I can’t recommend Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland: The Rise of A President and the Fracturing of America enough. Perlstein is a left wing fella, who has set himself the task of documenting the rise of the right in the United States. I have the suspicion that his books get less useful and balanced as he gets closer to the modern day, but the balance in this book between historical detail and rage is perfect. It’s an almost day to day account of the late 1960s and early 1970s. The book was a revelation for me, and set off a long path of reappraisal and research that led in a roundabout way to this video.
We have a certain idea of the 1960s in the US that I refer to in the video. It’s all Woodstock and civil rights and triumphing over Vietnam. What Nixonland helped me to understand was what a godawful shit-show it all was. I hope to get some of that across in this video, and in the process make you feel a bit better about where we are today in the United States.
Video Transcript after the jump…
The 1960’s were a dark time. As some of our more panicked pundits look at our modern era, they see parallels, and they try to take it further. They see the outlines of a new American civil war in this troubled era. This week we’re showing just how ridiculous this civil war talk is, by taking a look at history. Today we take on the 1960’s.
It may be fading a bit now, but throughout my life the 1960’s have been a dominant part of US mythology. It’s a baby boomer epic of sex drugs and rock n’ roll. It features strife and suffering, the evils of Nixon and Vietnam, and the redemption of greater rights for African Americans and the success of other liberation movements. Elements of this mythology are very true, but the actual history has been forgotten.
Panicked pundits of today imagine that we’re in a similar time of struggle and uncertainty today. That’s where a lot of the civil war talk comes from. It’s nuts. In truth the 1960’s were a lot worse than we remember, and we are in nowhere near that much trouble today.
The confusion starts with the fact that when we talk about the 1960’s we’re not actually talking about the years between 1960 and 1970. The Civil Rights movement expands far back into the 1950’s, and the anti-war movement extends into the 1970’s. Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court’s landmark decision against school segregation, and Nixon’s resignation form decent book-ends to the era.
We remember some of the horrors of this era, but the bigger ones have been forgotten. I began this video with a Neil Young song about the killings at Kent State. Four white kids were killed by National Guardsmen at a protest gone wrong on a university campus in Ohio. When I talk with older friends and family about how the 1960’s were much more violent than today, this is the main thing they remember. Kent State was horrible, and I don’t want to minimize it, but it’s easy to imagine it happening today. We were one jammed gun away from the same number of deaths in Charlottesville earlier this month.
The 1960’s were so much worse than Kent State. Your urban real estate agent can tell you about it. Neighborhoods in multiple American cities were destroyed. We’re not talking about the broken windows and spilled trash cans of an Antifa protest, we’re talking about entire city blocks burning down. Los Angeles, Detroit, Washington, DC, Chicago and as many as a hundred other cities had serious riots. Many of these cities experienced massive property destruction, and some riots featured dozens of deaths. According to one historian, Newark, New Jersey was particularly horrific, featuring gangs of cops running around shooting black people at random in retaliation for the death of one of their own. The death toll there came to 26.
Yet outside of the big assassinations, the main deaths we remember are those four dead white kids in Ohio. For a while I thought this was an artifact of my affluent, suburban upbringing, but it goes farther than that. There’s a similar issue with Chicago. Everybody remembers the fact that cops beat up some white kids outside of the Democratic National Convention in August 1968, killing nobody. But the riots that killed 11 people in Chicago earlier that year are mostly forgotten. This makes the need for a Black Lives Matter movement pretty clear doesn’t it?
The fascination with rich white martyrs has become the official story, well outside of the affluent suburbs. Last week I was watched an episode of Dave Chappelle’s new Netflix comedy show. If I remember it correctly, he too references Kent State, rather than Newark, or Detroit or Watts.
We pretend that we’re living through a new 1960’s today because we’re not remembering the 1960’s accurately. We focus on the fact that there are wars in both eras, but we ignore the fact that at the height of the Vietnam war, US soldiers died at the rate of an entire War on Terror every six months or so.
This sort of thing is dangerous. We are nowhere near there yet, but if we keep telling ourselves we’re in an unprecedented crisis, we could very well build one. Donald Trump was elected because people managed to convince themselves we are living in a time of crisis. We’re really not. History is important
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