Wednesday, June 15, 2022

Nixon in Our Living Room

What’s my oldest memory of a “breaking news” story? This was a question going around on social media. People were saying, “9-11” or “the O.J. trial” or even “the Berlin Wall” (which would put a person “north” of 35 years old). These are the answers of today’s adults.

Dang, I’m so old! I remember lots of “news” in the background on tv, including machine gunfire every night and reporters talking about “Saigon,” “Viet Cong,” etc. I don’t remember any of the 1960s assassinations. I have a vivid memory of watching the Apollo 11 moon landing, and following all the adventures in space. But my first clear memory of breaking news is watching the U.S. election results in November 1968. 

That night, the news announced an event which stunned some people, brought a sigh of relief to some others, but also left many people still feeling perplexed and anxious and confused about their country which seemed broken, perhaps beyond repair. We had a presidential election that day, an election that everyone was on fire about even though no one seemed enthusiastic about any of the candidates. My parents disputed with my grandfather over it, sometimes to the point of shouting matches that abruptly ended our Sunday afternoon visits. Of course, Italian-Americans always shout at one another; it’s a form of “love language” with us (up to a point, after which it’s just abusive). In any case we would return the following Sunday afternoon for dinner and a new round of argument.

But we were hardly the only ones arguing. At nearly six years old, I had begun to be dimly aware of the crises of the times, where violence rose up in response to longstanding racial injustice, poverty, and an overextended, ill-planned, indiscriminately destructive, and seemingly endless foreign war. This sounds like it could be the early 21st century, huh? Or even today, minus (for the moment) the part about the war. But remember, this is 1968. The USA was in crisis before some of your parents were even born!

The crisis with its violence and anxiety had other, deeper roots, however. Among these was the fact that the overall context of human interpersonal and communal relationships was facing immense challenges, seemingly beyond anyone’s capacity to control or even conceive. Technology was advancing relentlessly, in unprecedented ways, but overall it was growth without wisdom

The times were not entirely bad (nor are they now). There were many areas where people could unite, guided by a fragmented and partial wisdom and benevolence, and they were able to direct certain new technological forces in constructive ways. We were not without great human achievements in those times, nor are we today. There was, and remains, much good in the society inherited from my youth, much that must be incorporated within a genuine wisdom for the building of our lives today and in the future.

But the events of my lifetime, in my own country and elsewhere, have often been harsh and even lacerating in ways that we have yet to really understand. I was born into a world where violence and alienation were bred from the strange tensions and turmoil of daily life. We have lived with a terrible restlessness stirred up by the mania and incessant stress of trying to live in a materially overdeveloped, covetous society that has drowned out the search for wisdom and the true purposes of life.

This was true in November 1968, and remains true 54 years later. The anxiousness remains, the precipice grows more harrowing (if we don’t notice, it’s only because we’ve become more accustomed to it). Of course, there have also been very many good new things in the last half-century, or good elements in events and things that are, overall, mired in ambivalence. 

Still, today - as in 1968, and indeed throughout my entire life - many people in the USA feel that we are in danger of falling apart. We are certainly perplexed, confused, overextended, and many of us are afflicted with nervous exhaustion. We, the people, have to face new responsibilities and take on new tasks. But first, we need healing. We need a renewed discovery of wonder, a new desire aimed at the Mystery of reality that still calls out to us in our circumstances, in the midst of the trauma and disorientation and immense potential of our times.

I remember the news on that November night in 1968. I “experienced” that news event in basically the same way I learn the news today: I watched it on television. The now legendary images were clear enough on the screen, as the news reported: Richard Nixon elected President of the United States. 

We all saw Nixon in our living rooms that night, and many many nights and days thereafter. Well… more on this some other time. Meanwhile, this childhood memory/event deserves an expression in surreal art.