History Repeating Itself? Paul McCartney: Part 1
Given the controversial verdict in the Trayvon Martin case announced seven days ago, it seemed appropriate. While the national public gather to commemorate and protest the ending of a young man’s life, please consider these words written for a history & culture class I took at a couple years ago.
1968 might be only 45 years ago, but it might as well have just been yesterday. Is there another sea change coming? Has America had enough?
Discussion Question Provided by Instructor:
When assessing late twentieth-century U.S. political history, why do many historians mark 1968 as a pivotal year in the transformation from liberal dominance to conservative ascendancy?
“Blackbird singing in the dead of night,
Take these broken wings and learn to fly,
All your life, You were only waiting for this moment to arise […]”
(Blackbird. Lennon & McCartney, 1968, Track 2:3)
“Helter Skelter […] / Look out! ‘Cause here she comes […]
Well will you won’t you want me to make you / I’m coming down fast but don’t let me break you […]”
(Helter Skelter. Lennon & McCartney, 1968, Track 3:6)
Leave it to musicians to have their fingers on the pulse of America – and British musicians at that! These are just two sets of song lyrics from the 32-track, 19-times platinum “White Album” released in November 1968 by The Beatles. “Revolution 1” could also be added to the list; in fact, entire papers could be written (and have) about this album. Why music? Up until this point, the 1960s was about peace, love, drugs, experimentation, rock music, and transcendence. Artists, writers, and musicians translated what the emerging counterculture movement was thinking and delivered it to the masses. It’s been argued – and even noted by McCartney himself – that “Blackbird” was about the civil rights struggle of the African American population in the South. Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary literally defines helter-skelter as “in undue haste, confusion, or disorder; in a haphazard manner.” The shift from America’s animated hippies proclaiming ‘don’t trust anyone over 30’,” to voting “the brilliant if uninspiring” (and dishonest) Richard Milhous Nixon the nation’s 37th President seems extremely incomprehensible – or does it (Isserman & Kazin 228).
The overarching themes of 1968 are violence, confusion, and breakdown (politically, socially, and economically). Historically, when “radical” has become too radical – when transformation has become so severe – the public has typically moved in the complete opposite direction. Isserman and Kazin cited revolutionary movements in western and central Europe in 1848 and in Italy, Germany, and Hungary in 1919, as well as the fall of the Berlin Wall and European Communism later in 1989 (210). Just take a look at recent history with President George H. W. Bush and the election of the first African American President Barack Obama. Today is no exception. It’s interesting to see how the current status quo is mirroring that of the turbulent 1960s. “The New Deal order broke down for good reasons – the economic system changed, and government did not adjust to new realities or challenge the counterattack from the right in 1970s,” as noted by William Greider in a January 2011 article in The Nation. He acknowledges that the “structure of economic life has changed again,” but the “government and political parties are largely clueless about how to deal [with it].” After the passive aggressor & civil rights champion Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated on April 4, 1968, presidential candidate Senator Robert F. Kennedy pleaded that the nation unite – because a nation divided can’t survive – eventually, something’s got to give.
1968 was truly “the year the dream died,” (Witcover). And it wasn’t just in America. It “was the year in which politics seemed to begin with violent events in a small country 12,000 miles away, to go into the streets at home, and finally to reach the conventions themselves,” (Witcover). The year’s timeline was a grim one. January marked the Tet Offensive in Vietnam. March marked the student protest against Dow Chemical recruiters and President Lyndon Johnson’s renunciation of the bid for re-election. April brought the aforementioned assassination of Dr. King, followed by riots, and the Columbia University student-led strike. In May, French students protested in Paris. June brought the assassination of the beloved RFK. In August, the historic Chicago Democratic National Convention brought anti-war protestors head-to-head with police. Finally, in November, Nixon (and the Republican party) won the election.
Something – many things – finally gave. It was like a series of dominoes, falling one, by one, by one; a series of serendipitous events that led to the collapse of the “insurrectionary ‘Movement’,” that seemed to have so much hope and promise (Isserman & Kazin 211) just years earlier. While “helter-skelter” may not have “come down fast” – it was most certainly eight or so years in the making – it did come down hard.
The “Official” music video for The Beatles’ “Blackbird”
The “Official” video of The Beatles performing “Helter Skelter” at their studio
Greider, William. “The End of New Deal Liberalism.” The Nation. 5 Jan. 2011. Web. 15 Apr. 2011. http://www.thenation.com/print/article/157511/end-new-deal-liberalism
Szatmary, David P. Rockin’ In Time: A Social History of Rock-And-Roll. 4th ed.NewJersey: Prentice Hall, 2000. Print.
The Beatles. (1968) The white album. [Record], London: Apple.
Witcover, Jules. The Year the Dream Died: Revisiting 1968 in America. New York: Warner Books, 1997. Print.