Whatever happened to the heroes?


A look back at the 1960s – a time of great global social change

This blogpost also stops me from drunkenly ranting about my frustrations at the recent council meeting I went to. Sober up, calm down and then dissect the issues.

Have a listen to the following interview – ignore the preamble/introduction and focus only on the interviewee’s opening remarks.

Now tell me that the problems that Robert F Kennedy was describing in that 1967 TV interview don’t have any relevance today. Those opening remarks almost feel like a carbon-copy of the struggles that we are facing today. War and violence, an unpopular and distant executive, trade unions and management being far removed from their communities, the size of the problems we face seemingly overwhelming and a fear that we are such small cogs in the system that we cannot change things?

A historian’s perspective

It’s ever so easy to forget the mindset of a society at the time events took place. Things only seem inevitable after the event has happened. Who in 1988 was predicting the collapse of the Soviet Bloc? Who was predicting the fall of Apartheid South Africa? More recently, who was predicting the fall of the North-East African dictators? I certainly wasn’t.

So…which heroes are we talking about?

The title of this post is taken from No More Heroes by The Stranglers (listen here). I’m not so concerned with the ‘heroes’ label – one that has mythical connotations to it, but rather individuals that fought against what were overwhelming odds for what they believed to be socially just causes. The pairs that I’ve been casting an eye over in recent times are Che Guevara and Fidel Castro, John F Kennedy and his brother Robert, and then the likes of John Lennon and Martin Luther King. At a UK level I’ve picked up on the struggles of Barbara Castle, Shirley Williams and even Jack E Powell.

In each of the cases, they were all fighting against some massive institutional barriers. In the cases of Guevara and Castro, the story of their adventures in the run up to the Cuban Revolution is the stuff movies are made of. I’m currently reading Simon Reid-Henry’s book about the two of them. (See a review here). It’s a splendid book, one of those historical tomes that brings out the complexity of the figures of the time and – perhaps paradoxically making the historical picture much more clear.

The Kennedys

The entertainment media makes much about the lifestyle and the photographs of the individuals, but covers little about the content of the speeches that both President Kennedy and his brother, Robert as US Attorney General made. The speech by RFK on the death of Martin Luther King (see here) for me is particularly powerful today as it was back in 1968.

One of the interesting themes for me about the Kennedy administration in the fight for civil rights is the very high profile the concept of the rule of law has in public discourse. Have a listen to this phone call between Kennedy and the governors of one of the states trying to resist the march of civil rights. Kennedy’s full speech on civil rights is equally powerful too. I also find the use of male pronouns to be striking – perhaps because as a result of my social media interaction with people passionate about equalities’ issues has flagged this up as an example of institutionalised discrimination over the ages.

John Lennon

Again, much has been written in various quarters. Have a listen to this from John Lennon.

One of the great things about digital media is how people are unearthing some of the much longer interviews with historical figures where, as in this case John Lennon, talk openly and at length about what their views are. What a change this makes from the short sound-bite culture we have today.

I have a dream

The speech is here

I remember being introduced to Martin Luther King’s speech at secondary school in a badly-taught lesson that could never bring across the historical significance of the speech or the events that surrounded it. It was a case of a chap made a speech, and could we write a speech about a dream that you had. So I wrote one about grassroots football clubs in non-league divisions having decent stadia. I was 15 at the time, was not given anything in terms of the wider historical context and was given nothing about the power and the passion of the campaign for civil rights – let alone any insight into politics and how it related to some of the struggles that I was in later years to find myself in. As far as I was aware from that lesson, 250,000 people turned up to hear a civil rights leader make a speech and everyone went home again.

It was only in later years that I found the civil rights protest as about a damn sight more than things such as the right to vote and the right not to be discriminated against in shops. A simple online search for the images of the event show protesters campaigning for decent housing and jobs too. It was only in later years that I found out that there were a host of very well known ‘support acts’ that led up to Martin Luther King’s famous speech – see a list in this article. Two of those support acts were Bob Dylan and Joan Baez – see them here.

The historical context matters – because people are complicated

For me, the historical context amplifies rather than complicates the message, and deepens my learning. Not least it helps explain the motivations behind the actions and also demonstrates some of the risks that individuals were taking. It also reveals some interesting contradictions which destroy attempts to portray figures as heroes or villains. People are ***far*** more complicated than that. In that regard, that’s one of the reasons why I find historical figures – and new insights into what they said and did ever so fascinating. Ditto with their personal relationships with close confidantes.

Compare them with ‘bland’

“The eighties stood for Maggie T, and gamblin’ fifty grand / The nineties stood for New Labour, and people hand-in-hand / The noughties stood for talent shows, and manufactured bands / The times’ are not-a-changin’, it’s better being bland!”

…he says, ripping off this song by Spitting Image

…even though the issues satirised in Spitting Image are still frighteningly similar. Overcrowded prisons? See here. Traffic? No change here. House prices? Madness spoofed. Unemployment crisis impacting families at Christmas? Father Christmas on the dole in the 1980s. Pensioner poverty? Was an issue back then too. Politicians not answering difficult questions? It started in the 1990s. Well…I guess we still have the Windsors!

Actually, bland is dangerous. Very.

Because under the cover of blandness, bad stuff happens. Civil rights and freedoms won are things that need to be guarded vigilantly by all of us. For it’s all too easy for such victories to be overturned. As I mentioned in a very early blogpost here, freedom is more than just about freedom of speech. Freedom from want, fear, poverty, injustice?

You only have to look at BBC Question time to watch the politicians reading out their scripted lines to take, to see what a turn off it is. On a recent edition when the non-politicians missed the show due to a broken train, the ‘debate’ between the remaining politicians was such a bland bore-fest, made even more stark because there was no one ‘independent’ to compare them to.

Perhaps part of this is a reflection of the modern routes into party politics and to high public office. Has the whole path to selection become such an intensive process that it filters out the prospect of anyone capable of independent thought? Hence why I feel that civil service attempts at ‘open policy’ are doomed if reform of political parties – including how they are funded – is not sorted out.

The problem is that we cannot leave it to the politicians to sort out. As Paul Bernal puts in his excellent blogpost:

Privilege is hidden and built into the system, so much that those who are privileged can’t see it

If we leave it to those with the huge power and influence, the structures, systems and processes won’t change, and we will all lose out. We also can’t afford to leave things to ‘more of the same’ – because more of the same begets more of the same.

Perhaps that’s why mainstream politics feels so bland in comparison to the huge problems we face – locally, nationally, globally. If you benefit so much from a privilege you cannot see – one that creates injustices for others, where is the incentive to do something about it?

5 December 2013 UPDATED TO ADD:

One of the titans of the 20th Century that ultimately vanquished his foes. He passed away today.


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