Issue 12  •  Spring 2013

The More Things Change, the More They Remain the Same

Written by Chanté Mouton Kinyon
I grew up in a house where everything was about the 1960s. “In the '60s we did this.” “In the '60s we partied and protested and changed the world.” “Berkeley was the place to be, in the '60s.” Yes, compounding this nostalgic view of a bygone era was the fact that I lived in the Bay Area. Saturdays my mom and I would walk up and down Telegraph Avenue, and I would be inundated with stories of what happened twenty years prior at that very spot. “Man, there would be people smoking joints right here. If the cops rolled by, they would just point at the joint. The smoker would put the joint on the ground, and as soon as the cops moved on, that joint would be back in someone’s hand.” 


I grew up in a house where everything was about the 1960s. “In the '60s we did this.” “In the '60s we partied and protested and changed the world.” “Berkeley was the place to be, in the '60s.” Yes, compounding this nostalgic view of a bygone era was the fact that I lived in the Bay Area. Saturdays my mom and I would walk up and down Telegraph Avenue, and I would be inundated with stories of what happened twenty years prior at that very spot. “Man, there would be people smoking joints right here. If the cops rolled by, they would just point at the joint. The smoker would put the joint on the ground, and as soon as the cops moved on, that joint would be back in someone’s hand.” 


 
The 1960s was such an idyllic time in my mind that I often fantasized about living during this apex of my parents’ lives. I would play dress up in clothes my mom had left over from that era—a minidress that went down to my knees and a pair of red boots that made me topple over when I tried walking in them—and pretend I was a flower child singing and dancing in Golden Gate Park. By the time I reached high school, I was in awe of the Black Panthers and would dress up every Halloween in that dress and those boots, this time with my hair in a nice neat fro. 



By my twenties, I was working at City Lights Books. Needless to say, my obsession with the 1960s and radicalism was further nurtured there. But as my reading list grew, the rose began to fade from my glasses. I began to realize that the mid-twentieth century wasn’t the perfect image of free love I’d always imagined it to be. From the Beats to the Freedom Riders to the Panthers, the idyllic image of the fight for freedom and equality was tainted by my reading list. From the marginalization and inferior treatment of women in these movements to police brutality to the FBI and J. Edgar Hoover treating each of these groups of resistance as if they were enemies of the state instead of liberators, the fight for equality and justice began to seem like more of a painful and difficult time than one that was picturesque and invigorating. Since childhood, I always wanted to know what life during the Civil Rights Era would have been like, and after the fury over health care this year, I feel like I have a pretty good idea. 



The Monday after the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act was passed by the United States Senate, Facebook—that great social networking site we all use to communicate what we’re eating at any given moment to how we feel on the latest issues in the news—was all aflutter with the passing of health care reform. Most of my “friends” were supportive and excited by the first major health reform in decades, however my conservative friends were anything but pleased. 



One friend wrote, “I can hear the sound of Nero’s fiddle in the not so far off distance.” Another friend wrote, “What a sad sad day…..” to which a friend of hers commented, “I've been upset about it since last night when it went through and was really tempted to punch Pelosi in the face through the t.v. along with all the other democrats!! Welcome to socialism….here we go!!” Besides the glaring grammatical errors I so desperately wanted to correct, these statements—emotional, inflammatory, and slightly irrational—had little effect on me. Until I read the following comment from a dear friend of my family (we’ll call her Maria): “To hell in a hand basket.... how shameful. The rise and fall of a once great nation.”

“The rise and fall of a once great nation.” Gosh. Where do you begin with a statement like that?

A week later Maria’s, I believe, flippant statement was still with me. I couldn’t shake it. “The rise and fall of a once great nation.” It is not like I expected her to be ecstatic about health care reform: she’s conservative and right now the Republicans are telling their constituents to be angry, to dislike any measures the Obama administration passes whether it personally helps their families or not. But what does “The rise and fall of a once great nation” actually mean? I was so irritated by this off-the-cuff remark that I asked many like-minded friends what they thought of it. “Oh, people just say things. Sometimes they don’t realize what they’re saying or what it means,” was mostly the response my friends gave me. But I truly believe that before Barack Hussein Obama was elected president many conservatives believed that this was a great nation and now, somehow, after the election of President Obama and his ushering in of liberal ideals, somehow now this country has lost its greatness. 



My questions to the Tea Party, the birthers, and the Sarah Palin ilk are: What was so great? Was it a great nation when this country was founded by, what Ms. Ginny Stroud from Dazed and Confused referred to as, “a bunch of slave-owning, aristocratic, white males who didn't want to pay their taxes”? I’m sure the elite group of white males who escaped England found it to be a country of freedom and opportunity, but what about the women who bore their children or the slaves who cooked their meals and worked their land? I bet that group of people didn’t see America as a land of hope and new beginnings.



