Wednesday, November 06, 2019

Robert Kuttner Agrees with Me: Don”t Call Latinos or Latinas “Latinx”

I hate, loathe, detest and despise the term “Latinx,”which is now afflicting newspaper pages like a plague as a supposedly gender-neutral term to describe people of Latin-American ancestry. It's an even worse example of political correctness run amok than the term “LGBT,”“LGBTQ”or “LGBTQ+” As I wrote in an unpublished letter to the editor of the Los Angeles Times when I first started encountering the barbaric term “Latinx,” “What on earth is a ‘Latinx’? How do you pronounce it? And since when did folks with same-sex attractions or nontraditional gender identities get tagged with those ever-lengthening and increasingly obscure initials? I’m a Gay man who resents being called an ‘LGBTQ+ person.’ These are examples of what George Orwell meant when he said the purpose of political language was to conceal, not express, meaning." So it was nice to read this e-mail from American Prospect editor Robert Kuttner, who not only can’t stand the term “Latinx” but shows that most Latinos and Latinas can’t stand it either — and that use of the term “Latinx”could actually drive Latinos and Latinas away from the Democratic Party and the progressive cause in general.

NOVEMBER 6, 2019
Kuttner on TAP
How to Lose the Latinx Vote. The term Latinx is supposedly needed as a gender-neutral word to describe voters of Latino or Latina origin. For the most part, pressure to use Latinx comes from Anglo radicals and liberals, not from Hispanics.

Now, a reputable pollster has confirmed that most Latinos and Latinas—98 percent, to be precise—don’t like the word.

For starters, Latinx violates the architecture of the Spanish language. Spanish solves the gender problem in its own way—using a to indicate female, and o to signal male. You got a problem with that?

Moreover, Spanish seldom uses the letter x. When it does, the x is sometimes pronounced like the Spanish j, with the sound kh, as in the word xeres, meaning sherry; other times it is pronounced like a soft s, as in the famous floating gardens of Xochimilco.

There is also the problem of how to pronounce Latinx. When it first appeared, some people pronounced it la-tinks'; others pronounced it lateen'-ex, rhyming with Kleenex. Apparently, the preferred pronunciation is latin-ex', rhyming with Malcolm X. But there is no way to pronounce it that is consistent with spoken Spanish, which never ends words with the letter x.

Reports indicate that most Hispanic people experience the imposition of this ultra-PC word as culturally ignorant and insulting. Classic gringo.

In the Los Angeles Times, a Hispanic writer noted that outlets that used Latinx found their pages “flooded with negative reactions, with some calling the term ‘ridiculous,’ ‘stupid’ and ‘offensive.’”

Latinx was formally rejected by the Real Academia Española, the official committee of Spanish linguists that preserves the language’s integrity.

Meanwhile, President Trump, who characterized Mexicans as rapists and criminals, stands to lose the Hispanic vote big-time. Unless of course liberals screw that up with cultural condescension. Candidates, take note!

The great Mexican patriot Benito Juárez said, “El respeto al derecho ajeno es la paz”: “Peace is respect for the rights of the other.” Latinx fails that test. ~ ROBERT KUTTNER


Friday, August 23, 2019

Why Aren't We Still Going to the Moon?

by MARK GABRISH CONLAN

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

Apollo 11 (CNN Films, Statement Pictures, Universal, 2019)
First Man (Universal, DreamWorks, Perfect World Pictures, 2018)
Chasing the Moon [episode 1] (Robert Stone Productions, 2019)
Man on the Moon (CBS-TV, aired July 16, 2019)

At the end of Apollo 11, the documentary on the July 21, 1969 landing of human beings on the moon made by CNN Films, released theatrically and then shown on TV on the 50th anniversary of the actual event, one of the three astronauts — it’s not clear which one — is heard on the soundtrack speaking of “mankind’s insatiable curiosity to explore the unknown.”
But if humanity (to use the non-sexist term) has an insatiable curiosity to explore the unknown, you’d never know it from the outcome of the Apollo moon program. After Apollo 11, six more rockets were launched by the U.S. with the intent of putting more men (and yes, they were all men; the U.S. didn’t send a woman into space until 1983, 20 years after the Soviet Union did) on the moon.
Ironically, the only one of these missions that achieved lasting fame was Apollo 13, and that’s because it was the only one that didn’t get to the moon. Instead, a malfunction in the spacecraft made it touch-and-go as to whether the astronauts would even make it back to earth safely, and their heroic struggle to improvise a means to return by using their equipment in ways it wasn’t designed for made the Apollo 13 astronauts worldwide heroes and led to a book by the mission captain, Jim Lovell, called Lost Moon that was eventually turned into the hit film Apollo 13.
The extent to which the heroics of going to the moon in 1969 had turned into something seemingly banal and dull was summed up by a line in the script for Apollo 13. One of the officials of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) calls up a news executive at a TV network and asks why they aren’t giving Apollo 13 the wall-to-wall media coverage they gave Apollo 11 — or, indeed, any news coverage all. The network guy responds, “You’ve made going to the moon seem as exciting as going to Pittsburgh.”

