Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Mass Shootings and the National Rorschach


Copyright © 2019 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Wednesday, August 14 was going to be the evening I finished writing an article I’d begun the previous weekend after America’s three most recent mass shooting events: the July 28 shooting at the Gilroy Garlic Festival in northern California, killing three people; the massacre of 22 people at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas on August 3 and, just a day later, nine more in a bar district in Dayton, Ohio. That was before 1:30 p.m. Pacific time — 4:30 p.m. East Coast time — there was yet another mass shooting with the AK-47, a military-grade assault rifle which, along with the similar AR-15, has become the weapon of choice for mass murderers everywhere. This time it was in Philadelphia, near Temple University, and the gunman was attempting to block police enforcement of a drug-related search order.
According to news reports during the day, the suspect barricaded himself inside the house that was the target of the search warrant and shot at least six police officers during a standoff lasting over an hour. The officers were wounded, but mercifully none were killed. Eventually the cops got their own people out as well as the other three civilians in the house. According to sources, the suspect live-streamed part of the incident, as if part of the sickness that was making him do this was to get himself behaving bestially on TV — as if this were something to be proud of.
I had settled on the title “Mass Shootings and the National Rorschach” to make the point that every time there’s a major incident in the U.S. involving guns being used to shoot large numbers of people in a very short time, the bare facts serve like the ink blots in the famous psychological test. People see whatever images they want to see in the ink blots, and the psychologists giving the tests use those responses to gauge how these people think and what, if anything, might be wrong with them from the standpoint of mental health. Likewise, mass shootings evoke Rorschach-like responses from people on both sides of America’s ever more divided politics.
Progressives and Leftists hear about them and say we need more regulation about who in this country can own guns, and what sort of guns they can own. Rightists, ranging from America’s dwindling number of thoughtful, intelligent conservatives to the radical reactionary revolutionaries that have largely taken their place, say that the real causes are a climate of moral “permissiveness,” a legacy of the 1960’s counterculture; limits we’ve placed on the ability of the police to protect us without being second-guessed; the abandonment of “traditional moral values” by the urban intelligentsia; and the decline of faith in God (one former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee argued seriously: see for a withering rebuttal).
I got a good dose of the national Rorschach the mass shootings have become when the Philadelphia hostage situation was being discussed earlier tonight on Fox News. I was watching Fox News because at least they were talking about it — CNN and MS-NBC were doing their usual stale programming about the Trump Administration scandals and the political dead and rotting horse that is the Robert Mueller report. I was in the middle of the Sean Hannity show and I heard Hannity and Geraldo Rivera (whom I can remember from the early 1970’s when he was a self-proclaimed progressive hanging out with people like John Lennon) insist that because the Philadelphia shooter had been a criminal, he had almost certainly not bought his AR-15 legally and therefore a background check of the kind being described in Washington, D.C. wouldn’t have stopped him from acquiring the weapon. (But then how did the person who sold it to him — or whom he stole it from — get it?)
Hannity played a couple of clips from other networks, including Senators (and Democratic Presidential candidates) Kamala Harris from CNN and Cory Booker from MS-NBC, demanding sane restrictions on Americans’ ability to obtain guns. Then he and Rivera lampooned the comments, saying that it was the height of irresponsibility to use the Philadelphia incident to make a political point when the suspect was still barricaded inside the house and the brave, courageous police were still trying to get him out, hopefully alive to stand trial instead of on a stretcher with a sheet over his head. (Rivera sounded particularly bloodthirsty when he said he’d want to kill the suspect personally.)
Then, after criticizing two vaguely Leftist Democratic Senators for trying to make political points off the Philadelphia shooting, Hannity and Rivera proceeded to make political points off the Philadelphia shooting. They said that it was all the fault of Democratic politicians and African-American “Black Lives Matter” for mounting campaigns against police officers in places like Ferguson, Missouri and thereby leaving police officers gun-shy and unable to do their jobs properly for fear that they’ll be second-guessed by investigating committees and review boards, and maybe even prosecuted.
They trotted out former New York Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik, who served while Rudolph Giuliani was Mayor, to defend the constitutionally dubious anti-crime measures they implemented during Giuliani’s mayoralty. Kerik’s message seemed to be that if you want a low crime rate in a major city, you have to treat all African-Americans and Latinos as potential criminals subject to “stop-and-frisk” policies whereby they could be pulled over and searched on the street at a police officer’s whim, never mind all that wimpy stuff in the Constitution about “probable cause.” And they also leveled a few racist attacks, obviously inspired by President Donald Trump’s vicious tweets about Chicago and Baltimore, about how Black mayors and city governments have ruined one great American city after another and left them rat-, rodent- and crime-infested hellholes now that the great auto and steel factories that once gave them thriving economies have closed.
Never mind that America’s auto and steel companies have closed because the CEO’s of the corporations that owned them decided, purely to make more profits, that they’d be better off making their stuff in low-wage countries like Mexico or China (or, increasingly, even lower-wage countries like Bangladesh or Viet Nam). And never mind, also, that Bernard Kerik, presented on Fox News as the very model of a modern aggressive crime-fighter, is himself a criminal. In 2010 he accepted a plea bargain in a case accusing him of eight federal felonies, including tax fraud and lying to White House officials.
“Federal prosecutors had denounced Mr. Kerik, a former police detective who rose to the upper echelons of power, as a corrupt official who sought to trade his authority for lavish benefits,” wrote New York Times reporter Sam Dolnick in a story published February 19, 2010 ( “He pleaded guilty on the eve of his trial in November.” But, apparently willing to let bygones be bygones, Sean Hannity and his producers at Fox News nonetheless presented this convicted criminal as an authority on fighting crime in general and keeping our cities safe from mad gunmen in particular.

Government Inaction Gives Shooters Permission

I’ve got the sense that every time one of these incidents happens I’ve thought, and often written, the same thoughts all too many times before after similar mass shootings — Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado; a movie theatre in Aurora, Colorado; Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut; a military academy in Virginia Beach, Virginia; a Black church in Charleston, South Carolina; a Gay disco in Orlando, Florida; a country-music festival in Las Vegas; a Congressional baseball-game practice in Washington, D.C.; a high school in Parkland, Florida; a Jewish synagogue (with an elderly congregation that included survivors of the Nazi Holocaust) in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; and no doubt others I’m not recalling at the moment — and I’m wondering what there is left to say.
Oh sure, there’s the obvious: we’re sorry these things happen. We’re sorry for the people killed and what they had done, or could have done, with their lives if they hadn’t been struck down before nature (or God, if you will) was ready to take them. We’re sorry for the wounded people and we hope they have good enough medical insurance to cover the costs of their ongoing health-care needs from having been shot. We’re sorry for the victims’ relatives and their significant others who will be left behind and face ongoing sorrow from the absence of a loved one who should still be there, and won’t be.
When I wrote about the Pittsburgh shooting I structured my piece as a series of diatribes dismissing all the fashionable explanations, excuses and pretexts for this sort of violence and cut to what I thought — and still think — is the core issue: too many guns. I wrote a piece in sheer visceral anger in which every other paragraph read, in italics, “We need to get rid of the goddamned guns.” We can argue all we want to about what the motives of each individual shooter in each individual case — including their politics, if they had any, or if the internal demons that shaped their actions included allegiance to a political cause, Right or Left. But that doesn’t take away from the central issue.
The central issue is this: We, the citizens of the United States of America, have given official permission for individuals to commit mass shootings. That doesn’t mean that we won’t punish these people, either by arresting them or killing them ourselves through our representatives in law enforcement. But by our abject failure to legislate any sensible regulations on who can own guns in this country — including allowing just about anyone to have military-grade assault weapons or high-capacity magazines when there is absolutely no legitimate sporting or self-defense reason for individuals outside the military or law enforcement to own them — and our subcontracting our nation’s firearms policy to the National Rifle Association (NRA), we have essentially given a whole bunch of crazies not only incredibly easy access to guns but also a kind of social permission that says, “Mass shootings are a price we have to pay for our Second Amendment freedoms.”
As I’ve said in these pages when previous mass shootings have occurred in the U.S., a country that refuses to protect its citizens and residents (documented or otherwise) from mass shootings — i.e., from domestic terrorism — is a country that has forfeited its right to call itself “civilized.” The U.S. at all political levels has so totally abdicated its responsibility to protect its people from gun violence that those of us interested in ensuring the survival of ourselves and our loved ones are in the pathetic position of having to plead with the powers-that-be at the NRA and the politicians they have bought and paid for to let us have some little scrap of attention, like background checks on gun purchasers and so-called “red-flag” laws allowing police to take guns away from the mentally ill.
President Trump, elected with the staunch political and financial support ($30 million) of the NRA, timidly proposed “meaningful background checks” in the wake of El Paso and Dayton. And, like a Roman emperor of old deciding which gladiators got to live or die, NRA executive director Wayne La Pierre put his thumbs down and thereby condemned us to more years of inaction that gives people blanket permission to commit mass shootings.

