Well, I just made the mistake of reading some of the comments under the obituaries for George McGovern and I am reminded of what utterly batshit insane murderous heartless cowards so many Americans are. (Is that too strong? Maybe.) But I am reminded that a man who ran for president with a long legislative history of vainly trying to end the Vietnam War, and a platform aimed at alleviating some of the structural poverty, racism, and sexism in this country was absolutely demolished by voters at the hands of a complete paranoid lunatic.
Yes, the same lunatic who less than two years later was drinking himself into oblivion and making incoherent phone calls in the middle of the night all around the country, and who wouldn’t give up the presidency without some of the most powerful people in his own party and the military telling him to get the fuck out.
Yes, that guy, who today actually appears somewhat moderate compared to his grandchildren now running his political party.
Even at the heart of the Vietnam War there really was a silent majority, as Nixon said, who supported that conflict — or any conflict that involved Americans killing others. A majority who thought the students at Kent State and Jackson State deserved to be shot by National Guardsmen. Who thought the Church Committee’s exposure of the CIA’s illegal activities went too far, who probably thought William Colby was a traitor for making so much of it public. And much more. I don’t need to recount the history.
All it took to end a few years of relative sanity in the mid-1970s was the Iranian Hostage Crisis, and by 1980 you had a man running the country who thought he was acting in a movie, whose wife consulted astrologists for advice, and whose main appeal…hell, I don’t even know what his appeal was. All I remember is my father, who worked as a town manager and who actually had to spend hours working on this, mocking him because in the event of a nuclear exchange — which in the first few years of Reagan’s presidency was a live option, and not discouraged by his administration, either — everyone in southern Connecticut was supposed to assemble in the Yale Bowl. Half a state, in an open football field, while mushroom clouds exploded to the south and east. The idea was so laughable for people who worked in government that they must have felt that were living in some kind of fantasy world.
Maybe that’s when the sickness really took over this country, when people who voted for Nixon and vicious segregationists like George Wallace could crawl back into the open again. Reading an earlier post on Tumblr about the percentage of Americans who support drone attacks — or who don’t know they’re occurring, or don’t want to hear about them — is a reminder to me of all of this. Having grown up in a house where my parents and grandmother were of sound mind when it came to politics (laughing at the well-educated guy next door — an investment banker, actually — who thought the Russians would soon be invading through Mexico into Texas), I have never quite felt at home here.
It also reminds me of how impossibly hard it is, and will be, for any leftist politics to ever gain traction in this country. I can write nice things about solidarity and hope elsewhere, but most people will allow themselves to be robbed blind — and have been robbed blind — while taking out their anger about it on people who…write about solidarity and hope. And who then will vote for Romney until they have nothing left but their anger and their desire not to “begrudge anyone their wealth” when they damn well know that this “wealth” had been theirs 32 years ago.
Maybe it’s worse now than it was for McGovern. I think it is. We’ve gone backwards — he’d never be allowed near public office today, let alone his party’s nomination. You can see it in the obit comments in papers not based in Washington and New York. I wonder: how can people stand back, silently, and let everything that has occurred since 2001 go without any public accounting? Or since 2008? Why don’t people see the numbers in front of them — the amount of student debt, the 50 million people below the poverty level, the slow (soon to be quick) erosion of the last shreds of the safety net and civil liberties — and do something about them? Why doesn’t it bother them in the slightest? Why do I get back nasty emails from educated friends when I send stories about Jill Stein being handcuffed to a chair for eight hours when she and her Green Party compatriot tried to gain access to the presidential debate last week?
And then I think back a little, and realize that none of this anger and indifference is new to the American character. It’s been there my whole lifetime. It was there during McGovern’s presidential run, during Reagan’s wars, cold and hot, during a time when little kids watched “The Day After” and talked about nuclear winter and whether (as I did with my friends before I was even 10) the blast from a Soviet missile hitting the massive submarine base down the road from us would kill us instantly or slowly, and whether one of our families with a fallout shelter and stocks of food inside would allow the rest of us in (the answer, when we asked — theoretically of course — was no). And it was there when I returned from a conference on moral decision-making in New Jersey on a May Sunday night in 2011 and watched from inside the taxi as students on my campus ran across the streets in huge crowds, drinking and chanting, and I wondered just what the hell was happening (I soon found out you-know-who had been killed).
As I sit here now and think about this, I realize that the next day was the last graduate class I was able to sit through. I left campus three weeks later, took a leave of absence, enrolled elsewhere for a semester, and have only come back to teach because it’s the only work I can find. Otherwise I want nothing to do with this place, with school, with most of the people around me, with the fraud that “education” has become. I found — and will find — community and friendship elsewhere.
You wonder if people have moments when they break irreparably — I think I did that night when I saw that scene from inside the taxi, and heard students breaking bottles in the street for hours afterward. You wonder how people like George McGovern fought for so long, after clearly presenting his country with another path and being crushed so thoroughly. Others are broken much more easily.