Andrew Rosenthal, in the New York Times, makes a plaintive lament about the lack of protesters in the streets today. Ah, the good old days of marching in the streets, revolution in the air, teach-ins, sit-ins and all the est of the fun and games of that era.
It was almost painful the other night to hear Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young sing about a war whose purpose Americans never really understood, started by a president who didn’t tell the truth and then waged the war ineptly. And that was before they sang about Iraq.
The audience rose for Neil Young’s blast at George Bush, “Let’s Impeach the President,” and sang the words displayed on a huge TV screen, even the 20-something in front of us who had been text-messaging throughout the concert. That same screen also displayed thumbnail photos of slain soldiers while a counter ran up the most recent toll. It takes longer than you might think to count to 2,600.
It was a surprisingly political moment for a rock concert in 2006. But when those four men sang their protest songs four decades ago, their lyrics echoed and personified a powerful political movement sweeping America. Now they are entertainment, something to leave behind in the concert hall.
There were a few political booths outside the Theater at Madison Square Garden. But the concert-tour T-shirt salesmen were getting all the business. The most noticeable sound was the cellphones being restarted by those few who had bothered to turn them off during the concert.
This, perhaps, is the ultimate difference between the Vietnam generation and the Iraq generation: When you hear Young and Company sing of “four dead in Ohio,” their Kent State anthem, it’s hard to imagine anyone on today’s campuses willing to face armed troops. Is there anything they care about that much?
Student protesters helped drive Lyndon Johnson — in so many ways a powerful, progressive president — out of office because of his war. In 2004, George W. Bush — in so many ways a weak, regressive president — was re-elected despite his war. And the campuses were silent.
Laments like this reveal more about the person making the comments than about the world as it is. Rosenthal mourns that there is no draft to motivate the young to rise up. What Rosenthal doesn't admit, or remember is that it wasn't all heady idealism. There were also riots and bombings in some places. Many of the protests had much more than just an anti-war agenda, many were openly pro-communist. Many more protesters wanted not just the end to the Vietnam war, they had other political irons in the fire. A good portion of the protesters were swept along by the enthusiasm – they were not really true believers.
In the rose-tinged hindsight of people like Rosenthal, it was all good and driven by people with high ideals. It was not quite as he would paint the picture.