Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Mission: Impossible

I'm not sure whether Bob Herbert misses the lesson of history arising from 1968, or whether he just runs out of room to develop it; but while he wades ashore and there's definitely a gleam of light in his luggage, he doesn't quite make it to the beach before that light goes out.

He starts out comparing 2007 to 1968, and he's right, it seems almost impossible that it was 40 years ago (starting today), because it was such an epochal year (even for those of us who only remember it by looking backward) and because so much has changed in 4 decades. But those 4 decades of change are directly related to the events of 1968. Which, again, Mr. Herbert understands; as he says (and I think he's right), it was a year of euphoria that lasted just 4 days. Because it was also a year of assassinations, and as much as Martin Luther King, Jr.'s murder affected African-Americans (who probably knew it was inevitable, having suffered so much violence themselves simply for being "black," for being alive), Bobby Kennedy's death affected American politics ever after. As I've mentioned before, RFK's assassination couldn't happen today, because of RFK's assassination. In Emilio Estevez's movie "Bobby," newsreel footage shows RFK in the streets of New York, talking to people on the sidewalks (maybe New York has changed so much, too, that this is no longer imaginable). It showed RFK in the Appalachias, talking to the dirt poor people we romanticize as "coal miner's daughters" or, if we think of them at all, as producing another Dolly Parton. We ignore them, today, and so do our politicians, just as they ignore the poor on the Gulf Coast. Two years later and Mississippi is still trying to spend HUD money on port facilities rather than housing, seeking to spend over $450,000 per job created, nearly 9 times the HUD limit. Mississippi is also not giving aid to people with wind damage from a hurricane; such people were irresponsible not to have property insurance to cover wind damage. No, I'm not making that up; that's the state's official position, per NPR. The rest of us don't even notice. Bobby Kennedy would make that the centerpiece of his campaign.

The argument in Mississippi, of course, is the old "states rights" dressed up now in new language. Now, as Mitt Romney has assured us, the states are "laboratories of democracy." The kind of laboratories that created the horrors Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote about in 1963, but that was 0ver 40 years ago, and the civil rights struggle changed everything. Right? The kind of laboratories that declare people who can't afford property insurance "irresponsible," and so beyond the reach of governmental aid. They are not US citizens, they are residents of Mississippi. Didn't we fight this fight 40 years ago? Didn't we win it?

Yes; and no.

And we didn't win it for the very reason Mr. Herbert ends his column with, though I don't know that he realizes that. He ends with a quote from Arthur Schlesinger which, 40 years later, sounds more and more like an very inappropriate use of the royal "we:"

“We discovered in 1968 this deep, almost mystical bond that existed between Robert Kennedy and the Other America. It was a disquieting experience for reporters. ... We were forced to recognize in Watts and Gary and Chimney Rock that the real stake in the American political process involves not the fate of speechwriters and fund-raisers, but the lives of millions of people seeking hope out of despair.”
We discovered no such thing because no one can ever be forced to recognize anything out of any situation. The father at the end of "American Beauty" can't be forced to recognize his latent homosexuality; Larry Craig can't be forced to recognize his, either. George Bush can't be forced to recognize his responsibility for the state of the world, that every step he has taken has been disatrous, every initiative taken or not taken, another example of utter failure. And MSM reporters can't be forced to confront the fact that "the American political process involves not the fate of speechwriters and fund-raisers, but the lives of millions of people seeking hope out of despair." Edward R. Murrow, according to George Clooney, cared about such things, but even in Clooney's near-hagiography, and despite the sainthood imposed upon him in death, Murrow ended his career doing celebrity interviews, not confronting the reality of life in America. No one in journalism was forced to confront a thing after RFK's assassination, except maybe the fact that the people were dangerous, and politicians should be kept as far away from them as possible.

In that: mission accomplished.

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