Mea Culpa?

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?

As I listened to these questions, I realized the terrible irony: Something I had helped launch into the world with the best intentions was lurching destructively out of control. My response may have been measured in tone, but behind the words I felt sick with regret. For there was no denying the historical continuity between our Days of Rage and the current war against the government. There is a monster of citizenly discontent running amok in the land, and it is time for each of us to ask what our responsibility may be for the damage it is doing to our country.

Did the protest movement of the ’60s exaggerate the evils of the government? When one looks through old underground newspapers and protest posters, the answer is undeniably yes. For my part, I often spoke out against the war in Vietnam and the arms race without restraint or balance. The left’s attacks on the military-industrial complex, which targeted the private as well as the public sector, easily carried over into a blanket indictment of everything Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon touched. Still, all the while we railed against the abuse of official and corporate power, we never questioned the obvious fact that there were numerous benign and necessary functions of government. None of us would have attacked school lunch programs, Social Security, or Medicare as evil. How could a complex industrial society do without regulation of pharmaceuticals, air traffic, and public health? The government’s support for voting rights and racial justice was an integral part of our cause. At the time, I would have thought all this went without saying. Now I see it didn’t.

I offer this in justification of overstatement during the ’60s, because I believe we were addressing a very different public then. In the ’50s and ’60s, people’s blind faith in their leaders seemed to require shock tactics. In the experience of that generation, government meant the New Deal that had brought the nation out of the Depression. That same government had led the nation to victory in World War II and now headed a free world heroically pitted against Soviet aggression. People trusted the government to solve problems and provide leadership.

But if exaggeration was ever justified as a way of jolting public complacency, that is no longer the case. In the wake of Vietnam and Watergate, government has forfeited much of its public trust. Some of the most seemingly paranoid accusations the protest movement of the ’60s leveled at Washington proved to be true. Today, those who raise their voices to denounce the U.S. Park Service or the IRS with maximum anger are working in an environment of distrust in which restraint is mandatory.

Another difference between then and now: The largest single influence on protest in the ’60s was the civil rights movement. Thanks to leaders like Martin Luther King and Bayard Rustin, we knew who Gandhi was and tried to honor his political creed. Far and away most of those who raised their voices against injustice were committed to nonviolence. The language got strong; tempers flared; there were outbreaks of incivility. Nonviolent discipline might break down, but it was never far from our thoughts. Even the most militant–the Weathermen or the Black Panthers–knew they had to take issue with Gandhi and King to press their program.

On the political right, the only rough equivalent to nonviolence has been respect for the rule of law. Ironically, that is exactly what is now being undermined by conservative leaders who endorse indiscriminate attacks on government. Even the conservative analyst Kevin Phillips warns that the Republican Party, in courting the favor of anti-abortionists and the gun lobby, is in danger of losing its way in “an ideological fever swamp.”

There is one thing more that distinguishes the two eras of protest. Nobody can envision the days of the counterculture without the music, poetry, art, and satirical humor. The period is suffused with the voices of John Lennon, Joan Baez, Allen Ginsberg, Peter, Paul, and Mary, the Weavers all singing of peace, love, and gentleness. I can’t recall attending a single rally during that period that did not find time to celebrate our common humanity as an ethical counterweight to heavy political rhetoric.

For every clenched fist and angry face that got photographed, we have many more pictures of young people embracing at love-ins, frolicking in the streets, or placing flowers in the gun muzzles that protected the Pentagon. Many might look back on slogans like “Make Love Not War” as cloying. But I wonder if those simple gestures of affection and delight did not make all the difference or at least enough to balance the excesses of the time. They reminded us that there was more than anger and hatred inside us, that politics is but one small part of life.

“Soul” is also something people found time to talk a great deal about in the ’60s. If anything has turned protest monstrous, it is the absence of the soulfulness that once seemed the frothiest aspect of the countercultural style. Compare, for example, the songs and poems of that period with the distinctive features of protest in the ’90s: evangelical religion, the most intolerant species of Christianity, and the incessant ranting of talk radio. What we are witnessing is not simply a war against the government, but a war against kindness. Marshall McLuhan once characterized radio as “the tribal drum,” best used to arouse primitive emotions. Judging from what I hear on the airwaves these days, I would say he is right. Talk show hosts are quick to defend their broadcasts as the vox populi. If so, how I wish that voice still knew how to sing.

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