Sunday, November 30, 2008

Righteous Radicalism

I was talking to my right-leaning son yesterday about a friend of his who tilts decidedly toward the left. This friend spent much of the past year as a volunteer for the Obama campaign, mostly in the South. He came back with stories to tell, such as this one.

Map in hand of the locations he was supposed to visit, he went to a remote, rural home to distribute literature. Wearing his Obama button, he drove up in his second-hand automobile festooned with Obama stickers, only to find a convivial gathering of KKK members getting ready for a barbeque. He made his excuses and backed away as quickly as he could, figuring that his time would be better spent elsewhere.

For me, a child of the sixties, that story brought back memories. I clearly remember the time in 1964 when three voter-registration volunteers became martyrs to the cause in rural Mississippi. I’m glad the nature of our prejudice has changed, and I rejoice in the fact that there are still young people ready to take time out from their everyday lives to work for something they believe in.

In the course of the conversation, my son said, “This whole Obama thing must have been kind of like it was in the sixties,” and that got me thinking.

Many people think of the sixties as a time when the young and young-at-heart indulged in drugs, sex, and outrageous displays of disrespect toward symbols of “the establishment.” That’s not how I remember it.

The radicalism of the sixties began at the Berkeley campus of the University of California, where eloquent student leaders got fed up with administrators and politicians telling them how to think and what to say. It was a free-speech movement, which had a natural affinity for the emerging civil rights movement; both later merged with what I now believe was a righteous indignation against a horrific, pointless war that was being fought in wrong way and the wrong place. (Sound familiar?)

In the case of Vietnam, of course, the indignation was unjustly directed at the courageous soldiers who fought for their country, rather than the politicians who sent them there.

It just so happens that Berkeley is just across the bay from Haight-Ashbury, where some of society’s dropouts (every generation has them) were dropping acid, burning flags, and generally behaving outrageously. They sort of appropriated the “freedom” message of their more academic brothers and sisters, and over time, the two became fused in the public consciousness.

Ergo, when my sons first asked me, some years ago, if I was a hippie, I didn’t quite know what to say. I wore headbands and “love beads,” but I never dropped acid. In April of 1968, I took part in a protest march in Seattle—one of hundreds that were happening all over the country in response to the murder of Martin Luther King; but I had no particular interest in Woodstock rock. I understand now that I was not a hippie, but I was a kind of wanna-be radical—one who was born maybe just a little too late and too far away from where things were happening to feel I could make a difference.

But I admired those who had the courage to protest and sometimes lay their lives on the line for righteous reasons.

I still do.

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