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Woodstock at 50

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Woodstock at 50

Published at CounterPunch on March 29, 2019

In a few, short months, on August 15, 50 years will have passed since Woodstock (known formally as the Woodstock Music & Art Fair, An Aquarian Exposition), a defining cultural event of the 1960s and a defining event of the baby boom generation, took place.  It took 43 years for me to get to the rolling hills in White Lake, New York at the foot of the Catskill Mountains where the festival was held. The contemporary museum and outdoor music venue are a few hundred yards away from where the Woodstock stage was erected and the bowl-like lay of the land among the hills is still the same. The nearby farms, and the many lakes that made the cover of major magazines at the time because hippies bathed nude in those waters, appear much as they did decades ago.

Singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell’s anthem to the music festival, “Woodstock,” captures the essence of the time, but Mitchell did not come to Woodstock and a reading of her statements about the generation of baby boomers is perplexing.

Here is Mitchell in her own words on the counterculture and war:

She has said the parents of the boomers were unhappy, and “out of it came this liberated, spoiled, selfish generation into the costume ball of free love, free sex, free music, free, free, free, free we’re so free. And Woodstock was the culmination of it.” But “I was not a part of that,” she explained in an interview. “I was not a part of the anti-war movement, either. I played in Fort Bragg. I went the Bob Hope route because I had uncles who died in the war, and I thought it was a shame to blame the boys who were drafted.”

When Trump was elected president and began his right-wing makeover of the federal government and installed hate and inequality as the zeitgeist of this epoch, a commentator who I can’t recall said Trump and his administration were a slap in the face to the baby boom generation. That may be partly true, but many in that generation did not have political and social views and lifestyles that reflected the ethos of Woodstock, but thankfully a critical mass of the young men and women from that era did.

“Don’t mourn: organize!” sounds good, but the critical mass of the baby boom generation vanished long ago and what we have now is an unmitigated disaster. It’s a disaster politically, socially, economically, and above all environmentally!

Readers may want to reflect on the fact that just over eight months after the fields of Max Yasgur’s farm in White Lake remained  a muddy mess that some say took years to return to its natural state, the horror of Kent State and Jackson State happened.

Comparisons between Woodstock and Kent State and Jackson State need to be made carefully. There is a world of difference between attending a music festival and countering the National Guard as occupiers on a campus in Ohio, or protesting at a historically black college in Mississippi. Both protests turned lethal because the rhetoric and actions of the government (national, state, and local) were so highly charged with hate and violence at the time that death and mayhem were easy to predict.  The entire society witnessed the violence that was the Vietnam War on the three major television stations at the time on an almost nightly basis. It was a war that came into living rooms within the U.S. and around the world as protest spread.

The young men and women at Kent State and Jackson State learned that protesting war in the politically and racially charged atmosphere of 1970 came with a high human price. There are veterans of those two mass shootings that still must live their lives with those wounds both physical and psychological.

The singer-songwriter, Neil Young, who wrote the anthem of Kent State “Ohio,” was a bit inconsistent as the years passed. Here are his views on Ronald Reagan: “I was one of those who felt that some ideas he had were good ideas.”  Ronald Reagan, then governor of California, hated both the First Amendment’s right to free speech and the generation that dared to protest.

And again, here’s Young after the attacks of September 2001:

Post 9/11 Young takes a hard turn back to the right, with the 2002 song Let’s Roll and its somewhat ham-fisted battle cry for America to kick some ass and get revenge overseas, and its support for the Patriot Act restricting rights at home. The angry call to arms includes lines like “going after Satan on the wings of a dove” and “facing down evil.”

As the years and decades passed, many baby boomers stayed active, and our presence was more and more noticeable in the movements against war, for the environment, against nuclear weapons, for women’s rights, for civil rights, for gay rights and many social, political, and economic movements both local and national and international. When Trump called neo-Nazis and white supremacists “some very fine people,” fingers to the wind were easy to find among the generation of baby boomers.

Nostalgia may become a form of depression, which can be mild or serious. It is important to remember, but more important to move on with those memories into today. When critics say the Vietnam antiwar movement turned violent, well, that was a tiny minority and it did not represent the movements that came later. To those who hold that the victories of the 1960s and early 1970s were permanent, look to the revolution of the right that has ripped apart movements for social, political, and economic change.

With Russiagate now history, get ready for Trump’s assault on Iran, or perhaps some other target, that may coincide with the 2020 election cycle, and pay close attention to those from the Cold War era that gave rise to a permanent class of war-makers and those who make huge fortunes from the preparations for war. Take notice of the more contemporary right-wing heirs of the Cold-War.

Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer.

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Another Slugger from Louisville: Muhammad Ali

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Another Slugger from Louisville: Muhammad Ali

Published at CounterPunch on January 22, 2019

Here’s some good news. Louisville International Airport in Kentucky, Muhammad Ali’s hometown, will be renamed the Louisville Muhammad Ali International Airport.