Living in a War Zone 24/7

The scariest thing I saw on TV in the wake of the El Paso shooting (when this segment was shown the Dayton shooting hadn’t happened yet) was a CNN interview with a retired FBI officer, James Hamilton, who now works for the Gavin de Becker private security firm and has apparently recently published a book on how you can avoid being the victim of a mass shooting if you’re unlucky enough to be where one is taking place. The basic advice he was giving is the sensible “Run, Hide, Fight” — in that order — warning already given as policy by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
Usually you’re supposed to “Run, Hide, Fight” in that order — run if you can, hide if you have to, fight only as a last resort — but, as Hamilton explained to Zahra Barnes of the Web site in a March 2018 interview (, mass shootings aren’t predictable, so your response can’t be either. “It happens so quickly and with such fluidity,” Hamilton told Barnes. “You need to make the choice based on what you’re seeing and where you are.”
Hamilton continued, “What can really help people to not freeze is going through mental rehearsal. If I hear gunfire or what I believe to be gunfire, where is my nearest exit? Plan it out in your mind. The one resource you will not have any of [in a mass shooting] is time. You have to not waste it.” He’s right — especially about time being the one resource you won’t have any of; it’s well established that most of the people who get killed or wounded in a mass shooting are struck down in the first five to 10 minutes, before people have had the chance to call the police and the cops have had the chance to get there.
But it’s also a sad commentary on what modern life has become, especially with the NRA basically in control of U.S. policy towards guns. that Hamilton and other experts with law-enforcement experience are basically telling Americans they need to learn to live in a war zone 24/7. They’re saying that the attack could come any time, so you’d better be psyched for it the next time you go to a restaurant, bar, movie theatre, public park or shopping mall. You need to do “mental rehearsal” much the way a soldier has to do when faced with an enemy shooting at him or her — and you have to do it for a situation that has a lot more surprise elements than a battle.
James Hamilton and his colleagues are basically telling Americans that they are in an urban street battle 24/7, and that every time they go out they need to be aware of that and be ready to respond in ways that will save their lives. The nation isn’t going to protect you, he says, so you’d better be ready to protect themselves. Law enforcement officers across the country have acted heroically when mass shootings have occurred, and sometimes at great risk to themselves they’ve been able to capture the shooters alive instead of killing them or letting them kill themselves. But they’ve also complained that at times they feel “outgunned” because the service revolvers they patrol the streets with — or even the rifles they can be issued when they have to respond to a mass shooting — aren’t a match for the military-grade assault weapons the shooters have.

Ideological Battles Over the Shooters’ Minds

Few aspects of the mass shooting stories have illustrated the Rorschach-like aspects of the events more than the public discussions of the shooters’ political or ideological motivations. Progressives and Leftists seized on the online manifesto published on a far-Right Web site 27 minutes before the attack, which police are “reasonably confident” was written by the alleged shooter, 21-year-old Patrick Wood Crusius. Not that we were allowed actually to read the manifesto ourselves: with a prissy self-censorship that forbade mention of Crusius’s name on the ground that it would only give him what he presumably wanted — publicity for himself and his ideas — the mainstream media have refused to link to Crusius’s manifesto and even challenged his right to call it that, on the ground that almost no one had heard of him when he published it online. (But then almost no one had heard of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels when they published The Communist Manifesto in 1848, either.)
The Wikipedia page on the El Paso shooting ( discusses the manifesto and offers brief quotes from it which certainly make it sound like the work of a writer either convinced by President Trump’s slashing attacks on immigrants and U.S. people of color to target Hispanics or having similar convictions that, as the manifesto writer him/herself claims, “predate Trump.” Crusius is reported to have driven all the way across the east-west expanse of Texas from his home in Allen at the east end of the state to El Paso in its southwest to target a town on the U.S.-Mexico border, and he reportedly admitted to police when they arrested him that he was the shooter and he was specifically targeting “Mexicans.” Here’s what Wikipedia had to say about the manifesto:

The manifesto promotes the white nationalist and far-right conspiracy theory of The Great Replacement [the idea that, by having more children than whites Jews and people of color are seeking to “replace” whites as the dominant voices in the political system]The New York Times characterized the manifesto as racially extremist, noting the passage: “Hispanics will take control of the local and state government of my beloved Texas, changing policy to better suit their needs.” It states that Hispanics and their intermarriage with whites would cause the loss of purity of race. It criticizes strict gun control laws in Europe, arguing these would make them unable to “repel” immigrants.

It criticizes both the Democratic Party and Republican Party, saying that their politicians are either complacent or involved in the “takeover of the United States government by unchecked corporations.” However, the manifesto states that “at least with Republicans, the process of mass immigration and citizenship can be greatly reduced.” It warns that “heavy Hispanic population in Texas will make us a Democrat stronghold.” It also states that the Democratic Party’s appeal to an increasing number of Hispanics in the country would ultimately ensure Democratic Party dominance in the United States, a theory that has been promoted on right-wing radio shows. According to the document, the attack was meant to provide an “incentive” for Hispanics to “return to their home countries”, thus dissolving “the Hispanic voting bloc” in the United States.

Much of the racism in general and attacks on Hispanics in particular sounds like Trump, particularly the President’s repeated references in his speeches and tweets to the influx of Latino immigrants into the U.S. as an “invasion” and his demands for severe restrictions on the number of legal immigrants to the U.S. and a switch to a so-called “merit-based” immigration system that would benefit whites and Asians and disadvantage Blacks and Latinos. But on least one key point — the human race’s relationship to the environment — the manifesto’s author takes a position almost diametrically opposed to Trump’s.
Not only is the manifesto called The Inconvenient Truth — a ripoff of An Inconvenient Truth, former vice-president Al Gore’s book and documentary film warning of the threat human-caused climate change (which Trump has famously denied is happening at all) poses to human survival — but it contains some very strongly worded environmentalist passages, which were referenced in this passage from an earlier version of the Wikipedia page on the El Paso shootings that doesn’t appear on the current one:

The manifesto also promotes environmentalism, attacking corporatism and imperialism. It states that “our lifestyle is destroying the environment of our country. … Corporations are heading the destruction of our environment by shamelessly overharvesting resources.” It cites The Lorax by Dr. Seuss as a “brilliant” portrayal of this.

The document attacks corporations not only in the context of the environment, but in general, including a claim that they like immigration. The reason the government is unwilling to fix the various problems outlines is that they’re owned by the corporations, the document states. It claims that they should be forced to see that Americans will not tolerate their excesses. It also attacks imperialistic wars. It does laud automation, though, as a means of replacing immigrant jobs.

Assuming that the manifesto is the work of the El Paso shooter and it honestly portrays his motives, he was inspired not only by Right-wing causes like racism and white supremacism but also by Left-wing causes like environmentalism and anti-corporatism. Indeed, Left-wing environmentalist writer Natasha Lennard was moved enough by the environmentalist passages in the manifesto that she wrote her own response on the Web site The Intercept (, noting that the man who shot up a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand — whom the manifesto cited as an inspiration — called himself an “eco-fascist” and wrote in his own manifesto that “there is no nationalism without environmentalism.” Lennard continued:

Against the perilous climate change denialism typical of U.S. conservatives, environmental decimation is broadly seen as a liberal and left concern. But eco-fascism has seen a notable re-emergence among far-right groups and festering corners online in the U.S. and Europe. While campaigning for the European elections, Marine Le Pen of France’s far-right National Rally party promised to make the “first ecological civilization” of a “Europe of nations,” claiming that “nomadic” people with “no homeland” do not care about the environment. Neo-Nazi Richard Spencer wrote in a 2017 manifesto, “We have the potential to become nature’s steward or its destroyer.”

