As meaningful as today’s fiftieth anniversary of the Kent State Massacre is for me, I have to admit that my thoughts these past few days have been far more personal. On top of planning to go to the remembrance ceremonies that had been scheduled before the COVID-19 pandemic brought so much of our lives to a standstill, travelling to Kent would have meant that I’d have gotten the chance to visit Toledo for the first time since I moved out over two years ago, and go to some of the places I’ve been missing so badly. Now I have to wonder if any of those places will still be open by the time all these restrictions end and I can finally get back to Ohio. I’ve been kvetching about my personal trifles too much as it is, though, so I will try my best to focus on the meaning of today, even as my social media feeds get inundated with more “May the Fourth be with you” piffle than usual today.
One of the direct results of the times that led to the Kent State Massacre was a memorandum written by Lewis F. Powell, shortly before President Nixon nominated him to the Supreme Court, to one of his friends at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce that outlined what Powell saw as the best way for right-wingers to tackle the growing leftist movement in America. This memorandum, often called the “Powell Memorandum” (or just the “Powell Memo”), is one of the foundational documents of modern American conservatism, and I’ve been studying it for a couple of years now as I work on my next book.
Of all the things that resulted directly from the Powell Memorandum, perhaps the most significant to our current situation here in America is how it inspired the billionaire newspaper owner Richard Mellon Scaife to enter far-right American politics, and to bankroll many of the attacks made on the Clintons during the 1990’s. Although Scaife’s efforts weren’t as far-reaching as the conservative media empires that bloomed around that time, they were at least a proof-of-concept that there was a huge potential to make lots of money — if not achieve wild political successes as well — from tapping into some right-wingers’ need for wild conspiracy theories that would enable them to feel that all of their crazy beliefs were true, and any fact that contradicted those beliefs was phony or made up or, to use the modern term, “fake news.” In a lot of ways, Donald Trump’s presidency is the culmination of all the fanning of the flames that Scaife (and his money) did all those years ago as a result of the Powell Memorandum.
What has happened to the Republican Party since that time goes without saying, but especially at this time in American history, it’s important to remember that all these right-wing attacks on the Clintons had the effect of making people believe that the Clinton/Democratic Leadership Conference moderate conservatism was not just liberalism, but all-out socialism as well. Worse yet, the Clintons and their friends never pushed back against these claims with that much force, since they’d been doing their damnedest to silence leftists all throughout the Clintons’ national political lives (Sister Souljah, anyone?), and these past few months have been a testament to just how much that thinking still dominates the Democratic Party’s power structure.
Especially as we’ve all become more aware of our own mortality during this pandemic, the question of what kind of world we’re going to leave behind for those who come after us has been pressing on a lot of our minds. With those generations becoming increasingly likely to face a near-extinction event unless immediate action is taken to stop the planet from overheating, the need for urgent action is growing almost exponentially, but in spite of the mounting evidence of how many lives are at risk because of some rich people’s selfishness, we keep making the problem worse. Regardless of political identity, too many Americans only want to believe the science that conforms to their beliefs.
There will come a time for me to write about these issues in greater length, but I want to close by returning to the Kent State Massacre, an event that hardly any of the students I get here have ever heard about. For them, as is the case with so many other people in this country, when they hear someone mention four dead Americans, their thoughts immediate turn to one of the most diseased conspiracy theories to come out of the right-wing in the past decade. Songs may have been written of the victims of the Kent State Massacre back in the day, but the lack of young people’s knowledge about the massacre is just one of many signs about how this country has forgotten the lessons of that day fifty years ago. The battles being fought on today’s American university campuses might not be as bloody, but they are just as critical for ensuring that the students of today have a just and fair world — or even just a sustainable world — to live the rest of their lives in.