Thanks to the conservative resurgence that began with Ronald Reagan in 1980, the 1960s took a severe and mostly undeserved beating. It was supposedly the decade when the country began "slouching toward Gomorrah," in the words of Robert Bork, the former federal appeals court judge who tends to slouch toward anything suppressive and autocratic. But the conservative storyline about the 1960s is bankrupt. Iraq and the Bush years have exposed conservatism for the duplicitous opportunism that it's been. Ronald Reagan is crying on the cover of Time because he sees what's coming. It's a matter of time before the '60s experience a resurgence of their own -- as a model of constructive self-doubt and social renewal.
The 1960s are the last time the nation really questioned itself about its role in the world and its purpose as a nation. The wars in Vietnam and on America's streets were unhealthy symptoms of a nation in trouble. But they provoked healthy soul-searching.
Martin Luther King anticipated that national soul-searching in 1967 when he had this to say about the Vietnamese in his famous Beyond Vietnam speech: "They must see Americans as strange liberators. . . . For nine years following 1945 we denied the people of Vietnam the right of independence. For nine years we vigorously supported the French in their abortive effort to recolonize Vietnam. . . . The only change came from America as we increased our troop commitments in support of governments which were singularly corrupt, inept and without popular support. All the while the people read our leaflets and received regular promises of peace and democracy -- and land reform. Now they languish under our bombs and consider us -- not their fellow Vietnamese -- the real enemy. . . . What do they think as we test our latest weapons on them, just as the Germans tested out new medicine and new tortures in the concentration camps of Europe? Where are the roots of the independent Vietnam we claim to be building?"
Replace the word Vietnam with the word Iraq, and you get a picture that has hardly changed. It's not about land reform this time. It's about democracy. It's not even about democracy anymore. It's about security. And, in fact, it's never been about security, WMDs, terrorism or even regional stability. It's always been about oil. Otherwise we'd be invading places like the Congo and the Sudan, where literally millions of people have been killed in civil wars and ethnic cleansing. Why isn't the national conscience so eager to go over there and create free and democratic republics? First off, they're black. Second, there's no oil, or not much anyway. The Sudan has some, but the oil conveniently flows where the blood doesn't. So Martin Luther King was onto something when he referred to "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today -- my own government."
It would be another six years after King's speech before Richard Nixon removed ground troops from Vietnam and eight years until that last helicopter flew off the roof of the American embassy in Saigon. The war provoked a rethinking of America's role in the world and of the American presidency. But then came Gulf War I, which essentially rehabilitated the United States as the world's policeman, and then came the second Bush, and then came 9/11.
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For a moment after 9/11, we did have the glimmer of a nation stopping to wonder: Who are we, what are we becoming, who could possibly wish us such harm that we don't quite understand? And for a moment, the world's solidarity, Iran and China included, was with the United States. But just as Bush was to squander a world of good will in the aftermath of the attacks, he also squandered a chance at redefining American purpose in the world. He reduced absolutely everything, to that Manichaean view of the world as good and evil, us versus them.
That's not to say that the acts that had targeted the United States weren't evil and that there wasn't a world of good to defend against them. But all of a sudden we were caught in the juvenile world of comic-book and superhero dialogue at a time that evoked something closer to Dante's Inferno or "Paradise Lost." There was no national discussion, no questioning. Can any of us think of a single great speech delivered in the past six years that comes anywhere close to the kind of self-reflective themes Martin Luther King tackled in his Beyond Vietnam speech? Where were the debates? Where were the discussions?
Subversion doesn't happen only against governments. The most effective purveyors of subversion are governments. They subvert the truth. They subvert history. They subvert the healthy will to doubt, to question, to oppose. The Bush administration did all those things in the last six years. The country is slouching as a result -- back to the healthy subversions of the 1960s. It's about time.
© 2007 News-Journal Corporation