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1984 Introduction to the Introduction
What you are about to read was written in 1974. It came to the page at the end of a decade of civil unrest in America that awakened a national social conscience too long in a state of narcolepsy. From 1963 till these words that follow were set down, this is what I saw and lived through in my world:
Race riots in Birmingham, Alabama that prompted President John F. Kennedy to call out 3000 troops; 200,000 Black and White Freedom Marchers congregated in Washington; investigative journalists began revealing the depth of outright lies we had been fed about what was happening in Cuba and Vietnam; Kennedy was assassinated; Lee Harvey Oswald was smoked; racist Ian Smith was elected Premier of Southern Rhodesia; the summer of blood in 1964 culminating in the Harlem riots and a year later the burning of Watts; escalation of the war in Vietnam; the march from Selma to Montgomery; Malcolm X shot to death in Harlem; Lyndon Johnson's presidency intensified the Vietnam incursions; ongoing conflict in the Middle East culminating in the Six-Day War; 50,000 people demonstrate against the Vietnam War at the Lincoln Memorial; Johnson driven out of office; Martin Luther King, Jr. assassinated; Muhammad Ali's boxing title taken from him because he refused to fight in Vietnam; Senator Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated; the Democratic Convention riots in Chicago; Nixon elected 37th President of the United States with the narrowest margin since 1912; the war in Northern Ireland escalates; the Russians occupy Czechoslovakia and a Czech student, Jan Palach, burns himself to death in protest; the "Chicago Eight" are tried; Lt. Calley and My Lai; Nixon startsto realign the Supreme Court to fit his needs; the war in Biafra; the Kent State University massacre; the U.S. bombs Cambodia, the war spreads to Laos; Idi Amin takes over Uganda; the Pentagon Papers; India and Pakistan go to war; Watergate; Nixon reelected; George Wallace shot; Britain imposes direct rule on Northern Ireland; arab terrorists killed Olympic athletes; Marcos assumes dictatorial powers in the Philippines; Agnew resigns in disgrace; the occupation of Wounded Knee; Allende of Chile is assassinated and his government overthrown with what will come to be revealed as the direct intervention of the CIA; and not too far off was the threatened impeachment and eventual resignation of Nixon.
And that was only the part of what was happening that shows up in my daily logs, only that part of the world around me that I haven't blissfully erased from memory. Don't ask what was happening in my personal life.
What you are about to read was the state of mind of a writer weary from a decade of violence, protest, pain and death. There were rivers of blood and mountains of dead. It was a bleak time, yet there had been concern; there had been the miracle of an entire nation coming to its feet with its fists raised against the inhumanity of the times.
Since APPROACHING OBLIVION was first published, I have received hundreds of letters from people telling me that I shouldn't be so cynical, that I should look on the bright side. Most of them never bothered to notice that the words in the introduction were a decade old. They just wanted me to look on the bright side. And I would, really I would; if Jerry Falwell and Alexander Haig and Phyllis Schlafly and James Watt and Meyer Kahane and Qadaffi and Prime Minister Botha and little creeps like Lou Stathis were not out there standing in the dark side, waiting to make life unnecessarily crummy for you and me and lots of little kids who'll grow up to read this same introduction ten years hence.
All those letters chided me for being so downbeat. They started out by upbraiding me, but before they concluded they wound up offering apologia for themselves. "I haven't given up," they say. "I'm a good person! I don't litter, and I don't support the National Rifle Association, and I don't blah blah blah." And I look at those letters and think: Why do they feel guilty if they're so above reproach ... do they, also, feel as if they're approaching oblivion?
And it's ten years since I wrote that introduction, and the spirit of Thoreau-like civil disobedience has dissipated like troublesome morning fog, and Jerry Rubin, when last seen, was selling insurance in Marin County, or something like that.
It's ten years, and to my amazement I'm still here. Most of my writer friends use word processors while I still bang away on this Olympia manual; they tore down the Brown Derby to make a parking lot; Walter Tevis and Phil Seuling and Bert Chandler and a bunch of my other friends have died; New York City ain't fun no more; and with the exception of Skor, you'll have a hard time finding a decent candy bar in the States; but I'm still here, still shaking my head in dismay at what Penthouse and the hypocrites who run the Miss America contest did to Vanessa Williams; still here anxious to look on the bright side, but somehow finally convinced that a few of us are doomed forever to view with alarm so the rest of you don't get too cozy.
Posted December 3, 2010