Nixon has imposed a curfew as black protests continue, militarized "police" prowl the streets, and the Black Panthers call for resistance –and, no, we haven’t traveled in a time machine back to the turbulent Sixties. The Nixon in question is Jay Nixon, the liberal Democrat Governor of Missouri, where the black majority town of Ferguson is embroiled in a racially explosive conflict over the police murder of an 18-year-old African-American by a white police officer. And, no, it’s not those Black Panthers – who were long ago neutralized and destroyed by the FBI’s infamous Cointelpro program – it’s the New Black Panther Party, whose role is somewhat more ambiguous.
And yet if history never repeats itself exactly, it often comes pretty close. If we look at where we are today, the parallels with the 1960s, modern America’s time of troubles, are too numerous to be missed:
The return of the Cold War with Russia – The Sixties were defined in large part by the cold war, an era of anti-communist hysteria at home and endless US military interventions abroad.
The crimes of "Uncle Joe" Stalin – the mass murder of millions and the imprisonment of many more in the Soviet gulag – had been blithely ignored in the previous era, when he was our ally in the war against the Axis powers. In the postwar era, however, with President Harry Truman at the helm, Washington suddenly espied an existential threat to the West in the ramshackle Soviet empire. That empire had been greatly expanded due to the war, and Soviet control of Eastern Europe had actually been signed, sealed, and delivered into Moscow’s hands by Franklin Roosevelt at Yalta. Yet that was conveniently overlooked as the Cold War commenced with the Marshall Plan – a welfare program for devastated Europe – and this was followed by a worldwide American effort to roll back the Communist "threat." In the wake of World War II, a new enemy was needed – and, not surprisingly, one was found.
Today the Russian "threat" is being touted by our political class as the latest in foreign policy fashion: from The New Republic, where Julia Ioffe recounts the supposed horrors of life under Czar Vladimir on an almost daily basis, to Fox News, where bleach-blonde "news" anchors have been breathlessly predicting a Russian invasion of Ukraine for the past three months, left and right march arm-in-arm in a new crusade against the Kremlin. Putin, they tell us, is a new Stalin, ruthlessly suppressing all domestic opposition and posing a threat to his neighbors.
How to explain this against the fact that Russia today is freer than it has ever been in all its long history of autocracy? After all, the gulag is long gone, the Communist party monopoly on state power is broken, multiparty elections are regularly held, and antigovernment demonstrations in the streets of major Russian cities are routine. Evidence of "Russian expansionism" is limited to Putin’s reclaiming of Crimea – a territory incorporated into Russia around the same time we took Texas from the Mexicans. So why the fanatic hatred of the Russkies from our Washington know-it-alls?
The answer is to be found, in part, in Putin’s trenchant critique of US foreign policy, post-9/11. In the run-up to the invasion and conquest of Iraq, the Russian leader denounced the war plans of the Bush administration in no uncertain terms – and from that moment on, US hostility toward Putin began to escalate. Neoconservatives like Richard Perle demanded Russia’s expulsion from the G-8 – and this brings us to another parallel with the Sixties:
A futile and immoral war – or, rather, a series of such wars. The Sixties brought us the paroxysm of Vietnam and a whole series of lower-level convulsions in what was then called the Third World: standoffs with Russia and allied Communist powers and local insurrections. Today the convulsive effects of our invasion of Iraq are still being felt, both abroad and at home, even as we reenter that arena, however reluctantly and halfheartedly. Iraq is only the most traumatic such spasm, with Afghanistan a close second, as the US wages wars-by-drone and by proxy across Africa and throughout the Middle East. And while the commies are long gone and nearly forgotten, a new Global Threat has arisen to provide gainful employment for a whole class of "expert" policy wonks, not to mention the biggest armaments industry on earth: terrorism!
Speaking of which, this brings us to the third parallel with the Vietnam era:
We still have neocons! I would say "they’re back!" but in truth they never went away. That troublesome little sect that has infiltrated and influenced every administration since Richard Nixon is more influential than ever – this in spite of authoring the worst military disaster in American history. Born in the bowels of the New York "intellectuals" and the internecine ideological wars of obscure Trotskyist grouplets, the neoconservatives moved rightward over the course of decades so that by the time their hegira was over they found themselves ensconced as the brain trust of the GOP.
After leaving the fever swamps of the anti-Stalinist far left, they entered the Democratic party and – via Max Shachtman’s Social Democrats, USA, grouplet – had an effect way out of proportion to their actual numbers, embedding themselves in the trade union bureaucracy and eventually coming to outline the basic policy parameters of Lyndon Johnson’s "Great Society" as embodied in Shachtman’s proposed "Freedom Budget."
On the foreign policy front, the neocons weren’t your typical lefties, however: Shachtman, their ideological polestar, had defected from the Trotskyist camp after splitting with Trotsky over the nature of the Soviet Union and what attitude to take toward the outbreak of World War II. Since that time, he had evolved into what the Marxists used to denounce as a "social patriot," supporting the US side during the Korean war and eventually coming out in favor of Vietnam war. As the McGovern faction took temporary control of the Democrats, the "Scoop Jackson Democrats" – so-called because many of the leading figures in the movement were aides to Senator Henry Jackson (D-Boeing) – decamped from the party and proclaimed themselves Reagan Republicans.