And if the El Paso shooter’s stated motives were a mix of Right and Left causes, the shooter in Dayton, Connor Betts — who didn’t leave behind a manifesto and died in the massacre — left behind social-media posts that suggested his motives were Leftist politics. He retweeted someone else’s nasty post about former vice-president and current Democratic Presidential front-runner Joseph Biden, saying, “Millennials have a message for the Joe Biden generation: hurry up and die.” Betts also retweeted messages supporting Biden’s two most Left-wing rivals for the 2020 Democratic Presidential nomination, Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. (It apparently didn’t occur to him that Sanders, Warren, Biden and Trump are all part of the same generation.)
Though the Dayton shooter’s Left-leaning retweets were reported August 8 by CNN (, that hasn’t stopped Right-wing media outlets from attacking the so-called “liberal media” from covering them up in an attempt to create a master narrative that the current mass shootings are all motivated by white supremacy and inspired by Trump.
There’s certainly evidence to argue that Trump’s election has motivated white-supremacist political activism, including violence. While white-supremacist hate crimes usually go up when a Democrat is President and down when a Republican is President, they’ve risen under Trump. But it’s clear the mass murderers in El Paso and Dayton, if they had political motivations at all, were inspired by a rag-bag of causes that don’t fit neatly into the usual “Rlght” and “Left” categories.

Go Into People’s Homes and Take Away Their Guns!

And, as I argued after the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, it really doesn’t matter what the motivations for each individual shooting are. Even when it’s obvious what a shooter’s motives are — as it was in Pittsburgh, where the killer showed his colors by targeting a synagogue with a largely elderly congregation, including Holocaust survivors — it’s less important to determine the individual shooter’s reasons for acting than to address the real problem: there are too many guns in the U.S.
Not only are there too many guns in the U.S., there is also a history of this country’s politics and culture endorsing the idea that the way to solve political and social problems is to kill people. While it’s almost never possible to say a specific shooter was motivated by a specific movie, TV show or video game, American culture in general promotes the idea that violence is the way issues get resolved. The El Paso and Dayton shootings took place on a weekend in which one of the most popular movies in American theatres was Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood, an historical fantasy in which [spoiler alert!] two over-the-hill movie cowboys slaughter Charles Manson and his gang of crazies before they have a chance to murder Sharon Tate and her friends.
America has sold the world the idea that violence is the ultimate solution to any social evil. We’ve not only created the mass shooting incident but we’ve exported it, like many of our most violent movies, TV shows and video games, to the rest of the world — including countries like Norway and New Zealand whose citizens never thought that someday they’d have to deal with this kind of shit.
America puts its governmental money where its cultural mouth is by spending more on its military than the next 25 countries in the world combined, and by maintaining a network of military bases throughout the world, always protected by the doctrine of “extraterritoriality.” That means that if a U.S. servicemember commits a crime while stationed in a foreign country, that country has no jurisdiction and therefore no right to punish the U.S. servicemember for that crime.
We have a lot to do if we want to put an end to the scourge of mass shootings America’s lax policy towards firearms and cultural glorification of violence has loosed on our country — and, increasingly, on the entire world. First, there needs to be an outright, permanent, total ban on AR-15’s, AK-47’s and other weapons of mass slaughter. If that means going into people’s homes and forcibly taking their guns away, so be it.
These weapons have only one purpose — the killing of large numbers of humans in a short period of time — and there is no earthly reason any private citizen should be allowed to own one. We banned private ownership of machine guns in the 1920’s; we can ban assault weapons now if we can summon the political courage to do so and the determination to outvote the NRA and their zombie minions.
There also needs to be a sweeping change in America’s culture industry. Many of the people who run or work in it claim to be “liberals,” but they’re putting out movie after movie, TV show after TV show, and video game after video game, that sells the world the message that the way you solve social problems is with guns and bullets. It’s time for our culture-makers to start telling stories that exalt peace and diplomacy, not war and violence.
America is a nation that began with a hard heart. For all our noble, shimmering ideals of liberty and equality, we built our country on a genocidal war against its Native population and on the forced labor of Africans kidnapped and owned as slaves. Indeed, activist and professor Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz argued in a Monthly Review article and her 2018 book Loaded: A Disarming History of the Second Amendment that the purposes of those “well-regulated militias” referenced in the Second Amendment was to resist any attempts by Native Americans to reconquer their land, and to recapture fugitive slaves and return them to their bondmasters.
The history of our country is one torn between our nobly expressed ideals of freedom and justice for all and the dirty, disgusting ways we’ve oppressed and exploited people. Our ongoing national affair with guns is an example of our oppressive side, a souvenir of the dirty work we felt we “had” to do to secure this country for a white majority.
Now that demographics — particularly the rising percentages of Americans who are people of color, either via immigration or differences in birth rates — are jeopardizing white Americans’ status as the majority population, we’re seeing Americans react in various toxic ways. The less violent among them acted by electing Donald Trump on a quite explicitly stated platform to “Make America Great Again” by making America majority-white again.

While not all the mass shooters recently active in the U.S. have expressed a white supremacist ideology — or, indeed, any particular ideology at all — the ease with which they can get high-powered firearms with which to commit their massacres is a legacy of white America’s historical determination to retain its dominance. Just as you can’t treat a disease successfully if you only treat its symptoms and don’t address its underlying cause, so you can’t treat the social disease of mass shootings without addressing the pathology of America’s relationship with firearms and its generations of glorification of their use.

Wednesday, August 07, 2019

By the Time We Got to Woodstock …


Copyright © 2019 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

I first heard of the Woodstock Music and Arts Festival about a month before it happened, when I was hanging out at an alternative radical office in San Francisco and seeing newspapers from the underground press of 1969. Along with the usual political and cultural articles, and ads promoting “head shops” and other businesses of political appeal to the hippie and radical communities, was an engaging listing of quite a few major rock and folk-music acts scheduled to perform at a three-day series of concerts. I briefly was tempted to go, until I realized that as a kid just about to turn 16 in a city on the opposite end of the country from where it was supposed to take place, there was no practical way for me to get there or to survive alone that far from home.
A lot of people did make that journey, though, and I saw quite a few of them on film in a documentary PBS-TV aired August 6, 2019. I found myself responding to the sheer beauty of the people in these pictures, and having a pang of regret that all those young, beautiful men and women showcasing their bodies for the camera are now, if still alive, my age or older and their looks have probably declined as much as mine have. “Woodstock” has become a touchstone of the history of the 1960’s, mythologized in shows like this one as a sort of perfect, albeit temporary, community in which people came together, survived unspeakably awful conditions and, at least for a few days, lived together in the spirit of “peace, love and music” promised by the event’s iconic poster and logo: a dove perched on the neck of a guitar.
I’m eccentric enough — and always have been — that my response to Woodstock and the counter-cultural ferment around it was a bit unusual then and remained so still. I remember the late 1960’s as a time of great political and social ferment, in which I aligned myself with the Left at least partly as what had been called in the 1950’s a “red-diaper baby.” My mother was active in the civil-rights and anti-war movements — she broke up with her second husband, my stepfather, largely over political differences. We had radical publications like Ramparts and El Malcriado (the newsletter of the United Farm Workers and its founders, César Chávez, Larry Itliong and Dolores Huerta) around the house and I read them regularly.
We lived in Marin County, just north of San Francisco, but when my mom and my stepdad broke up she chose to move us into Marin City. Marin City was an almost exclusively African-American enclave built into a sort of natural dish-shaped crater between Sausalito and the Golden Gate Bridge. It had been created in the 1940’s to house Black workers building ships for World War II, and when I grew up there in the late 1960’s it was dominated by four or five giant housing projects that even then already had a reputation as unsafe environments haunted by drugs and crime. Mom’s interesting but ultimately unsuccessful experiment in personal integration just encouraged my introversion; having little in common with the people around me (and not just because almost all of them were Black), I withdrew that much more into myself and the books and magazines I read incessantly.
San Francisco was just down Highway 101 and the Golden Gate Bridge from where I lived, but I rarely got down there unless my mother drove me. As a member of the counterculture herself, she took me to a surprising number of musical events, including the 1966 Berkeley Folk Festival at which I saw the first incarnation of the greatest 1960’s San Francisco rock band, the Jefferson Airplane. I remember one day when the Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead alternated sets at a free concert in Golden Gate Park, but because it was a school day I didn’t see any of it except the last set by the Airplane, including their then-new lead singer, Grace Slick, performing “White Rabbit.”
But at the same time I was discovering the new rock ’n’ roll, I was also reaching back into music history and discovering the jazz of the 1920’s, 1930’s and 1940’s. Part of that came from my mother, who still had a lot of the 78 rpm records she’d grown up with. I remember hearing Billie Holiday’s 1939 recording “Strange Fruit” on my mom’s original Commodore 78 and realizing with a start that it was a social-protest song denouncing lynching. (We 1960’s kids thought Bob Dylan had invented social-protest music, though we had a dim awareness that a couple of guys named Guthrie and Seeger might have done some things along that line before him.) I remember my mom telling me she’d played that record in the 1940’s and people had told her, “They’re just kidding. Those things don’t happen. Not in America.”
In 1969 I was developing a schizoid musical taste, enjoying some current acts my mom liked (The Beatles and Bob Dylan) as well as some she didn’t (The Rolling Stones and The Doors) while simultaneously reaching backwards into the musical archives. Part of it was encouraged by a high-school English teacher who was also a semi-professional jazz pianist. Tasked by the official curriculum with teaching F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, he took Fitzgerald’s reputation as chronicler of “the Jazz Age” (a phrase Fitzgerald coined) seriously and encouraged his class in general, and me in particular, to explore the music of Fitzgerald’s time. Inevitably I saw ironic parallels between the youth rebellion of the 1920’s and that of the 1960’s, and when we read Fitzgerald’s short story “Bernice Bobs Her Hair” I loved the fact that in the middle of an era in which young men were showing their rebellion by growing their hair long, we were reading a story about an era in which young women were showing their rebellion by cutting their hair short.

