“Hell is truth seen too late.”
– Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679)
– Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679)
Think of every stock photo and stereotype about 1950s and 1960s suburban America. Think about Dick and Jane reading books, gingham aprons, milk served in pitchers and cookie jars.
Think about kids lined up for polio shots, Ed Sullivan, and service station attendants wearing well-pressed uniforms.
It was not a complete fiction. I know. I was there.
But also – while you’re at it — think of whiteness, of blocks and blocks of white families doing white things, opening mail boxes to find magazines filled with stories about patio furniture and backyard BBQs and vacations in station wagons. And think of house after identical house, where any internal emotional turbulence or troublesome external social ferment could always be neatly hidden beneath the veneer of Cub Scout meetings, bake sales, and summer vacations.
Think of a whiteness so relentless that it was both everywhere and nowhere, pervasive yet so taken for granted that it could hardly be noticed. Imagine a place where you could come of age without ever seeing a black person in the flesh.
I thought of all these things – suddenly and without warning — in the middle of giving a lecture this Wednesday to 150 undergraduates about the rise of demographics, targeted media, and the death of mass circulation magazines. I talked about bloated audiences who, in their lack of demographic desirability, held no interest for advertisers starting to strategically target their messages. I thought of Life Magazine, on the verge of collapse. And I then I remembered the day that this issue arrived in our mail box.
Martin Luther King had been assassinated two weeks before. The event stunned and horrified us. I was fortunate to have parents who had taught my sisters and I about racial injustice. I still treasure the memory of one of my father’s finest moments when, hearing me utter an offensive racial remark at the age of eight, followed the charming fashion of the day and filled my mouth with a bar of ivory soap.
But we lived where we lived, and this magazine arrived like a live grenade. Martin Luther King, Jr. was dead, and now we had to look his wife straight in the face. We had to see her grief. Even worse, we had to contend with her serenity in the midst of the horror. We had to imagine her husband with his eyes closed, stilled and silenced.
I know that sometimes, in our zeal to construct compelling life narratives, we look back and overstate the significance of events. But I also know that nothing was the same after that magazine arrived. Our comfortable world had been pierced by the reality that rifles could silence a man’s passion and indignation.
There is no dramatic or profound ending to this story.
Nothing magic happened.
Miraculous revelations of tolerance were nowhere to be seen.
There was no justice and nothing was flowing like a mighty stream.
Our neighborhood stayed the same. Most people remained remarkably skilled at maintaining a willful blindness that obscured the anger and ferment brewing in distant places.
But never again could we claim, at least not with a straight face, that we knew nothing of that other world where guns were fired and justice denied. It arrived on the cover of a long-defunct magazine, and somehow we sensed that the dream deferred, festering like a sore yet so invisible in our blindingly white world, would soon explode.
THE SECOND COMING
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
Today on Meet the Press, George Will joined a growing group of conservative thinkers who — temporarily setting aside deeply held beliefs on the public policy and role of government — have expressed a more basic and profound concern about what it means when nothing a President says can be trusted.
Will imagines a scenario in which Trump might claim the need to exercise a pre-emptive nuclear option (something I absolutely oppose) and we might have no idea if the facts he presents to justify such a disastrous move are even remotely true.
To think we thought Stanley Kubrick’s character Dr. Strangelove was a cartoon.
We are living the cartoon, in all its absurdity and potential horror.
A former Congressman from my home state of California passed away this week and many of the friends and colleagues I’ve gotten to know during my 40 years in New York will most likely not recognize his name.
He was Anthony Beilenson. Tony. Remember that name. Repeat it.
And if, like me, you occasionally find yourself struggling to think of viable political strategies that might somehow lead us out of the living nightmare that is the Trump administration, say the name Beilenson again.
Learn about him. Read about his place in the turbulence and protests that marked Ronald Reagan’s tenure as governor of California. See what is possible when it seems that all the political ducks are lined up against you.
Tony Beilenson somehow made it out to California after an almost story book Eastern establishment upbringing. If he had attended Groton instead of Phillips Andover, you could have read close to three paragraphs of his biography thinking you had accidentally turned to the entry on FDR.
Eventually, after over 13 years in the California state legislature, Tony served 10 terms in Congress. But I get ahead of myself. For a young kid in southern California with political aspirations, it was those terms in the state Assembly and Senate that provided unforgettable inspiration and lessons about persistence that would last a lifetime.
