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My friend Scott Camil cut the ears off dead Vietnamese when he was a Marine sergeant in Vietnam. Like John Kerry, he returned to the United States and became a leader of the VVAW-Vietnam Veterans Against The War. Decades later, and most of a lifetime working in a variety of anti-war and peace movements, and he still can’t sleep at night.
When I visit my mom, who just celebrated her 81st birthday, we talk history and current events and sooner or later the conversation reaches the topic of obscenity. She is a voracious reader but hates-really hates-the obscene words in most “modern” books. She insists the F-word is obscene. I say Napalm is obscene, and we go back and forth: neither of us has convinced the other in over 25 years, although she conceded my use of the F-word was appropriate as I cursed the doctors who couldn’t prevent my Dad from dying of a heart attack.
Me? I took up the sex, drugs and rock n’ roll anthem, didn’t go to war, laced my language and writing with words I thought were appropriate and reflective of the culture-only somehow, early on, my anthem became sex, politics and rock n’ roll-and proceeded to explore the variety of activities and lifestyles conjured by free people in an uprising culture.
I worked for civil rights, against the war (Vietnam), against nuclear power, against apartheid in South Africa, in municipal government (safe energy, energy conservation etc.), and played rock n’ roll in a host of unknown but fun bands. And of course there was sex. Details are not necessary. Use your imagination, or see the movie. Better yet, do it yourself.
Put another way, I never cut the ears off anyone and I don’t find the F-word to be obscene, although sometimes it’s tiresome.
Sex, politics and rock n’ roll will take you right to the center of the Culture War (as Patrick Buchanan aptly described it) underway in the U.S. Oh, I know, we’re at war with Terrorism, but Terrorists don’t effectively challenge our values as much as they challenge the architectural durability of our skyscrapers and lead us to do the damage to our values ourselves. The Culture War is much more to the point as it actually is about values-and we all know what “is” means.
Let’s be blunt. I don’t know what the hell our values are.
The other day I sat in a Government Affairs Committee meeting at the Santa Monica Chamber of Commerce and heard a report from a Person From Sacramento on the Master Plan For Education-necessary because of the multitude of problems and challenges. Bottomline: every kid should have a wonderful education. The plan, as presented, didn’t include how to get there (a policies and dollars discussion) and there is no inventory of just how bad things are. How many classrooms throughout the state are in disrepair, and how many more are necessary to achieve an adequate student-teacher ratio? “We don’t know, but finding that out is part of the plan.”
When I was a kid, my dad, a professor of education in the South, used to talk with admiration as a majority of others in the field did about the glory of the California educational system. It was, he said, the model.
So what the hell happened? Apparently although we say we value education… well, do the math.
We say we value privacy and free speech and equal opportunity and individual rights, despite increasing evidence to the contrary as the “Patriot Act” nullifies the Bill of Rights and the rewriting of tax policy coupled with a host of Executive orders continues the massive transfer of the wealth to the wealthy.
We say we value clean air and clean water, but look at what Bush’s budget does to the EPA. (Can you say “cut”, boys and girls?)
We say we value the work of people who serve in police and fire departments, yet funds are cut, and cut again.
We say we value love but deny the right of two people in love to marry if they are the same gender. (The romantics and poets speak of unconditional love; the State puts conditions on it.)
And we say we value decency.
FCC Chairman Michael Powell, one of society’s decency watchdogs and protectors, was shocked by “the crass and deplorable stunt” during the half-time show at the Superbowl and has promised investigations and fines. There’s no indication he was shocked by CBS’s refusal to run the MoveOn.Org ad criticizing the president’s accomplishment at creating the largest deficit in the history of, well, history. CBS argued it was within its rights (who owns the airwaves?) and pulled out the popular slogan, there is a time and place for everything, and the Superbowl, being the “nation’s largest undeclared holiday” was not the time and place for a political ad. (Horse flatulence, yes, politics, no!)
As observed at our Sunday Table at the Main Street Farmer’s Market, in the Soviet Union poets were dangerous; here, apparently, political ads during the Superbowl are dangerous.
How did a nation born from a political idea and ideal succumb to the notion that there is a time and a place for politics and that time and place is only on C-SPAN at 2am?
Well, I don’t know exactly how we got here, but only with such a value system can we impeach a slick president for lying about a blowjob and not even condemn or investigate a sly president for lying about reasons to go to war.
It takes a nation that places politics in the closet to s/elect and celebrate the inept, cowardly, opportunistic son of a distinguished father, as if they are similar.
Maybe it is all a matter of education.
What if, instead of memorizing the presidents, we had been taught to memorize the broken treaties with native American tribes? Wouldn’t that have better prepared us to understand how the world views us when we use our military might unilaterally and irrevocably?
What if, instead of thinking that football players and sports figures are heroes, we thought a little more about the people whom we now celebrate? How many people celebrating Martin Luther King, Jr. Day recalled that he wasn’t just shot in Memphis, he was in Memphis to support a garbage workers strike not unlike the grocery strike occurring now in Southern California? What if celebrating King’s memory meant honoring that strike rather than just taking the day off or cursing (with the f-word) the assassination?
But do we value health care for workers or convenience in shopping?
What if, when someone said sports builds teamwork, we said “Okay, but I certainly didn’t see a whole lot of team support when Curt Flood took on the slavery clause in organized baseball.”
Decency, well that’s the tricky one. Two to three hours of grown men slamming themselves into one another with millions of dollars and life- and career-threatening injuries at stake, while massive quantities of alcohol are eagerly consumed and “large” money is gambled is all celebrated as “the nation’s largest undeclared holiday” but the unplanned, unrehearsed exposure of a nipple-covered breast is condemned as a threat to western civilization.
“How can I explain it to my kids?” one imagines a shocked father (Powell?) asking as he sips his Jack and Coke and watches the point spread evaporate.
I only watched a few minutes of The Game and did happen to catch the half-time show. It’s not my taste in music but, with the raw beat and physicality of the dancing, it seemed to fit with the élan of football. I was shocked that Justin Timberlake is a star, but I’m Out Of It, preferring Dylan or Springsteen or Jagger. And I had to wonder why Abbie Hoffman got busted for wearing a flag shirt but Kid Rock didn’t-oh yeah, Abbie was dangerous; Kid Rock, for all his posturing, not so much.
As for those who think these points are too simplistic, well that’s the point, isn’t it? Western civilization and any discussion of values has to include the complexities of history and human life; complexities that seem to escape Powell and his ilk. (But as we recall from the Psalm of Forest Gump, “Fundamentalism is as Fundamentalism does”.) Me, I’m confident we will survive the unrehearsed exposure of Janet Jackson’s nipple-covered breast just as much as the involved entities will survive any fines levied by the FCC-to use a different f-word. Survival against the Fundamentalists in the Culture War though is still an open question.
While the game and the attack on western civilization occurred (it will be known and remembered as 2/1), I’m sure my friend Scott was playing volleyball with other vets and political activists-he hosts a game every Sunday; I’m sure my mom was reading, and I spent most of the time watching C-SPAN.