The Story and the Legend

After seeing that one ad in an underground newspaper, the next time I heard about Woodstock was while it was happening. Like most mainstream papers around the country, the San Francisco Chronicle front-paged the news reports of the festival, focusing on the unspeakable conditions: the rain, the mud, the overall disorder that had turned what was supposed to be a money-making capitalist venture into a mess, and above all the sheer number of people who’d shown up. Part of the mythology of Woodstock was that 500,000 people showed up; more sober, fact-based estimates of the crowd put it at 350,000, but that was still about seven times more than the organizers had expected.
Woodstock was the brainchild of four young men in New York City: John Rosenman, John Roberts, Michael Lang and Artie Kornfeld. Rosenman was a worker in the financial services industry who had suddenly inherited $250,000 from the estate of his mother at a time when that was real money. He and Roberts were sufficiently aware of the growing popularity of rock music that they decided building a recording studio where rock bands could work would be a sound investment. They opened MediaSound Studios in New York City and then decided to build a branch studio in upstate New York, where band members could live and relax in a comfortable rural environment while going through the increasingly complex process of recording state-of-the-art music.
They decided to build their second studio in Woodstock, New York, a small community known for decades as an artists’ hangout. Woodstock was already a legendary name in rock history because it was the home of Albert Grossman, Bob Dylan’s manager. Grossman’s estate included a barn nicknamed “Big Pink” where Dylan had gone to recover after a near-fatal motorcycle accident in 1966. He and his backing group, an ensemble of four Canadians and one Arkansan collectively known as “The Band,” hung out there in 1967 and recorded the so-called “Basement Tapes,” rough-hewn performances that started to dribble out in 1970 on officially unauthorized bootleg LP’s. (A lot of people, including me, later suspected that Dylan himself was putting out these bootlegs because he wanted to make available performances his official record company, Columbia, didn’t think were technically well recorded enough for release.)
Rosenman and Roberts brought along two partners, Michael Lang and Artie Kornfeld, to organize what they originally planned as a small-scale concert featuring Dylan, The Band and other rock talents who occasionally hang out in Woodstock to celebrate the opening of the Woodstock studio when it was finished. The idea soon snowballed into a giant concert in its own right, to be held in a pastoral environment instead of the fairgrounds and racetracks that had hosted previous attempts at rock festivals. (Lang and Kornfeld had previously promoted one in Miami that had been rained out on the second day, though it inspired their headliner, Jimi Hendrix, to write the song “Rainy Day, Dream Away.”)
The original plan for the location was a rather dowdy-looking farm outside Wallkill, a neighboring town to Woodstock, but the Wallkill City Council, horrified by the size of the event and the countercultural hippie audience it was likely to draw, passed an ordinance forbidding gatherings of more than 5,000 people within city limits. The four promoters flew by helicopter over the area and spotted several large patches of land. The owner who was willing to rent to them was Max Yasgur, owner of a dairy farm and milk business in Bethel, New York. Yasgur was a lifelong Republican but enough of a libertarian he thought the Woodstock promoters had been unfairly treated by Wallkill; he cut a deal to rent his farm for the festival.
Unfortunately, the deal had taken so long that the promoters didn’t have time to set up the site adequately. They weren’t able to get an established food-service firm to cater the event and feed its attendees, so they hired a three-person hippie enterprise called Food for Love. Deciding that traditional security people in police-style uniforms would only intimidate the crowd, they made a deal with the Hog Farm Collective, a local commune headed by a charismatic man whose real name was Hugh Romney but who called himself “Wavy Gravy” (and whose missing front teeth themselves became an iconic image of Woodstock), to secure the site and stop people from making trouble by talking themselves out of it. The promoters had been aware that providing restroom facilities would be an issue — one had even prepared by visiting Yankee Stadium, standing outside the restrooms, and not only counting how many people used them but timing them to see how long they took — but they realized they couldn’t provide anywhere near enough port-a-potties to meet the demand, so they did the best they could.
Woodstock so caught the imaginations of members of the counter-culture that as early as a week before the festival, the roads into Bethel were jammed with people heading there. Cars couldn’t get within miles of the site, so the people who had driven there gave up and walked the rest of the way. As one of the promoters told the makers of the PBS documentary, with just four days to go before the festival they realized they didn’t have time to build both a stage for the performers and a perimeter fence to keep out people who hadn’t paid admission. (The tickets were priced at $6 per day, or a three-day pass for $18. Isn’t inflation a bitch?) They figured that if they couldn’t enforce an admission charge, they’d take a financial bath on the festival — but if they didn’t have a stage, they couldn’t present the musical acts and they would risk both a riot on scene and a later lawsuit for false advertising.
So, under the supervision of “Chip” Monck — whose innovative stage, lighting and sound designs did more than any other individual to make outdoor rock concerts possible — the organizers assembled both paid crew and volunteers to work around the clock 24/7 to assemble the festival stage. Then they had another problem: the horrendous traffic jams surrounding the site made it impossible for anyone to get through, including the musicians who were supposed to perform. Though a now-forgotten band named Sweetwater was supposed to open the festival, the promoters put on African-American folksinger Richie Havens first simply because he was the only musician who’d been able to get there — and while the promoters arranged to fly in their other performers by helicopter, Havens ran through his entire repertoire and then made up a new song, “Freedom,” on the spot, basing a good chunk of it on the old Black spiritual “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.”
Eventually the other acts did fly in, and they were a who’s-who of the rock world in 1969. While the very biggest names in the rock world — the Beatles, Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan — didn’t perform at Woodstock, the ones who did included Jimi Hendrix; Crosby, Stills and Nash (who’d completed their first album before Woodstock but had never played together live before); Jefferson Airplane; Grateful Dead; Creedence Clearwater Revival; Country Joe and the Fish; The Who; Janis Joplin; Sly and the Family Stone; The Chambers Brothers; Joe Cocker; The Band; Ten Years After; Canned Heat; the Paul Butterfield Blues Band; Sha Na Na; Arlo Guthrie; Tim Hardin; Melanie; Johnny Winter; Ravi Shankar (a performer of the classical music of his native India who’d got admitted into the rock pantheon when the Beatles’ George Harrison sponsored him and learned to play Shankar’s instrument, the sitar); and other, now-forgotten acts like Quill, Sweetwater, Mountain, the Incredible String Band, and The Grease Band.

