It was February, 1968, and I was just turning eighteen. I was sitting at a sidewalk cafe in Callao, the port city adjacent to Lima, Peru, reading an English language Time magazine that was reporting on the Tet Offensive in Vietnam. And I remember thinking to myself, “This is an important moment in history!”
I was right. But I’ve seldom been since. Like most people I miss the moments that turn out to matter. For example, on that Tuesday morning I was driving to campus when the radio reported a passenger plane had hit the World Trade Center, and I remember thinking, “Wow, what are the chances?!” As I pulled into the parking lot it reported the second plane, and I remember doubling down on the same thought. In fact I was almost at my office before the penny dropped. For a guy so widely regarded as brilliant – I have the focus group data to prove it – I can sometimes be amazingly thick.
But I also see moments that aren’t there. For example, I keep looking at what’s happening with race relations in America, and I keep thinking to myself. “Something’s going to blow!” And then it doesn’t. But these misconceptions are easily explained. Because the news is really just entertainment, the cameras are aimed at where there’s action. But a block to the right or left of the mis en scene, the busses are running on time and the kids are tossing frisbees in the park. But busses and frisbees aren’t newsworthy.
So in the sense of the busses not running on time, and the frisbees being grounded, I don’t suppose something’s ever going to exactly blow. It’s just going to simmer and occasionally boil.
A society built on the sweat of slaves doesn’t shake off the stench of it with a hand-wave of dismissal. This simmering to boil, and then back again, is going to go on for as long as blacks rightfully resent those whites, long-since-dead, responsible for their ancestors’ slavery, and so long as those whites, who are wholly innocent of that past, rightfully resent that resentment. So Trump was right, though not in the sense he meant it. “There were good people on both sides” in Charlottesville, in the sense that there were no bad people on either side. There were just people, black and white, each thoughtlessly accusing the other of something for which neither can be asked to take responsibility.
I’m a news junky. It’s my guilty pleasure. I want to see the camera doing a full 360 to capture the busses in flames and the kids running for cover. There’s a bad historian in me telling me that things change in these kinds of leaps and bounds. But there’s a better one in me who knows that’s almost never the case. It’s just that watching paint dry isn’t as much fun. I guess I’m just feel nostalgic for that day in Callao.