It was 1967. You don’t remember that, do you? Probably you weren’t even around then. But I was. And it is one of my memories; what I remember; part of our American Biography; part of what made us all—even you, who might not have been born—what we are.
Young men were being drafted and dying in the jungle. Young black men were dying more often. Resistance was growing. I was white, and I was safe: I had a deferment. I could watch while SDS and Black Muslims contended with each other as well as with the government. It was very confusing.
There was a concert, and Sal Martirano presented L’s GA for the first time: a composition for gas-masked politico, with helium bomb, assisted by a nurse. Lincoln’s iconic words struggled to be heard through the mask. The voice struggled to be a voice, bombed as it was by helium. American words of inspiration were turned into fascist chanting, mindless calisthenics, totalitarian mockery. And all drowned out by sound and image: love duets at 110 dB; war games played on naked bodies; thunder, drums, and death.
FIFTY-THREE YEARS LATER
Masks are everywhere: masks for defense against illness, masks for defense against tear gas, masks to conceal identities. Everyone can be—everyone is compelled to be—a gas-masked politico.
Are you choosing your mask? Choosing to be safe, to be separate, to be secure? That mask enables you to breathe without fear, to venture outside, to care for yourself and others.
Or has the mask been forced upon you? To smother you, silence you, suppress your very being? That mask cares nothing for you or for others.
With some masks, words struggle to be heard: I can’t breathe. Be safe. Black lives matter. With other masks, words are amplified: Be free. Make America great. All lives matter. Nothing matters.
Lives are taken, voices suppressed: by gas, by knees, by gunshots, by chokeholds. Inspiration is replaced: by fascist tweets, lies, distortions, fakery, greed, racism, abuse, indifference.
Fifty-three years later, so much has changed. Or has it?