The Legend Gets Built — and Sold

The 2019 PBS documentary Woodstock — not to be confused with the 1970 film that compiled footage of some of the performances — describes the build-up to the festival as one misfortune after another, one hair’s-breath avoidance of total disaster after another, and an event that lived fondly in counter-culture memories but also left a total mess behind in its wake. The film ends with some of the forlorn attempts to clean up the site after the festival and give poor Max Yasgur back his land as something he might conceivably raise dairy cows in again. It does not mention the mythologization of “Woodstock” that converted it into the profitable capitalist enterprise it was always intended to be.
Before the festival, the promoters had cut a deal with a filmmaker named Michael Wadleigh to shoot a movie of the festival and see if he could place it with a major studio for release. Wadleigh’s main credential was that in 1966 he had shot an hour-long black-and-white documentary about the great jazz bassist Charles Mingus whose emotional climax showed Mingus being evicted from his loft apartment in New York City, with the scores of his composition blowing away in the wind as he waited forlornly to have them picked up. Warner Bros., the legendary studio that had just been acquired by a parking-lot owner named Kinney Corporation. agreed not only to distribute the Woodstock movie but also to release some of the performances on record as a three-LP set.
This required getting the artists who’d performed at the festival to sign releases to allow their work to be included in the film. Some of them refused — notably Janis Joplin, who had thought her performance at Woodstock was terrible. In his book Beyond Normal the late Gale Whittington, who along with my friend the late Leo Laurence helped found the Gay Liberation movement in San Francisco in March 1969 (four months before the riots at the Stonewall Inn in New York City) and led the first demonstrations against a private employer for anti-Queer discrimination, recalled running into Janis as he was selling copies of the Berkeley Barb underground paper on the streets of San Francisco.
She was arguing with a man, accusing him of having talked her into performing at Woodstock and doing an awful set that would just ruin her career — and Whittington recalled being disillusioned at seeing that a major star he’d admired and revered was just a typical human asshole after all. But his account of Janis’s anger seemed to make sense to me: for all her free-wheeling, no-holds-barred image she was also a conscientious performer who cared about how she came off in public, and she hated her Woodstock set so much that in the original version of Wadleigh’s film she did not appear. Later, after she was dead and therefore no longer able to prevent it, Janis appeared in subsequent edits of the movie.
Warner Bros. charged between $3.50 and $5 to see the movie — almost double what a normal first-run feature cost in 1970, when the film was released. (Again, isn’t inflation a bitch?) A group of my radical friends and I decided to protest the ticket price by sneaking into the movie (the only time in my life I’ve done that). To promote the movie, they generated an intense hype surrounding Woodstock that has become an integral part of the 1960’s counter-culture legend to this day. Rolling Stone magazine cooperated with the hype, giving the soundtrack album a rave review and saying it would be the perfect record to play to later generations who wondered what rock music was about and what made it so special. The result was a huge hit of a movie that is continually being re-released in various permutations — and whose royalties at least partially repaid the original Woodstock promoters for their losses on the festival.
Warner Bros. later followed up with another set of LP’s of the Woodstock performances, Woodstock Two, and in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s I heard these records again — and was startled at how mediocre most of the performances were. Not that the conditions at the festival were conducive to greatness: the PBS documentary includes scenes of roadies and tech people frantically wrapping the bands’ electronic equipment in tarps to protect it from the rainstorm that hit big-time on Sunday, August 17 the third day of the festival. Flown in by helicopter, given no opportunity for sound checks, and probably having to share a lot of equipment (most musicians are intensely protective and possessive of their own “gear”), it’s a testament to the professionalism of these musicians that they were able to perform at all.
The hype machine needed only one truly great performance to sell the Woodstock movie, and as it turned out they got two. One was the radiant folk-rock harmonies of Crosby, Stills and Nash, not only giving their first live performance but adding Stephen Stills’ former Buffalo Springfield bandmate Neil Young for two songs. (They’d later add him to the lineup and, as Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, achieve a reputation as one of the most internally combative bands in rock — so much so that Frank Zappa, in one of his concerts, joked about having “three unreleased recordings of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young fighting in the dressing room at the Fillmore East.”)
The other was Jimi Hendrix, whose performance closed the festival after a Sunday set that had gone on so long that by the time he went on it was already dawn of Monday, August 18. Though it was actually played in the middle of his set, Hendrix’ unforgettable performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner” was the part that stuck out then and now. One of the festival organizers told PBS that all of a sudden the sound of Hendrix’ guitar playing the national anthem cut through the haze. I remember playing this record for the 20-something man I was briefly dating in 1994 and he noted that through the first half of the song Hendrix played the melody pretty much “straight” — but when he got to the lines, “And the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air,” Hendrix sent his hand sliding down the fretboard and actually made his guitar sound like rockets and bombs.
The PBS documentary Woodstock naturally tried to set the political and social context of the 1960’s, including the seemingly never-ending war in Viet Nam and the assassinations of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy. In the hands of Jimi Hendrix, clad in a white fringed outfit that made him look like an almost angelic apparition in the midst of a crowd of people mostly covered in mud, “The Star-Spangled Banner” became a weird song choice that seemed to sum up the whole contradiction of the counter-culture, loving America and the freedoms it offered while simultaneously questioning it for falling far short of its stated ideals. The contradictions within Hendrix himself — not only was he part African-American and part Native American, thereby belonging to two of the most oppressed groups in U.S. history, but he was one of the few 1960’s rock musicians who’d actually served in the U.S. military —just added to the overlay of the contradictions in his audience, his professional situation (like the other Woodstock performers, he was being well paid for his participation in a “free” festival) and the nation’s history at that particularly fraught moment.

Fifty Years On: Woodstock in the Trump Era

The inexorable push of the calendar has brought the 50th anniversaries of all sorts of major cultural touchstones for those of us who were alive and aware in the 1960’s: the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and The Beatles (the so-called “White Album”); the Apollo 11 landing on the moon (which was the subject of its own round of retrospective documentaries, not only from PBS from CNN and other sources as well), and the dark sides of the era — the King and Robert Kennedy assassinations, the Manson murders and the attempt by the Rolling Stones to promote their own instant Woodstock at Altamont. I did attend Altamont and have vivid memories of a green-suited young Black man being murdered on stage by the Hell’s Angels the Stones had hired as their “security.” That just upped my level of cynicism about the “Woodstock” hype and the ability of our generation to do a better job of bringing about peace and love than our forebears.
“Woodstock” has become a brand name. Anniversary festivals have been held in 1979, 1989, 1994, 1999, and 2009, and I recently saw a news report that John Fogerty, who as leader of Creedence Clearwater Revival had been the first person to sign up for the original Woodstock, had just dropped out of Woodstock 2019. It’s also become a touchstone for the continuing conflicts between the mainstream culture and the counter-culture. One can’t understand the ascendancy of Donald Trump — and of Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and both George Bushes before him — without acknowledging how much of their political power has come from attacking the Woodstock counter-culture.
It’s certainly ironic to hear Joan Baez and Jeffrey Shurtleff singing “Drug Store Truck Driving Man” — a savage and not especially witty satire on Ronald Reagan — on the latest incarnation of the Woodstock recordings when we know the sequel. Reagan, like Nixon before him and the Bushes and Trump afterwards, rode to the governorship of California three years before Woodstock and the presidency 11 years afterwards, largely by exploiting the racial and cultural prejudices of working-class white voters scared that the advances of African-Americans and other historically marginalized minorities were coming at their expense, and that the hippies were throwing away the advantages their parents had worked so hard to give them — including admission to college — on drugs, free sex and bad music.
The modern-day Republican party is still fueling its ascendancy by “hooking” the racial and cultural prejudices of working-class white voters. It’s true that there are almost no real-life hippies left for them to rail against, but with the rise of the Queer rights movement in the 1970’s the prejudices against the counter-culture simply shifted from anti-hippie to anti-Queer. Donald Trump and his supporters — including virtually the entire Republican Party — are simply the latest and most determined culture warriors aiming to wipe out the entire political and cultural legacy of the 1960’s and get people of color either out of the country altogether or back to the back of the bus where they “belong,” end all this “nonsense” about women having the right to control their careers or even control their bodies, and drive Queers back to the closet and to disgrace or suicide.
Woodstock — both the reality and the hype — seem in a lot of ways to belong to a long-lost cultural era. Because the hothouse atmosphere of the 1960’s had brought about such an incredible expansion in young people’s sense of the possibilities — political, economic, racial, cultural, sexual and, alas, pharmaceutical — a lot of us back then thought the possibilities would just keep on expanding and the world would fundamentally change without the bother, brutality and bloodshed of violent revolution. Alas, we underestimated not only the remarkable ability of the capitalist system to grab hold of our rebellion and sell it back to us as a commodity, but also the depth of the commitment of our adversaries in the “mainstream” culture and their determination to reverse the social and cultural gains of the 1960’s and thus “make America great again.”
As I write this, I’m listening to the three-CD set that’s the latest incarnation of the Woodstock recordings. They sound better to me now than they did in the 1980’s; what seemed on that go-round as the professionalism of musicians doing their best to perform under awful conditions (the truly inspired sets by Hendrix — who for contractual reasons involving his estate doesn’t appear on the new version of the album — and Crosby, Stills and Nash excepted) now comes off as an appealing raggedness that makes the musicians seem more human. At the same time, there’s a tragic cast to the Woodstock recordings from the number of the performers — including Hendrix, Joplin, Alan Wilson (the appealingly whiny-voiced singer featured on Canned Heat’s performances) and two members of The Who, John Entwistle and Keith Moon — who died well before their times.
I’m not sure what the 20-something people of today would make of the Woodstock recordings. Young people’s whole relationship to music has changed; instead of collecting records they “stream,” and they treat musicians as mere entertainers instead of cultural and social avatars. It’s only on the rare occasions when a modern-day singer is directly confronted by the evils of the world — as Ariana Grande was when her concert in Manchester, England was targeted by terrorists who assassinated 22 members of her audience, and she responded by hosting another concert there weeks later, making it a benefit for the victims’ families, and closing with the 1939 song “Over the Rainbow” (co-written by Leftist E. Y. Harburg and originally sung by Judy Garland, who campaigned for Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy) — that musicians of today put their art in the service of social ideals beyond safe “benefits” for anti-disease campaigns.

