Monday, December 31, 2018


In human terms a fifty year anniversary is a huge milestone and in this space I spent much of the past year recalling some of the events of that most tumultouous year fifty years ago, 1968. Back then, even as a nine-going-on ten-year-old, I can remember thinking to myself as the year was drawing to a close: "Gosh that was a terrible year."

Here are links to some of my posts about the year that was, fifty year s ago:

  • No fewer than three posts were inspired by what in my mind was the most devastating event of 1968, the assassination of Martin Luther King. On April 4th, the fiftieth anniversary of that terrible day, I asked the question (as I did five years before on the 50th anniversary of the death of JFK) how our world would have been different had Dr. King lived. 
  • With only two months to live, Robert F. Kennedy delivered the news of the murder of Dr. King at was supposed to be a campaign rally in Indianapolis. It ended up being perhaps his finest moment.
  • Later in April I observed how death has made two icons of the American Civil Rights movemennt, Dr. King and Jackie Robinson, convenient cultural heroes to people who would have certainly despised them when they were alive.
  • Here is a link to the piece I posted on the anniversary of RFK's assassination.
  • What began as a year of tremendous hope in my father's fatherland, ended up in the summer to be the news event of 1968 that touched me the closest, the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in August.
  • I what I consider to be my best post of this year, I wrote about the student protests against gun violence that took place in schools across the country last March. I connected those protests with the actions of young people that helped change the world back in 1968.

The years that followed 1968 saw more of the same. In light of Dr. King's death, his pleas for non-violence began to seem futile even to his closest followers. The riots that immediately followed his murder, further divided aleady divided American cities along the lines of race. In late 1969 on the west side of Chicago, the police raided an aparment where a number of members of the Black Panther party resided. Gunfire ensued and when the smoke cleared, Panther leader Fred Hampton and Mark Clark who was on security detail for the group were dead. The initial police inquiry into the raid claimed that the police and Black Panthers exchanged gunfire and the deaths of the two men were ruled justifiable homicde. Subsequent investigations however showed that all of the shots fired in that apartment with the exception of one, came from the police.

Earlier that year a splinter group of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) called the Weathermen, staged several demonstrations in Chicago, some of them violent. "The Days of Rage" as the actions were called by their instigators, were just a small piece of the reaction to  the continuing escalation of the Vietnam War and the tremendous division in this country over it that defined the next several years.

Here are two poplular songs released in 1969, both from artists I admire, that illustrate the opposite sides of the divide:

This from Merle Haggard:

And this obvious one from John Lennon:

Knowing what we know about the VietnamWar, it's easy today to view Lennon's song as noble and Haggard's, reactionary. Pandering to a segment of society more than happy to eat it up, (as the audience reaction proves), Haggard's lyrics to that song sound today just as they did in 1969, as the slogan "America, Love It or Leave It" was the 1969 equivalent of "Make America Great Again".

But nearly fifty years later, with a little insight and perfect 20/20 hidsight, we can see there is more to "Fightn' Side" than pure jingoism. By the time the song was released, the Vietnam War was already extrmely unpopular in America and around the world, While to the best of my knowlege, reports of veterans returning from Vietnam being spat upon are either greatly exaggerated or flat out untrue, the men and women who served in that war, several of whom were not there by choice, were definitely looked upon with disdain by many of their fellow countrymen and women. It goes without saying that grunts throughout history who risk life, limb, and sanity by being sent off to war aren't the people responsible, just the ones who pay much of the price for any war, and the reception American veterans received when they returned home from Vietnam was an injustice. It took a long period of healing after that war for most Americans to recognize and thank the Vietnam Veterans for their service and sacrifice, which was no different from the service and sacrifice of the veterans of more "popular" wars. Merle Haggard, who made a career out of celebrating the common man, even the common criminal, (something he understood first hand), came to that realization I believe, earlier than most.

In 1982 we were still divided when the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was dedicated in Washington DC. Its design was roundly criticized because in addition to honoring US servicemembers  killed during the war, it also in no uncertain terms refused to glorify war in fact, just the opposite. In 1986, Chicago and other cities across the country held "welcome home" parades for surviving Vietnam Veterans, and finally by that time Americans for the most part, came to terms with that bitter part of our history. 

As far as civil rights went, some of us felt that struggle had been resolved when we elected an African American man to be our president in 2008. The election of the subsequent president proved that theory wrong in no uncertain terms.

I point that out as a reminder that old wounds can heal, even though the scars from those wounds may last a lifetime, and can re-open at a moment's notice. My memories are vivid about how deeply this country was divided fifty years ago. We faced what seemed to be unsurmountable problems that we as a nation had never faced before, or at least so we thought. Today we also face problems that we have never faced before, except of course, the division.

In the words of Mark Twain:
It is not worthwhile to try to keep history from repeating itself, for man’s character will always make the preventing of the repetitions impossible.
Keeping that in mind, somehow someway, the problems and divisions that we are experiencing today will be if not resolved, then narrowed. In the meantime, like the years after 1968, things will probably get worse before they get better, but they will get better, they always do. Then they get worse again! That in a nutshell is the human condition. Oh well, as the melancholy Christmas song song tells us, we'll have to muddle through somehow. We always do.

In this the last day of 2018, may your joy be bountiful and your muddlings be few. 
Happy New Year!

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