The Revolution Will Not Be Televised*

*Things have changed since 1974. Today, the revolution would be televised.1


Walter Isaacson’s The Innovators refers to the digital revolution. “Revolution” is apt; information theory, digital technology, and the Internet have, are, and will continue to transform communication, entertainment, politics, warfare, work, education, health care, social mobility, and human relations in ways we cannot predict. Looking into the future is like peering over the edge of a vast, dark chasm: exhilarating, dangerous, and unknowable.

And yet, it’s just one more revolution out of many since I was born.

Communicating with students is an adventure. You are young. I am not. You don’t know life before the Internet. I do. You are anticipating your careers. I’m looking back on mine. You spent your youth playing in structured adult-supervised activities.2 I roamed with friends for unstructured, unsupervised, non goal-oriented hours every day.Et cetera.4 The social forces of the 1960s left imprints that present particular challenges to us communicating with one another.5

In rough chronological order, here are the first twenty things about the 60s that come to mind:6

  1. Cuban Missile Crisis, October 1962
  2. John Kennedy’s assassination, November 1963
  3. The British Invasion, 1964
  4. Lyndon Johnson signing the Civil Rights Act7 of 1964
  5. Gulf of Tonkin Incident, August 1964
  6. Mario Savio and the Berkeley Free Speech Movement
  7. Watts riot, August 1965
  8. Vietnam
  9. Body counts
  10. Antiwar protests
  11. Summer of Love
  12. Detroit and Newark riots, 1967
  13. Black Panthers
  14. Tet Offensive, January-February 1968
  15. Martin Luther King’s murder, April 1968
  16. Bobby Kennedy’s murder, June 1968
  17. Days of Rage, Paris, 1968
  18. The Whole World’s Watching,” Democratic National Convention, August 19688
  19. Moon landing, July 1969
  20. Woodstock, August 19699

By the late 1960s, political and social revolution seemed probable to a 16 year old boy in the Connecticut suburbs who worried that when he turned 18, he could be drafted to fight in Vietnam. This was the context in which The Beatles released Revolution.
Revolution grabs your attention with Lennon’s searing guitar and McCartney’s scream. The sound is of a piece with the times: raw, primal, loud, dangerous, confrontational. The lyrics, however, challenge prevalent left-wing attitudes:

You say you want a revolution
Well, you know
We all want to change the world
You tell me that it’s evolution
Well, you know
We all want to change the world
But when you talk about destruction
Don’t you know that you can count me out
Don’t you know it’s gonna be all right?
All right, all right
You say you got a real solution
Well, you know
We’d all love to see the plan
You ask me for a contribution
Well, you know
We’re all doing what we can
But if you want money
For people with minds that hate
All I can tell is brother you have to wait
Don’t you know it’s gonna be all right?
All right, all right
You say you’ll change the constitution
Well, you know
We all want to change your head
You tell me it’s the institution
Well, you know
You better free you mind instead
But if you go carrying pictures of chairman Mao
You ain’t going to make it with anyone anyhow
Don’t you know it’s gonna be all right?
All right, all right!
All right, all right, all right!
All right, all right, all right!
All right, all right!

Revolution drew criticism. Anti-war, pro-revolution demonstrators chanting Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh! The NLF is going to win! did not appreciate being told if you go carrying pictures of chairman Mao, You ain’t going to make it with anyone anyhow. As the Beatles urged moderation, radicals splintered the antiwar movement. Leaders of Students for a Democratic Society—SDS—formed the Weathermen,10 dedicated to overthrowing the U.S. government. They bombed government buildings and other property to advance that goal. Others went further. In 1970 Susan Saxe and Katherine Anne Power, two Brandeis University undergraduate students, teamed with ex-convicts to rob a bank on Western Avenue in Brighton. During the robbery William “Lefty” Gilday shot and killed Boston police officer Walter Schroeder. Gilday was arrested soon after, following a manhunt and shootout. Saxe and Power went underground, Saxe until her arrest in 1975, Power until she turned herself in in 1993. Both served time in prison.