A Boy in Love with the Space Program

I was born September 4, 1953, which means I was seven years old when humans first went into space. I had followed the coverage of rocket launches from Cape Canaveral, Florida and gnashed my teeth with frustration that the launches always took place at 7 a.m. Florida time — which meant as a California boy I had to get up by 4 in the morning (on a school night!) to see them “live.” I usually didn’t make it up that early, though I tried.
Nonetheless, I devoured every piece of information I could get on the space program. I remember using my allowance money to buy a couple of paperbacks on it, including one whose “cover boy” was Alan Shepard — technically the first American into space, even though they just shot him up on one of the Army’s old Redstone rockets for what they called a “sub-orbital” flight — meaning that the spacecraft went up across the sky in an arc and then came down again after only 15 minutes. This happened on May 5, 1961, nearly a month after Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space — and the first actually to orbit the earth in a spacecraft, something an American didn’t do until John Glenn on February 20, 1962.
I remember getting two books on the actual NASA space program and then buying a third which disappointed me because it was merely a collection of science-fiction stories. I remember giving up on this book because my seven-year-old mind couldn’t make heads or tails of the third story, Henry Kuttner’s “The Iron Standard.” I ran across that story again in a collection of Kuttner’s works I found in the 1990’s and this time found it absolutely brilliant even though I had a hard time with its politics: it’s about a crew of Earth astronauts who land on the planet Venus, bring free-enterprise capitalism and smash the Takomars, the socialist hierarchies that previously ran Venus’s economy.
Later on my mother signed me up for a children’s book club and, among other things, I eagerly ate up Donald A. Wollheim’s “Mike Mars” series. This posited that in addition to Project Mercury, the astronaut program everyone knew about, the U.S. government had set up a second, secret program of younger men called “Project Quicksilver,” and the heroes were a boyish Anglo guy named Mike Sampson — nicknamed “Mike Mars” because his initials spelled out the name of the Red Planet — and a Native American sidekick named Johnny Bluehawk. The villains of the piece(s) were Rod Harger, the spoiled rich brat of a super-wealthy man who was determined that his son would be the first human in space; and Carl Cahoon, a.k.a. Tench, the thug Harger, Sr. hired to sabotage the other astronauts to make that happen.
So when my age was still in single digits I was excited about the prospect of humans going into space, landing on the moon and eventually reaching out to Mars and beyond as anyone else. My attitude began to sour — like a lot of people’s — as the 1960’s ground on and the very fabric of life on Earth seemed to tear in unexpected ways. President John F. Kennedy — who had proudly proclaimed in 1962 America’s commitment “to send a man to the moon and bring him back safely to the earth” — was killed when I was 10 years old, attending a private grade school and was actually in the playground at recess when the announcement came.
I was already a committed supporter of the African-American civil rights movement — thanks almost entirely to my mother, who was highly active in it as a white supporter of Black civil rights until the movement turned in the so-called “Black Power” direction in 1966 and decided they neither needed nor wanted white supporters. I was at the dinner table while my mother and stepfather watched the TV news and argued about civil rights and the Viet Nam War, which I’d already decided by 1965 (the year my mom and my stepfather broke up, largely over their political differences) I was against. I remember having arguments about it in junior high school with my playmates (to the extent I had any — I was a pretty lonely, introverted kid and frequently the victim of bullying) and smiling to myself when we ended up in high school together and they started coming around to the anti-war position.

