For several days after I posted my recent interview with Marilyn Levy, I followed the news reports about Donald Trump’s campaign for president and about the protests that continue to flare up at his rallies. Almost every one of these rallies has included violence toward protestors. If anything, the incidence and the degree of violence appear to be increasing. This developing situation prompted me to contact Marilyn Levy, author of Chicago: August 28, 1968, and to ask her additional questions about issues of politics and protest. What follows is our discussion. —Ed Myers
EM: Given the clashes in Chicago last week, do you see the political situation in the U.S. as “deja vu all over again” compared to August 1968?
ML: That’s the first thing that came to mind watching the news about the unconscionable skirmish in Chicago. It sickened me, of course, but I also found it encouraging that many of the news programs made the connection between Chicago in the present day and Chicago in 1968. Though I’m a news junkie, I may have missed newscasters suggesting any connection between Mayor Daley and Donald Trump, but a parallel exists there, as well. Mayor Daley incited the outrageous behavior of the police department when he shouted, “Shoot to kill the looters,” among many other exhortations for violence. He tossed the demonstrators in the same category as criminals, saying that Chicago was his city. Donald Trump said pretty much the same thing, even huffing and puffing at one point at a previous rally—and I use the term “rally” purposefully—that he’d like to beat up and even kill people who interrupt his speeches.
EM: Trump’s demagogic comments repeatedly fan the flames of tensions between his followers and demonstrators in their midst. His recent statements—such as “I’d like to punch him in the face,” “Knock the crap out of him,” and “Maybe he should’ve been roughed up”—are not only morally repugnant, they’re tantamount to inciting his followers to violence. So, all of this is outrageous, irresponsible behavior.
ML: Yes, exactly. And most people—except his followers—agree that in Chicago, Trump incited his followers to riot.
EM: One issue that I consider different between 1968 and 2016 is that Trump isn’t in office (yet). He’s a rabble-rouser, but he’s not Mayor Daley. Rahm Emanuel isn’t Daley, either. The Chicago police seemed to be trying to keep the two sets of demonstrators separate and under control, not just beat the hell out of them. Is this any cause for optimism?
ML: At this point, given the racial tensions over Rahm Emanuel’s “possible” collusion with the police department in holding back evidence for indicting a police officer until after his re-election, the police in Chicago at this time in history had no choice but to try to calm things down. They’re under intense scrutiny now. But it’s interesting that we haven’t seen Emanuel or heard one word from him about the recent melee [at the Trump rally], as far as I know. And while it’s true that Trump isn’t in office yet, he has tremendous power. I think he’s a combination of Mussolini and Berlusconi. He has enough crazy charisma to affect people in the same way Daley and other dictators did. His having been a TV celebrity, his being soooo rich, also gives him the kind of power that an elected official might have.
On Elizabeth Warren’s Facebook page today, she wrote: “There’s a history of demagogues calling those they disagree with ‘terrorists’ and using that as justification for intimidation. Donald Trump is a bigger, uglier threat every day that goes by—and it’s time for decent people everywhere . . . to say No More Donald. There’s no virtue in silence.”
As I mention in my book, this is pretty much what Senator Abraham Ribicoff said in 1968 when he veered from his speech during the convention: that Daley was using Fascist tactics.
But to answer your question: “Is this cause for optimism?” Maybe a little. There’s more cause for thinking that although it was an expedient response [by the Chicago police last week], at least the victims were, to a great degree, protected.
EM: There’s still the issue of personal racism, demagoguery, and violence vs. institutional racism, demagoguery, and violence. Trump is clearly a racist, xenophobic demagogue who is essentially inciting violence, but at least he’s not in office. If he gets elected, however, his personal racism, xenophobia, and demagoguery become institutional. I regard this as the scariest part of the recent events.
ML: That’s absolutely right. If he were elected, his personal racism and other attributes would become institutional. And then what? As soon as a group of people becomes “the other,” we have a divided country—even more divided than we have now—and we all lose in the end.
