Monday, December 17, 2007

1968 and all that

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Tom Brokaw, hosting the two-hour History Channel program "1968," remembers the year. So do I. He remembers it as a TV reporter doing a stand-up at Haight and Ashbury Streets in San Francisco, reporting on the hippie subculture (shown in an old tape). I lived in Berkeley then but often spent time in the Haight, which contrary to the impression Brokaw gave in the History Channel documentary, was well past its love-in prime and had become a magnet for copycat freaks, hard dopers, and lost, runaway teenagers.

I'm so leery of TV documentaries about anything having to do with the sociology or politics of the post-World War II era that I rarely give them my time. A couple of promos for "1968" caught my attention because they included clips of Pat Buchanan and Dorothy Rabinowitz, the excellent TV columnist for The Wall Street Journal. Balance, maybe? And whatever the sins of the NBC network he worked for, I'd found Brokaw at least tolerable as the anchor for the evening news.

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It could hardly be expected that Brokaw and I would have the same perspective on the "year that
everything changed," as the show's subtitle called it. He was in an opposite "space" (as the slang of that year would have put it) from me, I being part of the counterculture — you didn't get more countercultural than being a young Berkeley freak — and Brokaw no doubt a supporter of antidisestablishmentarianism. (I've done it! I've actually managed to use that word legitimately in a sentence for the first time!)

Any hopes I'd harbored for a responsible look at 1968, which I agree was an important and symbolic one, were disappointed when I watched the program. Essentially it was the Official History of the time defined by liberal baby boomers, plus a few lessons — class, put down your iPods for a minute and pay attention! — directed at any Gen X or Y or Z viewers who tuned in (jolly few, I suspect).

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Brokaw and the show's writers and producers obviously had no idea that the counterculture was anything other than a few rock bands and, above all, political demonstrators against the Vietnam War. (I won't try to explain here what else it was, except to say that it involved a whole constellation of values and visions that weren't necessarily political, nor could they be summarized as sex-and-drugs-and-rock-and-roll.)

So we got a lot of footage of Vietnam battles and casualties, student protests, etc. The visual style was very MTV, quick impressionistic cuts, slowing only for interviews with famous names that were considered generational representatives. Arlo Guthrie, for instance, who is still apparently up there in Vermont or wherever on his commune, looking the way a parodist in the '60s would have pictured a hippie 40 years later.

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Naturally many tear-stained minutes were devoted to the assassinations of Saint Bobby and Saint Martin. There was a dry eye in my house. Robert Kennedy, had he lived, would surely have become just another underachieving, drug-addled spouter of empty rhetoric like his late brother, or a quisling like his brother Ted.

Martin Luther King, on the other hand, still impresses in some ways: I hadn't heard that organ-pipe voice and stately speaking rhythm for a while, and it was powerful. Moreover, although he was hardly a saint, King was on balance a good role model for American blacks, far better than anyone equally well known now. So yes, his murder was a genuine tragedy that left a vacuum in black culture later to be abysmally filled by Black Power and, eventually, rap and hip-hop.

But "1968" was the Liberal Establishment's take on history, so the raised fists of Black Power segued right into the story line as part of Civil Rights. Then — what was really egregious — we got clips of the protesters marching for the Jena 6, a bunch of thugs who beat a white boy nearly to death in a hate crime this year. One typical quick cut showed a little girl with her hand raised in the Black Power salute.

The lesson (all liberal history is a lesson, there's no such thing as quote objective unquote history) was that any black protest — and, by extension, any ethnic group protest — is part of a continuum with the 1960s Civil Rights movement, the Spirit of MLK moving upon the waters.

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Brokaw has acquired a stern Old Testament visage, his years of reading a teleprompter without stumbling having anointed him, in his own estimation, a Deep Thinker. Looking like the preacher about to pronounce "ashes to ashes, dust to dust," he interviewed a born-again liberal with the incredible name of Tom Turnipseed, a South Carolina lawyer who turned from segregationist to Civil Rights cheerleader. When Turnipseed quoted — making sure, with legalistic precision, to emphasize he was quoting — a segregationist from the ancient past who used the word "nigger," the N word was bleeped out on the soundtrack. So the word couldn't even be used to exemplify the bigotry in some quarters during the year supposedly being examined.

That's the liberal mentality for you: people can't be trusted to make their own judgments and draw their own conclusions. They are racists to the bone, ready to run amok unless the information they receive is carefully filtered by their betters in the media. If ordinary Americans even heard the N word in a quotation from the past, they might reach for their rifles and check out Barack Obama's travel schedule. The media must censor the past, preach to the present, and draw the future for the audience.

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"1968" also drew explicit parallels between the Vietnam War and Iraq. I don't disagree that there are similarities. What I disagree with is using airtime supposedly intended to cast light on the past to editorialize about the present. Good historians aren't without opinions, but they try to understand the period they study on its own terms, not as just a prelude.

Oh, yes, about Pat Buchanan and Dorothy Rabinowitz. Pat got a fair amount of talking-head time, but only to reminisce about 1968 in general terms and about his role in the Nixon campaign. If he made any conservative-sounding political statements, they were swept up with the rest of the outtakes from the editing room floor. Rabinowitz was allowed to say that the '60s generation was the most irresponsible and self-centered ever, then her 10 seconds were up. I don't entirely agree with her, but she should have been allowed to make her case.

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David Foster said...

"his years of reading a teleprompter without stumbling"...a couple of years ago, Tom Wolfe observed that a television anchorman is the modern equivalent of a Linotype machine; ie, a device for formatting someone else's thoughts.

Kind of an insult to the noble Linotype, though--at least it never claimed to be performing a truthfulnes audit on the things it set in type.

HH said...

I've only just caught up with your take on the take '1968'. I seem to look at things pretty much as you do - though I was living in London in 1968 and my only contact with Berkeley was a student I met in Barcelona in 1968. 'Berkeley,' she said. 'I guess you've heard of that.'