Tuesday, June 11, 2013

The Summer of '63

Fifty years ago today, Governor George Wallace famously stood "in the schoolhouse door" to block the integration of the University of Alabama. It was the summer of Civil Rights, the beginning of a much more violent time in American life than post-war Americans had become used to, and also an important transitional season in the struggle for racial equality. The summer ended with the March on Washington and led eventually to the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Acts under the effective leadership of President Lyndon Johnson. 
And 1963 was also the year of Buddhist protests in South Vietnam against the American's client, the Catholic President Diem, which culminated in a November 1 coup and led rather inexorably to a pattern of escalation of American military involvement in Vietnam.
The Civil Rights revolution dramatically transformed American society largely for the better. - so much so that it is hard to convey to those not then alive how different things are now. In the process, however, it created a template that claimant group after claimant group has invoked to pursue its own aspirations, regardless of how similar or not its grievances are. One result has been a vastly more open, more tolerant society, which younger people now more or less just take for granted as the obvious state of affairs. That undeniable benefit has been balanced, however, by the elevation of identity politics and a pervasive culture of grievance and victimization. The accompanying "political correctness" had created  its own intellectually "closed" society, which is the problematic underside of our much more open one. Meanwhile, politically, Barry Goldwater's vote against the 1964 Civil Rights Act presaged a pattern of political realignment culminating in today's radically polarized political culture of "red states" and "blue states."
Along with the Civil Rights revolution, the Vietnam War was the other major contributor to replacing the world of 1963 with what we have today. Unlike the Civil Rights revolution, Vietnam's legacy was almost entirely negative. A long and destructive war which destroyed far too many lives was lost in the end. Meanwhile it set in motion an ambivalence and uncertainty about America's global role and the use of its military power that remains with us.

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