Monday, April 9, 2012

After Changes Upon Changes We Are More or Less the Same

Christopher Lamb, a professor at the University of Charleston, is on to something.  In a new book, he reminds  us that this country had a politician of  Sarah Palin’s ilk in those not-so-fabulous 1950s. She is the present-day  Joseph McCarthy, this century’s version of a man who pitted Americans against each other before Sally Sheeran met and married Chuck Heath. Sure, the 1950s were a long time ago.  But  somehow Sarah, the "latest in a long line of American demagogues" has stirred up the feelings of the era of the Red Scare and updated them to fit an equally frightening infiltrator - the President is a Muslim! With a Socialist agenda! He's palling around with terrorists! 

The 1960s were a long time ago, too, and yet, here we are facing some of the same battles that erupted after Joe McCarthy was disgraced. Social battles we thought were won way back then.  First, the reincarnation of McCarthyism, then the resurrection of the 1960s culture wars.  The Tea Party idiots said they wanted to take this country back, and they have,  led backward by Sarah Palin.

Maybe there is something we can learn by looking into the years since Sarah was planted in Alaska and raised by the school teacher and his wife. What was Sarah's 1960s life like and what were her early life lessons?  How did the events of that era and those of the 70s affect her values, beliefs, and judgement?  Why would she want to return this country to a time earlier than she can remember? Maybe the answer is in that last question. We know Sarah never paid attention to history. She knew nothing when she was tapped for VP by John McCain. According to Steve Schmitt and the authors of Game Change they had to start with American history at a seventh grade level.  Being ignorant of history, she may think she's on the cutting edge today.  (It would be pitiable if she weren't so smug and if her influence would dry up.)

 In “Going Rogue” Sarah describes a childhood that sounds familiar to me. Small town life, limited exposure to the bigger world, controlled access to pop culture.

The young Sarah Heath and her siblings watched tapes of television shows flown in to Alaska and aired one week after those of us in the lower 48. We might both have heard the words “Danger, Will Robinson! Danger!” on the same night, but for Chuck, Jr., Heather and Sarah it was a  tantalizing tease for “next week’s episode” – an episode  that my sister and  I already had watched from start to finish three time zones away.   Even the 1969 moon landing was on tape when Sarah and her siblings saw it.   I can remember staying up late on a summer night to see images of Neil Armstrong broadcast in real time from Houston to our black and white television in the Southern Tier of New York State.  My real time access didn’t make me any more worldly than Sarah, Chuck, Heather, and Molly Heath.   Sarah’s life where television antennae were useless doesn’t sound weird to me.  There were no television antennae in my hometown, either.  Nestled between the hills of northernmost Appalachia, television broadcasting signals didn’t reach us. Everyone was a customer of a family run cable service that provided three stations – the BIG three.  Eventually they added a “local station” – a camera  on a tripod swung slowly back and forth showing a series of clocklike faces – the time, the temperature, the month and date.

Our two radio stations were also privately and locally owned and they played only  what the owners liked. My mother, working  in the kitchen, listened to Don MacNeil’s Breakfast Club out of Chicago. Her music was big band, saccharine sweet songs sung by Doris Day, Eddie Arnold adding a male voice to the lineup, and Louis Armstrong for color. By the mid-sixties Burt Bacharach and Herb Albert shared some air time with Frank Sinatra. My mother’s station was run by a middle-aged local high school history teacher. Socially acceptable stuff? Absolutely.   Groovy? Not even close.

I had a transistor radio because I won it. It was the biggest thing that happened to me that summer when I was ten; a television game show host pulled my postcard out of a drum and called me to play against another postcard-selected contestant. I’d spent ten cents of my 25 cent allowance on a brightly colored cartoony-type postcard at the drugstore on Main Street.  Every month they dumped the postcards and started again. Lucky me, mine turned into a paying investment.  That radio was the size of a box of Triscuits, and I tuned it to the other station in town to pick up the sounds of the Beatles, Herman’s Hermits, the Monkees, the Doors, and Simon and Garfunkel.

Before I hit high school, I heard the hauntingly honest words of “Seventeen” sung by  a young  Janice Ian…”I learned the truth at seventeen. That love was meant for beauty queens. And high school girls with clear skin smiles who married young and then retired…”  With my coke bottle glasses, I sang along with so much passion it could have been a hymn.  And while that made me feel somehow worldly and wise, it really didn’t teach me anything I hadn’t  already figured out for myself.  So, you know, when I see Sarah’s childhood pictures – the girl with the glasses and one slightly wonky eye, I see a little bit of me.  And when  I see the solid young woman in the red gown, no glasses, holding a bouquet of red roses, a crown on her head,  I think “that must have felt amazing.”  Kind of like being ten and winning a transistor radio.

