Sunday, December 30, 2007

Historical Comparisons Are For Ninnies And Journalists . . . But I Repeat Myself

Joel Achenbach has a piece in the Washington Post today that is one of the oddest things I have read in a while. Purporting to be a comparison between the landmark year of 1968 and the coming election year, in essence the article is a paste-together of factoids, reminiscences of Achenbach's colleagues, and a repeat of the nonsensical notion that Democratic Presidential candidate is talking 1960's revolutionary rhetoric. There is no through-line to the piece, no way to be sure what Achenbach's point was other than to show he has friends who were connected to Bobby Kennedy. With the single exception that this might just be the first glimmer from an establishment reporter that the coming election is important, just as '68's was important, this jumble of sentences really does not quite become an article in the traditional sense, because it isn't really about anything.

The opening paragraph tries to set the tone:
Forty years ago, this country entered what would turn out to be the most politically charged, disorienting, violent and tragic year in modern American history. The year we're now heading into has some surface similarities to 1968: a protracted and wrenching war in Asia, an unpopular president, a wide-open presidential campaign and raw-nerve controversies over civil rights (with gays and immigrants this time) and geopolitics (featuring jihadists instead of communists). The murder of Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan is another awful reminder of 1968, when two American heroes, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, lost their lives to assassins.

The first sentence is wrong, because 1970 was much more volatile, especially after the Kent State murder of four young students by National Guardsmen. Campuses all over the country quite literally exploded in rage. Even my little alma mater, Alfred University in western New York State, faced the grim reality of students taking over buildings, tossing bottles and rocks at State Police the Administration called in to settle things down, and even the occasional Molotov cocktail tossed out a window. The biggest marches and demonstrations against the war in Vietnam occurred in 1970, including the national moratorium, which was a nationwide event including a 750,000 person march to the Pentagon, where young people shouting slogans faced troops with bared bayonets and live ammunition. So, right from the start, Achenbach gets it wrong.

Comparing the assassination of Benazir Bhutto to the murders of King and Kennedy is historically ignorant on several levels, not the least of which is she isn't an American. She was neither a crusader for peace and justice, nor a politician who had gone through a life-changing event (in Kennedy's case, the assassination of his brother in 1963) and saw his role and his candidacy in quasi-messianic terms. Bhutto was a twice-elected Prime Minister surrounded by corruption, if not actually the beneficiary of corruption herself, who was instrumental in beginning Pakistan's long march towards nuclear weapons. She returned to Pakistan recently after exile only because of a deal brokered between the Musharraf government and her party by the United States. Otherwise, she might have ended up in a Pakistani prison.

Anyway, so much for setting the stage.

On Edwards, Achenbach seems to have a tin ear for political rhetoric that isn't part of our normal political discourse.
Where is the spirit of that Kennedy campaign? Certainly with Obama, who's so often described as Kennedyesque. But you can also find it in the candidacy of John Edwards.

A week before Christmas, Edwards stopped in Keene, a small city in a valley in the southwest corner of New Hampshire -- prime turf for liberals, leftists, artists, organic farmers, college professors. Edwards brought Bonnie Raitt and Jackson Browne as his warm-up act. They sounded terrific, the lyrics saturated in idealism.

Things like hunger, greed and hatred[.]

One way or another, gonna be eradicated

Out came Edwards, and he was on fire. The former senator talked about ending the war in Iraq and taking power away from big corporations. He said 35 million Americans last year went hungry. He talked about the uninsured Americans who must take their sick kids to the emergency room in the middle of the night and beg for treatment. He talked about a man who spent 50 years with a cleft palate, unable to talk, without money or insurance to pay for an operation that would finally let him speak. "In America," he said. His rhetoric could easily have come from Kennedy or King in early 1968. He predicted that he will ride a wave of popular sentiment that will shock the mainstream. He was, in essence, describing what in the '60s would have been known as The Movement.

"The Movement"? Edwards is describing the realities millions of Americans face. The fact that Achenbach stresses Edwards' mention of hunger in America, as if it were some strange anomaly, shows that this isn't "Movement" rhetoric, and Edwards isn't some hippie who got "Clean for Gene" with a $400 haircut. He is a populist politician who is describing what 40 years of Republican political hegemony has wrought, and that it is possible for the American people to do something about it. We have before, and we can again.

This, more than any other part of Achenbach's piece, is the most disturbing. Like Republican politicians who continue to fight the battles of the '60's, Achenbach is stuck in some kind of time loop, unable to describe political events outside some weird kind of framework that sees anyone not bowing to corporate power as a "revolutionary". That Edwards is actually speaking of the disenfranchisement of Americans to those disenfranchised Americans, and in so doing offering them hope, is lost on someone who would rather recount how one of his colleagues has a legal pad with 40-year-old handwriting on it. All in the awe-filled tones of someone holding the Magna Carta.

2008 and 1968 will only be alike in this way - this will be a year when one political party that has dominated our public life for over a generation will get a boot (large or small depending, but the boot nonetheless) - and the other party spends years trying to figure out what happened and why, and trying to reinvent itself. Pretty much everything else Achenbach writes about is bunk.

Virtual Tin Cup

Amazon Honor System Click Here to Pay Learn More