Radicalized and Disillusioned

Gradually the ferment of the times won me over to what became the orthodox position about space from progressives and Leftists: that the space program was a colossal waste of money and resources that could better be used against poverty, racism and other problems here on Earth. The new, more cynical attitude I and my friends had towards the space program was probably summed up in a line by satirical singer-songwriter Tom Lehrer on his album That Was the Year That Was, in which he said the government was “spending $20 billion of your money to put some clown on the moon.”
Oh, there were times I got excited about it all over again, including the fascinating program a NASA representative gave at our junior high school (the horrible neologism “middle school” hadn’t been coined yet) explaining exactly how the Apollo spacecraft would work, including the division of the actual moon craft into three sections: the “Command Module,” “Service Module” and what was then called the “Lunar Excursion Module,” the only one of the three parts that would actually land on the moon. Later, apparently someone at NASA’s P.R. department thought the name “Lunar Excursion Module” sounded too frivolous and it was shortened simply to “Lunar Module,” but the acronym “LEM” survived as the colloquial name for the craft.
I got excited all over again on the night Apollo 11’s lunar module actually landed on the moon. The first thing that was broadcast about this momentous event hooked my cynicism when a newscaster announced that the first thing the Apollo 11 astronauts, Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, had done when they touched down on the moon was “jettison waste material.” “Oh, great,” I thought. “We finally get to the moon, and what’s the first thing we do there? Throw out our garbage!”
Nonetheless, that night I went to the home of a young woman who was leader of our radical high-school group, the Student Party for Self-Direction, which was still meeting though it was summer and school was out. There was a blurry black-and-white TV in the room where we were meeting and, like just about every other TV set in the world, it was tuned to the live coverage of the moon landing and we got to read the epochal chyrons, “LIVE FROM THE SURFACE OF THE MOON” and “LIVE FROM MOON,” as two spacesuit-clad figures walked onto the lunar surface, left the big footprints of their space boots on the moon’s grainy, sandy surface and put up an American flag made of plastic. An ordinary cloth one would not have billowed appropriately because the moon has no atmosphere.
We even sent out for ice cream to the local Baskin-Robbins and got their last supply of “Lunar Cheesecake,” a special flavor for the occasion that was lime-green and, as I recall, didn’t taste very much like cheesecake. (Five years later, when the House Judiciary Committee was debating articles of impeachment against then-President Richard Nixon over his role in the Watergate cover-up, Baskin-Robbins would come up with a similar occasional flavor, “Mmm-Peach-Mint.”) We had the properly cynical attitude towards the achievement we as progressives and radicals were supposed to have — but we were still jazzed enough about the experience not only to watch it on TV but get excited about it.
At least part of the problem was that NASA sold the space program in a way that put the astronauts and everyone else involved on the wrong side of the generational divide. From the very start of the astronaut training program NASA had chosen military test pilots, mostly from the Air Force but some from the Navy as well, as having what author Tom Wolfe later called “the right stuff” to lead the U.S. into space.
As the 1960’s wore on and as the war in Viet Nam seemed to soak up young people’s lives and society’s resources without end and without purpose (novelist Norman Mailer summed up the war’s seeming pointlessness by calling one of his books Why Are We In Viet Nam? even though the plot only indirectly dealt with the war), many young Americans (particularly men like me who were approaching draft age and therefore had to deal with the dilemma of whether to fight it willingly, flee the country or risk prison to resist) developed a resistance to all things associated with the U.S. military.
The extent to which NASA sold itself as exemplar of the “old American values” of patriotism, loyalty and moral certitude was shown dramatically in a film clip of astronaut Frank Borman, who as leader of the Apollo 8 crew had been one of the first humans to orbit the moon even though they didn’t land on it, speaking to an audience of students at a major college. Borman gave a full-throated denunciation of all those horrible student radicals who were challenging their professors, the school administrators and the norms of society as a whole — to the cheers of most of his audience and the boos of a few.
The clip is contained in the third part of the three-part PBS documentary Chasing the Moon, the only one of the four films shown on American TV the week of the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 that attempted to show the moon landing in its political context: the high-tension Cold War rivalry with the Soviet Union that had animated its beginning and the divisions within America that had undermined support for it by the time it actually happened.

“Just the Facts” — Or the Nuances as Well

“Facts are nothing without their nuance, sir.”
— Allen Ginsberg, poet, testifying at the Chicago conspiracy trial, 1969-1970

