Listener Essay - I Was Wrong
Steven Lewis is a former Mentor at SUNY-Empire State College, current member of the Sarah Lawrence College Writing Institute faculty, and longtime freelancer. His new novel, Loving Violet, will be published by Cohill Press in summer 2017.
I Was Wrong
I am beginning this piece in the early days of the United States’ descent into the Dystrumpian Future. So many among us holding our breaths, preparing for the coming repressions, the planetary insults to reason and civilized behavior, the Armageddon-Sans-Rapture that awaits this great country. And it’s already far worse than many of us feared.
How did this glorious experiment in Democracy come to this stunning, disheartening, inglorious moment?
Well, at the risk of seeming an arrogant elitist bastard, as nearly half the country has come to believe about all liberals, there is this:
It’s 1964 or 65, I’m 18 or 19 and the world is suddenly not making any sense. I’m just realizing that my history books have been telling me shameless lies about the American past, censoring out every hideous thing we’ve done to Native Americans, African Americans, women, Asians, Jews, homosexuals … that is, anyone not white, not Protestant, not male. Yeah, and something is still really really fishy about JFK’s assassination and that phony Warren Commission report. Plus, the new president is lying through his teeth about what’s going on in Vietnam while high school friends are dying in rice paddies thousands of miles away. And closer to home, parents and teachers are perpetrating bald-faced lies about God, country, sex, drugs, rock and roll, and then demanding that we shut up, straighten up and fly right.
But it’s 1964 or 5 and the inebriating rhetoric of the Free Speech Movement is wafting out of Mario Savio’s mouth in Berkeley, crossing the Rockies, blowing like tumbleweed over the Plains and stopping overnight in Madison, Wisconsin, where my friends and I are just waking up to all the shameful hypocrisies perpetrated by our parents’ generation.
So thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions of my generation across the country are crowding fields many times bigger than Yasgur’s farm, standing shoulder to shoulder, marching, chanting, sitting-in, speaking our minds. And when we get dragged off to jail, when we are beaten by cops and rednecks and National Guardsmen, jack-booted thugs with fixed bayonets and night sticks, it doesn’t matter because we are right. We are righteous.
And like all righteous people, we know God is on our side, Abraham and Isaac, the love of Jesus, flowers in our hair. It is the Age of Aquarius.
And we are the moral conscience of the country. The moral arbiters about all things good and evil. The morality police.
“You are materialistic, shallow, and self-serving,” we sneer at our parents.
“Baby killers!” we chant at Vietnam Vets.
“Pigs!” we yell after cops.
All conservatives are heartless, soulless, jackals unfit to walk alongside the
hippie Jesus we have concocted in our own image.
So now trace a line from the fiery anguishes of the Democratic National Convention 1968 through to Woodstock in 1969, the atrocities at Kent State, the bombing of the Army Math Research Building in Madison, Wisconsin, Martin Luther King being mowed down, Bobby Kennedy killed on TV, body bags coming into Dover Air Force Base, when everything—and I mean everything—was falling apart. Then pause for a moment and take note of when Spiro Agnew ignited the Moral Majority in 1972.
Well, we didn’t take note. We didn’t take stock. We didn’t understand the implications of demanding Free Speech out of one side of our mouths while out of the other side telling our enemies there were some things (many things, oh so many things) that they were not allowed to say.
Too enamored with the beauty of our truth, we failed to predict the ugly backlash that would come at us after calling our fellow citizens fascists, racists, misogynists, bullies, fools, morons, liars, killers.
How arrogant were we that we not know that they would hate us for all that? That they might never forgive us for our elitism, our snottiness, our holier-than-thou-ness? That we had turned into social bullies, abusers? Were we so blind that we did not know that in the name of righteousness we would commit our own moral and ethical atrocities?
How could we have failed to predict that they would someday muster enough hate-driven energy that would become the Tea Party, the Alt-Right, and eventually beat the snot out of our deeply flawed Hillary?
And how could we have missed the utterly simple notion that they would some day come to despise us and everything we believe in so much that they would elect a lying, unqualified, unrepentant narcissistic bully as our president to pay us back?
And because so many of us on the left seem to be blaming them for this dismal state of affairs, I speak only for myself when I say I am sorry. I am sorry that I’ve been such an arrogant elitist bastard. I am sorry I have showed no respect for your beliefs, for your fears, for your pain. I was wrong. And I will work every day for the rest of my life to make sure this kind of national horror never happens again.