Muhammad Ali was the greatest boxer of all-time, a sport that has many features that readers may abhor. Airports are also great stains on the environment, with aircraft spewing tons of CO2 into the environment. But with those considerations noted, there was the long-distance runner of boxing, Ali, who became a symbol of resistance to the war in Vietnam. The observation made at the time was that Ali was at the pinnacle of his success in the ring and that boxing was one of the few places that a black man could defeat a white man and not risk death for his effort.

On April 28, 1967, Ali refused induction into the U.S. Army, citing his religion, Muslim, and had his heavyweight boxing title taken away. He said he would not go half-way around the world to kill people who had not insulted or degraded his race, and that observation must have earned him the ire of hordes of militant haters across the U.S. Ali said: “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong.”

The controversy lasted decades after Ali won his case before the Supreme Court. In 2004, baseball pitcher Bob Feller, a World War II veteran and baseball hall of fame member said: “I object very strongly to Muhammad Ali being here to throw out the first pitch… [Ali] changed his name and changed his religion so he wouldn’t have to serve his country, and to me, that’s disgusting.”

Many criticized Ali for accepting the Medal of Freedom from warmonger George W. Bush in 2005. By then, Ali suffered from the ravages of Parkinson’s syndrome that may have been brought on by his years in the boxing ring. It is impossible to comment dispassionately about the circumstances of the award, or the state of the U.S. as a country already at war for four years (now almost 18 years). But when confronting war and racism during the Vietnam War, it was Muhammad Ali who stood just as immovable as he did against the ropes of a boxing ring and waited patiently for his opponents to run out of steam.

Ali’s support for Ronald Reagan in 1984, in what Ali categorized as a religious issue in public schools, is difficult to explain.

Like the baseball bat named after Ali’s hometown, whose airport now bears his name, Muhammad Ali was in it for the full 12 rounds, or nine innings in real life.

Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer.

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Nineteen Sixty-Nine: A Look Back at Protest

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Published at CounterPunch on January 7, 2019

Nineteen Sixty-Nine: A Look Back at Protest

In order to write coherently and concisely about the great year of revolt 1969, 1968 needs to be seen as a backdrop to the great days of rebellion that took place in nation after nation across the globe.

Mass movements of 1968 in the United Kingdom, Northern Ireland, Poland, Brazil, the United States, Pakistan, France, West Germany, Italy, Scandinavia, Spain, Mexico, Czechoslovakia, the Soviet Union, and elsewhere made 1968 the year when the echoes of revolution and revolt were heard around the world: “And revolution in the air…” to quote a line from Bob Dylan, and so was rebellion. Much of the developing world was being rocked in a post-World War II political, economic, and social environment in nations in Africa, Southeast Asia, Asia, Europe, Central America, and South America where the hegemony of the imperial powers was being challenged by ordinary people. A generation and people across the globe were mobilizing for change on the political, social, and economic left. Some of those movements for change would be suppressed violently. Some movements themselves had elements of violence within them, but the vast majority of protest in the U.S. was nonviolent or militantly nonviolent. The cohort of the baby boom generation, an integral part of protest that swept the globe, was coming of age.

What was being opposed? Capitalism, the morphing of communism into an intolerable totalitarianism, imperialism, racism, the lack of civil rights and civil liberties, the subservient role of women, the destruction of the natural environment, and the desire to improve the condition of life of billions of people worldwide. Does this all sound somewhat familiar? Does it sound somewhat romantic and a part of the idealism that is sometimes at the heart of the human condition?

Nineteen sixty-nine was the most significant year in my life and the year in which the political would become intensely personal. During 1968, a group at the college I attended, Providence College Students for Peace, formed in answer to the growing horror of the Vietnam War and the echo of the war’s presence on my campus in the form of the Reserve Office Training Corps brigade. ROTC was an integral part of the experience of many of the students who attended Providence College in Providence, Rhode Island. Only a few, short years earlier, ROTC participation had been mandatory at PC. PC was an intensely conservative school, run by the Dominican Friars, and the student protest group was not welcomed with open arms by either the student body, or the school’s administration. My best friend, Joe, a leader of the student group, had been called into the dean of students office several weeks before our graduation on June 3, 1969, and quizzed about the intentions of the peace group.When we took to the baseball field on campus, where an ROTC commissioning parade would take place during graduation weekend, we knew instinctively (at least that is how rumor had it) that there would be some unofficial presence in the baseball field’s stands that would monitor our actions and behavior where we stood along the foul line at third base. There were about a dozen of us protesting, which was very big news on a campus where those in ROTC often saw their belonging to this military organization as part of an unofficial compact as the children and grandchildren of immigrants in support of the government and its policies around the world. The society had rewarded many students and their families for their allegiance to its values and actions, hence, protest was seen as unpatriotic.

I knew, having been in ROTC during both my freshman and sophomore years at PC, that my membership in the protest group on campus was a signal that most of my college friendships were ending. I had been subtly admonished at a weekend party in an off-campus apartment a few weeks earlier that my membership and actions in the peace group were unwanted and that my friendship with Joe was an indication of connecting to someone who was a political outlier on campus.