Would today’s youth regard Woodstock as the quaint music their grandparents listened to — as my friends regarded the 1920’s jazz and 1930’s swing music I was starting to like when Woodstock happened? Would they hear the anticipations of heavy-metal in the Who and disco and modern dance-pop in Sly and the Family Stone? Would they like some of it but miss the social significance it had for us 1960’s kids? Would they just hear it as one more element in the universal soundtrack of the computer age, in which just about any song ever recorded is instantly available for a small debit-card charge on a computer? Would they understand how we heard it now that the 1960’s conflicts are something they’ve learned about in American history classes — even though the battle lines that were drawn in the 1960’s still largely rule American politics and culture, and are indeed at the heart of the divide between Donald Trump and his political adversaries?

Sunday, June 30, 2019

The Clown Car


Copyright © 2019 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Well, the Democratic Party’s candidates for President — or at least 20 of them — got to get out of what has increasingly looked like a clown car and actually talk to voters on TV June 26 and 27 in Miami, Florida. The Democratic National Committee (DNC) co-sponsored the debate with three NBC-owned TV networks — NBC itself, MS-NBC and Telemundo — and set up the rules by which the candidates would have to demonstrate enough nationwide support, either by poll numbers or donations to their campaigns, to qualify for the events.
That’s two events because the DNC decided to have separate debates on each night, with 10 candidates on Wednesday, June 26 and 10 more Thursday, June 27. The apparent intent was to avoid what the Republicans did with a similarly packed clown-car’s worth of 17 candidates in 2016 — pick out the 10 leading candidates for the main-stage, prime-time debate and relegate the others to a kid’s-table undercard debate in the afternoon.
But when four of the five leading candidates — former vice-president Joe Biden, Senators Bernie Sanders (D-VT) and Kamala Harris (D-CA), and South Bend, Indiana mayor Pete Buttigieg (pronounced “boot-a-judge,” by the way) — ended up on the second-night stage, the first debate on Wednesday started to look like merely the warmup act.
It gave especially short shrift to Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) just when she was starting to rise in the polls from third place to second, behind Biden but ahead of Sanders. Though the DNC officials insisted that the assignments were “random,” it certainly seemed like the DNC, which in 2016 blatantly rigged the process against Sanders and in favor of Hillary Clinton, wanted to trash the chances of Warren, who’s just as progressive as Sanders but seems to know the political process a lot better and has done a lot more work to translate their shared left-of-center ideas into actual policy proposals.
Warren dominated the first hour of the first night’s debate but then barely got called on in the second half by moderators Rachel Maddow and Chuck Todd — though she recovered long enough to give an eloquent closing statement calling for an America where the economic and political systems aren’t blatantly rigged by and for the already super-rich.
What mostly got reported out of Wednesday’s debate was an arcane argument between two of the lesser candidates, both from Texas (a state so deep-red Donald Trump would have to be caught on tape having an orgy with a seven-year-old boy and a goat to lose it), former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro and former Congressmember (and failed U.S. Senate candidate) Beto O’Rourke over whether immigrating into the U.S. without proper documents should continue to be a federal crime or whether it should be reduced to the civil offense it used to be.
And what mostly got reported out of Thursday’s debate was a carefully prepared assault on former V-P Biden by Kamala Harris, who comes from an African-American background but frankly doesn’t look like it. (The first time I heard of her and saw her photo, I assumed from her skin color, her very un-Black hair and nose, and the name “Kamala” that she was [East] Indian.)
One of Biden’s talking points has been that he’s the candidate who can do the most to preserve and extend the legacy of African-American civil rights activism. Not only was he the vice-president to the first African-American President in U.S. history, his poll standing among Black Democrats is 45 percent — over 10 percent higher than his support among Democrats as a whole.
But Harris, following Republican strategist Karl Rove’s tactic of attacking the opponent where he (or she) seems to be strongest, tore into Biden for having opposed the use of busing to integrate schools in the 1970’s. Harris said that she herself had been part of the second class bused from Berkeley’s low-income Black neighborhoods to schools in more affluent white communities, and added that she believed she got better opportunities from that education that enabled her to go to college, become an attorney and serve as district attorney in San Francisco, attorney general of California and ultimately a U.S. Senator.
I missed the first 45 minutes of Thursday’s debate — I was still on my way home from work when it was going on — but I got home in time to hear the Harris-Biden exchange. My heart sank. Frankly, in the argument between Kamala Harris and Joe Biden over busing, the real winner was … Donald Trump.
As an elementary-school student in the mid-1970’s, Harris may not be old enough to remember the hideous damage “busing” — both the word and the concept — did to the Democratic Party. But I do. It tore apart communities in cities as different as Los Angeles and Boston and led to former liberal and progressive allies not only rhetorically but sometimes physically attacking each other. “Busing” was one of the key racist code words by which the Republican Party was able in the 1960’s and 1970’s to break apart the New Deal coalition and win the white working class away from the Democrats and towards the Republicans.
As I’ve argued in these pages before, the Republicans put together a Right-wing coalition that has mostly, though not totally, dominated U.S. politics since 1968 by tapping white working-class prejudices about race and culture and saying the Democrats had sold out the white working class to protect racial minorities, feminists, hippies and Queers. Every Republican who has won a Presidential election since 1968 — Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, both George Bushes and Donald Trump — has done so in part by manipulating white working-class anxieties with words like “busing,” “welfare queens,” “illegal immigrants” and the like.
In their attempt to unseat a President who managed to win largely by convincing working-class white voters — especially in states like Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Ohio that had particularly suffered from the deindustrialization of America and the mass export of jobs to lower-wage countries and low-paid “illegal” workers in this one — that he was on their side, the last thing the Democrats should be doing is dropping words like “busing” into their debates and thereby reminding white working-class voters why they stopped voting for Democrats and started voting for Republicans in the first place.

