Over the weekend I got to watch the last five episodes of “The Vietnam War,” a ten-part documentary on the war and politics of that time. I highly recommend watching it if you can make the time commitment; it took me more than a month. All throughout there are important lessons about where we are, how we got here, and how to avoid mistakes we’ve made in the past. There are plenty of lessons, but while the images of protest and senseless death (with some treason thrown in) stuck with me, there was one video in particular of when Eva Jefferson Paterson, then a student at Northwestern University, was invited to debate vice president Spiro Agnew on the David Frost Show in September 1970.
This interview happened about four months after the Kent State shootings (4 May 1970) at a time when students and other citizens were demonstrating for civil rights and for peace all over the country. They had been working on both for years. Ms Paterson was discussing civil rights legislation in Congress that was moving slowly or not at all but that suddenly got attention after riots such as the ones in Watts (Los Angeles, 1965) and Detroit (1967). She was a representative of her student body and worked hard to keep demonstrations peaceful, to keep even the most radical students under control by listening to them and representing them as best she could. From Ms Paterson at the debate:
“. . .If someone studies the history of this country which you would have to admit does have a lot of violence, the violence in Vietnam, the violence behind a lot of our social movements, and you have to admit that, a person looking at that might be inclined to think the only way to move society is to blow up a building. I did not say I endorse this. . .”
The vice president had, in the past, picked up on her concerns that what prompted mayors and legislators and such to look at the problems and to listen to the People was when violent acts occurred, but he seemed to be deliberately misunderstanding her and misquoting her intentions as if she was condoning or promoting violence. The next part includes the quote at the end of this post about making people afraid of each other, of isolating people (which is followed by applause).
Then the vice president answers Ms Paterson:
“Let me say first that isolating people is not my goal. If that were true I wouldn’t be here tonight. Let me take exception to that oft-repeated rationale that violence is the only way to get results. You know and I know that the greatest result, the greatest progress that was made, was when the Supreme Court began to recognize this very difficult problem as far as public acceptability, but nonetheless did not shy away from the propriety of integration and the Civil Rights Act.”
The video skips a bit, but the vice president also makes mention of the “Brown decision in 1954” (meaning Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, 347 U.S. 483 (1954), a landmark United States Supreme Court case in which the Court declared state laws establishing separate public schools for black and white students to be unconstitutional) after which Ms Paterson points out that they were still in the process of desegregation 16 years later.
The vice president goes on to misunderstand her and argue that she is supporting violence when it’s perfectly clear this student is frustrated that the only thing that gets attention from anyone who can bring about change is violence. Just as we are today, this student and thousands of other people had demonstrated peacefully, voted, etc. They follow the rules. They do their part. The government was largely ignoring students and other demonstrators. It took the incident at Kent State to get the vice president to go talk with Ms Paterson. In 1970. He’s pretty much proving her point by waiting this long to debate in the first place, waiting until four students are murdered at Kent State, and the whole time he’s there he’s accusing her of supporting/encouraging/condoning violence.
We know the frustration of being ignored. We’re still trying to get our elected officials to listen.
We’re faced with frustration and impatience today as the current administration obviously ignores the Constitution and laws of the United States of America. We vote. We demonstrate peacefully. We write letters, postcards, and emails, and we make phone calls. We ask for what we need, we make our case, in social media, in periodicals, and in posts like this one. Meanwhile, almost daily, we get more news of injustice, of racism and sexism, information about our elected officials involved in conspiracy against the United States of America with a hostile foreign power, as well as obstruction of said investigations. And this is ignoring other violations including the president’s obvious corruption, incompetence, and Emoluments Clauses violations. FFS, the president said that Democrats who didn’t clap during his first State of the Union address were “treasonous.” He says that reporters are “enemies of the people.”
The system of checks and balances is FAILING. What is it going to take? It is impossible that, one year into the current regime, the Speaker of the House can’t see what he needs to do. Impossible. So either Speaker Ryan needs to begin the impeachment or he needs to step down and admit that he’s part of the conspiracy and/or coverup.
I’ll make one more quick point in this post with a quote from Eva Paterson from that live television show in 1970. It’s something that could also be said today about the lies, the disrespect (for America/Americans, for our allies, for the offices these people hold as public servants), and the divisive language and policies coming down from on high. We aren’t learning our lessons; we haven’t learned the lesson. This isn’t ancient history; it was just 47 years ago when Ms Paterson told Spiro Agnew:
“You’re doing us a great disservice because you’re making people afraid of their own children. . . Yet they’re your children, they’re my parent’s children. They’re the children of this country, yet you’re making people afraid of them, and I think this is the greatest disservice. There’s an honest difference of disagreement on issues, but when you make people afraid of each other, you isolate people. Maybe this is your goal, but I think this could only have a disastrous effect on the country.”
History repeats itself. Short of violence (I hope), what is it going to take to get our Congress to listen and to represent us?
Link: “The Vietnam War” – film by Ken Burns & Lynn Novick on PBS
Link: Only Love – by E. Brooks of Gray Matters