A Sideways Glare at Contemporary Society
1940 – John Lennon was born in Liverpool, England.
Let me tell you for a fact that Lennon is laughing his ass off at all the hoopla around his 70th birthday. He would be the first to bury the 60s, not praise them. As the accolades pour in and pass over the corpse, he would see it for what it is: the dying gasps of a generation who can’t admit to their own irrelevance. Yes, every thread of our social narrative from 1960 to 1970 went through John Lennon before it ever got woven into the fabric of history. Yes, he was the embodiment of our youth and our search for truth, then justice and meaning, and, finally peace — in a time that was so crazy even the inmates finally refused to run the asylum. And yes, much of what we see and hear in the 21st century — way beyond music — is directly connected to what Lennon saw and heard and interpreted for us. But no, he wouldn’t put up with these geriatric reminiscences and hourly mind-numbing renditions of “Imagine” and “Give Peace a Chance.” He would see it for what it is — 60s worship — a religion built on the Instamatic snapshots of our immortal youth coerced on every generation since then. Lennon spent his life pushing aside the old order to make room for the new, and the hilarious irony of this three-ring birthday would not be lost on him.
1969 – In a courtroom in Chicago, the Chicago 8 — led by Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin and Bobby Seale — were on trial for conspiracy, rioting, bomb-making, littering and pretty much everything else. The charges had come out of the mayhem at the 1968 Democratic Convention. The trial was not going well. Bobby Seale was gagged and tied to a chair. Hoffman and Rubin were playing silly bugger, hurling insults at anything that moved, and Tom Hayden was thinking about Jane Fonda. The judge, Julius Hoffman (no relation) was clearly out of his depth and had lost control of the proceedings. On October 9th, outside the courtroom there was a crowd gathering: hippies, yippies, students, disaffected youth, all urban warriors, hardened soldiers of the street battles that had percolated through the 60s. Fresh off the five-day conflict that had been the Democratic Convention, these people were veterans. There was some fear (not unfounded) that they would storm the place and release the defendants. In a surprise show of force, the authorities called in the National Guard. This was not the first time “The Guard” had been called out to keep order, but it was a clear signal to anybody who was listening that the days of tolerance for overzealous youth were finished. The playful 60s were over, and 7 months later they would abruptly end when the National Guard opened fire at Kent State.
1967 – Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara, literally the poster child of the revolution, was killed in the Bolivian mountains. He had been wounded and captured 2 days before. He was executed without trial and buried without ceremony. He became the Alberto Korda image. But what is he really? A lofty ideal on a t-shirt? An imaginary college hero? A paladin with an AK? In reality, Che was a revolutionary. He saw in the Revolution a singular hope for millions of people. With the established order swept away, the Revolution could begin to remake the Socialist Man. It would find the clean water for the people who needed it and the food. It would educate everybody’s children. It would turn the wealth of the nation into power and justice for each of its citizen. It would change money into morality. And he knew that the Revolution was a real thing, a living, breathing entity that would grow and change and reach into other dark corners of the world. It would spread hope and courage wherever it went.
But he was a philosopher, not a king. On January 2nd,1 959, with victory in his pocket, he walked down the Prado in Havana, the master of all he surveyed. But his job was already over – he just didn’t know it. First, there was the slaughter. Enemies of the Revolution were taken to La Cabana and shot…and shot…and shot. Until Fidel’s new partners, the Russians, told him to quit. (Do you know how much blood it takes to sicken a Soviet?) Then it was the Cuban economy. Che became Finance Minister and Minister of Industry, but with philosophic solutions to pragmatic problems, production imploded and there was no wealth to re-distribute. In 1965, Che left Cuba and went to Africa to continue the Revolution. Despite himself, he became just another neo-colonial adventurer, bent on telling Africans how to shape their future. He wrote of the Congo: “This is the history of a failure.” Then, Bolivia. Friendless and unfunded, without Fidel to smoothe the way, he was trapped in his own Revolution — unable to change his ways and unwilling to change his mind.
So what was Che? Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara was the last Lancelot, a knight errant, imbued with the righteousness of the Revolution. His quest was motivated by the poverty, injustice and hopelessness he saw all around him. His Holy Grail was the nobility of the best of mankind, the idealism of all history, distributed for everyone. But in the end, like Lancelot, he could only see the Grail. It was forever kept out of his grasp.