1968, 2016, Bushwick, Cambodia, Demonstrations, Election, FBI, Four Dead in Ohio, Hillary Clinton, Millennials, Movement, Neil Young, New York City Public Library, Polls, Protests, Resistance, Trump, Vietnam, Williamsburg
By Tamim Ansary
Right now, I don’t want to sift the past for stories. Right now I want to focus on the long Right Now. I was in Brooklyn on November 8. That day, having voted already in San Francisco, I had nothing to do but tread water and wait for the polls to close. At noon I had lunch with my editor at Public Affairs and our conversation touched upon the election. How could it not. He remarked that this one looked like a tectonic shifting to him. Arizona might go blue, he noted; Michigan might go red. “Arizona! Barry Goldwater country!”
I had to agree about the seismic feel, but to me it all seemed bigger than the electoral map. At that moment—noon on Tuesday—I was worrying about the violence the Trumpists might carry out if he didn’t win. I was worrying that the Trump cabal might attempt a putsch on inauguration day. Already, FBI involvement in the election signaled a short circuit in the third rail of American politics: never before, ever, had the military, or the police, or security forces of this country taken direct action to impact the results of a national election. Now, even that was on the table.
Late in the afternoon, I took the subway to Brooklyn where my daughters live, 25-year-old Elina and 33-year-old Jessamyn. They’re in Bushwick and Williamsburg, neighborhoods teeming with people in their age group. I’d agreed to join them and their friends at a place called the Huckleberry, to watch the election returns on a giant screen TV, as people do for the Super Bowl. We settled in . We got food. We got drinks…
I guess we assumed the night would be full of suspense, but Clinton would pull out a squeaker, and by midnight we’d be drinking champagne. Instead, watching those returns turned out to be like water torture, only with battery acid.
Ah, if only we could have cut straight to the final results. But no. We gawked and gaped for hours and hours at meaningless statistical data crawling by.
Clinton 45% / Trump 52%.
Clinton 61% Trump 39%
Clinton 47 % / Trump 52%
Meaningless because it represented only 2% of the vote … 3% of the vote … 7 % of the vote…
Often the numbers weren’t even for any whole state, just for some obscure county or other. The whole time there was a bigger-than-life-sized pundit on the screen, standing next to a 10-foot map, pointing with his stick to this and that patch of color, droning out analyses and projections. And slowly, a dark cloud began to form.
Some of us who had seen the latest poll results kept assuring the rest of us not to worry, Clinton was certainly going to win Florida, and that would do it. Or North Carolina, probably, and that might do it. Or Pennsylvania, possibly? At eleven p.m. New York time, the last polls closed. Hillary had won the whole West Coast! But it didn’t matter. It was too late. By then, the thundercloud had descended to ground level and the world was shrouded in fog.
I said goodbye to my daughters and went back to my AirBnB. The streets were emptier than normal. People were still indoors watching the returns, I guess. I felt a junkie’s compulsion to take out my cell phone and check the latest, but I knew it was futile. There would be no latest. There was only the endless drip drip drip.
Nothing to be gained from staying up. In the morning, we’d either wake to the good news that thanks to some late surge, it was going to be okay: Hillary had won. Or we’d learn that Dr. Strange had failed to shut the door, and the darkness was inside. I woke up three times in the night and each time I had to suppress a craving to check my phone. In the morning it was my phone that woke me: a text from Jessy. Ding! Are you up?
I called her, and she had a hard time talking through her tears. “He won.”
We agreed to meet for lunch in Soho, where she works. It felt like the day after 9/11. People were moving through the city in a haze, stunned. Then again, it wasn’t like 9/11. That time the world we knew suffered an inconceivable attack from outside but at some level, what happened drew us together with our fellow Americans. This time the horror had come from within: some of us had announced their intention to attack the rest of us, and they had gotten their hands on the means to do it. Jessy and I walked to a restaurant called Jack’s Wife Frieda and ate something and tried to carry on a conversation, but we were both too morose to make any sense. At the next table, two women were crying.
Jessy went back to work. I decided to spend a few hours at the New York City Public Library. I ‘d seen the famous stone lions in passing but had never been inside. The library turned out to be cavernous and gloomy. I couldn’t find any ordinary books to browse in there—just special reading rooms with precious documents under lock and key, and rooms with thousands of highly specialized encyclopedias–Prominent Croatians of the 19th Century, two-volume encyclopedia of Lake County High School Sports—I’m making up those particular titles because I don’t remember any actual ones; but they were all like that.
So I left. Outside, people were hurrying down the sidewalks. Traffic was moving slowly through the streets. Little delis were open. Bars and restaurants were doing business as usual. The very fact that everything looked normal made everything feel surreal. A light rain had fallen, and that glister somehow made the city feel all the emptier, all the colder.