The 60s turned into the 70s. The tumult did not let up. President Richard Nixon continued the war, and commenced the “secret” bombing of Cambodia in 1969 to disrupt North Vietnamese supply lines. (It’s called the secret bombing because Nixon did not disclose it publicly. Obviously, it was not a secret to Cambodians.) The National Guard shot and killed four antiwar demonstrators at Kent State University in Ohio in May 1970. Demonstrations erupted at college campuses across the U.S., and hundreds shut because of student and faculty strikes, canceling final exams.

In September 1971 I began my freshman year at Boston University, and became involved in antiwar demonstrations. I attended teach ins, chanted antiwar slogans, and was chased down Bay State Road by baton-wielding members of the Boston Tactical Police Force.11 The Pentagon Papers, which became public in 1971 despite the government’s protests that their publication would jeopardize national security, revealed the duplicity, mendacity, and failure of two decades of U.S. foreign policy in southeast Asia. The phrase “national security” became, for many of my generation, synonymous with “the government is lying to you.”

I dropped out of Boston University in 1973, and worked and traveled around the eastern U.S. I returned to school in 1974, majored in Political Science, and worked as a paralegal at the Prisoners Rights Project, representing inmates in the Massachusetts state prison system. I took courses with Howard Zinn. Inclined by nature to be dubious, my life and times made me distrustful of authority, of experts, of those with simple solutions to complex problems, and of true believers of all kinds. As my daughter-in-law Maggie says, I am quick to “call bullshit.”

Which brings me back to SM233, communication, and you, members of the Questrom Honors Program. I’ll wager you have never experienced a syllabus like SM233’s. A sequence of readings whose intellectual arc is not immediately apparent. Class titles drawn from song lyrics and titles. Clues buried in footnotes, linked to idiosyncratic, off-syllabus content. Unexpected requests that you email me to acknowledge reading to a certain place. Metaphysical journeys down memory lane. The syllabus is daring you c’mon! jump in! follow me! I would expect you to ask Why is Randall telling me these things? What is going on? What am I supposed to do with this stuff? What happens if I don’t read it? There’s no exam . . . but what if he finds out? What happens then? What does it mean?

What, indeed?

Something’s happening here, what it is, ain’t exactly clear . . .

Question Authority

  1. In my worst nightmare, Ryan Seacrest is the host.
  2. Maybe not every one of you, but it’s true generally.
  3. The rule was “be back home when the streetlights come on.”
  4. I’m not applying value judgments to these differences. If the Helicopter Parent is today’s paradigm, the Voyager Satellite might be the right paradigm for my childhood.
  5. Although we Baby Boomers are the first to tout our exceptional qualities, there’s nothing unique about this process. The Great Depression and World War II left particular imprints on our parents. 9/11 and the Great Recession left particular imprints on you.
  6. I was born January 16, 1953. It may seem improbable that events from the early 1960s influenced me materially. I know retrospection has assisted my memory and my self-constructed personal narrative. However, I also followed the daily newspaper at a young age, for three reasons. I was an early reader, my father worked for The Hartford Courant (where he met my mother), and both of my parents read the paper front to back every day.
  7. Count the number of women in this picture
  8. In 1968, it truly seemed that the world was coming off the rails.
  9. And the sexual revolution, and recreational drug use, and Steve McQueen, and Laugh-In, and Easy Rider, and Bonnie and Clyde . . .
  10. The name comes from Bob Dylan’s Subterranean Homesick Blues: you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.
  11. They were dressed in full riot gear: helmet, face guard, shield, tear gas canisters, combat boots. I was 21, and fast. They didn’t catch me.

Gil Scott-Heron, Lefty Gilday, Susan Saxe, The Beatles, SM233, Questrom, Honors Program, Howard Zinn,