Who Controls the Past Controls the Future, Kent State Edition

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Try as I might, I was not able to avoid entirely the media coverage surrounding the anniversary of the shootings at Kent State, coverage that was particularly intense here in nearby Cleveland. I am too young to remember the shootings, but I do remember the civil trial of the National Guardsmen who fired on the student protestors, and the reactions to that trial. What I remember is the adults around me expressing sympathy for the Guardsmen and doubts, even disgust, about the student protest movement of the 1960′s, of which Kent State became a symbol. This sentiment was widespread. The jury in the civil trial unanimously found for the Guardsmen. Ohio Governor James Rhodes, who ordered the National Guard to Kent, was reelected in 1974, after sitting out a term due to term limits. Ronald Reagan used popular disgust at the antics in Berkeley to become Governor of California and a national political figure, and Richard Nixon’s landslide victory over George McGovern in 1972 represented a decisive repudiation of the New Left.

Those voting for Rhodes, Reagan, and Nixon likely expected that their views about the cultural revolutions that shook America in the 1960′s would prevail in the future. But the coverage of Kent State 40 years later is just the latest illustration of how ill-founded those expectations were. Sentiments of the sort I remember from the 1970′s have largely vanished from public discussions of Kent State. Indeed, as a former roommate of one of those wounded in 1970 told the Cleveland Plain Dealer following a ceremony on campus, “I never thought I’d see this day. Gov. Rhodes and the old Kent administration tried to bury this day. They tried to keep us from doing any kind of program in the early 1970s. Having a walking trail and plaques of historic significance like we have now would never have happened back then.”

Nor is this inversion of sentiment limited to leftist colleges and newspapers. Over the weekend, a fellow Ohioan, Robert Cheeks, put up a post on a blog at First Things defending Governor Rhodes and the Ohio National Guard. Cheeks’ post was removed by First Things, and the comments at that ostensibly conservative website indicated that Cheeks was swimming against the tide: In the brief time Cheeks’ post was allowed to remain up, I saw comparisons of Kent State to Tiananmen Square and several comments about the use of lethal force against “non-violent” demonstrators, a strange word to apply to demonstrators who had rioted in the town of Kent, burned down the school’s ROTC building, cut the fire hoses of the firemen trying to douse that fire, showered rocks on the “pigs” in the Kent police, and later threw rocks and spent tear gas canisters at the “pigs” in the National Guard, while defying a lawful order to disperse. Such violence was a hallmark of the 60′s, from the Black Panthers to the Weathermen. And violence was advocated by the loftiest intellectuals of the New Left, as shown by the famous issue of the New York Review of Books featuring a diagram showing how to make a Molotov cocktail on the cover and an article extolling Mao’s dictum that “morality, like politics, flows from the barrel of a gun” on the inside.

What has happened to public discussion of Kent State is, of course, merely a microcosm of what has happened to the discussion of our past: Today, we are increasingly told that the New Left was right, and America herself is too often depicted as being at best benighted, at worst evil before the cultural revolutions of the 1960′s. Those resisting this way of telling our story are themselves demonized, as those Texans who want to change the way history is taught in their state are finding out. What we can now see is that the political victories of those who opposed the New Left were largely ephemeral, while the cultural victories won by the New Left in its Gramscian march through the institutions have proved to be far more enduring. And unless American conservatives find a way of changing this, our children will be taught all about the wonders of today’s leftists, and as a result even come to think like them, no matter how many victories conservatives enjoy at the polls.

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