Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Bygones Be Bygones

So what did the counterculture movements of the 1960s and '70s really do, in the long run?

That question troubles me more and more, these days. While certainly the death rate in Iraq is much smaller than that of Vietnam, there's no draft, the war's only been going on under one president thus far, and we the country as a whole (to distinguish from we the military towns, for whom circumstances are obviously different) are not being asked to make Wartime Sacrifices. Without belittling the tremendous accomplishments of the Civil Rights Movement, public schools and urban centers remain de facto segregated. People yearn for a return to a different president, a different kind of politics, just as the mainstream did in the 1960s, which leads me to wonder if that different kind of politics has ever actually existed.

Two pieces of work have been making this move upfront in my mind: Robert Altman's Nashville, which I saw a month ago, and Sing a Battle Song, a compilation of three 1970s publications by the Weather Underground, which I read for the Feminist Review.

With the exception of the characters' outfits and the occasional specific political referent, Altman's film could have been made a year ago and made sociopolitical sense. It follows the usual pastiche of Altman characters through Nashville, including a leftist iconoclastic presidential candidate's entourage, several country and folk musicians and their lovers and former lovers (including the mother of two deaf children), Southern figureheads, a groupie visiting her aunt and uncle. As is common in the few Altman films I've seen, nothing happens until the end, and everything happens.

Particularly haunting in the film was the folk refrain on which it ends: "It don't worry me/It don't worry me/You may say that I ain't free/But it don't worry me."


So who does it worry?

Sing a Battle Song is the opposite of Altman's film in some ways: it showcases a harsh, naked, determined idealism, misguided and even stupid in some cases but in many others incredibly strong, correct in my slanted perception of the world, well-argued and -researched and -thought. Yet it seemed, as with Nashville, that almost all the problems that were part of the conversation existed, in almost exactly the same forms, today. Internal struggles had changed; the larger structure of power in the world had not, had in fact gotten worse rather than better. That was my first reaction, anyway. Certainly the force of the corporation-defined-as-a-person has only grown, and has led to deeper levels of corruption in government, business and shadow economies.

Monumental strides, particularly on the domestic front, were made in that time. I don't get to deny that. The feminist movement has changed my life, made it something completely different from what it would have been had it never happened. The civil rights movement was huge, in terms of legal fallback and changes in public perception. I mean, not only is there an African American candidate for president as we speak, he's the current Democratic frontrunner in fundraising and in some ways in the public eye. (Not that I am the public eye or anything. But I do mean to distinguish him from other black candidates of the past, like Shirley Chisholm, even as I still honor her accomplishments.) However, off my recent reading of Lies My Teacher Told Me by James Loewen, there was a lot of stunning racial integration work done during Reconstruction that was basically undone by whites in power for a good sixty years after, that we may not have reached the Reconstruction's level of integration, justice and acceptance since that time. I'm confused about my own position regarding reparations today, but at the time forty acres and a mule would have been an absolutely sound, logical policy, not to mention just, and the fact that it was out there immediately after slaves were freed says a great deal about the time. And today, there's a whole lotta ghettoization going on. International relations feel like they've been at a fairly steady decline, though someone who knows more than I will and should take issue with that; hubris is certainly on the rise, flying in the face of a lot of facts. I don't know what will change it—not that there's any way I would know such a thing, but it still sets me ill and iller at ease.

Connor's been on me lately about my political negativity, about my semi-belief that America's system of government is on the wane. He has a point, always, but I've never known how to address it. Considering these pieces, I have to wonder, now, if that's what I wish would happen. If lately I feel like the systems, the cycles, are just so built on corruption (what was so pure that it could be corrupted, I wonder?) that we'd somehow be better off if it were to all fall apart and have to start again. But the truth is, there's no way EVERYTHING is going to fall apart, so it's a stupid longing, a silly philosophical desire on my part. It's the part of me that believes revolution is the way, when another several parts of me believe revolution is always followed by a forceful reactionary force, that revolution's always conducted by a passionate minority against a majority powerful enough to whiplash back, or that believes in the Russian-Revolution/Animal Farm version of overturn. But it's true that very little we as a human race do is honestly unprecedented; the hope is that this time we'll be able to find a different way to change it. Altman's film makes me feel less hopeful about that, and Sing a Battle Song made me feel that the problems simply faded from the forefront of human minds (to the extent that they were ever there) rather than actually being changed or solved.

I'm not sure how to let bygones be bygones when, you know, they're not. When history is only part progress, though we're taught in school to regard it as linear; in other ways it's cyclical, in still other ways it's a constant reinvention of the wheel. In some ways history straight-up does repeat itself. Does it have to? I really don't know.


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