"The true gentleman is friendly, but not familiar." - CONFUCIUS

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

1969 = 2009


Of all man’s fantasies, the afterlife looms largest. Our pursuit for some sense of terrestrial understanding of the fate that does or does not await us beyond this earth ends only when we are sent off it to find out firsthand. We are so transfixed by the eternity yawning before us that we never consider the one we emerged from. The longer we spend looking down the road in the direction we came from and asking ourselves what’s back there beyond the horizon that we can’t see, the more our minds begin to wrap around the idea that the ether on both sides of us is one entity, surrounding us like space does the stars. And with that understanding comes only more questions. We watch dead actors chatter away in black and white movies, and nod along to tales of dinosaurs and Romans and Nazis and all the other forces this world has played host to at times when we were nowhere to be found. Even then, we had been nowhere for an uncomfortably long time, such a long time that the word ‘time’ becomes inadequate.

The 30-and-younger among us don’t know where we were in 1969. We definitely weren’t here. But we’ve seen, heard and read so much about it that we could be forgiven for sometimes feeling like we were. It is and has long been the most familiar year in today’s pop culture consciousness. Its mention instantly summons the same visions in everyone. Tie-dyed hippies clashing with police truncheons. Mammoth hoses spraying African-Americans against the creaking walls of dilapidated buildings. Plump army helicopters cruising over smoldering rainforests. To hear the books tell it, 1969 was the year the American dream and the American nightmare blended into a race war fantasy in Charles Manson’s head, a murky Vietnamese swamp a continent wide. History distils the past to its extremes, and the images at the other end of the spectrum are only slightly less universal, a fact that owes itself to our unquenchable fascination with tragedy. Earth, momentarily obscured behind an astronaut’s helmet as he glides in slow motion across the Moon’s surface. The sounds of some of the most revered figures in music, blowing over the heads of 400,000 people in a field in upstate New York. The implanting of the first artificial human heart.

Those are just the most symbolic of the events that rang out the Sixties, but by no means its only significant ones. A botched police raid on New York City’s most notorious gay bar turned Manhattan into a week-long riot scene, and the Stonewall Inn into the emblem of the gay rights movement. A snitch named William O’Neal drugged 21-year-old Fred Hampton, deputy chairman of the Black Panthers, then considered the American government’s biggest domestic threat, before Chicago police officers entered his home and put two bullets in his head. A former civil engineer named Yasser Arafat became commander-in-chief of the then-fledgling Palestine Liberation Organization, going on to become the world-recognized face of the resistance. A Haitian immigrant introduced a virus then known as Gay Related Immune Deficiency to the US, according to AIDS researchers comparing Caribbean mutations with more primitive African strains. Every year has its own claim to fame, and without any one of them, this world would be almost unrecognizable, a cosmic alteration a million Marty McFlys couldn’t achieve. But only certain years are truly pivotal ones, years that redefine the attitude and course of a nation. 1969 was such a year. 2009 is going to be another.

History and economy share many parallels: man-made constructs that we can record and speculate over, but ultimately can predict no more accurately than we can our lives. Our surest tool is a keen eye for the patterns that precede those years when one or both pots boil over: a period of relative calm in the ocean, punctuated by occasional ripples that seem to dissipate almost as swiftly as they form. And in calm waters, the world kicks its feet up. The frailty of peace and the dogmatic vigilance it demands is forgotten. The t’s start showing up uncrossed and the i’s begin popping up undotted, and finally, when the bill has grown so lengthy that we can’t see where it begins anymore, we wake up one morning and the entire tangled mess has collapsed on our heads. It’s only as we sit in the shambles and rifle through the detritus for answers that we notice the devil peeking out at us through the details. Belts tighten as losses mount, and the blare of sirens overlap into a united wail that sends us into the streets, streets that are all some of us have by then. And when the people slam the fences of that big building on the hill and tear through its layers and burst into the hidden room at the center to find that there’s nothing in there, just a bare concrete cellar with a mop in the corner and a folding chair in the other, that’s when rich heads start to roll - heads of states and heads of corporations, instead of just heads of households. When things get dire, humans instinctively ramp up the push towards zero, because at zero there’s nowhere to go but up. Destroy and rebuild. Things never change quite as much or for quite as long as we’d hoped, and they probably never will. Man moves in small steps; the giant leaps are far and few between. The devil is in the details, but so are the angels.

It’s hard to ascertain how the people of the Sixties would have responded to the crises of today: a global economic collapse whose bottom our most experienced financial minds cannot see; a messy war in Iraq that began unnecessarily, but whose outcome will sway the tide of global stability for as long as we live; an infinitely messier war in Israel thousands of years old whose outcome still seems as far away as it always did; and a rapidly mounting environmental catastrophe in the making that could dwarf all of our other problems combined. Entertaining romantic visions of the Chicano, African-American, feminist and gay protesters who flung themselves into the paths of riot police time after time throughout the Decade of Protest in their pursuit to secure the rights the Constitution was supposed to have guaranteed them, it becomes tempting to surmise that they might well have exerted much more of an outcry in the face of the recent injustices that contributed to today’s laundry list of woes than their modern-day counterparts have thus far. However, such comparisons are as irrelevant to 2009 as activism itself. The bedfellows of big business and government have, through their ever-burgeoning exchange of money and privilege, instituted a monopoly over every aspect of modern American life which makes the concept of being held accountable to the average citizen seem quaint, almost laughable. While it can still be somewhat effective as one of a series of measures, old-fashioned activism in and of itself is considered a symbolic effort more than one with any promise of real returns. In the Sixties, people were just beginning to explore its power. Forty years later, we know its limitations. However, President Obama’s twin victories in the 2008 Democratic primary and the general election would have been fantasy without the mobilization of today’s youth. It remains to be seen if Obama will be the catalyst for the dissolution of the merger of Wall Street and Washington, but if anything, the young people of today’s integral role in Obama’s stunning coup is proof plenty that, if anything, they are shrewdly learning to fight fire with fire.

Man has a curious tendency to assign importance to multiples of ten, particularly with respect to the calendar, as if events somehow play out in tidy ten-year compartments with their own personalities that change as soon as the fourth digit in a year turns from 9 to 0. And of course, they often do, partially because sometimes fate just works like that, but also because we work like that; we sniff out patterns, we snoop for similarities, and we sift for themes, because it helps us make sense out of the chaos. Time is our creation, like history, the economy, and money, and our own lives. They are all privy to myriad variables: the shifty progress of planning, the winds of chance, the pitfalls of our ineptitude. Bankers looted America for every sliver of the gold that gave the dollars our grandfathers spent their worth, then printed reams of empty paper whose only value was negative, each dollar a debt, and declared it worth every bit as much. And when they figured out that even the cash was unnecessary, that merely typing numbers on the right computer screen could now achieve the same effect, that’s when they realized they could create even more numbers for themselves by making it easier for other people to enjoy some of that action too, even if they couldn’t necessarily pay the loans back. And most Americans were only too happy to play along, until those pesky numbers that went from meaning nothing to meaning something ended up meaning way too much. Today they affect the cash in our pockets, the food on our plates, the place we hang our hats. And in the wake of globalization, the whole planet suffers with us. Sitting in the ruins of a manmade natural disaster, our only salvation is to trace the mistakes that brought us here, and internalize the lessons once and for all. After 2009, the modern world will never be the same. If it somehow continues to be, it will be our failure.