ABC a couple of weeks debuted a new show, "Life on Mars." The conceit of the show is that a detective in 2008 is somehow (never explained) transported back to 1973. It's a foreign world to him, with dialog straight from the first "Back to the Future" movie. His mention of "cell phones" is received with "sell what?" It's like Michael J. Fox asking for a "Tab," and the counterman in the diner interpreting it as the bill, rather than as a diet soda.
His David Bowie song, "Life on Mars," played on an iPod at the start of the show, returns on an 8-track after the mysterious transformation. There are no computers, only typewriters. Everyone smokes. The fashions are different. Women are treated with such little respect that one female police officer is nicknamed "no nuts." Det. Olivia Benson in Law and Order SVU wouldn't take kindly to that.
The show is missing only one element: John McCain. The year 1973 was a big one for McCain. It's the year he was released from captivity in North Vietnam after his five and a half years. He came home to a disfigured wife and by many accounts, started "running around" enjoying the social life he missed.
He would fit right into the show, but not for the the fact that people use dial telephones and that the Internet and personal computers didn't exist. It's because he and the Republicans are trying to recreate their favorite social environment of that time - one of deep divisions and suspicions among Americans.
Rick Perlstein's brilliant if depressing book, Nixonland, sets out in excruciating detail how Richard Nixon went about constructing a career in politics by creating and exploiting differences among Americans. By 1973, after Nixon's triumphant re-election in 1972 but before his resignation in 1974, those divisions were deep and toxic. His 1973 inauguration also featured a counter-inaugural, on streets in Washington parallel to the official parade. The issue of the hour was, of course, the Vietnam War. Nixon and his handlers invented a "silent majority" of those who backed him and his policies, and set those who saw themselves as part of that segment of society against those who thought the war should end. He fomented a class war, fueled by resentment against student protesters, aided by the cultural changes wracking the nation.
The then-vice president, former Maryland Governor Spiro Agnew, aided by Pat Buchanan and William Safire railed against the news media and war protesters. He mocked the "instant analysis" of commentators after presidential speeches as "nattering nabobs of negativism." He tore into the "effete corps of impudent snobs" who protested the war. Late in 1973, he became the first sitting vice president to resign, having pled no contest to taking bribes from his days in county government up to and including being vice president. Those were ugly, ugly days. We haven't seen anything that ugly since John McCain and Sarah Palin started resurrecting them just a few weeks ago.
Their link to the past is William Ayers, the one-time 1960s radical who has turned himself into a respected authority on education reform and who is now the centerpiece of a hate campaign led by McCain, Sarah Palin and the Republican party.
The words are echoes of the 1970s - socialist, terrorist, anti-American, un-American. They all resonate with the hatred of youth and class from the 1970s. It doesn't matter that Ayers has put his past long behind him. By the time he met Barack Obama, Ayers was a respected member of the Chicago community. Whatever he did back in the 1970s, Ayers did when Obama was eight years old.
And yet the robocalls go out, recreating the atmosphere of fear and hatred that so divided America. Ayers is a "domestic terrorist." Palin accuses Obama of "palling around with terrorists." Add to that the McCain/Palin formulation of parts of the country, mainly those larger places which are not small towns, of being "anti-American." Add to that the nasty formulations of Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN), who accused Obama and supporters, including members of Congress, of having anti-American views.
Just as Nixon had a "secret plan" to end his war, McCain brags that he knows how to win wars. Neither let the public in on the secret.
The 1970s mindset is spreading beyond simply the presidential campaign in truly scary ways. Back in the 1970s, there was a constant struggle between students in high school and in college who wanted to invite controversial speakers to their campuses, and the administrations which didn't want them. Academic freedom was fine, in concept, not so much in practice.
As a result of the McCain/Palin campaign, the chicken academicians and politicians have been been brought back. The University of Nebraska-Lincoln, in a move endorsed by the state attorney general, by Sen. Ben Nelson (D) and Rep. Lee Terry (R), withdrew an invitation to Ayers to speak because he was too controversial and because of his past associations as a 1970s radical. Ayers was supposed to speak about educational reform. But a large foundation said it would pull its millions of dollars in donations if Ayers was allowed on campus, and other donors also let the university know it wouldn't support the campus if Ayers were allowed in.
It's certain those people believe they are being good, red-blooded Americans, just as those who canceled speakers back in the 1970s did. They think they are upholding America. They are not. Their self-righteousness notwithstanding, they are simply craven fools whose misguided patriotism should be a warning for all of us. Freedom of speech and freedom of expression and fundamental values which the university, and elected officials, should defend. It doesn't matter to them that Ayers is a respected scholar in the Chicago community, including Mayor Richard M. Daley, and around the country. Intolerance is so much more satisfying; the Christian idea of forgiveness has disappeared. McCain/Palin - take a bow. This is your doing.
Perlstein concludes that only now is the country beginning to heal the wounds that Nixon created in the 1970s. McCain and Palin are doing their best to reopen them. They want, they need, to bring back the divisions and hatreds of the 1970s, using race and fear as their weapons of choice. The videos not only from the rallies but of people waiting in line for rallies, show that the deep divisions lurk not far from the surface. Socialist, terrorist, communist, Muslim. All those words are hurled as insults at Obama. It's the language of the 1970s come back to life.
There is one ray of hope. Back then, there were massive demonstrations, with hundreds of thousands of people in the streets protesting the war. Today, there are hundreds of thousands of people in the streets, but they are supporting Barack Obama. John McCain in his most fervent dreams couldn't imagine drawing the crowds Obama does. Perhaps the better side of human nature will triumph after all.
Still, there's no guarantee Obama will win in a couple of weeks. Appealing to the darker nature of people is always a powerful gambit. What McCain, Palin and the Republicans don't yet realize, or don't want to realize, or don't care to realize, is that the cost to the country of such a victory built on hate will be devastatingly high. The TV show is fiction. Unfortunately, what the Republican party is trying to do is not.
Follow Art Brodsky on Twitter: www.twitter.com/artbrodsky