During the 50th anniversary week of the Apollo 11 mission — which I had forgotten was actually eight days long since it took over three days each way to get to the moon and back — I got to see four films about it with dramatically different “takes” on Apollo 11 and the abrupt halt to human-staffed space flight just over three years later. Chasing the Moon, a three-part, six-hour documentary written and directed by Robert Stone, was shown on Dutch TV cut into six one-hour segments. Its principal character was Wernher von Braun, whom Tom Lehrer wrote a savagely brilliant song in which he referred to von Braun as “a man whose allegiance is ruled by expedience.”
Von Braun started his career in rocketry in his native Germany. Nazi Germany, to be exact; he ran the experimental German rocket base at Peënemunde which developed two weapons that so impressed Adolf Hitler that by 1944 he thought they would turn the tide of the war and enable Germany to win. One was the V-1, nicknamed the “buzz bomb” by the residents of British cities who were bombed by it. The V-1 was what would now be called a “drone” — an unmanned jet-powered aircraft that flew itself into the ground and blew up, creating an explosion similar to a bomb dropped by a piloted aircraft but without the risk that British anti-aircraft gunners could shoot it down.
The other “vengeance weapon” was the V-2, the world’s first guided missile, which drew on the best rocket technology available to drop warheads on cities (particularly London and the Dutch city of Antwerp). After the war the U.S. and the Soviet Union treated both the V-2 rockets and the staff that had developed them as war booty. Von Braun was one of the leading scientists in the U.S. rocket program, and his research project used captured V-2’s and worked out ways to improve them. Von Braun also thought rockets could be used to launch people into space — an idea he got from fellow German scientist Hermann Oberth, who in 1923 had published a novel called By Rocket Into Planetary Space and five years later served as scientific advisor to director Fritz Lang for Woman on the Moon, a 1928 film that depicted a successful lunar landing and for which Lang, seeking a dramatic way to show the rocket being launched, invented the countdown.
Von Braun became the foremost U.S. rocket scientist and was instrumental in developing the spacecraft used in the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo human-staffed space flight programs. His goal was to land humans on the planet Mars, and according to some reports he over-designed the Saturn V, the rocket that propelled Apollo 11 to the moon, so it would be powerful enough to reach Mars as well. He was also dogged by questions about his Nazi past, particularly whether he had used slave laborers at Peënemunde and had known about the Holocaust and other Nazi atrocities. Tom Lehrer’s song about him directly referenced his role in developing the V-1 and V-2:

“Some have harsh words for this man of renown,
But some say our attitude should be one of gratitude,
Like the widows and cripples in old London town
Who owe their large pensions to Wernher von Braun.”

Indeed, von Braun became such an American hero that in 1960 a movie was made about him, I Aim at the Stars, directed by J. Lee Thompson and starring German actor Curt Jurgens as von Braun. Not surprisingly, Robert Stone’s Chasing the Moon gives a much more jaundiced version of von Braun, as well as stressing how much the so-called “space race” was a part of the Cold War. Stone’s film notes that, despite making that bold public declaration that the U.S. would commit itself to sending a man to the moon and bringing him back, President Kennedy was actually doubtful about the expense involved.
He was persuaded to stay the course because the Russians were also presumably racing to the moon, and they’d already beaten us at launching the first artificial satellite and putting the first man in orbit around the earth. Whatever the cost, Kennedy’s advisors told him, we had to pursue the moon flight lest we lose yet another heat of the space race to the Russians — and have to face not only the blow to our national prestige but also the possible use of the moon as a military base by which the Russians could attack us on earth.
Sometime in the 1960’s the Russians, quietly and without fanfare, the Russians gave up on sending people to the moon. Chasing the Moon showed that it wasn’t for lack of trying — they actually built a lunar landing vehicle similar to America’s LEM, but it crashed on initial tests. (So did ours, by the way.) So by the time Apollo 11 went up on July 16, it was in a “race” on its own. One of the big reasons the U.S. human spaceflight program petered out after Apollo ran its course was that, with the Russians no longer competing in the “space race,” there were no longer any competitive points to be scored in the overall Cold War by making it to the moon ourselves.

