The ghosts of the Sixties will not leave Obama alone. In his recent speech on patriotism, the Democratic presidential candidate discussed the culture wars and the polarized climate that birthed them in the 1960s. Here's an excerpt:
What is striking about today's patriotism debate is the degree to which it remains rooted in the culture wars of the 1960s--in arguments that go back 40 years or more. In the early years of the civil rights movement and opposition to the Vietnam War, defenders of the status quo often accused anybody who questioned the wisdom of government policies of being unpatriotic. Meanwhile, some of those in the so-called counterculture of the '60s reacted not merely by criticizing particular government policies, but by attacking the symbols, and in extreme cases, the very idea, of America itself--by burning flags; by blaming America for all that was wrong with the world; and perhaps most tragically, by failing to honor those veterans coming home from Vietnam, something that remains a national shame to this day.Sadly, in his otherwise eloquent commentary on the beauty of patriotism, Obama accepted many of the most odious right-wing stereotypes about the 1960s. His purpose here is obvious: To distance himself from Weather Underground leader Bill Ayers, who, along with Obama, was a member of the board of directors of the Woods Fund of Chicago (the story, incidentally, was first brought to the attention of the world by Peter Hitchens, the conservative brother of fiery contrarian columnist Christopher Hitchens, in February).
There is no need for Obama to continue distancing himself from Ayers. Obama's spokesman, Bill Burton, issued a statement a few months back (when the story about the Ayers-Obama connection first broke) pointing out the fact that Ayers a) didn't kill anybody; b) has been a professor of education for years at the University of Illinois; c) and has worked as an aide to Chicago Mayor Richard Daley. The statement concluded:
Senator Obama strongly condemns the violent actions of the Weathermen group, as he does all acts of violence. But he was an eight-year-old child when Ayers and the Weathermen were active, and any attempt to connect Obama with events of almost forty years ago is ridiculous.It was an eloquent statement and it should have been the last word on the Obama-Ayers link.
As for the 1960s, it is time to start shooting down some of the false myths perpetuated by the Right. The fact is, flag burners were a tiny minority of protesters in the 1960s and many of them were actually agents provocateurs on the payroll of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The Sixties was a polarized time in American history and it did produce extremists who advocated violence.
However, the overwhelming majority of protesters were both nonviolent and motivated by a deep love of their country -- whether they were part of the Civil Rights Movement, the Antiwar Movement, the Gay and Lesbian Liberation Struggle, Chicano Rights, Feminism, Environmentalism, etc.
It is also important to remember what a profoundly destructive war they were protesting. The Vietnam War was laying waste to all of Southeast Asia, leaving millions dead, forests wilting under defoliation, bomb craters and unexploded munitions all across the countryside, and paving the way for the Killing Fields of the Khmer Rouge.
Most antiwar activists -- and a significant number of them were antiwar Vietnam Veterans, as I point out in my book The Turning: A History of Vietnam Veterans Against the War -- opposed the war out of a deep love of their country. The easy way out for them would have been to reject politics, stay at home and watch their nation implode. But they took the difficult approach: They loved their nation enough to protest injustice.
I salute Obama for saying that only "some of those in the so-called counterculture" resorted to such extreme tactics as flag burning and "failing to honor" Vietnam Veterans. Yet he also should have mentioned that the worst dishonor to Vietnam veterans came from the horrendous treatment they endured from their own government. And the very same conditions that so many Vietnam veterans encountered in the 1960s and 1970s are still evident in America today, this time contributing to a declining quality of life for Iraq War and Afghanistan War vets when they return to America.
Not long ago, I posted a moving video on the Tiki Lounge from Ron Kovic, the heroic Vietnam veteran who came home and opposed the Vietnam War. It is worth quoting his words again:
How can you send young men like myself and those of this generation to Vietnam and to Iraq? How can you send them and spend billions of dollars on a war that is lost, a war that cannot be won? A senseless war. A wasteful war. How can you do that? How can you put their lives at risk? How can you put them through that emotional trauma and not care for them when they come home? This is- this is unacceptable. I love this country. I was willing to risk my life. I gave three-quarters of my body to this country in Vietnam. And I'm watching this same thing happen all over again. What is it gonna take? How many more have to die? How many more have to come home wounded and maimed like myself?Barack Obama should be sure to remember that truly great Americans -- real patriots -- such as Kovic, Martin Luther King, Jr., César Chávez, Gloria Steinem, Dr. Benjamin Spock, Mario Savio, Joan Baez, the Berrigan Brothers and William Sloane Coffin had a much bigger impact on the movement against the Vietnam War than misguided young militants whose acts of resistance included flag burning and extreme, over-the-top, anti-authoritarian rhetoric.
Today's right-wing myths about the Sixties present a distorted view of the period. Yes, it was a painful time in American history. But the United States emerged from that decade a freer, nobler and more open place than it had been ten years earlier.