Rev. Thomas, the former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, is now a professor and administrator here at CTS. Follow his timely, provocative writings on the issues of our day.
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Sunday was the eighth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq. It was also the first full day of airstrikes in Libya. How should one mark such a day? I spent the afternoon at a theater downtown watching a revival of the musical “Hair.” Its debut on Broadway in 1968 accompanied other iconic moments that year – the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, the Democratic Convention held under near martial law in the streets of Chicago, the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, and the election of Richard Nixon. It was also the year I entered college.
Celebrated and reviled for its exuberant, anti-establishment music, its exaltation of free love, drugs, tie-dyed clothing, bell bottom trousers, lots of hair, and, of course, brief full frontal nudity, “Hair” reflected the political, social, and cultural upheavals – some would even say chaos – of its time and of my generation. The sixty somethings in the audience who hauled themselves onto the stage at the curtain call to dance and sing with the cast can be forgiven for making happy fools of themselves. They were having fun, as was I, even if they looked more like a demonstration of how the flower power generation has become the Viagra generation.
But while others danced and sang at their seats, I found myself pensive, almost melancholy. No doubt some of that was simply the realization that forty years has passed, and along with it many dreams and imaginings. The dawning Age of Aquarius has come and gone, replaced by a conventionality and respectability that can never, it seems, be held at bay for long. Our hair is short, those of us who have it, and senior discount cards now mean more to us than draft cards. Nostalgia can only be fun for so long before it collapses into the realities of the day.
What I hadn’t remembered about “Hair” was how deeply the moral ambiguity and human tragedy of the Vietnam War, and all the disruption it brought to our society, was woven into the plot line. While most of the cast exults in their declaration of independence from the social norms of their parents’ generation, unashamedly embracing countercultural lives, one actor wrestles with a decision about the draft. Torn by competing claims, he finds himself unable to burn his draft card and renounce his parents’ expectations for him. As the musical nears its end he returns to the stage shorn and uniformed, inducted as it were into the military industrial complex. When the cast disperses after its final song, he remains on stage, lying motionless in his dress uniform on top of an American flag, robbed it seems, not only of his youth, but of his life as well.
It was eerie to remember those college struggles four decades ago on the anniversary of today’s war in Iraq, sort of over, but not quite. And it was even stranger to remember the killing power of B-52 bombers over Hanoi on a day we watched Tomahawk missiles launched from U.S. warships off shore from Tripoli. We really thought, in those Aquarius years, that swords could be beaten into plowshares, and napalm into a healing balm. It’s easy, perhaps too easy, to scold ourselves for such naïve optimism, and persuade ourselves that it is always good to give up childish ways. But as one friend mused with me as I pondered my response to “Hair,” “Why must this all be a ‘thing of the past?’ Is it just that we have grown more realistic with our maturity? Or have we given up something we needn’t?”
The Iraq War and its sibling in Afghanistan generated only anemic resistance over the last eight years, in part because college students and others weren’t being drafted, in part because Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld held the trump card of a real terrorist attack on U.S. soil rather than just McNamara’s vague metaphor of dominos falling in far off Southeast Asia. The eight year anniversary came and went, barely noticed, while most of the country kept track of college basketball tournament brackets. Libya has become a necessary evil, and perhaps that’s true. But is our maturity really maturity at all or just weak resignation?
“Hair” burst upon the scene in 1968 as an assault on the Vietnam War and the cultural trappings that surrounded and, at least in the minds of a generation, sustained it. Americans were indignant over the musical’s excess and outraged by its political affront. But it also represented a kind of holy outrage at the excess of violence and the affront of war. Today “Hair” is just a cultural icon, reprised from time to time for the benefit of aging hippies eager to let a younger generation know that their lives weren’t always so buttoned down. Even its nudity seems tame; a number of parents brought their teenagers to see the show on Sunday. On the bus ride home we drove past the sites of 1968’s dramatic confrontations between anti-war protesters and the Chicago police. Now all is quiet, serene. No need for tear gas this week; anxieties over Libya are muted, Afghanistan just goes on and on, like a dull but acceptable ache for most of us, and Iraq with all its horrors and deceptions is passing from our emotional and moral landscape. Not only is old Mayor Daley and his belligerent defiance of free speech gone, even his son is about to retire.
Maybe I refrained from dancing in the aisles with my short gray hair simply because I’m too self-conscious about making a fool of myself. I know myself well enough to realize that’s part of it. But perhaps there was more. I’m not sure I felt like celebrating the reminder of how the bright hope of the Age of Aquarius, excess and all, has dulled to the gray matte finish of realism’s world. Could it be that I glimpsed the so-called maturity we have achieved, and found it wanting? We often grieve our youthful enthusiasms at occasions like this. And then we assure ourselves that growing up is better. Some days I’m not so sure.
John H. Thomas