Saturday, March 19, 2016

The Mirror of a Half-Century Ago

Senator Kennedy in Indianapolis, 1968.  Photo credit, Wikipedia, fair use claimed, full cite below.

Greetings All:

Last Friday night, things got rough in Chicago.  A certain candidate for a certain Federal office called off a campaign event.  It was probably for the best, as tensions had risen to an untenable level.  Even with the event cancelled, there was still violence.  Last Saturday night in Kansas City things were less violent.  However, whenever the police deploy pepper spray, it's a sign that things aren't exactly calm.

I watched some of Saturday night's rally with a mixture of profound disappointment and a sense of gallows' humor.  Here was an example of our democracy in action, or perhaps "acting out" is a more precise phrase.

This election year has gotten particularly vicious.  It makes me long for the days of Bill Clinton's sex life plastered all over The Star and other check-out line tabloids.  I have to shake my head at just how dysfunctional things are right now.  If Tuesday night's primary results (March 15th) are an indication of what the future holds, it's going to get worse before it gets better.

I don't watch a lot of TV, but last Saturday night I watched CNN's series on the 1960s.  This episode featured the year of my birth, 1968.  It reminded me that we Americans have a long (and certainly not proud) tradition of mixing violence with our politics.  Certainly not to the extent of certain third world nations where losing an election can be a death sentence.  

Still, go back a generation (wow, am I that old, I guess I am) to '68 and you'll see that Chicago was the setting for another violent clash.  It was the Democratic National Convention.  While there was tension, even physical altercations in in the hall, that was nothing compared to what was going on in the streets.  

There, police brawled with protesters and reporters.  I've got a link to the story below in the sources.  As the TV cameras rolled, Americans were engaged in the pitched street battles of 1920s Germany.  As arrests were made the chant of, "The whole world is watching!" mixed with the whine of police sirens and the burning stench of tear gas.  It was ugly.  

The Democratic Convention was the third act in that year's tragedy.  The previous act was two months before with the assassination of Senator Robert Kennedy.  The opening act was yet another killing, that of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  That crime occurred in April.

Robert Kennedy, then campaigning for president, was in Indianapolis.  It was there that he gave, at least to me, one of the greatest speeches of the 20th Century.  I have a link to it here:

To me, this This thing I admire about Kennedy's speech that sad April night is that he viewed the crowd as fellow citizens, as peers.  Peers not in the sense of wealth or influence or power or privilege.  No, instead, peers in a more genuine form of measurement:  shared grief.  

He crystallized this when he quoted Aeschylus, a ancient Greek poet.  It is both hauntingly beautiful and heartbreaking:

"Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, until in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God."

As I look back on the sad and tragic events of '68, basically a half-century ago, I can't help but think it is a mirror of today's event.  A mirror, after all, gives an imperfect image of what one is viewing.  The reflection is close, yet not perfect.

We live in a time of strive, without question.  There is a LOT of anger out there and unfortunately, I do not see a cooling off period anytime soon.  Yet we're Americans.  We find a way to get through our times of struggle and come out on the other side better, stronger.

Perhaps things are not as bad now as we think they are.  Then again, perhaps we haven't learned a damn thing in the last half-century.  I like to believe the former.  In support thereof, I turn to Mr. Tim Ferriss and his praise of the Stoic philosopher, Seneca.

Ferriss is a fan of the Stoic movement and has just released an audio book, The Tao of Seneca.  I have in in my library and plan on listening to it soon.

One of the letters of Seneca Ferriss profiles is #13, "On Groundless Fears."  Here is a portion of the letter, right below the image of the man himself:

Inspired sculpture of Seneca, 17th Century, artist unknown, photo credit, Jean-Pol GRANDMONT, sharing authorized, obtained from Wikipedia, full citation listed in the credits.

"There are more things, Lucilius, likely to frighten us than there are to crush us; we suffer more often in imagination than in reality. I am not speaking with you in the Stoic strain but in my milder style. For it is our Stoic fashion to speak of all those things, which provoke cries and groans, as unimportant and beneath notice; but you and I must drop such great-sounding words, although, heaven knows, they are true enough.

What I advise you to do is, not to be unhappy before the crisis comes; since it may be that the dangers before which you paled as if they were threatening you, will never come upon you; they certainly have not yet come. Accordingly, some things torment us more than they ought; some torment us before they ought; and some torment us when they ought not to torment us at all. We are in the habit of exaggerating, or imagining, or anticipating, sorrow."

I wonder if people back in 1968 had the some concerns and fears we have today.  I'm guessing they did.  The parallels are too many to ignore:  A lengthy, unpopular war; political and racial unrest; economic uncertainty; and the list goes on.  Yet I choose to be an optimist and believe that we, as Americans, will get thru this current sad state of affairs.  We will do it not by focusing on the differences between us, but that which binds us close.  When Kennedy spoke to the crowd in Indy that April night, he did so not so much as a politician, but as a fellow mourner.  His own loss rendered unto him a legitimacy to cross racial and class divides.

Perhaps when my kids look back at this year, they will draw comparisons to their own time.  If they do, I hope it will be for the good things, and not the bad, they are experiencing.  I hope that is the case.  That would be a much more pleasant image to view than the one reflecting back at us now.

Be well my friends, 


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