By M.W. Guzy
Readers of a certain age will no doubt remember "Rowan & Martin's
Laugh-In." The program was the cutting edge of televised comedy in
the late '60s and early '70s, operating on the premise that if you
threw five to six jokes a minute at the audience, somebody was bound
to laugh at something. And indeed they did.
Legend has it that Richard Nixon's cameo appearance on the show
during the '68 presidential campaign provided his narrow margin of
victory in the subsequent election. His opponent, Hubert Humphrey,
declined an offer of equal time because he felt it was beneath the
dignity of the office he sought. He later rued that decision.
The close of each episode found the glib, unflappable Dan Rowan
standing on stage beside his dim-witted partner, Dick Martin. Rowan
would toss him a straight line that would invariably evoke an
off-the-wall reply, after which Rowan would shake his head in bemused
resignation and instruct his co-host to "Say goodnight, Dick." The
smiling Martin would dutifully wave to the audience and say, "Goodnight, Dick!"
Thus did the phrase, "Say goodnight, Dick," become the preferred way
to express the notion that it was time to leave for an entire
generation of Americans. And, of course, that generation came of age
during the Vietnam War.
"Laugh-In" had an undeniably counter-cultural appeal, featuring
psychedelic graphics and guest appearances by the Hollywood-hip and
the radical-chic. But given the social upheaval taking place at the
time, its actual content was remarkably tame. Perhaps mindful of the
censorship issues encountered by the Smothers Brothers, an occasional
anti-war joke or a veiled reference to marijuana was as far as its
writers dared to go.
As the country endured race riots, peace protests that occasionally
turned into riots, and random assassinations, its most radical media
offering "bet its bippy" that it could "sock it to" the man with gags
about "walnettos." Today, the situation is reversed the
entertainers have grown more radical while their audiences have
trended more conservative, or at least more complacent.
After Watergate and the less-than-successful conclusion of the
Vietnam War, it became fashionable for the media to question
authority. Sacred cows suddenly became fair game for serious
reporters and entertainers alike. Previously sacrosanct institutions
from the Army to the Office of the Presidency came under attack as
Cold War conformity yielded to political irreverence.
Further, the advent of cable TV made the sexual double entendre of
the "Laugh-In" era seem quaint by comparison. Tongue-in-cheek puns
were replaced by graphic language and visuals. Sex and obscenity were
now available in the comfort of your living room.
But while tolerance for formerly unthinkable material waxed, the
appetite for political radicalism waned. If anything, the modern
audience is generally indifferent to matters that don't have a direct
impact on its members' lives. One such neglected issue is that of
war, which is now largely viewed more as a spectator sport than as a
vital national commitment.
We invaded Afghanistan nine years ago this month. Given the length of
time we've had troops deployed in that forlorn region, it's not
surprising that mission creep has set in. Not only has our rationale
for being there morphed over time, but we've managed to switch enemies as well.
The original purpose of the incursion was clear-cut: destroy the
al-Qaeda cell operating in-country that was thought to have planned
the 9/11 attacks, and kill or capture its leader, Osama bin Laden.
You will recall that the men who attacked us on 9/11 came from Saudi
Arabia and Egypt. These are Arab nations, and al-Qaeda is an Arab
The Taliban regime in Afghanistan was comprised of Pashtun tribesmen
intent on imposing a strict version of Islamic law called Sharia on
its citizenry. These people are not Arabs and had no direct
involvement in 9/11. Our only concern with the Taliban was that its
leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, had granted bin Laden and company safe
haven within his borders.
Flash forward to today and we find al-Qaeda long gone from the area
and ourselves at war with a once-deposed, now-rejuvenated Taliban
movement over who should rule in Kabul. Admittedly, the dictates of
Sharia can be harsh. Women convicted of adultery, for instance, are
stoned to death. While such sanctions seem extreme to Western
sensibilities, it's unclear why American boys should die so that
Afghan women can cheat on their husbands.
Barack Obama, who came onto the national scene as a peace candidate,
has tripled the American military presence in the theater and has
expanded combat operations into neighboring Pakistan a nominal ally
where Taliban elements are presently attacking NATO supply convoys.
Henry Kissinger predicted that ending the draft would sever the peace
movement from its grass roots. He believed that some protesters were
motivated by altruism but most simply didn't want themselves or their
loved ones conscripted into warfare. The present situation indicates
that Mr. Kissinger's cynical observation was also correct.
When was the last time you heard of a peace march or a war protest?
Where are all the "concerned students"? What ever happened to sit-ins?
Although the news media dutifully report developments in the war
zone, the economy and Lady Gaga's latest misadventure are the big
news. And with the exception of Bill Maher, I can't think of a single
entertainer who has made mention of the conflict other than a
fleeting acknowledgment of the heroism and sacrifice of the troops.
Last month, the president declared an end to combat operations in
Iraq. Also last month, the Associated Press reported a series of car
bombings in Baghdad and Fallujah at the end of the Muslim holy month
of Ramadan. The AP further advises that although the 50,000 or so
U.S. troops remaining in the country are there to train and assist
Iraqi forces, "…they have continued to engage militants since the
official end of combat."
The man credited with the "victory" in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, has
been given command of the campaign in Afghanistan by the president,
who fired his two immediate predecessors. Petraeus literally wrote
the book on counter-insurgency a tactic that, incidentally, has
never been successfully employed anywhere. He will now try to
replicate the "miracle" he wrought in Iraq despite, by his own
estimate, having less than one-third of the troops necessary to do so.
As Dan Rowan might have put it, "Say goodnight, Dave."
M.W.Guzy is a retired St. Louis cop who currently works for the city