Not Getting in the Way of the Story

While Robert Stone’s six-hour documentary Chasing the Moon attempted to put the U.S. space program in general and the Apollo missions in particular in a perspective steeped in historical and cultural nuance, CNN’s 93-minute Apollo 11 — first released theatrically by CNN Films in association with Universal, then shown on CNN’s TV network on July 21, 2019, the 50th anniversary of the moon landing — was a “just the facts, ma’am” presentation. Director Todd Douglas Miller made his film almost exclusively from NASA’s official footage of the mission — much of it in brilliant color and crystal clarity, far better than the blurry black-and-white of the images we got “live” — and didn’t saddle his film with a bunch of talking heads explaining the significance of it all. Virtually the only voiceover we got was from Neil Armstrong, the first human on the moon, in an interview he gave shortly after he and his crew got back.
About the only filmmaker’s trick Miller used to “goose up” his story and heighten its emotion was the background music by Matt Morton. Using a lot of percussion effects and mostly avoiding theremins, synthesizers and other clichés of movie “space” music, Morton did his job mostly sparingly. Still, there are times — especially when we’re also hearing the recorded voices of the astronauts and others in the crew communicating with each other and Mission Control in Houston, Texas (a site chosen for political reasons to make Texan politicians, including Lyndon Johnson, vice-president under Kennedy and president for five years after the assassination) — when one wishes Morton would just shut up.
Apollo 11 is a movie that offers a window into another time and place. Not only does the computer equipment at Mission Control seem laughably antiquated today — some of the scenes show NASA’s engineers calculating rocket trajectories with slide rules, an analog computing technology which disappeared virtually overnight after the pocket calculator was invented and first marketed — almost all of them smoked like chimneys while they worked. Also, virtually all the Mission Control crew were white men. As the camera pans over Mission Control we see one Black man and one woman.
When CNN showed Apollo 11 on July 21, 2019 they followed up one of the screenings with a mini-documentary on that woman, JoAnn Morgan, who’s quoted on her Wikipedia page as saying she "would remain the only woman there for a long time." Morgan recalled that for her first 15 years with NASA, “I worked in a building where there wasn't a ladies’ restroom. … [I]t was a big day in my book when there was one.” Until then, she explained on the CNN mini-doc, whenever she needed to use the restroom one of the military people who were providing NASA’s security had to stand guard outside the restroom to make sure no male tried to use it while she was in there.

Courageous Hero or Cog in the Machine?