I was being manipulated by media. We all were (and still are).  “I Love Lucy” reruns on TV every morning; “Leave It to Beaver” reruns every afternoon.  On Saturday evenings, I’d be at my grandmother’s house watching the Ed Sullivan show and she wouldn’t know the difference when groups with number one hits sang changed lyrics because he found certain words too controversial for his “really big show.” Janice Ian’s appearance on "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour" (1967) was censored in many US television markets because she performed  her hit song, the one about a boy whose “face is clean and shining black as night.”  You didn’t have to be living my sheltered  adolescent experience in a Wasilla-sized town to have missed out on the message of  “Society’s Child” or the  controversy that surrounded it.  The local radio in my town, like  many stations in the country, banned  Ms. Ian’s “Society’s Child.” No matter how hip the  station’s driving-in-from-the-big-city disc jockey pretended to be, he wasn’t spinning any platters like that. No messages about race. I didn’t even know  the song existed. Interracial dating was probably a topic and a reality at the college 20 miles away, but I was protected from the very idea.  In my 98% Caucasian town, I was probably laughing at  “hello mudder, hello fadder” while Janice Ian was getting hate mail.  How pathetic.

I didn’t hear “Society’s Child” until 2008. That’s when I read Ms. Ian’s 2008  autobiography and performed a search for a clip on YouTube. How wonderful it is that right now, 45 years after the Smother’s Brother’s Comedy Hour  was censored to prevent  you and I from such an unseemly topic, Janice Ian’s sincere rendering can be heard singing in her 16-year-old voice, the rhyme she finished sitting outside the guidance counselor's office two years before.

Talk about an “old soul”! That girl had a real message, and for speaking up, she got hate mail and death threats. At 16 ! Janice Ian made people face their bigotry. No one was exempt.  A schoolgirl from East Orange, New Jersey,  she saw both whites and blacks demonstrate racial distrust and dislike toward those who were not of their color. Racial bias wasn’t pretty no matter which race the perpetrator belonged to, and Janice had the guts to speak out about what she saw – about the state of race in America in the mid-1960s.

I wonder if Sarah Heath ever heard “Society’s Child”? She was much too young to have appreciated the Smother’s Brother’s and their anti-war jokes.  By the time Sarah was coming of age, disco was almost history. It’s possible that, like me, decades of living  didn’t bring Ms.  Ian’s song into her life – not until right now.  Now is a good time for “Society’s Child” to make a comeback. We are in a struggle with the same issues as that previous generation. The current bunch of GOP presidential wannabes are trying to undo society’s progress and take this country back to pre-Civil Rights. The arguments about women’s privacy, health and choices, the racial strife and religious intolerance, the ugly name-calling directed at the President of the United States because of the color of his skin, and the emotional divide between persons who see any young man of color who is wearing a hoodie as a threat and those that see that same person  as just a typical kid who could be their own kid or one of his friends.  Sarah Palin has remained silent on the subject and twenty-one- year-old Bristol Palin  wants the President of the United States to call her to acknowledge how tough and unfair she’s been treated in the public realm.

The stupidity of Bristol’s fame-whoring blog has been dealt with on Gryphen’s blog -  no need to rehash it here. The point is that we must remind ourselves and others not to  get so wrapped up in the daily drivel of  Palin absurdities that we lose sight of the very real threat Sarah represents to the hard-fought sociological gains of the latter half of the twentieth century.  Did Sarah teach her children about Civil Rights?  Though she was too little to understand what was happening in 1968 with the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr and only two months later, Robert F. Kennedy - the fallout rained down through all of her childhood years and she should have learned a lot about that in school. Wasilla public schools employed her parents. Yet, Sarah’s parents probably didn’t have conversations about black people when they came home. Sally more than likely hid her head in the Bible, and Chuck went hunting. It’s pretty obvious that, if it wasn’t happening in Wasilla, it didn’t matter to the Heaths and it didn’t matter to the next generation with the surname Palin, either

Sadly, Sarah's public ignorance of American history, her hate-filled rhetoric about the first black President of the United States, and her snarky put downs of our beautiful, strong and caring First Lady, has given her followers.  The kind that would have listened to Joseph McCarthy 60 years ago.  

I’m hearing another song in my head.  A song that came out  while Nixon was in office, and was on the first record album I bought.  It was the summer of ’70 and my family took our 1968  Chrysler Newport on the road for a trip to the city 70 miles away for our annual single day of back-to-school shopping. On the 80 minute ride home, I sat in the back seat between my sisters and studied the jacket cover of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” memorizing the lyrics of all the songs.  In  “The Boxer” I read: “All lies and jests. Still a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest …" 

A man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.  What a timeless truth.  We witness it in Sarah’s rantings, and it sums up how Sarah gets away with the lying and the contradictions and the whole crazy conservative Tea Party stuff she spews. It explains the accolades left for Sarah on  the Conservatives4Palin site. People  hear only what they want to hear and disregard the rest.  

