In the late 1960s and early ’70s, the mainstream news media stupidly (and quite typically, as we have discovered) chose to oversimplify the drama and importance of that era by neatly dividing the nation into two distinct camps. Anyone who protested against the Vietnam War and the corrupting influences of Big Business and the CIA was cast in pejorative terms: “radicals,” “peaceniks,” “anarchists.”

In fact, without actually coming right out and saying it– although they were not averse to using the full force of selective imagery or subliminal messages to underscore their meaning– the mainstream news media frequently depicted the protestors as the bad guys, or at very least, left-wing nuts who wanted to turn America into a decadent socialist state.

In contrast, they depicted anyone who supported the Vietnam War and had no beef with Big Business or the CIA as the good guys; they were the “patriots,” the “true Americans,” the “silent majority” (to use Richard Nixon’s term) who wanted to keep America the way it was, a “Pleasantville” frozen in a 1950s paradigm.

At the time, anyone with half a brain (in other words, about 10% of the American public) realized what the media was doing and tried to convince them that by stereotyping Americans and dividing them into two opposing camps was not good for democracy or the future of the country.

Naturally, it fell on deaf ears, and the situation became even more divisive as many protestors against the Vietnam War became targeted by the police and blacklisted by the government, including Vietnam vets who protested against the war when they returned home. As a result, the country became even more polarized and paranoid.

On one side were the “doves,” Americans who were against the war. Although there were notable exceptions, most doves were anti-establishment iconoclasts who supported equal rights for women and minorities.

Yes, many of them smoked pot and experimented with hallucinogenic drugs; studied Eastern religions and engaged in free love; grew their hair long and attended political demonstrations (as was shown over and over by the media). But many of them were also very studious and ambitious (like Bill Clinton), or willing to risk their lives or reputations for what they believed in (like John Kerry). In short, they were “hip.”

On the other side were the “hawks,” Americans who supported the Vietnam War. Although there were notable exceptions, most hawks were pro-establishment conformists who wanted to keep women and minorities in their place.

For the most part, they hated pot and psychedelic drugs, did not stray from their religious or cultural heritage, wore their hair short and attended church picnics or Kiwanis Club meetings.

Like their hip counterparts, many of them also were very studious and ambitious (like Newt Gingrich) or willing to risk their lives or reputations for what they believed in (like Oliver North). In short, they were “straight.”

Hipsters admired JFK, Gore Vidal, and John Maynard Keynes; straights admired Nixon, William F. Buckley Jr., and Ayn Rand.

The difference between the two sides could not have been more striking. But it would all come down to one event that would determine the future of the country, one political match-up that would prove which side would win the hearts and minds of the American public for the foreseeable future: the 1972 presidential election between Richard Nixon, the hawkish candidate with the undistinguished military career who represented the silent majority, or the dovish George McGovern, a genuine World War II hero, who represented the anti-war movement. Sound familiar?

Of course, we all know the outcome of that election: McGovern got trounced, and Nixon became Prez, only to resign in disgrace. Ironically, Nixon did get us out of Vietnam– better late than never– but it took the most hawkish of the hawks of the Vietnam era, former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, to finally publicly admit a few years ago– again, better late than never– that the war was a big mistake.

Yes, a big mistake. And who knows how different our country would be today if McGovern had won that election and the progressive wing of the Democratic Party had been creating policy for the last 30 years. Let’s speculate, shall we? To begin with, no Watergate. No Reagan or trickle down economics. No Iran/Contra. No Savings & Loan Scandal. No supporting Third World dictators like Saddam Hussein. No CIA training future terrorists like Osama bin Laden. No George Bush senior or junior. No Persian Gulf War. No neocons. No Iraq War.

Would every America have affordable health care today? Absolutely. Would the U.S. have a national renewable energy program in place that would have made us independent of foreign oil? Of course. Would our environment be cleaner and less polluted? Naturally. Would our economic policies and tax system be fairer to average Americans and less tilted in favor of the rich? No doubt. Would our mass media be more in than hands of the people and less under the control of large corporations? Certainly. Would marijuana be decriminalized? Let’s hope so. And would we be held in higher esteem by the rest of the world? Sure, even the French would love us.

And now for two tricky questions: Would the Soviet Union have collapsed without Ronald Reagan? By all reasonable accounts– even Nixon said as much– the Soviet Union would have eventually collapsed of its own weight. Not because it was a socialist state (like the countries in Europe), but because it was a totalitarian state where the corrupt and incompetent power elite ruled with an iron fist and did not respond to the needs of their people.

Second question: Would the U.S. have been attacked on 9/11? The answer is probably not, for two reasons. 1) As previously stated, under progressive leadership, we would have developed a national renewable energy program decades ago and would have no need for Middle Eastern oil. This means it would have been unnecessary to partner with the likes of the Saudi royal family to satisfy our energy needs and unnecessary to station our troops in Saudi Arabia, offending millions of Muslims in the process. As a result, we would have removed a primary reason for terrorist attacks against the West.

2) We would have resolved the Israeli- Palestinian issue years ago by aligning ourselves with the progressive wing in Israel and not supporting right wing ideologues like Sharon. With this issue resolved, Muslims would no longer hate us for siding with Israel nor blame us for killing their brethren, thus removing the second cause of terrorist attacks against the West.

And so, with the coming presidential election, we Americans once again have to choose sides. Are we going to vote for the “nouveau straight” candidate, George W. Bush, who represents the Moral Majority and the military/industrial complex? Or John Kerry, the “nouveau hip” candidate who represents progressive thinkers and average citizens?

To be fair, I’m oversimplifying the choice and giving Kerry a little more than his due, since most progressives would have preferred Dean or Kucinich, or Nader, if they thought he could win. But Kerry is the next best thing. And progressives can’t afford to be purists this year.

Of course, even if Kerry wins, progressives will still have a difficult time promoting their agenda, especially if Congress continues to be controlled by Republicans. But at least they will have an ally in office to listen to their views.

If Bush wins, however, the progressives will have lost again, and America will be one step closer to corporate fascism and the end of democracy, as we know it.

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