Nineteen sixty-nine was never unremarkable. In June, I joined the National Guard as a way to avoid Vietnam. I was so unfit for the military that my experiences, even while waiting to leave for basic and advanced training, were more than unsettling. The monotony and authoritarianism of the military did not suit me in the least. But that is way ahead of the story of the historical and personal importance of 1969.

October 15, 1969 marked the first mass protest against the Vietnam War and by chance I would leave for basic training the next day, first to South Carolina, and then ultimately on to Augusta, Georgia. The Moratorium to End the War organized the October 15th demonstrations. The protest in Boston alone drew 100.000 people. The Moratorium’s second major demonstration in Washington, D.C., on November 15, 1969, would draw 500,000 people, but by that time I would be in Georgia and in the midst of basic training.

I marched down from College Hill on the East Side in Providence, Rhode Island with a mass of people, mostly students from Brown University, in a candlelight procession to the Rhode Island State House. Thousands of people gathered on the state house lawn to hear Mitchell Goodman, then charged (the case against Goodman was later dropped) with counseling men to resist the military draft along with others such as Dr. Benjamin Spock. On the Brown quadrangle, we had listened to Allard Lowenstein, the civil rights and political icon, address the crowd, admonishing the government to listen to the voices of peaceful protest if it, the government, wished the antiwar movement to remain nonviolent. Most of the movement would remain nonviolent, some militantly nonviolent, and others, a small minority of the antiwar movement, would soon turn to more violent means to stop the war.

On the morning of October 16, 1969, I would fly out of Green Airport in Warwick, Rhode Island and after stopping in Hartford, Connecticut, my unit would go on to Columbia, South Carolina and Fort Jackson, the reception station where we would remain for about a week before flying to Augusta, Georgia and Fort Gordon.

Fort Jackson was a surreal experience for me, further solidifying my revulsion at all things military that were meant for a war of aggression against a people and a government in Vietnam that wished to unify that nation. Fort Jackson was the military base that had seen the physician, Howard Levy, refuse to train Green Berets. For his resistance to the Green Beret’s role in Vietnam, he was imprisoned.

Basic training at Fort Gordon was just as horrific as I could have imagined. I did not belong in the military and had tried a last-minute attempt to get out during the intake physical at Fort Jackson the week before. But getting out of the military at that point was pretty much impossible.

The two features of basic training that stood out in my mind, besides the total loss of individuality, was the constant referral to the Vietnamese as “Gooks” and “Charlie.” That expression of racism was small potatoes when compared to the beating that the scapegoat of our basic training cycle, Alan Sturgis (a fictitious last name), would receive.

Alan was from Brooklyn and was marked and used as a scapegoat by the drill sergeants in the company in which we received our basic training. He was physically weak and made an example of at every turn in the basic training experience. He was a member of either a Guard or Reserve unit from New York (I cannot remember which) and his inability to complete the physical requirements of training ensured that he would return to Georgia and undergo a repeated cycle of basic training reserved for those whom the Army wished to make examples. Alan represented the first rule of military training: Stand out and you will be made to suffer.

A half-century later, I can’t imagine what the torment was like for Alan, but I do remember him breaking down in tears in front of the company one afternoon after that day’s training had been completed. Alan’s experiences paled, however, compared to one draftee, who shot the toes off of one foot in the last few days of the training cycle rather than go on to infantry training and the near-certainty of deployment to Vietnam. That event, sent a shiver through the line waiting outside of the mess hall one morning in December, as we learned what had happened.

Assigned to a communications unit just returned from Vietnam following basic training and advanced training in early 1970, the unit command assigned me to an honor guard that fired M-1 rifles at different military commemorations, including the dedication of a Vietnam memorial. Less than a year later, the significance of the M-1 rifle, a so-called assault weapon, and the National Guard, would be forever linked in my mind to the massacre at Kent State University on May 4, 1970.

The Vietnam War had already become a war widely televised, and although the details of massacres such as at My Lai in March 1968 were not known yet, there was evidence, both televised and by word of mouth, including from veterans of that war, that atrocities were taking place. The extent of those atrocities was not known in 1969.

At the end of basic training, getting off of the train at Penn Station in Manhattan that would carry me home for the holidays, I felt like the odd man out in my uniform as I rushed to meet a friend from college.

The protest leader Abbie Hoffman had it right as he closed a speech to students at Vanderbilt University just days before he committed suicide in April 1989. Speaking of the 1960s, he said: “We were young, we were reckless, arrogant, silly, headstrong… and we were right! I regret nothing!”

Fifty years later all of these events are as important today as they were when they happened. The generation of baby boomers was confronted with the military draft in an unpopular war. The elite knew that the draft could not continue, and the contemporary result is that resistance to war is weak on the left. Students today are generally more concerned about debt and careers than they are with issues of war and peace. Others, not of the student class, are confronted with issues of survival.

A single issue, such as the U.S. support for Saudi Arabia in Yemen, needs to make those with any kind of moral compass have their hair stand on end. But because so few have their skin in the “game,” only relatively small numbers of people care.

Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer.

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