The Rise and Fall of Progressive Dissent : The Generation Of The 60s and 70s Has a Bone To Pick With Today’s Counter Culture” Faux Activists”.
THIS IS WHAT WE WERE UP AGAINST!
Back when Nixon was bombing Cambodia, about the spring of '70, Ochs showed up on our campus, more or less unannounced, and sang this song to a rally of 5 or 10 thousand. It was a raw, windy day, about 50 degrees. I'll never forget the experience of seeing that solitary figure against the backdrop of the student union's huge columns, and the way a huge crowd grew silent and hung on every word..
The Rise and Fall of Progressive Dissent
by Randy Shaw‚ Mar. 22‚ 2011
The remarkable new documentary on 1960’s folksinger and activist Phil Ochs offers a striking contrast between 1960’s activists and those of 2011. The former engaged in massive anti-war protests against Democratic President Lyndon Johnson – despite his historic enactment of federal civil rights laws, Medicare, and the War on Poverty. Yet Barack Obama’s endless, $2 billion a week war in Afghanistan, and his capitulation to Wall Street proceeds without a peep. Even well-known musicians involved with social justice causes have avoided playing at protests against Obama’s policies. For all of their sometimes naïve idealism, 1960’s activists understood that “liberals” also wage unnecessary wars and weaken social and economic justice. But today’s activists are so fearful of empowering the right wing that they give Democrat Obama a pass on almost every issue, and then complain that he ignores progressive concerns.
I never heard of Phil Ochs when growing up, and only learned of his songs when my wife purchased a box set of his recordings about a decade ago. But even if you have never heard an Ochs song, the new film about him is a powerful testament to the change in social change activism since the 1960’s.
Fear of the Right Wing
It could be said that activists felt comfortable bashing Democrat Johnson, because the only Republican President they had lived under was moderate Dwight Eisenhower. Yet progressives protested Jimmy Carter after experiencing Richard Nixon’s presidency, and also engaged in massive resistance – recall the Battle of Seattle in 1999 – against many of Democrat Bill Clinton’s policies.
But either due to the legacy of George W. Bush or increased political conformity, fears of the right wing has stifled progressive dissent in the United States. Activists ignore Barack Obama’s actions in boosting Wall Street and the military industrial complex, when they would have been out in the streets protesting similar actions under previous Democratic Presidents.
One key difference between then and now is that few 1960’s activists were concerned about maintaining friendly relations with Democratic Party politicians. The Ochs film reminds that 1960’s activist leaders were trying to change the system, not find a job or place for them in the Establishment.
Today, one-time political activist outsiders like MoveOn.org and Democracy for America operate like left branches of the Democratic Party, not as independent progressive forces. Nearly all of their daily emails attack Republicans, with no major protests or actions against Obama for an endless war in Afghanistan whose cost comes at the expense of teacher layoffs and the slashing of state and federal human services spending.
Tom Hayden, who has provided brilliant and visionary social analysis of the American left for nearly fifty years, is among those interviewed in the Ochs film. He makes the point that the 60’s anti-war movement began with a rush of idealism, which then spun off in two directions as the protesters felt they were having little impact (a mistaken conclusion, as shown by Tom Wells in his classic, The War Within: America’s Battle Over Vietnam).
One direction led activists to the militant self-destructiveness embodied by the Weather Underground. But others moved toward what Hayden describes as a “clarification” about the nature of United States society, and its susceptibility to meaningful change.
This clarification left many concluding that overthrowing the status quo was actually a pipe dream, and that greater opportunities to improve people’s lives could be achieved either through local activism and/or other less “national” causes.
Today’s progressive activists and groups understand Obama’s betrayals, but by limiting protests to Republicans they confuse – rather than clarify – the dynamics of national power. The Oscar-winning documentary, Inside Job, provided such clarification, but its message has not altered the “only bash Republicans” strategy.
“Phil Ochs: There But For Fortune” is less a story about a singer and more a tale of the changing fortunes of United States activism. It is hard for me to recall a more thought provoking film.
Randy Shaw is is the author of Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century, and The Activist’s Handbook.