After Ronald Reagan took office in 1966, it quickly became clear that many of Governor Pat Brown’s greatest progressive achievements were in jeopardy. For a student at the University of California, the achievement that meant the most to us — building and nurturing the greatest of all state University systems — was almost immediately at risk. Reagan’s political strategy included active and angry opposition to that great institution.
We were afraid. We were beleaguered.
And then came Tony.
Truth be told, at first we had no idea who he was, and I recall positions of his that had some of us running quickly in the other direction. But something was going on in Sacramento, and while most of us were focused on a war on the other side of the world, Tony was pulling off the ultimate lesson in how to reach and realize a hopeless objective during a seemingly hopeless time.
Over five years before Roe v. Wade, Tony had crafted one of the earliest abortion rights bills, and – after building support in the legislature – managed to convince Ronald Reagan to sign the bill. That’s right. Ronald Reagan.
Now every 17-year-old with political ambition wanted to know: Who is this Tony?
The answer was even more baffling than his unlikely legislative success.
I won’t try to list some of the positions he held that got him nowhere with young progressives. His positions on immigration were something that many of us were never able to accept or understand. But with all the contentiousness of those years, it was still a time in politics when rock solid integrity and honesty could earn you serious respect, even when that respect did not extend to every position held by a candidate. And he earned it quickly, as we got to know a man as guided by the core principles of compassion and honesty as any elected official in 1960s California.
Some of us even came to see him as a US Senate candidate we could enthusiastically support, but the same complexity and iconoclastic views that we admired didn’t translate easily into a state-wide race. He lost the primary to Sen. Alan Cranston. In his 10 terms in the US House of Representatives, he could make deals with the best of them, but the most valuable political capital he accumulated and spent was his integrity.
What a quaint idea: people on both sides of the aisle being willing to listen to someone simply because he could be trusted to tell you the unvarnished truth, and do it with unmatched civility.
And that’s why I was moved to write this tribute: I am sick of truth-telling and integrity being quaint. I am sick of elected officials who would rather launch personal attacks than engage in honest debate.
But even more, I want to remember — and perhaps even be inspired by — the memory of a man who walked into the ideological storm of Reagan conservatism and came out – drenched, to be sure — with what very well might have been one of the seminal achievements in the history of the fight for women’s reproductive rights.
Remember that name. Tony Beilenson.
This morning, a guy — me — who quite often and much too easily comes up with an embarrassing surplus of words to babble, was speechless.
It’s not that my mind wasn’t racing with rage, frustration, and the realization that so many voters — regardless of how they might now try to spin their vote — selected a man they knew was an enthusiastic supporter of loathing, sexism, racism,homophobia, and Islamophobia.
It’s that no words came.
And then I read the short essay below written by Michael Cerveris, a distinguished actor, singer and musician whose remarkable performance in the musical Fun Home, along with the the rest of an astounding cast, shed a blindingly bright light on the universal struggle we wage with all our “selves,” our families, and our memories to discover meaning and identity.
I do not concede.
I will not make nice with bigots and racists. I will not “reach out” to those who would oppress my brothers and sisters and take away their hard-won rights.
I will not cooperate with those who have shown their disregard for the laws of decency and civility and compassion.
I will not reward those who traffic in the politics of fear, hate and brutality in act or speech or thought with my allegiance or loyalty.
I will not forget, excuse or dismiss the despicable things you have said and done on the way to this ‘victory.’
You lied and scared people enough to win a statistic popularity contest. You did not win my heart or spirit or good will. You have done nothing to deserve it, and unless and until you do, you will NEVER have it.
Instead you have my promise that I will look for ways to defeat you at every turn. To whatever extent I can, I will not give my money or my patronage to those who support you or applaud you or think like you. I will stand between you and those of my brothers and sisters you mean to denigrate, disenfranchise and disregard. I will work for and look to celebrate your undoing–legally, but steadfastly. I will support all those who will stand in your way.
I will speak up and defy you.
I will call your sins by name.
I will hold responsible all those who followed you and made your rise possible by their collaboration–including the media and others on our side who neglected their responsibility to the country, profited by your ascent, and refused to stand up to you sooner
I will not “heal and mend” with the very people who have sickened the country, planted and fed the disease at its heart.
I will work to make a new one
I will remember and I will watch and I will wait and I will work.
I will never be united with you.