Mea Culpa?

Questioning authority, then and now

| November-December 1995

The year was 1962. In the wake of the Cuban missile crisis, President Kennedy had appealed to the nation to build backyard fallout shelters that would allow the United States to make a credible threat of resorting to thermonuclear war. I was part of a small San Francisco Bay peace organization that regarded this policy as deceptive and futile. But as I walked the streets handing out leaflets or showed up at public meetings to debate the issue, I found myself facing a solid wall of suspicion and hostility as I had before when I took issue with official Cold War policy. In those days, anybody who dared to question the authority of the government was suspect. In the eyes of my scorning fellow citizens, I had to be either a communist or a lunatic.

Struggling against the dead weight of public complacency, many of us grew desperate. Some turned to civil disobedience to gain attention; others resorted to hyperbole. The government, we said, was in the hands of madmen and villains. When the movie Dr. Strangelove opened in 1964, we rushed to use it as if it were documentary proof of all we feared. While patriotic groups picketed the movie as slander against the government, we insisted the film was more fact than fiction: Psychotics like this really were in charge. In an era when few Americans knew what the initials CIA stood for, we railed against “the secret government,” taking it to include the influence of shadowy groups like the Trilateral Commission and the RAND Corporation. Of course we sounded paranoid.

Move forward 30 years and what do we find? A nation where growing numbers are prepared to credit every vile rumor they hear about official Washington. In some Western states there is such entrenched hostility for public officials that it is now impossible for federal agencies like the Forest Service to enforce the law. Radio call-in shows tell listeners the best way to kill agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms. Across the nation, armed militia groups publish scenarios of persecution that might have been scripted for The X-Files.

The violence and the virulence do not stem only from the conservative right: A “Unabomber” who purports to be defending the natural environment against industrial civilization is currently sending bombs through the mail to Nobel laureates. Some of what he has to say about the dark side of science and technology might be paraphrased from books I wrote 20 years ago.

Ronald Reagan took office in 1981 contending that “government is the problem, not the solution.” Today the Speaker of the House, who purports to be a student of Franklin Roosevelt’s political style, is using that slogan to repeal the New Deal and defend the values of “normal Americans.” Senator Phil Gramm, in pursuit of the Republican presidential nomination, stumps the country declaring that government has never done anything worthwhile. We are in the midst of an assault on federal power that now commands the airwaves, much of the press, a major party, the floor of Congress, and a grassroots militia movement which, though of indeterminate size, may be larger than many of us want to believe and is surely murderous enough in its intensity to be worrisome.

In a National Public Radio interview, I was asked, in an unmistakably accusatory tone, if the protest movement of the ‘60s was not the source of this new, rogue populism. Hadn’t people like me prodded the public into distrusting authority by spreading the ethos of countercultural disaffiliation? Hadn’t we popularized the paranoid political style?

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