial identity, and geography. The Civil Rights movement of African-Americans said that 100 years of continuing de facto slavery, segregation, and 2nd-class status was a long enough wait; it was time for the promise of equality to be realized. The positive changes that gradually emerged, albeit all hard fought, inspired similar movements from other “left outs,” including women, Native-Americans, LBGTs, the disabled. Social structures and codes of conduct were thereby turned upside down, done in such a relatively short time period that it precluded easy assimilation. Humans can only absorb so much change per unit of time. The 1960s were a fast track of change.

Fear is a byproduct of “too-much-change” and/or “too speedy change.” We worried whether we could keep up with it all – so much new thinking was coming at us so fast – or whether our social order would survive (or even should it?). Is the government on “our side” or “their side?” Would the “new freedoms” take us to a new Shangri-La of equality and fulfillment, or destroy the communal ties that had bound us together? Some looked to follow the new change agents to places heretofore unknown; others looked to follow the defenders of the already known.

Perhaps inevitably, violent actions in support of both change and the status quo became the tool of protest against these times. The television cameras displayed into our homes the images and sounds of mobs shouting hateful epithets towards black children simply trying to go to school to get an equal education. They showed us live in real time the dogs and state police in Alabama wildly attacking black marchers claiming the equal right to vote without obstructions. They documented the burnt-out Freedom Buses which almost consumed their passengers in flames.

Ultimately but unsurprisingly in this climate of violence exposed for all to see, America crossed a line. Political assassination became an all-too-frequent mechanism of resistance. Three little black girls in a church basement were bombed into oblivion. Black leaders Malcom X, Medgar Evers, and Martin Luther King, Jr. were shot and  killed.  John and Robert Kennedy – who, along with Dwight Eisenhower, were the first to deploy the power of federal judicial and law enforcement to protect the safety of citizen protesters instead of established business and political leaders – were killed. Three voting rights activists trying to register new black voters were kidnapped one night, murdered and buried in an earthen dam.

Viet Nam, of course, accelerated the crumbling of the existing social order in the second half of the 1960s. Over 50,000 young men would pay for this ultimate violence with their lives, given for a war that should never have been fought, done to protect political lies and their cover-up – a terrible price to pay. Television again brought the sounds and images into our homes on a daily basis. When the anti-war / anti-establishment groups began their counteractions, television was right there again at the ’68 Democratic convention, and the Pentagon and Capitol steps.

This was the violent reality of our time. One turned on his/her TV with caution. The desire for escapist entertainment would all too likely be superseded by yet another breaking news update. “We interrupt this broadcast for a special announcement” became the most dreaded phrase coming out of our sets. We wondered, “What now?”

We asked, “How could this be happening – in America?” “How and when does it stop?” We wondered, “Where are the leaders who can end this deadly chaos and get us back on track?” Would-be leaders of course did present themselves: “Law and Order” candidates carried the day as often happens in times of extensive social upheaval. Governor George Wallace of Alabama (he of “segregation now, segregation forever”) garnered 14% of the vote (2nd-most in history) as a 3rd-party candidate for president in 1968; Richard Nixon was carried into the White House.

Ending 1968, we had a cautious hope for change in direction, for ending the war and domestic violence, and a move toward reconciliation. But the social and anti-war issues were ignored while “Order” became the priority. It would take six more years before the country would finally settle down and find its bearings again. Wallace was shot in 1972 and disappeared from the political scene; Nixon got swallowed up and spit out in his Watergate scandal. The Viet Nam war finally ended. Enough finally became enough. The nation’s deep wounds gradually healed thanks to Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter. But our blind faith in government was shattered, yet to return as of this day.

2018 marks 50 years since Richard Nixon’s election. The parallels between then and now abound. We are surrounded by racial and other senseless violence, for which only equally senseless “solutions” are offered. Killing is daily; mass killings occur regularly; outward animosity towards one another has become our “new normal.” Alongside our TVs, we now have cell phone and body camera videos documenting events in real-time, confronting our eyes, ears and opinions. Social media incessantly communicates unsocial insults, bigotry and falsehoods. Lies and/or silence from our leaders inflame the ugliness; calls for civility in speech and conduct go unanswered in favor of stoking the cultural antagonisms rather than soothing them. There seems no bottom to this barrel of negativity. Thankfully, good news stories, and reports of our humanity and magnanimity to one another, occasionally penetrate the noise. These keep us going forward each day and after difficult day.

As 2018 ends, 50 years after the pivotal events of 1968, we find ourselves asking ourselves once again, when will our continuing violence against each other finally become enough? In this season of faith and new year beginnings, we once again hold out cautious hope that ending our current pervasive climate of hate can move from being merely lip service to truly become our first national priority. That – in spite of our differences, in fact to honor those differences – we can commit to that great teaching that transcends all cultures and religions: to Love Our Neighbor.

©   2018   Randy Bell