Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Those Were the Days!

The rally concluded, and people began strolling to the buses we had chartered to take them back to their cars.  Suddenly dozens of squad cars appeared, as if from nowhere.  They had been carefully concealed behind buildings surrounding the rally.  We counted hundreds of police from five different agencies.  Many of the squad cars displayed shotguns and contained six police officers in full riot gear, something most people there had seen only in television.  The Redwood City police department and the San Mateo County sheriff's office had prepared an elaborate ambush, and they were obviously disappointed that they had not found a chance to "teach you some patriotism," as one cop yelled at the protesters from a car window.

Only local newspapers reported that the march and rally had taken place, and they underestimated the size of the crowd, reporting that most citizens of Redwood City were hostile to such activities.  Bruce Brugmann, the Redwood City Tribune reporter who had been covering the napalm campaign, became so disgusted by the blatant censorship and and rewriting of his stories that he left to found the radical weekly newspaper the Bay Guardian.  Even a mere twenty miles away, the press and radio in San Francisco imposed a total news blackout.  This did keep many people in ignorance.  But it also educated tens of thousands about the role of the media.  Almost everyone in the area knew that an important event had taken palce and could not help but wonder why it was not reported and how many events from other areas were not being reported to us.
The above text is taken from the historian H. Bruce Franklin's account of a rally against napalm production in the Bay Area in 1966, in his book Vietnam and Other American Fantasies (Massachusetts, 2000), pages 87-8.  The book as a whole is very informative.  I decided to read it today after seeing a critique of the first episode of the new Ken Burns-Lynn Novick documentary on the Vietnam War for PBS.  The critique mentioned that
in the 1990s historian H. Bruce Franklin found that most college students recognized the famous image of a prisoner being executed by a man firing a pistol inches away from the victim’s temple. But most of the students believed the shooter was a communist officer, rather that General Nguyen Ngoc Loan, chief of the South Vietnamese national police, an American ally.
This didn't surprise me; it fit with so much else I knew, such as the long and largely successful propagnda campaign to cast the United States as the victim in Vietnam, rather than the victimizer.  Franklin also quotes an amazing speech on the Vietnam war by Barack Obama's role model Ronald Reagan in which, as Franklin points out, "not a single sentence ... is accurate or truthful" (29).  I've seen a similar falsification about the post-9/11 war on terror; it's as if the structure of the scenario is embedded in people's minds, and they need only to insert the names and dates to sit the situation.

But the reason I wanted to quote this particular passage has to do with other misrepresentations of history that I see among many liberals and progressives, including those who are old enough to know better.  The militarization of the police that is presently under way, for example, and the treatment of peaceful dissidents as enemies of the nation who must be crushed, is not as new as many people seem to want to think.  The 3500 or so white, clean-cut, middle-class folks who gathered to object to the production of napalm for use against Vietnamese civilians weren't attacked and beaten by the police that time, though it's clear that the police were hoping for an excuse to do just that.  Later on the police were less restrained.

The other point is the suppression of news of such a rally outside the local newspapers.  Many liberals fondly believe that the mainstream media took an adversary stance toward the government in those days.  That's simply false, though as always even their customary collusion was never abject enough to suit the mighty.  Whatever the flaws of the Internet (and they are many), it makes it much easier to spread information about such actions now.

This greatly offends the sensibilities of the high priests and priestesses of the cult of Expertise.  I've begun grappling with the dreadful apprehension that I may actually have to read Hillary Rodham Clinton's new book.  At first I was skeptical of the brief excerpts I saw online, which were so badly written and downright stupid that they were hard to credit: surely they weren't representative of the whole?  But the more I saw, the more I had to believe that they were.  (See Sam Kriss' account of his own ordeal reading the book here.)  And this bit, widely circulated, is symptomatic:
This is what happens in George Orwell's classic novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, when a torturer holds up four fingers and delivers electric shocks until his prisoner see five fingers as ordered. The goal is to make you question logic and reason and to sow mistrust toward exactly the people we need to rely on: our leaders, the press, experts who seek to guide public policy based on evidence, ourselves.
This Moebius strip of a sentence (well, two sentences) seems not to be atypical of What Happened.    Every quotation I've seen that features a literary allusion shows that she (or her ghostwriters) don't really understand the material they're invoking.  Orwell certainly hoped that his readers would mistrust "our leaders, the press, experts who seek to guide public policy based on evidence, ourselves."  (Ourselves?)  For that matter, doesn't Clinton want us to mistrust our Supreme Leader Donald Trump, the press that made people dislike and distrust her, and ourselves if we find that we disbelieve Hillary Clinton?

Oh, it's true that Americans have come to distrust our government and other institutions over the past half-century.  H. Bruce Franklin reports the results of a poll that tracks the growth of this distrust since 1958: "In 1958 ... over three fourths (76.3 percent) of the American people believed that the government was run for the benefit of all, while only 17.6 percent believed that it was run by a few big interests" (43).  By 1994 the numbers had flipped: "76 percent expressed this profound distrust of the government, while a mere 19 perccnt still clung to the belief that they lived in a representative democracy" (46).  This is bad news -- how long can a country survive when its citizens have so little trust in their government? -- but for people like Hillary Clinton, the remedy is more trust in our national institutions; it is unthinkable that those institutions should be more trustworthy.  Instead we citizens must believe in our leaders' probity, which is not much more plausible than that five fingers are four.