My daughters and I had agreed to meet at Jessy’s that evening for some takeout, but I was a bit early, so I stopped for a beer at Northern Bell, a restaurant bar where Elina had waited tables for a year. She had also painted a mural for them, on the wall in the back room, a split screen image of the street outside the place as it had looked many years ago and as it looked today.
The bar was in Bushwick (or maybe Williamsburg) so its patrons were pretty much all millennials. I was the only geezer. TV sets hung from the four corners. Three were showing college football games, but the fourth was tuned to CNN. There, a panel of pundits were pontificating. I don’t know what they were saying. The sound was turned down. Instead of TV, we were listening to music playing at top volume through an excellent sound system. We were listening to Neil Young’s song Four Dead in Ohio, recorded in 1970. I remembered that song. It was responding to the shocking fact that an American president had deployed American troops on American soil to kill American citizens. I ordered a beer and listened and remembered.
The election of 1968 was the first time I was old enough to vote. I had just turned 20. The people I hung out with then were pretty much the same demographic as the ones in the bar with me tonight. Same age group, probably the same political leanings. I was pondering this curiosity when my cell phone dinged: a text from my daughter Elina. She was going to be a little late for dinner, because she was in Manhattan, marching in a spontaneous Not-Our-President demonstration.
My 25-year-old daughter was at a protest march. And in the bar where I was sipping a beer, they were playing Four Dead in Ohio. At that moment, 1968 turned not just vivid for me but real. It was not the harmless story it had morphed into over the years. And it made me realize something about November 9, 2016. This too was real.
In 1968, thousands of people flocked to Chicago to demonstrate at the Democratic National Convention. I wasn’t there in body, but I was there in spirit. Millions of us were. At that point, over a hundred thousand young Americans were on the other side of the world fighting in a country the size of New Mexico. No one in our government could explain why we were there, what we intended to gain, how we were going to win, or even what winning would consist of. Government officials floated some vague notion that we were in Vietnam to help the good guys beat the bad guys but, bottom line, we were killing the people we had putatively come to save, and their casualties would eventually approach two million.
This was also the height of the Cold War, when the world was divided into two “blocs” each armed to their eyeballs with nuclear weapons pointed at each other. A nuclear exchange could break out at any moment, and if it did, human life on Earth would end within 34 minutes. Time defangs the past because we know how it all came out. The nature of right now is that it’s real. The future has not happened. The world might still end. Or not. What happens tomorrow depends on what we do today. What happened yesterday—doesn’t.
In the election of ’68, the major party candidates were Hubert Humphrey and Richard Nixon. I voted for a third guy, Eugene McCarthy, because he alone of all the candidate took an uncompromising stand on the war: he was going to shut it down right now, no ifs ands or buts. I agreed that Humphrey was better than Nixon but I said I didn’t care. I said if Nixon won, it would only hasten the revolution.
Well, Nixon won, and it turned out that he actually was a lot worse than Humphrey. In his campaign, Nixon had claimed he had a secret plan for ending the war in Vietnam, a plan he couldn’t divulge, just as Trump has claimed he has a secret war for defeating ISIS, a plan he cannot divulge. Once in office, Nixon escalated the war drastically. Eventually, we had half a million troops in Vietnam. More Americans died in that country after Nixon’s election than had died there in all the years before he took office In 1969, Nixon announced the carpet bombing of Cambodia, and Americans took to the streets to protest. That’s when the National Guard marched onto the campus of Kent State University campus and shot down four young Americans. That’s when Neil Young wrote the song I was listening to now, in 2016.
For many years, we’ve known that Nixon’s election did not bring about the revolution. For many years, this has seemed definitive to me. But on November 9, surrounded by those millennials in Northern Bell, it struck me that Nixon’s election did not stop the movement. The resistance only swelled. Amazing things happened over the next six or seven years. The environmental took flight. The feminist movement gained traction. Roe v. Wade gave women control of their own bodies. Gay people were finally able to come out of the shadows and live in dignity. A law-breaking president was driven out of office. And the peace movement did shut down the war. The American withdrawal from Vietnam was not a shameful defeat for America, as it has so often been represented, but a triumphant affirmation of our democracy. America was doing wrong, and the people would not have it, the people wanted to make America good again, they made themselves heard, they changed the country’s course. It occurred to me that night in Northern Bell that the revolution did happen. I just didn’t notice. It happened so softly, I took all that we achieved for granted.
I finished my beer and went out and made my way up Metropolitan Avenue. The air was still moist, the night still cool. The very fact that everything looked normal felt strangely exhilarating. I had woken up that morning feeling like the end was nigh. Now, in the gathering darkness, I felt that this was not the end. This was the beginning. The resistance, a new resistance, will swell.
Copyright 2016 Tamim Ansary. All rights reserved.