Why aren't we marching in the streets?

It took me more than three decades to see Joan Baez live, but the wait for tonight's concert in Cambridge was well worth it - what an artist! Here are some thoughts prompted by the concert we've just returned from:

Three decades later, it’s terribly clear that my generation hasn’t changed the world very much. The question is, how much has the world changed us? As young “radicals,” we considered ourselves the conscience of the nation. To us, the Vietnam War was a moral offense, not a question of politics; and we reacted to it in primarily moral, rather than political, terms. Somehow, by the strength of our youth, the nation would be wrenched from the grip of death, cleansed, made new. A “movement” without politics or program, we were defined largely by our shared lives on the campus – millions of us getting stoned and listening to the Beatles – and by our opposition to the war. Now that war is long over, and we inhabit private worlds.

Still when I speak with my old “radical” friends – none of whom are leading noticeably radical lives – I find that our basic values haven’t changed that much. We’re dismayed by the country’s swing to the right and appalled by slashes in social programs. Why then aren’t we heard from? Why aren’t we marching in the streets?

Paradoxically, we felt a more excruciating responsibility for the acts of our nation as 18-year-olds who couldn’t even vote than we do now. We took things more personally. We felt that we were bombing Vietnam, and we were allowing the less well-connected of our generation to die there. Now, we say, it’s those Republicans who have declared all-out war on the poor and powerless.

We no longer believe that we can remake the world. Instead we adapt to it and act cautiously, because we have much more to lose. We have our careers. In the booming economy of the ‘60s, the affluent youth’s greatest concern about a career was how to avoid one. A career was part of the System, within which success and exploitation, work and war, were inextricably linked. ( “Work! Study! Get ahead! Kill!” we used to chant at demonstrations.) Also, embarking on a career meant accepting the constraints of adulthood. I thought if I’d settle down, I could stay young forever. I was wrong. You get old whether you’re wearing a necktie or not.

When I was a “kid” – a word we applied to ourselves well into our twenties – I avowed a profound aversion to wealth. All I wanted, I used to say, was to raise a family in a decent home and be able to spend a few weeks at the beach. That’s all I want now, but I find that these modest ends require massive means. It’s hard to renounce materialism when materialism is renouncing you.

Our middle-class instinct (subliminal, unshakable) to “make something of yourself” and contribute to society, has led almost all of us down the Establishment road – what we used to call selling out. We like to think that our careers give us more effective ways to act on our values than we had as students. We try to do good and do well at the same time.

Meanwhile, people sleep on the streets. We know we really ought to find the time and courage to do something about it. (Things to do today: call insurance broker, add to Individual Retirement Account, smash the state.)

At least we have a past to live up to. We helped end one war, and the continuing effect of our action restrains our country from getting into new ones. It’s good that there was a time when we stood up for what we believed in – which, as you get along and go along, is not something you do every day.

From James S. Kunen’s pre-Iraq 1995 introduction to his 1968 book The Strawberry Statement, Notes of a College Revolutionary. After writing the Strawberry Statement Kunen registered as a conscientous objector and worked as a counsellor at a group home for young offenders in Lancaster, Mass. He graduated from New York University Law School, and became a public defender in the criminal courts of Washington, DC, an experience retold in his book "How Can You Defend Those People". He then left the practice of law and returned to journalism. Kunen's 1994 book "Reckless Disregard" was an exposé of the Ford Motor Company's role in a Kentucky school bus fire which killed 24 children and three adults.

Now playing - Joan Baez's 2006 release Bowery Songs. This album is a product of the 2004 Presidential election. In July and August, conventioneering and electioneering fever grew more heated in the US, as a pall of desperation seemed to grip the country. Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 stirred the pot, and Baez joined Rage Against The Machine's Tom Morello for the West Coast leg of Moore's 'Slacker Uprising Tour.' The tour's ad hoc appearance at Cal S U. San Marcos outside San Diego was banned by the administration. The result was that the students rented the nearby Del Mar Fairgrounds and attracted ten times as many to the event, upward of 10,000 people. The album, which was recorded live at the Bowery Ballroom on New York City's Lower East Side, is classic Joan Baez. Stand-out track for me is Steve Earle's 'Christmas in Washington' ('So come back Woody Guthrie/ Come back to us now ...'), which Baez sang in her concert in Cambridge tonight.

I can only agree with Ezra Pound when he wrote - 'One of the pleasures of middle age is to find out that one was right, and that one was much righter than one knew at say 17 or 23'.

And I was 23 in 1972, so I will end by taking you back to when The Year is '72

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Elaine Fine said…
Thank you for this post.
Pliable said…
Don, thanks for that comment.

But Richard Wagner also had some pretty objectionable political views.

That doesn't stop his music being important to me.

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