How Bad Is It?

Last night a friend posed a question on Facebook. David L writes:

I am not old enough to recall another time in my life when I was so profoundly and regularly struck by how fucked up the world seems. For those with the blessing of decades greater than my own, has this happened before? Do you recall times like this? If so, how and when did it pass?

Jokes about getting old aside, I do consider those extra decades worth having lived through. Because, yes, we got to see all the great bands. Why, just yesterday I was reveling in the reminder that it has been FIFTY YEARS(!) since Rubber Soul was released, and recalled fondly the afternoons spent making out with Susan Levin in Melanie Burg’s basement, with Rubber Soul providing the soundtrack for those adolescent stirrings.

But I digress. I should answer the man’s question:

David, this world has always been fucked up, but, sorry to say, it does seem more fucked up now than I can recall.

At the ripe old age of 65, I can recall a lot: the first Kennedy assassination, Vietnam, riots, Martin Luther King, more riots, the second Kennedy assassination, and then Nixon, Cambodia, Kent State, and utlimately Watergate. Take a breath and wait for: inflation, price controls, the fall of Saigon, gas lines, hostages in Iran. And then for a few minutes it was “morning in America” and the Berlin wall came down.

I also recall the Beatles, Woodstock, the first moon landing, and the Mets winning the World Series. But I’m hard pressed to think of any contemporary events or phenomena on that scale that can balance all the crazy that’s showing up on the scoreboard today. Not even Adele’s 4-million albums sold is not going to stir us from our stupor.

After Paris, I watched while everybody in my Random Trivia Generator (aka Facebook) offered up their not-so-nuanced opinions. With so many foreign policy experts flooding the ether, what could I possibly come up with that would add any meaningful flavor to the rhetorical stew? I gave my fingers a rest.

This week — after Colorado Springs and San Bernardino — my so-called “news” feed has been clogged with rants about guns and the NRA. My response? I found and shared a grainy, black and white video from 1965 of the Beatles performing a 15 minute set on a TV show in Britain — instructing my faithful to “avoid the news and watch some olds”.

But I couldn’t resist posting this observation:

Is the entire solar system in retrograde? It just seems everything is so out of kilter I keep looking down at my feet to see which one is on the left…

And then just before I went to bed last night I found the plaintive query David L posed to us Elders…

My first thought went straight to the morning of June 5, 1968 — the hours after Bobby Kennedy was assassinated.

In those days we walked to school; I walked nearly every day with my neighbor John, who lived two doors down the street from me in our leafy New Jersey suburb about 20 miles from New York City.

Kennedy had been shot just after midnight in Los Angeles; the news somehow arrived — probably by radio — as we all arose that morning.

That’s what I thought of when David asked

…has this happened before? Do you recall times like this?

I thought of Johnny Reichman greeting me that morning. All he said was

this country is sick.

Robert Kennedy died at a very vulnerable time in our nation’s history; he took a lot of hope for the future with him.

Our national destiny had already been knocked off course by the assassination of his brother five years earlier; that was the first Great Shock to the Collective System, the first tear in the fabric of the universe that cast us into an alternate future. Like “Biff World” in Back to the Future II, we spent the rest of the 60's living in a distorted, through-the-looking-glass world that was not, ostensibly, the way it was supposed to be. Unlike the movie, it seems we’re still stuck in that alternate universe.

Instead of a bright, young, energetic president carrying the torch for a new generation, the face on the telescreen became the dour contenance of Lyndon Johnson. Granted, Johnson managed to do a lot of right things: Civil Rights, Voting Rights, Medicare.

Then he got his ass all quagmired in Vietnam.

Despite the war and the grindingly slow progress on racism, those were simpler times. Today it seems there is an existential threat around every corner.

In my formative years we had only the threat of nuclear annihilation to worry about. We fretted over “Mutually Assured Destruction” and responded with the comical, “don’t look at the flash, duck and cover” civil defense drills — like our desks were going to protect us from the apocalyptic blast and accompanying radiation?

But at least we could walk to school, and we could ride our bikes without helmets. And for chrissakes we never saw a gun in school, or had metal detectors at the entrance. School guards wore white belts and told students — who, again, were walking to-and-from school — when it was safe to cross the street.

Now the planet is warming, the lions and tigers and bears (Oh my!) are going extinct, and homeless refugees are swarming the borders. We have daily gun carnage, Jihadi terror around the globe, and the armies of the earth slowly gathering near the place the Bible identifies as Armageddon.

And the individuals who clamor to lead us out of the morass impress us daily with their ignorance, their bigotry, their bias, and their allegiance to plutocratic corporate interests.

Kid, in my day… We only had three channels of corporate media on television, and a few independent voices that could get through the air waves from stations like the Pacifica Foundation’s WBAI in New York and KPFA in Berkeley.

Today we have an infinite number of channels. With digital media, essentially everybody with a keyboard and screen is their own channel. But instead of clarity, we have only cacophony. Maybe things are not worse, maybe it just seems that way because there are so many more fervent opinions to rummage through every day.

In my youth we swung between hope and despair. Now it seems the pendulum is just stuck on despair. Or swings between despair and numb anticipation — of the next episode of despair.

At the end of his post, David asked

Do you recall times like this? If so, how and when did it pass?

Honestly? Yes, I am old now and I recall times like this. But I am hard pressed to say that they ever truly passed. Maybe there was a brief pause in the late 80s, when the cold war ended, followed by the prosperity of the Clinton years, but we all know how that ended. Dot-com bust. Followed by eight years of the idiot Bush, 9/11, and now the endless war and daily carnage.

So, I dunno what to tell you David. Yeah, pendulums swing. But sometimes they get stuck, too.

Like Johnny Reichman said way back in 1968… “this country is sick.” Is it better? Is it worse? It’s hard to say. At the very least I think it’s safe to say that whatever medication they’ve been feeding us hasn’t had much lasting effect.