Friday, February 02, 2007

A myth is a process of telling stories. Most of which Ain't True

In September of 1969, Eight men were placed on trial for violating the anti-riot act of 1968, a debatably unconstitutional law passed to prevent the gathering of protestors, specifically protests that were believed to be anti-war protests, in which the perpetrators crossed state lines with "the intent to riot." This phrase of course was left vague, so it could be applied in any circumstance which the law deemed applicable. I won't go too heavily into the history of the 1968 Democratic National Convention, or the protests led by the Yippies, MOBE, The Black Panthers, and the SCLC (you can find an excellent summary here.) But what took place in the trial that ensued for the eight defendents (Abbie Hoffman, David Dellinger, Jerry Rubin, Bobby Seale, Rennie Davis, Tom Hayden, John Froines and Lee Weiner) happens to be one of my favorite moments of American history. It certainly wasn't a shining moment in the Nation's brief past, but it is a moment which symbolized the pinnacle of the youth movement of the 1960's. It was part of the course of events that led to the diminished movement, sure, but it was also the moment where the absurdity of the old-guard American ways were most clearly illuminated. American hysteria, and self-seriousness was put on trial by the very defendants it had put on trial. The tables were turned by a smart collection of individuals who saw the fallacy of the American war in Vietnam, the hypocrisy of the Democratic party, and the inanity with which older Americans were placing their faith in the hands of abusive powers.

What we are seeing right now in Boston with the "LiteBrite" terrorists, reminds me, somewhat of what happened with the trial of the Chicago Eight, and so I thought I'd recall the circumstances of those trials, again. I understand, of course, the very different nature of these two conflicts. In his closing summation, Defense Attorney William Kunstler (the man for whom The Dude pines, upon his arrest in Malibu) had this to say about the trial of the Chicago Seven (Bobby Seale was removed from the trial after being ordered bound and gagged by the judge):

"We are living in extremely troubled times, as Mr. Weinglass pointed out. An intolerable war abroad has divided and dismayed us all. Racism at home and poverty at home are both causes of despair and discouragement. In a so-called affluent society, we have people starving, and people who can't even begin to approximate the decent life.
These are rough problems, terrible problems, and as has been said by everybody in this country, they are so enormous that they stagger the imagination. But they don't go away by destroying their critics. They don't vanish by sending men to jail. They never did and they never will."

The difference between that trial and the seemingly inevitable--if absurd--trial of the two Boston Artists who installed the LightBrites causing Bostonians to panic is, of course, the impetus. In 1968 the act was one of protest, brought on by outrage against an injust war, a woefully complacent and out-of-touch elder generation, and an abusive government. Today's matter is an act of "guerilla advertising" by two artists, brought on by the incentive of marketing for a multi-billion dollar corporation. The two are incomparable, of course. What makes the cases similar is the absurdity of the reaction by the aforementioned out-of-touch older generation, and a frightening abuse of power by an embarassed legal authority, desperate to find an enemy, even where one doesn't exist.

Indeed, what this whole charade is about is a few clueless individuals panicking in a time of fear, overreacting due to the instilled paranoia of the day, and an excessive response by the law enforcers, which lead, inevitably to their own embarassment. So what is the response? Naturally to find a scapegoat. And not just a scapegoat for the boneheadedness of one city's police department, but rather for the entire state of paranoia of America's oversensitive citizens. It was not enough for the Chief of Boston's Police Department to stop at the absurd half-truth of blaming the two artists for massive traffic delays and hundreds of thousands of wasted tax dollars (where is the blame for the overreactive response?) but he had to go a step further, ostensibly connecting the two artists to terrorists by admonishing their failure to take seriously a few hyper-alert individuals' paranoia: "Just a little over a mile away from the placement of the first device, a group of terrorists boarded airplanes and launched an attack on New York City." The idea, of course, is that the artists should be held accountable for not being predictive of other people's ignorance and paranoia. While the Chicago trial was about destroying the critics of a problem, this public trial is about destroying the innocent bystanders to a problem. The problem is right in front of our faces: the problem is a nation embellished with fear, and teetering so close to insanity with their paranoia that they could mistake a litebrite for a bomb. The problem is an excessive response by a police department, and government officials desperate to foil the next major terrorist disaster, and then too stubborn to admit they were wrong and excessive (I wonder where they get that trait from?) And the problem is that even now, as we see the humor in the absurdity of what happened in Boston, an out-of-touch generation of media-members continue to miss the real perpetrators of this folly: the people who overreacted in the first place. Instead they buy the company line that the installation artists should have forseen this, with lines like this: " It’s mind-boggling that a large corporation could be dumb enough not to realize that placing battery-operated objects in public places might be a bit problematic in the post-9/11 world." I wonder what the Boston Herald Columnist who wrote that would think about the Boombox Parade held in December just a few miles from Ground Zero! (By the way, for the most amusing overreaction to this drama, stay glued to Boston Herald, which, embarassed over their own excessive coverage of the 'bomb scare' has villified these two "criminals" more than that article and wonder why people call Boston a racist town.)

The thing is, I am a fan of the absurd. Absurdity is as relevant to American history as is George Washington, baseball, and gunpowder. And what makes this debacle so interesting to me--like what makes the Chicago 7 so interesting--is the absurdity of it all, and the fact that the ones placed on trial by the absurd, try to illuminate the absurd, but--absurdly--are misunderstood as malicious. Some people really just don't get it: illustrated by the media saying time and time again that the "pranksters" were nonsensically babbling on about hair in their post-release press-conference...apparently, they don't feel like researching Cartoon Network much. The baby boomer generation, which invented guerilla theatre, seems to have forgotten it just as quickly. Describing the guerilla theatre that took place in Chicago at the trial, witness Phil Ochs put it this way: "theatrically dealing with what seemed to be an increasingly absurd world and trying to deal with it in ways other than just on a straight moral level." If the people, media, and law officials in Boston can't see the absurdity of all of this, it must be because they are too busy wiping their chins of the embarassment they caused themselves. Anyway, it sure seems history repeats itself, and there is no shortage of absuridity in the arch of American history. Now if you'll excuse me, my computer is blinking funnily. I think I need to call the police.

YouTube of the "terrorists" press conference here.

Transcript of the Chicago 7 Trail here. At least Read Abbie Hoffman's testimony.


At 12:24 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

have you heard about the documentary called Chicago 10?

opened Sundance this year, reviews seem to be good.

info here:

ps-can you recommend any literature on this event?

At 12:40 AM, Anonymous Brion said...

Argh! You've bested me.

At 7:10 AM, Blogger g.m.s. said...

"Conspiracy in the Streets" by Tom Hayden (one of the defendants) is an excellent--if obviously biased--inside account of the trial.

I have been reading about that film. I think it is supposed to be an illustrated documentary right? Should add the perfect cartoon-aspect to the proceedings.


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