The neocons’ post-9/11 role as the champions and cheerleaders of our rampage across the Middle East is too well known to be reiterated here: suffice to say that they’re not only still around but more vocal and powerful than ever. In the vanguard of the new cold war, they rail against "appeasement" and compare every effort to forge a more peaceful (and rational) foreign policy to yet another "Munich moment." They even bear the same damn names – Kristol, Podhoretz – and the family business is more profitable than ever.
Even more warlike and authoritarian than in previous eras, the neocons are the biggest defenders of the Surveillance State: indeed, long before Edward Snowden revealed the all-pervasive spying on Americans post-9/11, a veritable blueprint for America’s emerging police state was presented in a 2004 book by two paradigmatic neocons, David Frum and Richard Perle: An End to Evil: How to Win the War on Terror. The Frum-Perle duo prefigured the complete elimination of the right of privacy and the destruction of the Bill of Rights that was actually occurring even as they were writing: in their book they averred that the government must maintain comprehensive records on every US citizen, including "an individual’s credit history, his recent movements, his immigration status and personal background, his age and sex, and a hundred other pieces of information."
Yes, they’re back – although, unfortunately, they never went away to begin with. To this day they defend all the worst aspects of the Sixties – the Vietnam war, the domestic repression – playing a role in our era similar to the one their forefathers did.
Oh yes, it’s undeniable, we’re having a Sixties moment – the forty-fifth anniversary of the Woodstock festival is upon us, following fast on the heels of the Ferguson
police provocations riots. One almost expects to see Lyndon Baines Johnson on the telly revealing his gallbladder scar to a disgusted world.
One can hardly imagine a president more temperamentally opposite to Barack Obama than the vulgar Texan: our present God-King would never lift his shirt to show anything less attractive than awesome abs, and even then it’s hard to imagine this cold fish dropping his reserve to that extent. Yet in every other respect, the two Presidents are quite similar, both ideologically and in terms of the larger context in which they operated. As I wrote on Inauguration Day, 2009:
"I agree with Katrina vanden Heuvel, who fears Obama may come to resemble a more recent Democratic president: Lyndon Baines Johnson. He, too, gave us guns and butter. He also escalated and prosecuted an overseas war that was increasingly unpopular with the American people – and economically and morally damaging to the United States."
In that long ago column, I also wrote:
"In the age of Obama, what the late, great libertarian theorist Murray Rothbard dubbed the welfare-warfare state will take on gargantuan proportions, just as it did under LBJ, both at home and abroad. This is bad news on every front."
Yet there is good news: the backlash is coming. Indeed, it’s already here. Some are calling it "the libertarian moment," and it may be far more tumultuous than the storied Sixties.
Rebellion is in the air. Not the confused, contradictory "revolution" that the Sixties ushered in – and which produced the retro-politics we are witnessing today – but a real insurrection against the power of the centralized State, the monster that is killing and repressing people from Missouri to the Middle East. As yesterday’s hippies exercise the reins of power and justify the wars and overweening government that characterize our age, tomorrow’s rebels are readying themselves for the battle to restore our old republic and destroy the monster once and for all.
I couldn’t have seen this encouraging development back in the darkest days of the post-9/11 era, barely two months after the twin towers fell. Yet I did have the presence of mind to see, in part, what was coming. In a column entitled "Retro-Realty – we’re in a time machine and it’s the early ‘60s again!", I wrote:
"While the specifics of the story-line are different, and many of the players have switched sides, what we’re seeing is the sixties scenario reenacted in all its essentials. Once again, the War Party is intent on launching – and, this time, winning – an unwinnable war in Asia. On the other hand, we have a Peace Party that sees the threat of a wider war poses to civil liberties at home, as well as our real interests abroad. Once again, the War Party charges the Peace Party with ‘treason,’ and raises the specter of state repression. The weird sense of déjà vu is heightened as all this takes place against the backdrop of an economic downturn and looming social and political upheaval. Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it – this is an old aphorism that advocates of yet another invasion of the Asian landmass would do well to keep in mind."
Endless war, riots in the streets, economic and social turmoil that makes the Sixties look like a Sunday school picnic – a new darkness is descending over the nation, albeit with the promise of a silver lining this time around. As one of my favorite political analysts once put it: "Fasten your seat-belts – it’s going to be a bumpy night!"
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
You can check out my Twitter feed by going here. But please note that my tweets are sometimes deliberately provocative, often made in jest, and largely consist of me thinking out loud.
I’ve written a couple of books, which you might want to peruse. Here is the link for buying the second edition of my 1993 book, Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement, with an Introduction by Prof. George W. Carey, a Foreword by Patrick J. Buchanan, and critical essays by Scott Richert and David Gordon (ISI Books, 2008).
You can buy An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (Prometheus Books, 2000), my biography of the great libertarian thinker, here.