It’s 1896 All Over Again

One of the most bizarre things about modern-day U.S. political commentary is how every time there’s an open contest for the Democratic Presidential nomination, pundits and the chattering classes seem to “discover” all over again that there’s a conflict within the Democratic Party between moderate centrists and Left progressives. There’s a conflict, all right, but it’s nothing new.
It really began in 1896, when the Democratic Party was in the minority almost everywhere in the U.S. but the South, which was still essentially fighting the Civil War and saw the Democrats as their instrument for keeping African-Americans as close to slavery as they could. Elsewhere in the nation the Civil War’s victors, the Republicans, dominated politics so completely that between 1860 and 1892 the Republicans won seven Presidential elections to the Democrats’ two, and held Congressional majorities through most of that time as well.
In 1896 the incumbent President was Grover Cleveland, the Democrat who had won both the elections the Republicans had lost (as well as a third election, in 1888, in which he’d won the popular vote but lost the Electoral College to Republican Benjamin Harrison — sound familiar?). It was a time in which national politics were controlled almost outright by the giant corporations that ran the economy in the new industrial age, came together to form monopolistic “trusts” and destroy potential competition, and treated the political system basically as a store in which they could “buy” favorable policies by donating to politicians’ campaigns and often by running for — and essentially purchasing — elective office themselves. It was also the era in which the U.S. Congress passed its first restrictions on immigration, including banning a whole country — China — from sending us immigrants.
Indeed, I’ve been arguing ever since Donald Trump emerged as the alligator who ate all the other Republican Presidential candidates in the swamp in 2016 that the answer to Hillary Clinton’s rhetorical question to him — just when does Trump think America was “great,” and to which he wants to return to “make America great again”? — is the 1880’s. At the time there were no restrictions on corporations’ ability to pollute the environment, low-ball workers’ wages and subject them to dangerous conditions, block workers from organizing unions, merge into giant trusts to keep anyone from competing with them, or pay politicians what amounted to outright bribes to maintain their “freedom” to exploit everyone else for their own gain.
Though the Democrats had gained a Congressional majority in 1874 and the Presidency in 1884 largely by exploiting public revulsion over the Republicans’ political corruption, once in office they behaved pretty much the same way. Like his Republican predecessors, President Cleveland called out the National Guard and other federal forces to break strikes. He ran an economic policy that focused on keeping inflation low instead of expanding economic opportunity by putting more money in circulation. The result was a nationwide “Panic” — 19th-century speak for “depression” — that hit in 1893 and lasted at least five years.
Americans who were getting hurt by these policies responded politically by forming the Populist Party in 1892 (which makes it especially ironic that a President like Trump who’s on the opposite side of all the major economic issues from the original Populists keeps being called a “populist” by political commentators who don’t know the term’s history). The Democrats of the 1890’s regarded the emergence of the Populists as an existential threat — could they annihilate the Democratic Party the way the Republicans had with the Whig Party in the 1850’s? — and they split over the question, beat them or co-opt them?
In 1896 the race for the Democratic Presidential nomination was between moderate Grover Cleveland and progressive William Jennings Bryan. Bryan has become one of the most misunderstood figures in American politics because late in life he embraced the cause of Fundamentalist Christianity and tried to block the teaching of evolution. But his 1896 campaign was a slashing attack on the power and privilege of giant corporations, and a call for coining silver in order to expand the money supply and therefore stimulate the economy.
Bryan’s religious conservatism informed and reinforced his political progressivism in ways that would seem inconceivable today. Running 10 years after the U.S. Supreme Court had declared that corporations were “persons” and therefore had political rights under the U.S. Constitution, Bryan argued that corporate personhood was literally blasphemy. If you believed, as the Declaration of Independence said, that people were “endowed by their Creator” with the rights to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” it followed logically that only God-created persons — human beings — held those rights; not person-created “persons,” corporations.
Even Bryan’s opposition to evolution stemmed in large part from his political progressivism. In the 1880’s social theorists like Herbert Spencer argued that the human race was still evolving and that rich people were actually superior beings — the fact that they were rich, Spencer argued, demonstrated their superiority and therefore their entitlement to most of the wealth and income. Invoking Charles Darwin’s explanation of how evolution worked, Spencer said, “The millionaires are the product of natural selection” — and a horrified Bryan rejected not only Spencer’s gloss on evolution but the evolutionary theory itself.
When Bryan challenged Cleveland for the 1896 Democratic nomination, he won — but the Democrats ultimately lost to Republican William McKinley. The corporate bosses the Populists and Bryan’s Democrats were attacking fought back in the nastiest ways they could. Millions of American workers got notices in their pay packets saying, “Don’t come to work anymore if Bryan wins.” Between 1896 and 1928 the Democrats once again won only two out of nine Presidential elections, and Republicans actually increased the size and longevity of their Congressional majorities.

The Struggle Continues for the Democrats’ Soul

As the Republican Party controlled the U.S. government for most of the first three decades of the 20th century, the battle within the Democratic Party over how to respond continued. In 1912 the Democrats finally elected their first President since Cleveland, Woodrow Wilson, born in Virginia but a resident of New Jersey when he ran, largely because that year it was the Republican Party that split between progressive former President Theodore Roosevelt and conservative incumbent William Howard Taft. Wilson squeaked out a re-election in 1916 but his involvement of the U.S. in World War I and his desire that this country remain a player in foreign politics after the war helped Republican Warren Harding win in 1920 by promising a “return to normalcy.”
In 1924, after Harding died in office, scandals engulfed his Cabinet and vice-president Calvin Coolidge took over the presidency, the Democratic convention deadlocked between conservative William Gibbs McAdoo, another transplanted Southerner (born in Tennessee but a resident of California) who had been Wilson’s Secretary of the Treasury; and progressive New York Governor Al Smith. The convention went to 103 ballots before finally nominating John W. Davis, a Wall Street attorney whose final public action 30 years later would be arguing the racist side before the U.S. Supreme Court in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision.
Coolidge beat Davis in a landslide, and four years later the Democrats nominated Al Smith but split over Smith’s religion — Roman Catholicism — and his support of repealing Prohibition. Republican Herbert Hoover won an easy victory, largely on the strength of an expanding economy — only the expansion suddenly came to a halt in late 1929 with the stock market crash and the resulting Great Depression. The Depression and World War II would make the Democrats the U.S. majority party from the 1930’s to the 1960’s, and would tamp down the continuing controversy between the party’s moderates and its progressives.
But the struggle for the Democratic Party’s soul would erupt again in the 1960’s. Northern Democratic Presidents and Congressmembers took the lead in fighting for African-American civil rights and ultimately broke the power of the Southern Democrats — leading to an historic reversal of the two parties’ historical positions on civil rights. The Democrats, who’d been the party of slavery, secession, segregation and the Ku Klux Klan, passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965 (with crucial support from moderate Northern Republicans) and established themselves as the party of civil rights in general and African-American rights in particular.
The Republicans responded with the so-called “Southern Strategy” of Richard Nixon and Strom Thurmond — the fiercely racist Senator from South Carolina who began as a Democrat, ran for President in 1948 as an independent and later became a Republican. The essence of the “Southern Strategy” was that, now that the Democrats had laid down the banner of Southern racism, the Republicans would pick it up. The “Party of Lincoln” thus became the party of racist reaction — and not just in the South. Northern working-class whites, horrified by the gains African-Americans were making (and convinced they were coming at their expense) and also by the 1960’s counterculture, began abandoning the Democratic Party and voting for Republicans.
Nixon’s victory in the 1968 election — and the emergence of a Right-wing voting bloc that got 57 percent of the vote that year (between Nixon’s 43 percent and racist independent candidate George Wallace’s 14 percent) to the Democrats’ 43 percent — reignited the internal conflict within the Democratic Party: move to the center to win back the white voters they’d lost over race and culture, or embrace the Left? In 1968 they chose the former, nominating Hubert Humphrey in Chicago while police in a city with a Democratic mayor beat protesters to bloody pulps — and Humphrey lost by a margin that, when Nixon’s and Wallace’s votes are added together, indicated a broad rejection of liberal politics in general and the Democrats in particular.
In 1972 the Democrats nominated progressive South Dakota Senator George McGovern after the most promising moderate, Maine Senator Ed Muskie (Humphrey’s running mate in 1968) was knocked out of the campaign by Nixon’s dirty-tricks operation. McGovern lost in a landslide, with just 39 percent of the vote to Nixon’s 61 percent, and the Democratic Party responded quite differently from the way the Republicans had when Right-winger Barry Goldwater had lost to Lyndon Johnson by a similar margin in 1964.
The Republicans decided after the Goldwater loss that the problem hadn’t been with their policies, but with him as a spokesperson for them. Instead of retreating from the extreme Right-wing positions of Goldwater, they embraced them and in 1980 won the Presidency with Ronald Reagan running on what was essentially Goldwater’s program. By contrast, after 1972 the Democrats decided that the problem was McGovern’s policies, and the people running the Democratic Party decided to rig the rules to make sure nobody that progressive could get nominated again.
Among the devices they used to do that was the so-called “superdelegates,” party leaders who would be guaranteed slots at the convention and would form a powerful voting bloc against anyone they perceived as too progressive. The Democratic establishment was able to beat back progressive challenges from Senator Edward Kennedy in 1980 and Senator Gary Hart and Rev. Jesse Jackson in 1984 largely through their control of the delegate selection process. But the bland centrists they ran against Reagan in 1984 (Walter Mondale) and George H. W. Bush, Reagan’s vice-president and anointed successor, in 1988 (Michael Dukakis), also went down to humiliating defeats.

