In Roman times the legions used to bring along with them a soothsayer who would sacrifice some unlucky chicken or other animal and “read” the auspices in their entrails to see what “good fortune” awaited them in their battles. Since then, auspicious has come to mean good fortune or propitious. But things can go either way.
“May you live in interesting times,” goes the Chinese saying that hovers ambiguously between blessing and curse. Most of us who have lived in this fast-paced age, if we were conscious of it, certainly have. But parts of it have been more interesting than others. Forty years ago this year might have marked the most interesting and, personally, the most auspicious. That Spring I walked out of a seminar room at the Maxwell School at Syracuse University scarcely believing that the son of high school-educated parents, grandson of Italian immigrants who came over in steerage, had just passed his dissertation defense and was a newly-minted Ph.D. In celebration and relief Patty and I got a baby-sitter went out for a “surf and turf” dinner and saw 2001: A Space Odyssey, a rather auspicious movie about the beginning and end of things. 1968 was going t be a year of big changes in our lives.
But my personal history was well on its way to being buried in what was going on in the world. In March, Lyndon Johnson, who had signed momentous civil rights legislation that would earthquake the American political landscape, had declined to be his party’s nominee for the 1968 presidential election because he had no solution to the Vietnam War.
Earlier in the year the war had widened. The U.S. was now bombing in Laos, Khe Sanh was the bloodiest battle of the war, followed by the Tet Offensive. The My Lai Massacre and then the North Korean capture of the spy ship Pueblo, further damaged opinion about the U.S. in Asia, and along with it Johnson’s presidency. In February, Walter Cronkite of CBS, America’s most respected journalist, said American should get out of Vietnam, marking a major turning point in public opinion.
Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated a month later, and Bobby Kennedy, a likely presidential winner, would meet the same fate in June. That left Hubert Humphrey and Gene MacCarthy to desl with the war and the incipient Nixon “Southern strategy.”
In May student riots began in France against the conservative politics of the Gaulists, joined by workers. They signaled similar riots and demonstrations in several other countries, among them, Germany, Spain, Mexico, and of course the good ole US of A. In August, from a hotel bed on my first night in San Diego, I watched the riots at the disastrous Democratic National Convention, Chicago police bashing the heads of student demonstrators and roughing up the press. The girls were asleep on the other bed, and Patty and I watched in disbelief; we were beginning our own auspicious event—our relocation to California to begin my teaching career at SDSU—and the country was in turmoil from the Vietnam war, civil rights and student demonstrations and political assassinations.
I wasn’t particularly happy to be dropping myself and my family into a place that was much more politically conservative in 1968 than it is today. But the chance to begin a new masters program in urban planning for myself, and for Patty to embark on a career in art that she had always aspired to, were worth bearing up with in a place that could not get the New York Times on the day it was printed. I had other concerns. 1968 seemed to be the year that our country had split itself into irreconcilable demographic factions—youth, parents, seniors, hippies and yuppies, regional and local interests and racial rivalries. The Voting Rights Act of 1964 had all but given the South to the Republican Party (to which Richard Nixon owed is razor thin victory). Soon the Religious Right would rise to answer the “moral turpitude” that the simple-minded saw in racial and women’s rights and uppity kids challenging authority. What was seen as a social solidarity forged in the need to pull together during the Depression and WWII was now pulled apart during relative peace and prosperity. It was the beginning of a niche society, a democracy that was capable of manipulation by focus groupers and political operatives that eventually found their highest (lowest?) form in then likes of Karl Rove. Soon enough, Watergate would confirm the notion that the system was corrupted.
That all of this should come down in the midst of my movement from East to West made that movement all the more unsettling. As I wrote some years later,* when “. . . my grad school classmates learned I had accepted a professorship at a Southern California university, their congratulations were tempered with oblique insinuations that my chosen life of intellection would plunge faster than a California sunset. . . . [that] I had opted for the land of the lotus-eaters, Birchers, naked hot tub encounter groups, Disneyland and Tinseltown. I was decamping for the intellectual wasteland of fantasy, hedonism, and ‘what-have-you-done-lately.’ In no time at all my brain would be flotsam in the surf, putrefying, like some hapless Portuguese man-o-war in a fly-infested heap of kelp. Yet, even while I was resisting becoming ‘Californicated’ with every neural transmitter I could muster, I was writing rebellious letters [this was before email] back to my old classmates (which I entitled ‘Epistles to the Frigidians’), smirking at their having to endure slushy winters, and instructing them on how to spot me on TV at the Rose Bowl. I countered their charges that I had become mentally moribund by enclosing photos of myself wearing Mickey Mouse ears while reading Principia Mathematica. . . . But in reflective moments I admitted to myself a gnawing guilt that the consciousness of ‘the Coast’ was creeping into my mind. Unfathomable psychological forces tugged at my bicoastal mind, my analytical-New York-left hemisphere rebelled against my imaginative-California-right hemisphere, and vice versa. Maybe I belonged in Indianapolis, a rebel without a coast.”
Auspices, of course, are supposed to be predictive. They are supposed to give us a view of things to come. But no reader of entrails, or popular soothsayer (have you noticed that the Jean Dixon prophet types have all disappeared?) would have predicted what was to come. I was a “trained” social scientist, and my own future was as mysterious and un-apprehended as the social world of which it was a part. The only certainty of change was change itself. As I review my writings—social scientist readers of the auspices at least go “on the record”—I believe that I did better than the horoscopers and any shaman reading the guts of a Rhode Island Red, but really not that well. Seeing Martin Luther King in his casket, and Tommy Smith and John Carlos defiantly raising their black fists at the Mexico City Olympics, I would never have foreseen that, forty years on, a Black man would be elected president of the United States. 2008, an auspicious year? Time will tell.
© 2009, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 1.28.2009)
* “The Origins of Consciousness in the Bicoastal Mind,” San Diego Writer’s Monthly, Vol. 6, No. 1, July 1991, Pp. 36 -39