Radical-Right Stuff

Some four months after rupturing my right Achilles tendon, Vernal equinox looming, I resumed my daily morning walks and sent my wheels spinning back to Sixties.

The maiden voyage began just after dawn. I was greeted by neighborhood deer runs carved through patches of shady corn snow, one within a stone’s throw of my front door. Though neighborhood whitetails are basically edge creatures, they’ll march down Broadway in the black of night, the gray of dawn and dusk, and sometimes even at midday, slinking on high alert through foggy, drizzly veils.

It had been a long COVID- and injury-complicated winter, only exacerbated by the vexing deep-freeze we endured for almost three weeks following Presidents’ Day Weekend. I have learned to expect that annual long mid-February weekend to be the gateway to spring. Not this year. Instead, we got one last loud, grumpy snort from Old Man Winter.

My walks began on pavement, not my way. I prefer wooded maneuvers on ridgetop spines and swampy perimeters, but did not want to start on challenging terrain, where I could easily run into trouble coming off a torn Achilles. Why risk slipping and falling on hidden ice or slick mud? Heading toward 68, caution was wise until calf-strength was rebuilt. Setbacks caused by foolish, freewheeling rambles would have been stupid.

I’ve learned that brisk, solitary walks stimulate deep thinking. Get your legs moving and your heart pumping and one never knows what a fertile imagination will deliver. I don’t seem to arrive at that creative place by walking through noisy neighborhoods, surrounded by homes, people, passing cars and other sounds that disrupt or even preclude freewheeling streams of consciousness. It’s natural sounds that carry me off to the pensive place I seek – things like rattling streams, trickling springs, whistling winds and joyous birdsong. That’s what delivers me to that warm, elusive internal chamber I cherish.

Too bad I’m not yet traveling those thinking trails. I have lots to ponder. My last few weeks have been spent revisiting readings from my high school and college years. The impetus was recent films focusing on events like the 1968 Democratic Convention, the resulting Chicago Seven Trial, and the Chicago police murder of Black Panther leader Fred Hampton.

My college mentor, Howard Ziff, had a front-row seat for all of the above as night editor of the Chicago Daily News. Disillusioned by what he knew were slanted, willfully inaccurate press reports, he changed professions, soon to establish UMass Amherst’s Journalism Department. Talk about being at the right place at the right time. I was there.

The old books I recently retrieved from my study’s shelves were Tom Hayden’s The Trial, Bobby Seale’s Seize the Times, and late, great Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in America: The Gonzo Letters (1968-76), in that order. The Thompson capper pretty much covered it all – from the ugly ’68 Chicago convention, to his own Freak Power run for sheriff, to Kent State, Woodstock, and Watergate, and his friendship with “Rock and Roll President” Jimmy Carter.

Long ago I learned that if interested in what someone really believes, read their correspondence. Which is not to suggest that Hunter S. Thompson, Doctor of his own twisted Gonzo branch of New Journalism, ever held back in print. No, not the case.

I suppose I could have dug even deeper by re-examining Norman Mailer’s The Armies of the Night and Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice, penned from Algerian exile. But I didn’t need them. Those first three reads provided more than enough info about the political theater I lived through during the Sixties and early Seventies. Memory alone cannot always be trusted after a half-century, particularly those of us who sampled the forbidden fruits of the times.

Although today’s youth may find it difficult to conceptualize, the Sixties were hopeful, idealistic times of which open defiance of authority and protest in the streets was borne. The first protest I recall occurred in junior high school, when we participated in “skip days” organized by upperclassmen and women who opposed a strict dress code. Draconian rules forbade boys from wearing blue jeans, bellbottoms and sandals, hair below the collar, sideburns below mid-ear, and facial hair. Girls could not wear slacks or shorts, and their skirts could not wander above the knee. Skip days and open defiance of the rules brought fairly rapid change.

Then, in short order, the drinking and voting ages were dropped from 21 to 18. Philosophical justification for the latter was basic: if old enough to die for your country in Vietnam, then you were old enough to vote and drink. Simple logic, eh?

Of course, “traditionalists” pushed back with the disrespect card, but they were outnumbered, as evidenced by the LBJ’s landslide win over ultra-conservative Barry Goldwater in the 1964 presidential election. Four years later, though, after assassins eliminated the Kennedys, Nixon re-emerged by pulling the segregationist, Southern Dixiecrats led by George Wallace and Lester Maddox into the Republican fold. He dubbed this new, law-and-order Republican voting block the “silent majority,” and rode it to a razor-slim win over Humphrey in 1968 and a landslide win over McGovern in 1972.

The political landscape had been changed for generations.

Something important to remember in light of what’s gone on recently: Wallace picked up a whopping 13.5 percent of the votes running as a third-party, 1968 presidential candidate. That same element survives today.

Fast-forward to 2016, when a controversial New York City real estate mogul, reality-TV star, and con man slid down the glittering Trump Tower escalator to announce his run for the presidency. Against long odds he won by energizing the modern-day silent majority and Southern vote with racist dog whistles. He spoke in incendiary, white-nationalist code and wrapping himself in cheap patriotism. Even worse, he invited underground elements of the neo-Nazi/white-supremacist movement into plain view. These hate groups soon became the hard right-wing base that almost got him re-elected. Incensed by eight years of our first African-American president, they were responding.

Well, we know where this powder-keg empowerment of white nationalism got us. From Charlottesville to the Capitol siege, racist hate groups harkening back to the KKK and the John Birch Society were given a loud, public platform. We watched the “Unite the Right” mobs in hi-def, heard their hateful chants in Dolby sound.

Has anyone forgotten the anti-Semitic chants and tiki-torches of Charlottesville? Not likely.  Some found the scene terrifying. Others cheered it on. Frightening indeed. And while we’re at it, why to this day have we heard nothing more about the motive in the Christmas-day suicide truck bombing in Nashville? Who is being protected? By whom? Why?

It’s too bad Hunter S. Thompson took his own life before the Trump-train whistles blew. He knew what was coming, consistently railing against what he called homegrown “fascists,” “greedheads,” “swine” and more profane monikers too spicey for the mainstream.

Long aware of creeping fascism in Amerika, I have bitten my tongue in print for four years. Friends of mine are Trump supporters. Though I can’t understand how anyone could support the narcissistic snake-oil salesman, why engage in irreconcilable political debate? But now, fresh off Thompson’s Gonzo Letters, chronicling an era I love to revisit, I cannot resist taking a few swipes at the man Spike Lee dubbed “Agent Orange.”

The made-for-TV spectacle we all witnessed during four, in-your-face Trump years only reinforced my long-held beliefs about who was behind the Sixties assassinations. They’re still here, very real and not hard to find. Just look for the swastikas, nooses and rebel flags, and listen for the fascistic, xenophobic rhetoric our European brothers know best.

An undercurrent before Trump, it’s mushroomed in the public square. Scary indeed.

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