The Great Awakening
I graduated high school 50 years ago this week. There’s no 50th anniversary classmate reunion, not even a virtual one that I’m aware of, and I’ve not stayed in touch with my high school cronies, with the notable exception of my best friend Hank of some 56 years. We were roommates in high school for three of the four years, as we attended a boarding school on the East Coast.
But 1970 stands out as monumental for me not just because I graduated high school, although high school was pretty weird, as it can be for lots of kids. Richard Milhous Nixon in the White House, the Viet Nam War, overt systemic inequality and racism, and the military draft made for a pretty ugly time in 1970 for the youth, women, the LGBTQ community and people of color in this country.
I felt like the Nixon administration was repressive, racist, reactionary, militaristic, authoritarian, greedy and corrupt, and the news that year seemed like it was edgy or tragic every single day. That was the year that our country invaded Cambodia, anti-Viet Nam War demonstrations continued on college campuses and in cities, students were murdered at Kent State and Jackson State, racial tensions boiled over in cities like New Haven, Augusta, Wilmington and Asbury Park and there were bombings in San Francisco and Madison, Wisconsin. Five of the Chicago Seven defendants were convicted of inciting riot and sentenced to prison. Not unlike today, 1970 for me just felt like a year when society was unraveling, thread by tenuous thread.
So, thinking about the scope and gravity of events in this country and the world the last few years and especially the last few months, I’m asking myself today, what have we accomplished and learned in the last 50 years?
Well, part of me sadly says not that much.
I think the so-called “culture war” really began back then, as white protestant “movement” conservatives reacted angrily to the resistance to the Viet Nam War and the strength of the Civil Rights and Women’s Rights Movements. To me the Nixonians initiated the modern era of angry distain for individual rights, liberty and freedom of expression and used it as a political cudgel. The war against diversity, inclusion and economic equity gathered steam with eight years of Ronald Reagan, matured with the Newt Gingrich’s Congress and the Tea Party and reached its logical apex with the election of Donald Trump and the obedience to his authority of the Republican Party.
People of color, immigrants, Native Americans, women, the LGBTQ community and the free press have been the targets of this culture war by a predominantly white, privileged, powerful, protestant, male oligarchy. Meanwhile, our government seems to have devolved steadily over time and especially during this Presidency into a substantially weakened state, intimidated by individual rights and liberties, and now appears to stand at the precipice of a slippery slope leading to fascism. That’s frightening to the point of being bone chilling.
Yet it also strikes me that the combined cataclysmic impact of the climate crisis, the suffering and death caused by the COVID-19 virus, its economic devastation and 400 years of oppression, systemic racism and violence against people of color exploding out into cellphone videos everywhere is causing the epiphany deeply affected masses of people need to mobilize energetically and peacefully to force change in the elitist and racist political, educational, employment and economic power structures we have allowed to persist since well before 1970 and flourish especially in the last few years. Intuitively and collectively people are grasping the truth that we have lost our way as a country and current leadership is incapable of fixing that.
The ubiquitous, on-going and overwhelmingly peaceful mass demonstrations of support across the country and world in response to the police murder of George Floyd indicate a mass solidarity of people demanding economic, social, gender and racial justice now. This looks and feels like the birth of an overpowering and peaceful racial, economic, environmental and political revolution. Call it the Great Awakening, or the Great Reckoning or the Great Realization. Call it whatever you like. But it just looks increasingly day by day that it is happening. And after minimally 50 years of fighting the good fight, many Americans clearly think it’s about time.
If not now, when?