Simon and Garfunkel appeared on the Late Show with David Letterman in March, 2008.  They sang The Boxer with an additional verse. A verse as thought-filled as the words that preceded:

Now the years are rolling by me, they are rockin' even me
I am older than I once was, and younger than I'll be, that's not unusual
No it isn't strange, after changes upon changes, we are more or less the same
After changes we are more or less the same.. la la la li la li
Li la la la la la li la li
La la la la li

We Truthers are older than we once were. We've lived our lives, paid attention to history, weighed the words of politicians. Do we hear what we want to hear? What do we disregard?  I wonder. 

Maybe each one of us  could each start a conversation with our closest Palin-bot and try to listen to things we don’t want to hear, so that we will be armed with a greater understanding.  Try to tell them what you feel and why. Our country can’t afford to go backwards; if we have a greater understanding, we might be able to argue more persuasively that Sarah Palin is dangerous to the freedoms she claims to love.  We can try.

Some of us survived the sixties, all of us have benefited from them.  Those were times when Americans engage in epic public conflict and political battles.  Before those battles,  Joe McCarthy used fear to shape government policy. Conservatives as ignorant and smug as Sarah either can't remember them or think of the 1950s as the good old days. Either way, they don't want to learn from that blot on America's past. They clapped when Cindy McCain, trying to put down Michelle Obama,  said with a satisfied smile, "I've always been proud of my country."  In the Conservative heart, and in a good portion of America, after changes upon changes,  things are more or less the same.  

Professor Lamb says McCarthy’s spirit lives today in Sarah Palin.  I think we've witnessed that. It shone out from the stage at CPAC and received cheers. It comes through in every Fox commentary, and speech she gives.  She lies. She does not jest. We cannot afford to disregard it.  

If Janice Ian could handle death threats at 16, we can individually  live with the derogatory names our relatives might call us for speaking the truth about society’s ills in 2012.  Become  an activist in your own family or in your circle of friends.  Tell someone something they don’t want to hear. Then give them equal time.

 It’s worth a try.



Floyd M. Orr said...

You've done it again, Allison. This is an excellent post. I could say that the times they are a'changin' or that we are living in a paradigm shift, but you have heard all that from me before. Keep up the good work!

Allison said...

Thank you kind sir.

(And my readers should thank you for beating out the resident Troll for the first comment spot.)

sleuth said...

Really love this post, Allison, because it brings back memories of my childhood in the 50s in 60s. First from town to town across New York State from Malone to Buffalo and several towns in between when my father (RIP) was one of the very first rock and roll radio disc jockeys, then on to Ohio in the mid-60s for more R&R and R&B radio adventures. Through my father, I got to meet a lot of the greats. Mom & Dad were beatniks or "bohemians", we kids never knew who might show up for supper and then a small jam session or poetry reading or just plain vibrant social and political discussion for dessert. I didn't have the sheltered childhood, everything was there for me to see and hear and soak in. My parents weren't perfect and times weren't anything like Ozzie & Harriet, but I wouldn't trade any of it.

Anne said...

Fantastic post.Very well thought out and written. I do believe this was your best one yet. Thank you.

Cracklin Charlie said...

Standing ovation, Allison!

Thanks for the memories, and the reminder!

AKRNHSNC said...

What a phenomenal and thought-provoking post, Allison. Having grown up in a home where dinner conversations revolved around school, politics or whatever anyone felt like talking about, I realize how fortunate I was to be allowed to speak my mind and more importantly, encouraged to do so. We can't lose that or deprive our children and grandchildren of the same. The RW'ers would love to silence the rhetoric of the opposition but we can't allow it. Palin and others like her will say or do anything in order to shut us up. They don't hesitate to lie about what we say, to deceive their followers. Look at Mitch McConnell, denying there is a Republican war on women and touting the idea that women in the GOP would be the first to agree with him. Yet when listening to Lisa Murkowski, Kay Bailey Hutchinson or Olympia Snowe, you'll hear that what they have to say is in direct contrast to what McConnell proposes as fact. We have to continue to let our voices be heard, for our children and grandchildren, for ourselves and for our nation as a whole so we do not revert back to a time when women were second class citizens along with minorities. We won't shut up and sit down, Sarah, as you like to say.

Allison said...

AKRN. I read the reply you left at Amazon to the loon claing to be from Ireland who totally dissed the professor's book. The only other comment made by that member was for another anti-Palin book and trashed that, too. Ha! Maybe RAM is assigned the Amazon beat now. Your facts and opinions were written so well you've completely cancelled out the other. Yay for our side.

ManxMamma said...

Beautifully written Allison. It made me realize what extraordinary times I grew up in...and the music said it all.

Anonymous said...

Allison, what do you make of the past two weeks of the Palins infiltrating the news. First Sarah is on Today Show, then Sarah airs out her anger onto Levi, Levi announces a new child, Bristol has a fit over at InTouch Magazine, The National Enquirer prints Sarah statements about Levi. Now Levi will be on ET tonight. Is it all a distraction from Boys Will Be Boys or is something else going on? It seems like a distraction to me. Also Shailey tweeted out that she knows the Paoletti family and there are comments on other blogs about her giving them a massage. What do you make of that?