Sunday, August 16, 2009

The Anxieties Afflicting Us

Frank Rich, one of the most perceptive observers of our contemporary political and social scene, writes in his Sunday NYT column about the American anxieties of 2009, and he compares them to the anxieties of 50 years ago, in 1959, as seen as the TV series 'Mad Men' and the new book by Fred Kaplan, entitled 1959: The Year Everything Changed.

It’s through this prism we might re-examine the raucous town hall eruptions
this month. Even if they are inflated by activist organizations and cable-TV
overexposure, they still cannot be dismissed entirely as made-for-media
phenomena made-to-measure to fill the August news vacuum. Nor are they
necessarily about health care. The twisted
about “death panels” and federal conspiracies “to pull the plug
on grandma” are just too unhinged from the reality of any actual legislation.
These bogus fears are psychological proxies for bigger traumas.

“It’s the economy, the facts that millions of people have lost their
jobs and millions of others are afraid of losing theirs,” theorizes
one heckled senator, Arlen Specter. That’s surely part of it. So is fear of more
home foreclosures and credit card bankruptcies. So is fear of China, whose
economic ascension stands in stark contrast to the collapse of traditional
American industries from automobiles to newspapers. So is fear of Barack Obama,
whose political ascension dramatizes the coming demographic order that will
relegate whites to the American minority. In our uncharted new frontier, even
the most reliable fixture for a half-century of American public life, the
Kennedy family, is crumbling.

These anxieties coalesce in various permutations right, left and
center. In most cases they don’t surface in the explosions we’re seeing at these
town hall meetings but in the kind of quiet desperation that afflicts Don Draper
and his cohort in “Mad Men.” But this summer’s explosions are also in keeping
with 1963.

The political rage at the young, liberal Kennedy administration in some
quarters that year was rabid and ominous. When Adlai Stevenson, then ambassador
to the United Nations, spoke in Dallas that October, jeering zealots spat on
him and struck him
with a picketer’s placard. Stevenson advised Kennedy
against traveling there. Dallas rushed to draft a new city ordinance restricting
protesters’ movements at lawful assemblies and passed it on Nov. 18. We need not
watch “Mad Men” to learn how that turned out.

Oh, to be back in the idyllic summer of 1969, when the biggest
sin committed by the rebellious mobs at Woodstock was getting stoned. Something
else is happening here in our anxious summer of 2009, when instead of
flower-power and free love there are reports of death threats and fanatics
packing guns.

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