Tag Archives: 1968

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“They Came from Another America”

She was stunned that the news that came to the Royal Hawaiian Hotel produced little more than a shrug from other vacationers.

Since it was formed, citizens of the United States have demonstrated that they have diverging ideas about the true animating force of their nation. Is it enough to have a shared interest in maximizing personal freedom?  What does it mean when others are indifferent to a national tragedy?

Full citizenship and its protections were withheld from many over most of our history. But even with more enfranchised, it is apparent that a nation that spans a continent contains many differing values that can eclipse shared beliefs. Members of the European Union occupy another wide continental swath with some of the same challenges. Danes and Poles have cultural characteristics that are at least as wide as those separating native Texans from lifelong New Yorkers. Can citizens in so big an expanse still feel like that are part of the same tribe?

A picture of a culture that is more frayed quilt than a tightly-woven blanket came to mind in reading a revealing piece of literary detective work. It described the little-discussed dive into despair of the writer Joan Didion, a trenchant chronicler of American life. She was a leading American cultural critic who had the rare capacity to offer highly readable accounts of destructive forces swirling just beneath the surface calm of the American experience. Didion knew how to use a literary wide-angle lens to capture the national mood, noticing convulsions that others missed. Because she thought in terms of events laid out in oppositional narratives, she shed insight into alternate perceptions that others missed.

As Timothy Denevi notes in a recent piece in the New York Times, Didion and husband John were vacationing in Hawaii in 1968 and about to head into a sudden existential storm. In this unlikely place her natural California cool gave way to real symptoms of physical illness.

The Trigger

The specific event was June 4, the day Robert F. Kennedy was mortally wounded while leaving Los Angeles campaign appearance. She was stunned that the news penetrating the bubble of the Royal Hawaiian Hotel drew little more than a shrug from other vacationers. How could other Americans not recognize the loss of so temperate a voice while facing the morass of the Vietnam War?

Kennedy was very much a part of her stormy America she chronicled in collections of essays like The White Album, Slouching Towards Bethlehem and After Henry. Many saw him as an idealist that might pull the U.S. back from some of the national convulsions in the same year.  Martin Luther King has been shot to death in April. Thousands of American servicemen were dying at a rate of 2800 a month in Vietnam. And the once outsized President Lyndon Johnson had slowly shrunk behind a vail of sullenness. He said he would leave after just one term. The “battle of Chicago” between protesters and the army at the Democratic National Convention was still to come a few months later.

It was during a performance in the hotel by singer Don Ho that Didion’s experienced a full realization of nation that had torn loose of its anchors. The singer had just stopped in mid-performance to pass on the breaking news of Robert Kennedy’s assassination, pausing to offer a spontaneous prayer he sung to mark the moment. But others in the room were apparently having none of it, shouting to the singer to “quit the hymns” and jeering his response to the shock.  They still wanted the faux Hawaiian spectacle they had paid to see. The experience made her ill. In the aftermath she could not keep food down. But she still had the crystalline insight of a nation at war with itself.

No matter what your political feelings are, if you’re attached to the idea of the nation as a community—if you feel yourself to be part of that community—then obviously something has happened to that community. . . .  It seemed as if these people did not count themselves as part of the community.  They came from another America.”

A Warning of Things to Come

We are left to see an obvious pattern. This moment resonates because Didion’s sense of dislocation seems to have become a continuous sensation for many us. Like the shocking loss of a genuine American idealist, the daily conduct of many political figures today asks us to keep reliving the eminent dismemberment of the tribe. We must now experience the feeling that many within the culture occupy “another America:” less tied to the customs and norms that had defined the nation.

Didion died just weeks before the failed January 6 coup in the aftermath of the 2020 election. But in 1968 she already had the insight that the United States would not find its way back to the sturdy narratives Americans used to share.  Even then it was clear that a kind of national self-sabotage was becoming the new normal.

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Parting Thoughts


Communication is not done with any of us, nor can we be finished with it.  It will have its way with us for the remainder of our days. 

These are the weeks when the nation launches another cadre of college graduates into the world.  The annual ritual marks an important milestone for them and their parents.  Most welcome the day; but I can sense that for others it comes with some trepidation.  Graduates are given a map that is ambiguous. With a mix of joy and uncertainty some move on to jobs, perhaps a lazy summer at the shore, graduate school, or  back to the shelter of their old bedrooms.  No thanks to our politicians, they enter a world that is far from the stable platform they might have imagined back in high school.

When I graduated from the leafy outdoor theater at a college in California things were not that different. True, the Civil War was over.  Rails had finally been joined at Promontory Point in Utah. And we were getting spoiled by the comforts of indoor plumbing.

With all of its uncertainties, the frequently rampaging river of American life obscures what we thought would be clearer pathways.

In actual fact, the stormy year of 1968 held out the same kind of outstretched hand of opportunity, but we also knew that thorns were concealed in the other. Then, the Vietnam War threatened to be my generation’s next experiment in communal living.  And that was only one reason the nation faced doubts that stained its collective soul.  Our cities had been battlegrounds.  A president, his brother and Dr. King had all been killed by assassins. Racial justice was still in the distant future. What other options were there but to draw on youthful reserves of optimism and move on, comforted in the possibility of marriage, a good job, or perhaps escaping deeper into academia.

With all of its uncertainties, the frequently rampaging river of American life obscures what we thought would be clearer pathways.  That’s especially true for young adults in the arts and humanities.  Even so, I think anyone who has become a student of communication has a little bit of an edge, but only an edge.  In truth, communication is everybody’s business.

When I have the chance, I usually offer some version of this idea in a parting comment to the seniors graduating from our program:

When you begin to think about it, your degree in this subject carries burdens. This isn’t a static discipline you learn and then move on. There really isn’t such a thing as complete mastery of the arts of connecting with others. Like all of us, most of you will spend most your days in hot pursuit of rewards for changing the thinking of others. This may require acts of creation, education, interpretation, explanation, persuasion, justification, reporting, narration or defense. To be sure, all of these efforts can be taxing. And listening to others do the same can turn mastery of the tools of everyday discourse into a life-long enterprise. This is true for all of us, whether or not we have chosen to study communication formally.

Over time college graduates sometimes abandon in life what they studied in college. But that will not be true for you.  Communication is not done with any of us, nor can we ever be done with it. It will have its way with us for the remainder of our days. Over a lifetime of relations with others our abilities to connect will sometimes open doors and occasionally not be enough to keep them from closing. We will often wonder what we might have done to tame the forces that create barriers. 

So, as the cliché has it, we must embrace even an uncertain future: to be ready to find whatever communication resources we can to make friends out of strangers.