Sunday, July 10, 2016

Miami and the Siege of Chicago (1968)

In 1968, Norman Mailer was 45 years old, with six children, and married to his fourth wife. These facts are mentioned more than once in his reports on the American political conventions of that year. He had established his bona fides for the assignment already in 1960 and 1964. But 1968 remains a unique year in the history of politics, American or otherwise—much like 2016 appears to be, now that you mention it. The Democratic convention in Chicago went well beyond the bounds of a typical convention in a presidential election year, historically so, and Mailer was well primed to cover it from his book of earlier that same year, The Armies of the Night, a report on the antiwar March on the Pentagon in 1967. His political analysis is sharp and penetrating on both sides, Republican and Democratic, with a firm understanding of the various realities on the ground, over which he heaps his weird brand of huff and puff metaphysics. It's entertaining and often enlightening. To understand the '60s, which is probably impossible anyway, you should read a lot of books, not just this one, but this should be one of them. So much of the period is neatly compressed into it—hippies, cops, and radical politics, which are just the starting points for digressions. Mailer's middle-aged hipster is one of the better vantages for understanding certain crucial aspects, such as the enduring irrational love for all things Kennedy, the track of the civil rights movement, then giving way to the antiwar movement, both increasingly radicalized, and above all the appalling levels of violence. The collapse in all order for those days in Chicago is shocking to read about now. Mailer documents it well, depending on the reports of others as well as his own experiences. He does so through the haze of a white man's middle-aged anxiety, which works as often as it does not. His reluctance to wade in and take a beating is vivid and well-founded, but comes off a little rationalizing, insular, and ultimately tiresome. In retrospect, it highlights white privilege by showing the reality of a choice others don't have. Today, still, most white people do not often have to face such dilemmas. But these existential questions—notably, do I take a police beating, and even die, for the sake of a principled show of resistance to authority—amount, as much as anything, to the '60s in precis. Obviously, in July 2016, we know they are still sadly very much in effect.

In case it's not at the library.

1 comment:

  1. Funny line: "weird brand of huff and puff metaphysics." He represents the pugilist left? On The Waterfront w/ an Ivy League education? Just finished this fascinating book ab Debt by this anthropologist and Occupy activist David Graeber. He addresses a couple of Mailer quotes ab direct political action. Good stuff.