Let me begin with a confession: I know nothing about “Star Wars” except that it is a movie franchise created by George Lucas that has kept some actors, like Harrison Ford, in the air long after they should have been grounded.
What clicked with me about “Star Wars” when the first films came out was that it was a way to spread America’s fantasy about itself: that we were invariably a force for good in the world, and what could be better than to extend that force to the furthest reaches of space, conquering all the bad guys we found out there?
May the force be with you, right?
As I gather, the “force” in that phrase was really something vague and general, more or less translating as “Good luck to you.” But the force isn’t really luck. Luck is happenstance. Force is applied pressure with the intention of gaining results.
We’d tried some of that force on Earth, in real-time and in actual places. There was a country, Vietnam, that few of us had ever heard of. It was a former French colony that had gotten caught up in the Cold War while seeking independence. Vietnam was split up, like another country we knew nothing about, Korea, where we were somehow dragged into a war that wasn’t officially a war but something called a police action. It cost upwards of 40,000 American lives and several million Korean and Chinese lives, and no one won it.
Vietnam was next on the agenda. We fought there a lot longer, for no clearer reason, but this war had a more definite outcome. We lost. And we have gone on losing, in Afghanistan, in Iraq and, when this coronavirus thing is cleaned up, maybe in Iran, too.
Might as well try outer space. Ronald Reagan, the movie actor who became an actual president, thought that space was our final frontier and that we’d better militarize it before the Russians did. Donald Trump, the failed casino mogul who also became a president, thinks the same thing. He wants a Space Force. Getting a little confused (it happens to him often), he calls his current offensive against COVID-19 “Operation Warp Speed.” As in, that which is so fast it exceeds the speed of light.
Which leads, you know, to utter darkness: the place where Donald Trump has been taking us for three and a half years.
Let’s get back to Vietnam, a war most people have long since stopped thinking about if they remember it at all. It wasn’t going well, so President Nixon decided to expand it into neighboring countries Cambodia and Laos to see if he couldn’t have better luck there—as in, maybe the force would be with him in those places.
By this time, a lot of college students and others of draft age were tired of being prospective cannon fodder. The military, through its ROTC program, was an aggressive recruiting force on many campuses. At Kent State University, protests over the massive bombing that commenced the invasion of Cambodia spilled over into the college town itself. National Guardsmen were called to police the Kent State campus, without any evidence that students had been involved in acts of violence. A miscellaneous group of protesters, some students and some not, gathered on the campus grounds. Tear gas was unleashed to disperse them. Then, without provocation or warning, a 13-second rifle fusillade was fired indiscriminately into their midst.
When it was over, four students lay dead: two women, Allison Krause and Sandra Scheuer, and two men, Jeffrey Miller and William Schroeder. Nine more were wounded. America had declared war on its young, a war that, from massive student debt, mounting economic deprivation and wars without end to the casual shooting of joggers in the street, has not ceased to the present day. The logic of empire had come home: a society devouring its own.
The date was May 4, 1970. 50 years ago last week.
May the Fourth be with you.
I’m not asking that we make Kent State a day of national commemoration, though it wouldn’t be a bad idea. However, we should remember the things that have profoundly affected us and why: it’s called history. Kent State was a landmark event, and not just because of the bloodshed. It would mark the end of America’s second great rebellion. The first, familiar enough, was the Civil War, which the South initiated to preserve and extend slavery. The second was the Sixties—one that bears simply the name of its decade, the 1960s—when slavery’s successor, Jim Crow, was finally challenged on its home turf. That was when, for the first and (to this point) last time, a generation of young Americans rose up against entrenched militarism, cultural sterility and sexual repression and dared to create a world of their own.
It was a creative world, messy as all creation is, and in many ways inchoate. It never decided whether its proper engagement was on urban streets or rural communes. It wound up too often on acid. At its most focused, it was a serious and passionate attempt to realize a new vision for the country. What it didn’t have, though, were clubs and guns. The clubs were wielded by Mayor Richard Daley’s police at the Chicago Democratic Convention, where the liberalism of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society showed its true face. The guns were fired at Kent State. Confused and undisciplined state militiamen held them. But Richard Nixon pulled the trigger.
The Vietnam War went on for five more years. The war Nixon unleashed in Cambodia would ultimately result in a genocide that killed between a quarter and a third of the country’s population.
Yes, we need to remember these things.
It’s not just a question of forgetting history—or never learning it in the first place. It’s about replacing history with fiction. The May 4 of Kent State actually happened. The May 4 of “Star Wars” is not even a fictional event, but simply an inane catchphrase tied to a calendar date. It’s the erasure of history by entertainment.
Sociologist Neil Postman wrote a book in 1985 called “Amusing Ourselves to Death.” He was warning us of the dangers of a world defined not by living but by consumption. It’s the world Donald Trump wants us to get back to as quickly as possible.
This time, the consequence may really be death.