Was America, in all her glory, a great nation when Chinese immigrants came to this country hoping for a better life and worked as laborers helping to build the railroads that brought many a European immigrant out West for free land (only later to find that America’s citizens ridiculed the Chinese as another inferior race and encouraged the United States Congress to pass the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, which prevented any Chinese immigrant from entering the country for the next ten years).

What about when suffragists were jailed and beaten and brutalized for wanting to participate in their country’s electoral process while America’s boys took up arms to fight for democracy in Europe?

And speaking of liberty, how great is America for asking homosexuals to hide, ignore, or deny who they are if they want to fight for our democracy abroad? Was America great when she incarcerated Japanese-Americans in concentration camps while her citizens fought in Europe to free Jews from similar (albeit more horrific) concentration camps in Europe? Or when black soldiers, who fought bravely in that war, came home to white Americans spitting in their faces and calling them “niggers”? America looked real good then I imagine. 



And what about the 1960s or the mid twentieth century in general? That point in America’s history when, we are led to believe, the cultural landscape changed and blacks and women and gays and all the “others” in American society fought back so loudly that a great schism formed. Hippies vs. Straights. Like me, many members of my generation were raised to believe that that time was magical, but if it mirrors what this country is going through now, and I believe it does, the mid twentieth century was a time of frustration and anger and fear: America in a war neither she nor many of her people wanted her to be in, violence erupting in economically depressed neighborhoods, financial and job insecurity as the norm, and general unease amongst American citizens, on both sides of the aisle, about the direction the country was headed in.

Most of the rage directed towards the president seems to be about his race, but since it is not the 1960s, very few people will openly admit to being racist. Instead, members of Congress and their staff treat our president disrespectfully: from Republican Senator Diane Black’s aide Sherri Goforth, sending an email photo of all the presidents and showing President Obama as an exaggerated pair of eyeballs against a black background to Republican Congressman Joe Wilson screaming, “You Lie!” during the president’s health care reform address last fall; instead of the only courtesy racist white Americans ever showed black Americans—openly admitting their hatred—today we get Internet chatter of assassination attempts (I read a comment on Facebook that simply said, “This guy is asking to be assassinated”), the Tea Party, and the Birthers.

According to Birthers.org, birthers believe: “In researching the intent of the founding fathers, the laws passed and cases heard by the Supreme Court of the United States both before and since the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment there is nothing that would grant natural born citizenship to Barack Hussein Obama, II. The man occupying the Oval Office is not qualified to hold that office by virtue of the US Constitution and the intent of our Founding Fathers who wrote it.” Because of this insistent and nasty venom heralded against the president, time and time again, Hawaii and the president have had to consistently show proof that he was in fact born in the United States of America. Yet, not even once did this group, who seems so determined to protect this country’s highest official office from foreigners, ever challenge John McCain’s right to run for president. You see, Senator McCain was born in the Panama Canal BEFORE it was considered a United States territory and before the people born in this region were granted US Citizenship (in 1937, the US government granted citizenship to children born in that region and extended it retroactively). In fact, there is some contention among legal professionals as to whether children born abroad to US citizens are in fact “natural born citizens” as is intended by the 14th amendment or not. I wonder if this group of yahoos would be contesting McCain’s right to be president had the election gone their way?

And then there’s the lovely Tea Party movement that insists on bringing this country back to the great days of America in the 1700s. The Tea Party movement, heralded by the always articulate Sarah Palin, holds gatherings and protests with signs that say: “Congress = Salve Owner Tax Payer = Niggar”; “Birth Certifict Where Obama’s”; “Protect our Boarder Stop Illegals”; “The USofA Constution Lives Are Awake Now!!”; “Respect Are-Country Speak English”; “Obama My Forefathers Were Christian Were From Kenya That Explains A Lot About You”; “Socilism: Not My Cup of Tea.” Again, grammar aside, what has these protesters so up in arms about everything Obama?

Between the years of 1844 and 1845 Alexandre Dumas wrote and published the timeless classic, The Count of Monte Cristo. Set in the tumultuous times of the early 1800s that was France, Dumas takes his readers on a wonderful adventure of love, jealously, and most importantly revenge. Throughout the novel his characters experience ultimate suffering and one, feeling at one point no hope says: “the world is going from bad to worse. If only the sky would rain gunpowder for two days and fire for an hour, and we could have done with it all,” which goes to show no matter when, and no matter what is happening, people are typically unsatisfied.
 
Whether it’s nostalgia for what we imagined were the happy times of our childhood or the happiness of a bygone era, the truth is times consistently change, and most often they change for the better. In America, we have a history of racism and oppression that the election of the first black president numbs a bit. While the anger and venom from the conservatives proves bigotry is not dead, America is making changes for the better. Ask any woman, non-white, or homosexual when in America’s history he/she would prefer to live and nine times out of ten that person will say now. The truth is America was never really that great of a nation but has always had the potential to be better and her potential, the opportunity that she provides most of her citizens tells us how wonderful our country truly can be. 

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