I got to see Apollo 11 twice in two days: once while it was on CNN and once the day before when the person who runs the monthly Mars (http://marsmovieguide.com/) and Vintage Sci-Fi (http://sdvsf.org/) movie screenings in Golden Hill showed it on a double bill with First Man, the 2018 biopic of Neil Armstrong. When I first heard that this movie was being made and Ryan Gosling would star as Armstrong, I hailed it as the fulfillment of my wish that after his long string of movies as weirdos — The United States of Leland, Stay, Half Nelson, Lars and the Real Girl, The Big Short, La La Land, Blade Runner 2049 — some Hollywood casting director would finally hire Gosling to play someone normal.
Well, yes and no. First Man, directed by Damien Chazelle in a straightforward manner totally unlike the flash and razzle-dazzle of his star-making film La La Land and written by Josh Singer based on a biography of Armstrong by James R. Hansen, doesn’t exactly tell the tale of a man to the hero’s mantle born. Gosling’s performance is a matter-of-fact reading of a man whose life was so colorless, and who was so seemingly content to be just another interchangeable cog in NASA’s great machine, Neil Armstrong enters Gosling’s line of weirdos by being almost totally unmoved by doing something that will make his name live in the history books as long as human beings survive.
Neil Armstrong was a U. S. Air Force test pilot — and though he had resigned from the service and was technically a civilian when he flew on Apollo 11, you could take the man out of the Air Force but you couldn’t take the Air Force out of the man. Armstrong’s understated taciturnicity and the whole infrastructure NASA had built to get him and Buzz Aldrin to the moon and back made it difficult — though they tried — to cast him in the lone-hero mold of Christopher Columbus and Charles Lindbergh, two historical precedents a lot of people cited at the time.
The Apollo 11 mission was rehearsed for years, on the ground, in the air (among the most grimly amusing moments of First Man are the tests in which Armstrong attempts to fly the lunar module to a successful landing at a test site on Earth — and fails) and even while it was still going on. One of the things I remember about the coverage of Apollo 11 while the astronauts were in space approaching the moon was the long checklist of drills and tests NASA had put them through, including something called “The Sim” — short for “simulation” — two days before the actual landing.
To me, it was yet one more detail undercutting the whole argument that Armstrong and Aldrin were lone heroes risking their lives like Columbus and Lindbergh. The risks to their lives were real, all right — First Man is almost obsessive in depicting the people who died in various test flights and other experiments on the way to getting humans to the moon and back — but “Mission Control,” the huge organization that was backing them up and was in constant contact with them, told a quite different story from the lone-wolf explorer, out in the middle of nowhere with no source for help if anything went wrong.
Not that there weren’t incidents along the way when things did go horribly wrong without anyone being able to help. The most famous one — and it’s the most chilling scene in First Man — dealt with the so-called “plugs-out test” of the first Apollo spacecraft on January 27, 1967. It’s not clear from the film just what the “plugs-out test” was supposed to test for, or why it was called that, but as any student of the U.S. space program will recall, the test was an utter disaster. A spark in the space capsule ignited the 100 percent oxygen atmosphere and flared into a gigantic fire, incinerating the three astronauts aboard — Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee — as the mission controllers looked on, totally helplessly, from their computer stations in Houston.
Perhaps the strongest and most striking aspect of First Man is how vividly it dramatizes that the road to the moon was paved with corpses, and Neil Armstrong got to be the titular “first man” largely because he survived the disasters that took out the people in line ahead of him for the honor. Writer Singer and director Chazelle gave Armstrong another tragedy, a personal one — the death of his daughter Karen from leukemia at age 2 — and make it his Citizen Kane-style “Rosebud” moment, the event in his life that explains the man he became. In a scene copied almost exactly from the ending of James Cameron’s Titanic, Armstrong even throws his daughter’s I.D. bracelet onto a crevice in the moon just before he leaves.
The proprietor of the Apollo 11 and First Man screening in Golden Hill thought Chazelle and Singer had gone too far in emphasizing Armstrong’s taciturnicity and clear distaste for mixing unnecessarily with other humans. But the real Armstrong was like that, as he revealed in 2005 when 60 Minutes correspondent Ed Bradley was the recipient of one of Armstrong’s rare interviews. Though Armstrong insisted that the famous line he uttered when he first set foot on the moon — “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” — was his own invention (it always reeked of a Hollywood screenwriter or a NASA publicist to me), throughout the rest of the interview he was his usual aw-shucks, I’m-not-that-special self.
The Neil Armstrong who gave Bradley that interview — rerun on CBS-TV’s special Man on the Moon, aired July 16, 2019 on the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11’s departure (and using the title and some of the footage from a quickie TV special put together by CBS news and narrated by Walter Cronkite shortly after the flight) — was the one Ryan Gosling played in First Man. He has his romantic side — he and his wife Janet (Claire Foy) are shown dancing in their living room to an odd 1947 lounge-music album called Lunar Rhapsody long before Armstrong makes it to the moon — but he’s mostly content to be a cog in NASA’s great machine, accepting the assignment of being the first man on the moon with neither trepidation nor enthusiasm, but simply out of a grim sense of duty: this is what they’ve told me to do, so I’m doing it.
Like Apollo 11, First Man suffers from a weak musical score — in this case by Chazelle’s collaborator on La La Land, Justin Hurwitz. It doesn’t help that Hurwitz is competing with the great pieces of pre-existing classical music used by Stanley Kubrick for 2001: A Space Odyssey (which I would rate as the greatest science-fiction film ever made, and arguably the greatest film ever made, period) for similar action. When the crew of the Gemini program (whose name was annoyingly pronounced “Gem-muh-NEE” instead of “Gem-min-EYE”) practice docking two spacecraft together in Earth orbit — a maneuver crucial to the success of the later Apollo missions — whatever Hurwitz came up with seemed lame and banal compared to Johann Strauss, Jr.’s “Blue Danube” waltz with which Kubrick scored his space-docking scene. And when Armstrong and Aldrin are flying their lunar module, the Eagle, over the moon’s surface looking for a place to land, Hurwitz’s score seemed to fall far short of Kubrick’s choice, Györgi Ligeti’s hauntingly beautiful “Lux Aeterna.”

So Why Aren’t We Still Going to the Moon?

