catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 7, Num 13 :: 2008.06.27 — 2008.07.11


Somebody’s lost his wig

“The whole world is watching. The whole world is watching.”  Imagine the syncopated chants of the protesters lining the Chicago streets, layered in anti-war garb and loaded with anti-war quip. This could be a scene from any number of periods from our American history. It sounds eerily similar to our own time, something likely to have happened yesterday. 

It’s actually a scene from the Democratic National Convention in 1968. For the occasion, Esquire magazine sent an investigative team full of notoriety and intellect to gather some perspective, among them Jean Genet, William S. Burroughs and Terry Southern. “Hey, why don’t you stick those bayonets up your ass?” cried an angry protester. A scene of pure chaos, a case of containment and dispersal all rolled into one according to Terry Southern. The “pigs” were demanding their protesters remove themselves from the park but wouldn’t allow them to leave, surrounding them, lined three deep along Michigan Ave. surrounding the park on August 28. Soon after this, law enforcement officers would begin shooting rounds of tear gas into the crowds of protesters.

It was in that moment that, at what must have been the height of the turmoil, William S. Burroughs wryly observed, “Somebody’s lost his wig.” Eloquent and simple as it was then, it seems to be the case in our political milieu as well. There are a lot of outlandish and unbelievable situations going on in our political zeitgeist, both good and not so good.

We are inevitably a product of our history, shaped by the people and the circumstances that have bombarded each of us. We taste, we see, we touch, we smell, and we hear—and all of these things inform our belief systems. My proposition is simple—we look back to look forward. In the last few weeks, I’ve done a lot of looking back. I stood along Elm Street in Dallas, alongside the big white X’s that mark the places in which Kennedy was shot, I’ve read articles and watched movies. In all of it, I’ve been reminded of both the ills of human nature and the favor that we’ve enjoyed in our country. 

The 1960s was a gut-wrenching period of volatility. It was after the Second World War in the late 40s that many social issues pushed into the suburban American sensibilities of conventionality. Social phenomena like jazz, the emergence of the Beat Generation and the Counterculture all aided the unraveling of conventional American status quo, like a cat with a skein of yarn.

45 years ago, President John F. Kennedy was shot dead as his motorcade rode along Elm Street that Friday November 22, 1963 in downtown Dallas, Texas. Five months prior, in Mississippi, Medgar Evers was shot in the back in his own driveway by Ku Klux Klan man Byron de le Beckwith, after returning home from a meeting with NCAAP lawyers. Evers, a significant figure in the Civil Right Movement, was 37 years old, Kennedy 46. 

Five years later, on March 17, 1968, just a day after announcing his presidential candidacy that Robert F. Kennedy went on Meet the Press to talk about his desire to “help heal the deep divisions between races, between age groups, and the war (in Southeast Asia).” Kennedy never got that opportunity because just after midnight on June 5th, 1968, after winning the California primary, he was assassinated in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel. His last words as he was leaving the podium were, “Now it’s on to Chicago and let’s win this…” Kennedy was 42 years old.  Only two months previous, Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot dead on April 4, 1968, on the balcony of the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis, Tennessee; he was 39.

As a U.S. Attorney General, Robert F. Kennedy, in a Washington Post article on May 27, 1968, commented on the progression of race relations in the South: “There is no question about it…  In the next 40 years a Negro can achieve the same position that my brother has.” Noting that prejudice would likely continue, the essence was that progress had been made, was continuing to be made and that the status quo would not be accepted.

Here we are, 40 years later and look at the possibilities. Today we are witnesses to the first African American presidential nominee of a major party in American history. Is this progress or coincidence? Are we really making progress? It seems we’re always dealing with the same issues year after year, election after election.  

This is what I think about when I try to understand our times. Lined up along long Trinity Blvd. running adjacent to Darrel K. Memorial stadium in downtown Austin, the level of energy was high. It was something I’d never seen. I’d only heard it described in nostalgic tones. Standing there with one daughter on my shoulder and the other at my side, romping to the beats of the high school band tooting their tunes, a distinct line had formed, amassed in a hullabaloo of chants one could barely make out: “Hill—O—ary—bama.”

If the incantation wasn’t enough the signs, some three to four high, were colorfully able to convey the battle between supporters of Hillary Clinton and Barrack Obama. The presidential nominees were just about ready to square off in a debate on the University of Texas campus. It was soon thereafter that the motorcade for both candidates would arrive. An entourage of motorcycles colored in blue and red twirling flashing lights and a myriad of Secret Service officers masked behind sunglasses, shading us from a distinct viewing, but it was enough. Looking around at the faces of the people around me—I was overwhelmed.

The passion and vigor that people were displaying was incredible. Whether they were there for kicks or whether they were actually that concerned about the country and its direction, I couldn’t say. One thing’s for sure, people not only want leadership, they need it.  Here’s what Bobby Kennedy noted about this concept:

People are selfish, but they can also be compassionate and generous, and they care about the country. But not when they feel threatened. That’s why this is such a crucial time. We can go in either direction. But if we don’t make a choice soon, it will be too late to turn things around. I think people are willing to make the right choice. But they need leadership. They’re hungry for leadership.

Today, right now—this very instant, on news-tickers, blogs and in bold font headlines, politics is at the forefront of the American mind. We’re facing an unstable economy and people strung out on complacency and irascibility. What emerged from the 60s was immense tragedy. From the ashes though, arose countless articles, books, films—and most of all discourse. One of the greatest things we can do at this moment is to do the same. We need to express ourselves, stir the discourse with our art, films and writing. 

Regardless of how we feel about the candidates, the war, the economy, we’ll only benefit if we can garner some reflection and offer some discourse, rather than simply bellowing complaints unheard. If we’re to look back—we can gain some perspective by watching Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool or Stanley Kubrick and Terry Southern’s Dr. Strangelove, or reading Norman Mailer’s The Armies of the Night, or Terry Southern’s Esquire article “Grooving in Chi,”, or we could even catch a glimpse of the new HBO series, John Adams starring Yale-man Paul Giamatti.

Our circumstances are always a product of something which has gone before us, something arduous and taxing. In the case of politics, we’re in an age of the utmost importance, shaped by years of political frustration and national division. Issues such as racism, sexism, ageism and the like continue to plague our American psyche. Wherever we may have come from, wherever we may be now, the most important element is where we’re going—this will define us, this time. I hope that we, like that investigative team from Esquire can put ourselves right in the thick of it, and start grooving.

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