She announced it a few months back in an interview with the New York Observer. The very first question asked her about comparisons between President Trump and Adolf Hitler, to which she replied: “‘Presentism’ is a major affliction—an over-absorption in the present or near past, which produces a distortion of perspective and a sky-is-falling Chicken Little hysteria.”
This is a point that deserves repeated amplification. It explains, for instance, much of the indignation we see and hear on college campuses, wherein twenty-year-olds decry twenty-first-century American racism and sexism. The first response to their charges should not be to debate present conditions. It should be to ask them about actual conditions of the past—Jim Crow, the franchise for women and blacks, poverty rates and public health in former times . . . The answers will demonstrate that the only way to believe that America 2017 is a particularly vicious time for certain identities is to know nothing about the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. And we know, of course, how little history young Americans actually possess.
Paglia believes there is a causal connection between young Americans’ ignorance of history and their dim view of present conditions. At a conference in Oxford, Paglia stated again, in response to a student who criticized her and others for telling youths not to be so sensitive and snowflaky, “There is much too much focus on the present.”
Nothing in my recent experience has brought this home to me like watching The Vietnam War, the epic documentary film by Ken Burns & Lynn Novick, which is airing this week on PBS. (I was able to watch the entire thing in advance.) The years 1968 to 1973 were surely among the five worst in American history, second only to the Civil War, and perhaps — perhaps — the worst of the Great Depression. I was a small child then, blissfully unaware of what was happening around me in my country. Watching this film, I wonder what on earth my parents must have been thinking, day in and day out, as the country tore itself apart.
Most of us of a certain age have at least a general idea of what happened back then. The Vietnam War raged on, the antiwar movement spread, Woodstock, MLK and RFK murdered, radicalization, domestic bombings as routine, Richard Nixon and all his pomps and works, etc. But until watching this film, for some reason, I had not quite realized the depth and intensity of the coming-apart. I thought I had, but no.
I’m going to write more broadly about the film in a separate post, but I want to focus on this one aspect of it to underscore Paglia’s point. For me, giving myself over to The Vietnam War was to be sucked into a whirlpool, and to be forced to answer, over and over, “What would I have done back then?” In that context, the absurdity of people today acting like the Trump era and its polarization is some kind of short-fingered Götterdammerung is made vividly manifest. “Well, Mama, this is hell indeed. Donald Trump’s America is the Ninth Circle,” recently shrieked New York Times columnist Charles Blow, who was born in 1970.
For my readers who, like me, didn’t live through that era, do this quick thought experiment, inspired by the film.
Imagine that the US was involved in a major overseas war in which over 11,000 American soldiers died in one year alone (1967). For a point of comparison, fewer than 7,000 US troops have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past 14 years of combat there.
Imagine that 17,000 US soldiers would die in 1968, and 12,000 in 1969 fighting that war
Imagine that you might be drafted to go fight there.
Imagine what it would be like if you were convinced the war was profoundly immoral, and you had to choose between deserting the country and bearing arms in that war.
Imagine that many college campuses had become hotbeds not of snowflakey sit-ins, but of serious violence.
Imagine that domestic bombings by left-wing radicals had become a routine part of American life (e.g., five per day in an 18-month period in the early 1970s).
Imagine that two of the nation’s most prominent political leaders (MLK and RFK) Bobby were gunned down three months apart.
Imagine that your government and military were lying to Congress and to the American people about the war, and had been for years (as was revealed with the 1972 publication of the Pentagon Papers).
Imagine that major American cities were burning in race riots.
Imagine that cops in a major American city staged what was later called “a police riot” outside a political party’s national convention, and beat the hell out of protesters.
What’s harder to imagine is the historical context in which these shocking events were taking place. The distance between 1958 and 1968 is only ten years, but it surely felt like a lifetime. The country in 1958 was relatively stable, settled, and buttoned-up. A decade later, it was ripping itself apart, and would continue to do so for years to come.