It’s rather an open question, which these four films do surprisingly little to answer. It appears that Richard Nixon decided to cancel the development of future launch vehicles aimed at continuing the moon flights and then taking people to Mars — perhaps out of a Trump-like jealousy over his dashing, romantic, charismatic and tragically doomed predecessor, John F. Kennedy. It couldn’t have been good for Nixon’s ego that while he placed a live phone call to Neil Armstrong while Armstrong was on the moon and Nixon was in the Oval Office, the President showcased most often in the Apollo 11 coverage was Kennedy via his film clip making the promise, now fulfilled, that before the end of the 1960’s the U.S. would send a man to the moon and bring him back safely.
But I would argue that the bizarre abandonment of the moon program and any efforts to send people farther into space — the only time in human history a nation has planted its flag on a faraway country, continent or heavenly body and then just stopped going there after a mere three years — has to do partly with the way NASA publicized the space program and partly with the disillusionment that fell upon the country after Nixon’s fall from office over Watergate and a new mood that undermined the broad-based political support needed to keep such projects alive and funded.
As I noted above, NASA deliberately pitched the space program as part of the Establishment side in the bitter battles raged between it and the burgeoning youth counter-culture in the 1960’s. The astronauts were picked from the ranks of the U.S. military and in particular from its culture of test pilots, the hard-living, hard-drinking macho men who had broken the sound barrier and flown the X-series planes which got the U.S. to the edge of space. They were presented as having the “right stuff” — in the unforgettable phrase Tom Wolfe coined for the title of his book about the Mercury program — and as being everything to which a red-blooded man with traditional family values should aspire.
In a time of ferment in which Americans in general, and younger Americans in particular, were starting to question traditional gender roles as well as traditional racial hierarchies, the astronauts were also presented as “family men.” Their life partners were deliberately depicted in the media as Stepford wives — faithful, obedient homemakers willing to wait patiently for their men to come home from their dangerous missions while they cooked, cleaned, did laundry and sent the kids off to school. Wolfe’s book describes the Mercury astronauts as considerably less tied down by the marital bonds as the image — he even says there were astronaut groupies in Florida who were trying to bed all seven of the original Mercury program members — but that wasn’t what we were told, or sold, then.
By so resolutely marketing space travel as a military man’s game, an exemplar of the order and discipline of the military way of life, NASA drove a wedge between itself and the younger generation that has usually supplied the world its explorers. NASA presented space as an exclusively military preserve at a time when the U.S. military was embarrassing itself trying as best it could to fulfill the impossible mission the nation’s political leaders had set for it in Viet Nam. The young dreamers, afire with thoughts of a better world, weren’t signing up for the space program; they were figuring out ways to avoid being drafted into an unwinnable war halfway across the world.
The convulsive changes of the 1960’s — civil rights movements, first for African-Americans and then for other people of color, women and Queers; the Viet Nam war; the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. —split America in ways that are still being felt today. Much of the appeal of Donald Trump to his base lies in his promise — what he really means by “Make America Great Again” — to wipe out all that nonsense about equality that started in the 1960’s and return to a time when Blacks were still in the back of the bus, women still in the kitchen, Queers still in the closet and the rule of the country by white men was simply taken for granted as a God-given fact.
The disillusionments from the 1960’s and 1970’s — the ignominious end of the Viet Nam war and Nixon’s fall from the Presidency due to the Watergate scandal in particular — ironically boosted the fortunes of America’s political Right. They seemed to convince many Americans, particularly older ones upset by the excesses of the counterculture, that government was no longer to be trusted. America settled into a politics dominated largely by recitations of all the things we couldn’t do — end war, end poverty, end hunger, end homelessness, give everyone access to health care.
This led me, in an editorial I wrote in the 1990’s, to say that if the 1980’s had been the “Me Decade” that enshrined selfishness as a virtue and damned political activism as useless and hopeless, the 1990’s were the “No Decade,” in which politicians and pundits repeatedly said, “You can’t … ” to anyone, in or out of government, who expressed a hope that we could mobilize ourselves collectively and use government to solve any of our major social problems. The cold, clammy rhetoric of politicians from both sides of the partisan divide — notably Bill Clinton’s response to becoming the first Democratic President to lose control of Congress in 40 years, which was to join the Republicans in saying, “The era of Big Government is over” — seemed to relegate big projects like exploring the moon and reaching out to Mars to the province of dreamers and science-fiction writers again.
Instead of vehicles of exploration, the U.S. space program became essentially a trucking service. Instead of building a spaceship to take us back to the moon and onward to Mars, the U.S. built the space shuttle, a craft whose purpose was as prosaic as its name. While thoughts of exploring and colonizing the planets fell by the wayside, private industry had developed communications networks based on so-called “geosynchronous satellites” (an idea first thought up by science-fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke) that would always be over the same part of Earth no matter where both Earth and the satellite were in space at the moment. The space shuttle’s main task became to deliver such satellites and place them in those spatial sweet spots more cheaply than launching them one at a time on single-use rockets.
