Taking a weird trip down memory lane on this day that Mohammad Ali died. I watched The Thrilla in Manilla as a kid. I remember Ali having fun with Howard Cosell, and being an incredible boxer and a man who said, “It’s not bragging if it’s the truth”. I was too young to care about the boxer Cassius Clay, but it suddenly was important when he became Mohammed Ali after joining the Nation of Islam ( a Black Muslim church/political organization in Boston, I believe).
My first knowledge of Ali came from an old George Carlin record that also talked about the Catholic faith and The 7 Words You Can’t Say on Television. I still love and believe many of the things Carlin said back then, and — I suspect — that’s why I tend to be a theological wise-ass. Carlin wasn’t afraid to say things all my relatives actually thought, without deference to the figures he was talking about. Carlin skipped right over “you can’t talk that way about a priest” and did just that. Today I assume my parishioners could do the same thing, so I try to be grounded in my preaching.
I went to look for the YouTube video of Carlin talking about Mohammed Ali and found that it was combined with his version of “America the Beautiful” which eviscerated America at the time, speaking of smog and strip-mining and “ecology”. We said things like that then.
As I look at it, today people would call that “unpatriotic” and, in truth, it seems a little traitorous now. Still true, however, but traitorous. How far we have come from the days when nothing but Jane Fonda’s apparent support for North Vietnam was traitorous. Back then, it was patriotic to criticize the government or it’s policy. It was free use of free speech.
It was patriotic to think about the effects of war. It was patriotic to think about what we were doing to the earth. Racism was an evil then. Police violence was wrong. Sexism was starting to be wrong. Nuclear Power was wrong. Peace was a sign of strength, not a sign of weakness. Archie Bunker was the butt of jokes back then, not the presumptive nominee for President. The sexual revolution was starting. Jesus’ story was a controversial musical. Later, Jesus’ words were a light comedy/musical with a serious point. Back then, Harry Chapin used irony to talk about morality and being kind to each other, painting realistic potriats The Human Potential movement said we should try to be our best selves — more fully human. Speech was good, telling other people to shut up was bad. Being mellow was cool, being vicious and judgemental was uncool.
Watching Battlestar Galactica with my kids on Netflix tonight, I remember the beginning of the end of the liberal narrative. As the show begins, we see a naive President not listening to a regal general about the bad Cylons that were coming. We thought of it as a Star Wars rip-off and Good vs. Bad. It began saying that evil existed — in Good vs. Evil sagas, you coouldn’t believe that there was some good in everyone. Some people were just evil. Jimmy Carter — an incredibly good man now — was seen as wishy-washy and not strong enough to get the hostages back from Iran. In fact, he was practicing peace and diplomacy. Carter is proud of the fact that we never had a war during his time. Instead of that part of Carter being good, we celebrated rednecks and the rise of The New South.
Yes, Reagan took it to it’s logical extreme, but the zeitgeist was already there. Soon, instead of enjoying life and avoiding The Rat Race, people were doing cocaine and showing off how much money they had, and how little they cared about people they were having sex with. Then we were off to war, and it was unconscienable to use your freedom of speech. During the entire Reagan era, “Liberal” was a bad thing — not even radical, just liberal. “Of course” we Supported The Troops because Sylvester Stallone could have won the Vietnam War if we had only let him and — if we would just shut up — we could get this war thing over with. Asking for information was bad, because that led to thought. Thinking about subtlety and trying to build a better world was naive and the United Nations was a bad idea because of “those communists”. 35 years ago, I began to wonder what country we lived in, when just five years earlier we were celebrating our bicentenial and we were proud of America and the Press and the Government. Now, we don’t trust anybody.
Bernie Sanders is that era’s Democrat. But now, even Rachel Maddow believes that his ideas came out of nowhere. In my childhood, he was where we all were. I still like peace and love, the truth and not spin, free speech that called for thought, not against it. I still believe that Blacks are my brothers and sisters, because every person on earth is. The last two years or so have tried to prove we are not all brothers and sisters. Now we’re SUPER-RICH and super-poor, Black vs. White, MEN vs. WOMEN, Women vs Other Women, Heterosexual and trans!, “people with a right to be here” vs. “people who want to be here”.We’re not “Americans” and if thiongs keep up this way, there will be no America, because nobody’s buying the whole “peace and love” thing anymore. I like my generation’s ideas better: sharing was a goal, getting more and more people rights was a goal, thought was a goal. We were all “Americans” — diverse, yes, but not hateful, because we thought “diverse” was a good thing, ecumenism was a good thing, the UN was a good thing.
It’s been so long since those were our values, that George Carlin seems somehow traitorous. How did we get here? I don’t have a clue, but we did get here and even liberal liberals are having trouble remembering what it’s like. I hope Bernie continues to remind us who we once were.