Americans at the start of that period trusted our institutions, including our government. To watch protesters in the street demolishing universities (figuratively, mostly, but not always) and in some cases carrying communist flags into protest — that had to have been a terrible shock to the system. The template for US involvement in war was still World War II, a “good” war; most people could not grasp that Vietnam was not that kind of war. (Indeed, the film keeps pointing out, importantly, that for most of the war, the American people were solidly behind it and the president; this was Nixon’s “silent majority”). Families were falling apart as the divorce rate soared skyward, beginning a steep rise that would not peak until the early 1980s. The churches were also crumbling. Drug use was going mainstream. Watching The Vietnam War, even as I felt within myself a growing revulsion to the war, and even rage at the US government officials prosecuting it, and sending those young men into that meat grinder, I also felt total disgust at the images of the blissed-out college student freaks. I can only imagine what ordinary conservative people like my folks must have thought from 1968-73, watching this play out on American streets.
Actually, one of my most vivid memories of my early childhood was my father’s accounts of the disastrous “Celebration of Life” festival in 1971. It was an attempt to re-create Woodstock on the Atchafalaya River in rural south Louisiana. My dad was a state public health official, and was assigned to inspect the food being sold at the festival. He had to get police protection when he condemned a large amount of fried chicken, and concertgoers threatened him. He said that if those idiot kids had eaten that spoiled chicken, they would have gotten very sick, and some might have died. But all they could see was that the Man was denying them something they wanted. I recall my dad telling my mom about the things he saw at what he called “the hippie festival,” day after day: the widespread nudity and the drugs. Much later, when I was older, he said he had seen a lot of sex there; it seemed that a decade or so later, he was still trying to comprehend it.
I’ll never forget a story I heard him tell my mom. He was near tears of pity and rage, recalling how hippies with children were stoned or tripping, and paying no attention to their kids. He saw one couple with their naked baby lying exposed to the intense sun, turning red. I wish my dad were still alive today so I could ask him for more details. What I can remember was his anguish and total disgust at the doped-up dereliction of that young couple. Seems like an apt symbol of the times.
My dad had taken our Super 8 film camera to the hippie festival. When he had the films developed, he invited neighbors over to watch them in our living room, as an anthropologist might have done bringing back film of some savage tribe in the heart of the jungle. Here’s the trailer for a recent documentary film about that festival.
My point is that these radical changes were all taking place very quickly, in a society that was in no way prepared for them. In one of the film’s episodes, a TV news reporter interviews one of the NYC hardhats who beat antiwar protesters. The man, with his outer borough ethnic accent, was so angry at those protesters, with their communist flags, that he could hardly contain himself. Listening to him talk, I thought: “That construction worker doesn’t know it yet, but in nine years, he’s going to vote for Ronald Reagan.”
So, me, I’m watching this film and imagining what I would have done back then. What if I hated the war, but also hated what the cultural left was doing to the country? What if I hated what the cultural left was doing to the country, but was furious at the fact that squares like me were still behind Nixon, and demonized all anti-war protesters. Would I have been able to be merciful to the returning soldiers, but still despised the war? It turned out that a man from my hometown served under Lt. William Calley, and was charged in the My Lai massacre, though not convicted. How would that have affected the way I saw the war?
I know how I would have liked to have thought and behaved. But would I have done so, in that maelstrom? Doubtful. Given my temperament, I probably would have been either a knotheaded reactionary, or an anti-war radical. In either case, it would have been a profound reaction to the disorder all around me — either the disorder in the streets, or the moral disorder within the government and the military, for what it was doing with the war.
And Watergate was yet to come, as was stagflation.
The point is this: compared to 1968-73, today is a total cakewalk. This is not to minimize the very serious problems we face, politically and otherwise. In fact, some of the moral breakdown that seemed so traumatizing back then has been normalized by our society, such that we don’t feel the pain of fracture as Americans did back then. Still, you want to talk about an American hell? It was then. Watching The Vietnam War is like seeing the history of some other country, not our own. Yet it happened within my own lifetime. When my children are middle-aged, as I am today, they won’t have any films like this to watch about our own period of American life, because for all the corruption and decadence and foolishness afoot, it’s not like those horrible, horrible days.
This is why we should study history.