I can’t get 1968 out of my head.
Now, as back then, I can’t shake the sense that my country is losing its mind.
Waking up to the radio screaming the news about King, then Kennedy. Riots a few miles away on the other side of town, black people and white people edging as far from each other as possible. A war grinding up the lives of kids a couple of years older than me, making no sense, but just part of the nightly news. In the background, a presidential campaign droning on, untethered to horrifying reality that grew grimmer by the day.
Today’s assassinations, by cops or of cops, are no more comprehensible than the everyday carnage of gunfire that has almost ceased to be considered news. Blacks and whites mostly keep to their side of a divide even wider and deeper than it was in 1968. And a war drags on, shadowy, undeclared and apparently endless, mostly unnoticed except when the explosions come too close to home.
Granted, the particulars of these two times don’t correspond, but history’s chaos, horror and madness certainly seem to rhyme.
It was frightening then. It’s frightening now. To a teenager in 1968, it was especially scary that adults seemed to be as uncertain and clueless about what fresh hell could erupt next — much less what could be done to steer life back to something resembling normal. I wished they could have provided some clarity, or maybe even wisdom. Nope, no certainty from them.
Now, though, the certainty is what is most frightening. No matter how inexplicable the event, judgments are instant, following the dictates of the ideological tribe you’ve aligned yourself with. No debate is tolerable, much less possible, when the legitimacy of any argument other than your own is not even worth listening to, much less considering on its merits.
It’s commonplace to say that most Americans have replaced their own opinion about issues, policy and each other with their own reality. Forget the center holding; it’s nothing but smithereens. Why bother arguing with a creature from another planet?
That’s another reason 1968 haunts 2016: Reality was deftly deformed by a politician and his handlers to make sense of a country gone crazy. If the majority of Americans, silent and under assault, would simply make themselves heard, the healing could begin and the chaos would be rolled back. It took some tortured intellectual backflipping to make the silent majority embattled, but enough people bought the pitch that they handed the White House keys to Richard Nixon.
They may well do something similar in November, bequeathing the presidency to a man who threatens to make America great again — if not fully sane again.
If they do so, they will have finally banished what now seems to have been at the heart of the uncertainty that so bedeviled the country a half-century ago: a sense of humility.
But in an era of instantaneous opinion, endlessly validated by the like-minded hordes, such a response seems downright quaint. I’m right and I know it, because everyone agrees with me, right? What’s there to be humble about?
As for me, I can’t find a like-minded tribe to serve as a perfect, comforting echo chamber at such a deranged moment. So I’ll backpedal into H.L. Mencken’s observation that “for every complex problem, there is an answer that is clear, simple and wrong.”
Making America great again is certainly a clear, simple goal. But which America are we talking about? Which Americans? Does greatness include the original sin of slavery and its unremitting fallout? What about the lethal addiction to violence as a nation-building tool? How does the nation’s treatment of the other — Indian, immigrant, Jew, queer — fit into the narrative? When, exactly, was America so great? 1789? 1865? 1945? 1968?
Taken together, the answers to those kinds of questions likely aren’t clear or simple, but they have a shot at not being wrong. And answered humbly, with healthy uncertainty, they could start restoring us to sanity.
Bob von Sternberg, of Minneapolis, is a former Star Tribune reporter. He is at email@example.com.