Not that presidents since Nixon haven’t occasionally talked about building a new generation of spacecraft and taking humans to Mars. George W. Bush called for it. So did Barack Obama. So has Donald Trump, though his main purpose seems to be to create a Mars mission that will maintain NASA’s existence while he ends its other major program: measuring changes in the earth’s weather patterns and thereby documenting that human beings are changing the climate despite Trump’s dogged and unshakeable belief that they aren’t. Unlike John Kennedy with the moon program, none of the recent presidents who have called for either a U.S. return to the moon or a mission to Mars have expended any political capital on making it happen.
This has led a lot of science-fiction fans and supporters of planetary exploration to hope that the private sector will step in and take over. It’s essentially the plot of the 1950 movie Destination Moon, based on the writings of Right-wing science-fiction author Robert A. Heinlein, in which an industrialist persuades the CEO’s of major corporations to bankroll a moon mission to make sure that unspecified “enemies” (which in a 1950 movie could only have meant the Soviet Union) don’t get to the moon first and use it as a military base against us.
More recently, the oddball National Geographic production Mars — a TV series which combines a talking-heads documentary on the potential for a human mission to Mars in the present day and a fictional account of such a mission that stretches out over decades, starting in the 2030’s — has presented one super-capitalist in particular, Elon Musk, as the potential savior of space exploration. The hagiographic depiction of Musk in this film, and at science-fiction conventions where his name is mentioned, contrasts strongly with news of the real Musk, a Trump-style B.S. artist whose companies are constantly skating the thin edge of bankruptcy and never quite delivering the super-technologies he keeps promising. Indeed, Musk has been threatened with prosecution so often by the U.S. Security and Exchange Commission (SEC) for the misleading (to put it politely) claims he’s made to his company’s shareholders I’ve joked that if he goes to Mars it will be as a fugitive from U.S. justice.
There’s certainly a history of private companies funding programs of exploration in the hope of turning a profit. Most of the British settlements in North America that ultimately became the first United States were bankrolled by private entrepreneurs who hoped they’d make money on exports of grain and other produce from the New World. India was conquered in the 18th century not by the British government but by the British East India Company, which ruled it for a century before officially turning it over to the British state and was even more repressive than the British colonial officials sent to run it after the 19th century handover. King Leopold II of Belgium colonized the Congo not on behalf of the Belgian state but as his personal property, seeking to exploit the Congo’s mineral resources for his own enrichment and enslaving the natives in the process.
But it’s hard to imagine a private company — or even a consortium of them — raising the massive amounts of money it would take to go back to the Moon, let alone to go to Mars, for the highly speculative chances that such missions would ultimately be profitable. This is especially true in the modern era of so-called “activist investors,” who don’t care about the long-term health of the business they buy into. All they’re interested in is the value of their own shareholdings as measured by how the stock price is doing. If a company can be worth more to its shareholders divided into bits and pieces, with its assets used as leverage for loans and its employees laid off en masse, that’s what they will do with it. In a global economy that has turned capitalism itself into a giant speculative game for the 0.01 percent, the idea that one or more corporations might commit to something as chancy as a mission to other planets is preposterous.
So we haven’t been back to the moon, we haven’t gone to Mars, and given the current state of the economy we’re not likely to. Indeed, the next big project the human race will have to undertake is ensuring its actual survival on Earth, given the ongoing assault on the climate and our own planet’s ability to support us long-term. Progressives have called for a “Green New Deal” and compared it to the Manhattan Project that devised the first nuclear weapon, or the Apollo moon project, but it’s considerably harder to sell this effort because it has no readily definable end point. The Manhattan Project devised a usable atomic bomb and dropped it on two Japanese cities at the end of World War II. Apollo 11 landed two people on the moon and brought them safely to earth.
The Green New Deal doesn’t have such a readily definable endpoint — just a bunch of boring-sounding statistics about parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. It also has virtually all the major economic players in the world, both public and private, against it. The ruling class we have today, with its short-sighted obsession with their investments’ stock price the next quarter, won’t allow a Green New Deal to come to fruition, especially since in order to succeed it will have to abolish a lot of the habits of late industrial society that have brought the Earth to the brink of no longer being able to sustain human life. Future generations aren’t going to be able to dream about humans living and prospering on other planets; they’re far more likely to engage in a desperate but losing battle to stay alive on this one.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Mass Shootings and the National Rorschach

by MARK GABRISH CONLAN

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 https://www.latimes.com/opinion/story/2019-08-09/op-ed-guns-and-god-disproving-the-huckabee-hypothesis 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 (https://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/19/nyregion/19kerik.html). “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 Self.com Web site in a March 2018 interview (https://www.self.com/story/what-to-do-mass-shooting), 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 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2019_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 (https://theintercept.com/2019/08/05/el-paso-shooting-eco-fascism-migration/), 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 (https://www.cnn.com/2019/08/05/us/connor-betts-dayton-shooting-profile/index.html), 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 …

by MARK GABRISH CONLAN

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?