Saturday, June 24, 2006

"The past is a foreign country"

"The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there," wrote British novelist L.P. Hartley. It seems obvious enough when that past is centuries ago. But when it is within our memory, the past can also be foreign. In fact, Hartley's novel, The Go-Between, which begins with that memorable sentence, is written in the form of a reminiscence.

Last year I entered the White Wolf Novel contest with an idea for a vampire novel set in part in the Chicago of August, 1968. It didn't make the first cut, but the idea of a fantasy/time-travel novel involving those interesting times stayed with me. And it was better without the vampires or White Wolf's World of Darkness setting. So I've been doing a lot of reading about the 1968 Democratic Convention. I was 16 years old in 1968, and I followed the news very closely. Still, I'm dealing with a foreign country. Take the first paragraph of the Chicago Tribune's August 25, 1968 lead editorial:

"It will probably occasion little surprise among readers that in his former days around the family drug store in Huron, S.D., Hubert Horatio Humphrey was known to the clientele as Pinkie. But if the readers jump to the logical conclusion that this appellation had something to do with Hubert's political coloration, which is socialist, radical, and left-wing, if not precisely Red, they will be wrong. The tag was hung on him simply because of his complexion."

That's what the Trib thought of Humphrey--the Establishment candidate. Eugene McCarthy and George McGovern didn't fare any better. While Gene McCarthy was pursuing his noble campaign, the spirit of Joe McCarthy seemed to prevail in the Tribune. More precisely, it was the spirit of Colonel Robert R. McCormick, longtime publisher of the Tribune, who died in 1955. Along with McCormick's right-wing politics, the paper was still promoting his spelling reform--cigaret, thru, tho. I don't know if it still used "frater," for freighter, but it spelled aides "aids," though that would not have meant anything to the 1968 audience. While the paper's editors heaped praise on Nixon and Agnew, they defended Democrat Richard Daley's use of the police to beat "hippies," though they did express objection to the clubbing of Tribune reporters.

I've been listening to oldies radio stations recently. They present the 1960s nostalgically, as though it was some halcyon era. There was great beauty, incredible creativity, and the kind of idealism which may just be blooming in some of today's college students. But at the same time there was the madness of 1968. Writer Jules Witcover called it "The Year the Dream Died." Two assassinations, riots in virtually every major city, the brutality in Chicago, the triumph of Richard Nixon, and behind it all, blatant racism and a shameful American war. While I've heard the oldies stations play Buffalo Springfield's "For What It's Worth," about the 1967 Sunset Strip riots, I have yet to hear "Universal Soldier" or "Eve of Destruction," or even the Stones' "Street Fighting Man," which was banned from Chicago radio stations during the '68 convention. Just as Clear Channel and other media giants wouldn't play anti-Iraq war songs (or even the Dixie Chicks), they don't want to remind people of an earlier illegal, immoral war.

And there was a spirit of confrontation which seems almost alien to present times. An excerpt from Paul Schultz's No One Was Killed provides a good example:

"There were a series of confrontations inside the Convention and outside it. The challenger could either turn away from the impending confrontation and hope the gesture would bring about a desired response, depending on the good will of cops and politicians, and it never did, or they could go smack into the confrontation. Every time a confrontation was avoided, in the Convention or on the streets, the challenger, on the terms of his own aspirations, made a mistake. (Emphasis in original, pp. 36-7)

"In another time, another situation, possibly even another convention, this might not be the case. But here in Chicago all the cells of good will and common sense were turned off in The Pig."
And what was "The Pig?" Schultz again:

"The Yippies were running a pig for president, and the cops were pigs, and the politicians were pigs, and the Pig was a proliferating force and growth in the mind and the soul and in the society. Like cancer in the way it grows, the Pig sickens and hardens all cells of common sense, compassion, responsibility and sense of consequence, and turns them to greedy, self-protective, oppressive ends." (p. 34)

A foreign country indeed. If I can re-create the moods, atttitudes, and events of August, 1968, in some (not all) of their complexities, it will be worth the effort.


Peter said...

I've often thought about revisiting the sixties as a nearly fifty-year-old man in 2006 instead of an eleven-year-old boy wondering who would be assassinated next.

One of your previous posts led me to find some pop radio on the Net from the early seventies. I still wonder what the stations I listened to for thousands of hours in the sixties sound like.

I got a great gift from my best friend growing up for my birthday last month. He sent me the first sixteen episodes of "The Time Tunnel" on DVD. I haven't seen that show since the late sixties, I believe, and he and I used to watch it avidly at my house on Friday nights. I can't wait to see what I was really watching. Or could I only have done my real watching of it back then? The past is a foreign country, and listening to its accents may not make it any less so.

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