What’s a Party to Do?

While the Democrats were for the most part abandoning or compromising their most hard-core progressive supporters to appeal to “the center,” the Republicans were doing the exact opposite. During the 1990’s the Republican Party, its corporate funders and a Right-wing media complex they were able to create largely due to Reagan’s deregulation of broadcasting became a devastatingly effective propaganda machine designed not only to keep winning elections for the Republicans but to build a hard core of public support from people who relied on Right-wing media — particularly AM talk radio and Fox News — to tell them how to think about politics and whom to vote for.
So Democrats in general, and progressive Democrats in particular, have waited with frustration while Republicans have managed to push the terms of U.S. political debate further and further Right. Ideas like privatizing Social Security, which were considered totally beyond the political pale when Barry Goldwater proposed it in 1964, have become serious threats. Republicans haven’t won every Presidential or Congressional election since 1968 — far from it — but they’ve adopted a policy of waiting out every Democratic President or Congress and using the anti-democratic features built into the U.S. government by the Constitution to block the Democrats from advancing a progressive or even a liberal agenda very far.
This wasn’t supposed to happen. When I was in grade school, high school, and college (where I majored in political science), the conventional wisdom was that the American political system punished parties that tried to be too ideological. If either the Republicans or the Democrats went too far to the extreme — the Republicans too far Right or the Democrats too far Left — the voters would punish them by removing them from office, thereby bringing the overall political system back to the center.
That hasn’t happened partly because the Republicans have built up a political-media complex that has kept their base mobilized, energized and committed. Also, the Republicans have cunningly exploited the anti-democratic features of the U.S. Constitution — the Electoral College, the equal representation of each state in the Senate, and the near-total control of election laws by state government (including the absolute right, recently endorsed by the U.S. Supreme Court, to draw blatantly rigged and uncompetitive political districts so Republicans can stay in power even when overwhelming majorities of voters cast their ballots for Democrats) — to become and remain what historian Leonard Schapiro, writing about the Bolsheviks in Russia in 1917, called “a minority determined to rule alone.”
Donald Trump is not, as Joe Biden has called him, an “aberration” in American politics. He is the culmination of over 50 years of Republican political strategizing aimed at imposing an orthodoxy on American politics consisting of Libertarian economic policies (an end to government regulation of corporations, including laws protecting workers’ health and safety; an end to environmental protection; an end to all attempts to restrict campaign contributions and all restrictions on rich politicians personally profiting from their offices) and a highly interventionist “big government” upholding “traditional family values” and the tenets of Right-wing Christianity by controlling people’s personal lives in general and their sex lives in particular.
The Democratic voices we heard at the debates are deeply committed to combating this agenda but equally deeply split on how to do so. One of the impressions I got from the debates, particularly Wednesday’s, was that as many differences as there were between the candidates, their similarities more than outweighed them. As Virginia Heffernan put it in the June 30 Los Angeles Times (, “No one attacked FISA judges, Peter Strzok, the corrupt FBI, crisis actors, the satanic media, Sasquatch or the women President Trump doesn’t consider attractive enough to rape.
“No one called the climate crisis a hoax,” Heffernan continued. “No one dismissed the Fourth Estate as fakery. No one used daft playground nicknames that wouldn’t pass muster with Nelson from The Simpsons. Instead, we heard insight and resolve about the humanitarian crisis in Trump’s border camps, about Roe v. Wade as the law of the land, about gun violence and income inequality as clear and present dangers.”
The Democratic debates indicated that America really is two different countries — as the late columnist Murray Kempton noted as early as November 1968 when he commented on the Nixon-Humphrey-Wallace election and called Nixon “the president of every community in America that doesn’t have a bookstore.” Not only do Republicans and Democrats have different positions on issues, they have different sets of values and different ideas of what constitutes “truth” and where you go to find it. Democrats see climate change, income inequality, lack of access to health care, gun violence and authoritarian countries like Russia and China as threats.
Republicans, with Trump as their spokesperson, see the real threats as immigrants, Muslims, people of color and those pesky countries in Western Europe that insist on clinging to the values of liberal democracy. If Trump were a strategic thinker — which he isn’t — he would not only be fêting the leaders of Russia, China and North Korea but working with them to organize a “Black International” to crush the whole idea of representative government once and for all and organize the world on the basis of personality-driven dictatorships.
Trump isn’t that sort of thinker. He’s not Adolf Hitler, who not only wanted to wipe democracy (as well as Jews, Communists, Gypsies and Queers) from the face of the earth but came chillingly close to doing so. But he’s a reflection of an American id that Republican politicians have been appealing to and building as their political base for over 50 years. Anyone who’s listened to Right-wing talk radio heard the “Trump voice” long before Trump himself was anything more than a minor-league developer in the outer boroughs of New York City.
From Joe Pyne and Pat Michaels in the 1960’s to Morton Downey, Jr. in the 1980’s and Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, Mark Levin and Roger Hedgecock in the 1990’s and since, talk-radio hosts not only follow the same scripts but speak in the same tones, denouncing their opponents with snippy nicknames and proclaiming that anyone who doesn’t agree with them is an idiot and deserves no consideration whatsoever. Trump won the election at least in part because he was the first Presidential candidate who talked like a Right-wing talk-radio host — and talk radio and Fox News remain powerful propaganda channels and motivators for the Right-wing base.
The threat is that the Democrats will blow the 2020 elections by refighting their old ideological battles and splintering even in the face of the existential threat Trump’s re-election poses not only to the Democratic Party but American democracy itself. This happened in 2016, when all too many of the Democratic base’s voters either threw their votes away on third-party candidates or just stayed home. The Russians didn’t elect Donald Trump — though their online efforts did pour some extra gasoline on the fires already consuming the Democratic Party. The Democrats did, through overconfidence and inaction.
The worst thing that could happen in 2020 is that the Democratic primary campaign goes on so long and becomes so bitter that the eventual nominee can’t unite the party and appeal to the country. It’s entirely possible that Trump could win in 2020 the way he did in 2016 — with a laser-like focus on voters who still feel disaffected by the Democrats and respond to racial and cultural attacks in enough states to get him an Electoral College victory even if he loses the popular vote (again).
In the same issue of the Los Angeles Times in which Virginia Heffernan published her paean to the sense of normality she got from the Democratic debate, Doyle McManus published the sort of article we should get used to seeing in the remaining 16 months of the campaign ( one tsk-tsking the Democratic candidates in general, and the more progressive ones like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders in particular, for allegedly getting too far ahead of the American people by advocating Medicare for all, health coverage for undocumented immigrants and a $15 per hour minimum wage.
In 1964 Phyllis Schlafly published a book called A Choice, Not an Echo in which she said that if the Republicans rejected the moderate New Deal consensus at the time and nominated a hard-line Right-wing candidate, they would win in a landslide and fundamentally reshape American politics. She was wrong about the immediate battle — Barry Goldwater lost big-time — but right about the overall war.
There is a struggle for the soul of America between the Right’s exaltation of wealth and privilege, corporate power, whites over people of color, men over women, straights over Queers and short-term profits over environmental protection, and the Left’s desire to break down the walls of power and privilege, preserve the environment, use government to safeguard the physical and economic health and safety of the overwhelming majority of people who don’t own the means of production, and make society more equal economically, racially and sexually.
It’s a struggle in which the Left has achieved some small victories but the Right is far ahead in the overall war — so much so that a second term for Trump, especially if the Republicans also regain control of the House of Representatives (which became far more likely after the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision last week giving states the right to gerrymander without fear of being held to account by the courts), will probably end the few gains we’ve won and return women, people of color and Queers to second-class citizenship (or worse).

Which way the Democratic Party goes in this year’s struggle — whether it tries to be “centrist,” compromising, appeasing the forces of reaction; or whether it stands firm but also stands smart and avoids getting sucked into the race-baiting of the past — is key not only to whether they can win next year’s elections but whether they, the American people and, indeed, the whole human race have a future.