Tuesday, October 18, 2005

What We Learn
Last night, PBS broadcast Two Days in October, a film based on David Maraniss' book They Marched Into Sunlight. The Dow Day protests in Madison and the ambush on the Black Lions infantry unit in Vietnam, chronicled in the book and the film, happened on the same two days, October 17 and 18, 1967.

One of the things that's happened since the protest days of the 1960s, at least here in Madison, is that many of those involved have come to regret some of their tactics, even though they stick firmly by their overarching reasons for doing what they did. In the film, many of the Black Lions find themselves in the opposite position, although a similar one. They question the overarching reason that put them in Vietnam to begin with--whether the war was right or wrong. What they don't question is the way they conducted themselves in the jungle. What these protesters and soldiers have in common is their willingness to question. Was it right? Was I right? Even though they (and we) will never be in the same situation again, the lessons to be learned from answering the questions are valuable in living on afterward.

It seems almost impossible to avoid this interrogation of your younger self as you age. Once you acquire some perspective, you sometimes find that you didn't have everything figured out like you thought you did. Even though your heart was in the right place, perhaps you could have done things differently. Or at least that's the way it happens to liberals. Many conservatives, as we've seen again just recently with the Harriet Miers nomination, seem to think that holding the same beliefs unchanged for years is the surest sign of virtue, and that a person who doesn't pledge in advance never to change those views is not to be trusted.

On Dow Day, university officials requested that City of Madison police officers clear students from the Commerce Building on campus, where they were staging a sit-in to stop Dow Chemical recruiters from using the building. The cops gave students two minutes' warning to clear the building, but then, according to eyewitness accounts, almost immediately began cracking heads with billy clubs. Over 60 students were hospitalized. Many who were beaten by the cops were trying to leave the building, but were trapped in the crush.

Two Madison cops involved on Dow Day were interviewed in Two Days in October. Unlike many others who were there that day, neither of these men seems to have moderated his views on the event one iota. They were both unapologetic for cracking heads, proud of what they did, and convinced that in the same situation today, they wouldn't do anything different. The contrast between them and others interviewed in the film couldn't be more stark. For them, on this issue at least, it's as if time stopped on October 18, 1967, and nothing they have done, seen, felt, or learned has reached them since.

There's a word for that--arrogance--and it made me angry as I watched. But I also felt sorry for them. Sorry that they felt so threatened 38 years ago, sorry that they were physically assaulted (one of them took a brick in the face)--but sorry also that time, which can teach us a lot about ourselves and our world, hasn't taught them much of anything. Sorry that they've grown from young men to old with their arrogance intact.

Our local PBS affiliate followed the film with a panel discussion featuring four of the people interviewed in the film, including Clark Welch, who commanded a company of the Black Lions. I thought maybe one of the cops would be on the panel, but neither one was. And once the discussion began, I realized that neither of them would have had anything to offer. The very idea of the film--in fact, one of the reasons we study history in the first place--is to understand what the Vietnam Era has taught us, and how to use that knowledge in our own lives today and in the future. Now, I don't know the cops' politics, whether they're liberal or conservative, or even whether they supported the Vietnam War in 1967. And I have to confess that I don't know whether they, too, have questioned their actions and decided, with perspective, that they were right then and are still right today. But I rather doubt it. The 38 years we've lived through since Dow Day are among the lesson-rich in human history. It's a rare person who can claim to be the same today as they were then. And so I see in the cops' unchanged opinions an unwillingness to even begin questioning themselves, an unwillingness to listen to history. They believe what they believed, and that settles it, then, now, and forever.

Keep talkin' like that, guys, and each of you could become a Supreme Court justice.

I could go on, and I hope that if you agree or disagree, you'll pick up the thread in the comments. On this particular Madison day, more peaceful than the one 38 years ago, I'm off to watch my nephew play football.

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