A Facebook friend--a former student--posted a question today: Is this what it was like in 1968?
In some ways, I'd say "Yes." In 1968--the year I was able to vote in my first presidential election--I would turn 24 just after the election. I was enthralled by Eugene McCarthy, the liberal Minnesota Senator who was running on an anti-Vietnam War platform. I saw him speak at a very crowded event down at Case Western that fall, and that crowd was pumped. He quoted the Greeks and Shakespeare and seemed so ... moral. (In recent months, how could I not think about the Bernie Sanders fans?)
I remember being outraged when Robert Kennedy entered the race (after he saw McCarthy put a dent in LBJ in the New Hampshire primary), and, in fact, I remember this comment from the person who introduced McCarthy that night in Cleveland, a night when the candidate was about an hour late (I think). It went something like this: Well, Sen. McCarthy, unfortunately, is late--but not as late as Robert Kennedy. Lots of cheering and laughing.
I was even more outraged when--after the horrible RFK assassination that June--Hubert Humphrey swept in and won the nomination in that chaotic 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Don't remember that one? Go to YouTube and check it out. (Here's a link to one brief video summary.)
We'd endured some unspeakable moments in the 60s. Racial violence in the South (murders, intimidation). The JFK assassination (1963), King and Kennedy (1968). The streets were full of angry people--liberals, conservatives. And then the KSU and Jackson State shootings in 1970. It truly did seem as if America were ripping apart at the seams.
And then, gradually, it quieted, though, as we're seeing today, nothing went away. The melting pot was simmering, just below the boiling point. And now, patently, it's once again boiling over.
I don't really think we're more polarized than we ever were (a reading of any thoughtful US history book will bury that naive notion--and quickly), but what is different?
- The mass media are polarized. Fox, MSNBC, etc. It's so easy now just to watch shows that present only opinions you already agree with, shows that even fan the fires of your anger with distortion and outright lies. Debate doesn't exist; it's shouting and shaming, demeaning and damning.
- Social media and the Internet have been wonderful in some ways--but they have also brought out the demons in so many of us. (There's a good book on the subject--So You've Been Publicly Shamed, John Ronson's 2015 account of how easy it is to destroy someone these days.) Do any post on Facebook or a blog, a post that expresses even the mildest liberalism, the mildest conservatism (even the mildest attempt to think rationally, to see ambiguity instead of certainty everywhere), and you're likely to receive some verbal assaults (complete and replete with profanity) that will make you wonder what country you're living in now.
- The (too) easy access to firearms.
- Our increasing intolerance for and dismissal of those who disagree with us. On Facebook we can block and unfriend with a simple click. There! Now I don't have to deal with what I disagree with.
- BTW: I've never unfriended or blocked anyone. And I have FB friends who range from far right to far left. I try to maintain a human relationship with everyone, for virtually all of my FB friends are former students. And I feel a personal fondness for them--even if I disagree with their politics.
- Also, I virtually never "debate" on FB. Seems pointless, doesn't it? FB is not the Road to Damascus. There may be fire, but there's precious little light.
And so we continue to grieve for and to feel impotent about the chaos swirling around us The shootings, the shouting, the frustration, the anger, the unfairness, the polarization, the impatience for (damnation of?) people who are so dense that they can't see how obvious it is that we are right.
I don't see any easy way out. I fear another civil war. Right v. Left. Black v. White. Christian v. Muslim. Etc. v. Etc. Go ahead: Pick a team--but realize: Whatever the outcome, we all will lose.