What the hell happened in 1968? (Won’t you please come to Chicago Edition)

chicago“2 Wichitans will Assist at Chicago” the small headline on page 6A of the Wichita Eagle reads. Three short paragraphs barely conceal the writers boredom in pointing out that two local ladies who work for Western Union will be helping out with teleprinters at the 1968 Democratic convention next week. We all know how boring that is going to be I can hear the writer thinking.

But I know something the writer does not. I can see the future. I know that the convention will  draw 10,000 anti-war protesters along with the delegates. I know that a fearful Mayor Daley will respond with 23,000 police and National guardsman. I know that by August 28, five days hence, protesters and police will be attacking each other in front of Chicago’s Hilton Hotel. Word will be that the violence began when police beat a young boy who lowered an American flag at a legal protest. Before the night is over, so much tear gas will be used that it will make its way into the hotel and bother the guests, and bystanders will be covered in mace. Inside the convention, reporters and delegates will be roughed up by police, including Dan Rather as he tries to give a report on national television. The famously calm and non-judgmental Walter Cronkite will say to him “we have a bunch of thugs here.”

Chicago 68-1I know these things because I am reading this tiny story forty seven years after it was published. It has been hidden all this time, preserved to protect an old piece of china in a back closet of my mother’s home. As I touch the crinkly cream and grey parchment, I recall our old black and white television and the sound of Dan Rather yelling at the police to let him go. I become Sherri Roth, thirteen-year-old news freak and hopeful Lois Lane-style journalist, who lays awake at night searching for answers to life’s burning questions. I like Dan Rather and Walter Cronkite and I already have a soft soft for the earnest protestors trying to make a better world. I wish I could do something to help them.

I also know that Hubert Humphrey will get the nomination and lose the election, and the victor, Richard Nixon, will turn out to be a foul-mouthed, paranoid man who will leave the office six years later in disgrace, setting in motion events that will shape the 80’s, and 90’s and ultimately the world I live in.

But before that happens, eight protest leaders will be charged with conspiracy for the Chicago events and given unusually harsh sentences. Young rocker Graham Nash will try to help their cause by writing a song that asks opponents of the war “Won’t you please come to Chicago”. The song will hit number 35 in the charts, and remain a favorite for decades with its catchy tune.  Eventuality, it will be played on elevators and in dentists offices and no one will be bothered by the lyrics.

One of my favorite recent videos put to the original song is below.

I don’t know what sort of experience Wichitans Marvalee Shaw and Lawanda Lower had at the infamous 1968 Democratic Convention, or how they felt about the events afterward. Even with the internet of 2015, I can’t find out everything. I only know that Lawanda left this earth in 2013 at 76 years old. I don’t think she would have wanted to know that fact, as she set off at 31 for what must have been a big adventure in Chicago. It’s not always good to know the future.

weird2Sometimes when I hear Graham Nash’s melody,  I get wistful. The chorus contains the lines We can change the world. Rearrange the world. I especially hear those words in my head after I read about depressing events in the news. We do still have those depressing events, don’t we?

Graham sang back then that the world is dying to get better. I guess it still is. One would  hope that after almost five decades, we have managed to bring a little more love into it.

For more notes from 47 years ago, where 13 year old Sherri Roth sees the news from the Friday August 23, 1968 Wichita Eagle, see my other blogs posts for the How to Get a Standing Ovation Edition, the Women’s Edition, the Race Relations Edition and the World Peace Edition.

Predicting the future, or shaping it?

If you were an adult in 1984, you probably felt a little schadenfreude delight that year as you realized that the world you lived in wasn’t a nightmare of government control. “Take that, George Orwell. You were wrong,” many of us thought with a certain amount of smug joy.

1984For the truth was that English teachers had seen to it over the years that many otherwise uninterested people had read George Orwell’s classic 1984, and pretty much everyone else had needed to skim it well enough to take a test or write a paper about it. It is an amazing book, and my sixteen year old self certainly sunk deep into the horror of having my every thought and moved watched by Big Brother. That response still helps shape my politics and choices, and I suspect that I am not alone.

Today it occurs to me that in spite of the many legitimate complaints about government intrusion into our lives, thanks to George Orwell we are considerably less likely to live in an “Orwellian” society. He didn’t predict the future. He, and an army of teachers, shaped it. What an amazing thing.

Fast forward to 2015.

I also read a tremendous amount of science fiction by choice in the 70’s and early 80’s, which means if it was written between 1955 and 1980 I probably read it. But I missed much of the older stuff, including Frederik Pohl’s The Space Merchants, written with C.M. Kornbluth in 1952. An old copy of it landed in my hands recently by way of my father.

bookNormally I can’t read the novels of others while I am writing, but the strident 50’s tone of the prose is so different than my own that I gave this one a try. I’m a third of the way into the story, and am I glad I did. Pohl envisions a society every bit as creepy as Orwell’s. In his future, the government is a fairly powerless puppet of the very rich, and the average human lives in fear of the warring corporations that fight with guns and advertising for the dollars of every consumer. It is the same dark vision of hopelessness, but presented with a villain that is the polar opposite. Unregulated free enterprise has turned the planet into a wasteland and left unprotected citizens addicted to products laced with additives to ensure “product loyalty”.

I’ve got quite a bit of reading left to do on this one, and don’t know if Pohl and Kornbluth can sustain this story line for the entire novel, much less for the sequel The Merchant’s War written in 1984 and included in this volume as well. I suspect it never reaches the heights of prose that 1984 did, and that’s a shame. For while an entire society learned a deep-seated fear of government control from George Orwell, that society never developed the equally important visceral distaste for a world in which no regulations at all allow citizens to be equally abused by those with power and no scruples.

Dalai2It is true that the theme of “evil greedy corporations” often makes its way into popular fiction and other entertainment today, but no poet crying out for sensible consumer protection from industry and greed has captured the imagination of the general population in the same way that George Orwell did. Perhaps more importantly, no such novel has endeared itself to the teachers of literature, and found itself in the hands of so many who would not otherwise have chosen to read it. No one frets about how we might be becoming a “Pohlian” society, at least not in circles I frequent.

I think that is too bad, and sad for all of us. There is more than one way for our freedoms to disappear and for our time on this earth to be made joyless, and as a society we would be better off if we shared a deep distrust of all dystopias.  How different would our world be today if Pohl and his horrific vision of the future were as ingrained into our collective psyche as Orwell’s vision?

(For more about why I think The Space Merchants is a clever and under-appreciated story, see my posts I Know Sexism When I See It?, The Kinky of the Future and Through the Eyes of Another.)