EM: Here’s a separate but overlapping issue: to what degree can a work of fiction prompt social / political change? Kurt Vonnegut wrote that Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin was the only work of fiction that had ever changed anything. I don’t regard his claim as accurate, but Vonnegut’s point is worth thinking about. Can a novel about the upheaval in August of 1968 change what’s happening in 2016? Or can it change at least how we see what’s happening in 2016? I don’t want to put a huge weight on your shoulders! Your book is wonderful — and maybe sufficiently wonderful — for offering such a complex portrait of the chaos of August 28, 1968. Maybe it doesn’t need to be more than that.
ML: Of course, I wish my novel could effect political change—if only to demonstrate that being vigilant about politics and the political process is an ongoing process. Mayor Daley was scary to those of us who saw him as the dictator he was. He was also funny and charming in a down-home kind of way. He appealed to the same undereducated people who are now following Trump. I don’t think, for the most part, they’re bad people. I think they get carried away by group-think spurred on by the pointless and empty rhetoric of a demagogue. One guy who had punched a black demonstrator in the stomach, felling him, spoke right to the camera and said he’d had a great time at the rally and maybe he’d kill someone next time. Did Trump repudiate that? No. So I hold Trump totally responsible.
I also think Vonnegut was wrong. Jack Kerouac prompted political changes, as did Ginsberg, though he wrote poetry, not fiction. They opened the doors and invited the middle to reimagine their lives. The Occupy movement is, I think, a direct result of that shift in consciousness. [Ken Kesey’s] One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest made a lasting impression on me, and I believed the book changed the perceptions of institutionalized people with mental problems. Unfortunately, dumping people out of institutions and into communities unprepared to deal with the impact hasn’t exactly worked out that well, either.
EM: Another issue is the personal context for a work of art. When I read (and have since re-read) your novel, I’ve found myself catapulted back to the anguish and dread I felt in 1968, when I was eighteen years old and convinced (rightly) that I could be drafted at any moment and set off to Vietnam. Reading the book, I also found myself reliving the fear I felt back then that the United States was collapsing into repression and civil chaos. For these reasons, your novel has been incredibly evocative to me. I’m sure it is for other Boomers as well. But to my twenty-eight-year-old daughter and to my twenty-four-year-old son — both of whom are Progressives and activists in their own different ways — your novel will be powerful mostly as historical fiction. Maybe this is sufficient: books can allow time travel to events in history that each of us will otherwise never experience, and this experience can lead to insights and, at least in the long run, to greater wisdom.
What do you think?
ML: An interesting observation, one I think is true. Those of us who were engaged, in one way or another, back in 1968 respond quite differently from the millennials. It is history for them—and for some, perhaps it seems like ancient history. But we’re still reading about World War II, for example, and still trying to determine how a sophisticated country like Germany, where Jews were totally integrated into society at all levels—including intermarrying—could possibly have produced a Hitler. But they did. Even though I didn’t live through that war as a European, and though I was too young to understand what was going on, and though I maybe even resist reading books about it now, I do read. And I am moved, not only by the circumstances, but by the human stories. (I just finished David Benioff’s City of Thieves, which takes place in Russia during the German occupation. I laughed and cried. Because in the end, it was also about an adolescent boy’s awakening, the meaning of friendship, and a redefinition of courage. So I’m hoping that people in their twenties reading my book will not only be riveted by the history but also by the personal stories. Because we are all still moved by stories that reflect our personal struggles, as well as our political struggles.
EM: Have you received any feedback about your novel from readers younger than our own generation? If so, have they commented at all on how they see the events of the late Sixties?
ML: Now that you mention it, most of the comments from younger readers have been about specific stories. Each has mentioned a specific story that moved him or her. One reader called to comment immediately after he finished the book and found he couldn’t speak because he was so moved by the last story.
I know young people who have been to Vietnam but have no idea that we fought a war there. They don’t usually study that war in high school, and unless recent history interests them, they rarely study it in college.
EM: Are there any other issues you would like to raise and comment on?
ML: I think we’ve covered it. Thanks for getting me to think. I never would have considered your last two questions if you hadn’t asked them.