So, I finally got to see "Milk," took awhile to get to our small town, just ahead of the DVD issue. Enjoyed the movie, some touching moments. (Diego Luna is a bad, bad boy though -- trying to steal all those scenes from Sean Penn. Or maybe I just have a preference for watching Diego Luna.)
But afterward I'm wondering why I don't remember these assassinations more clearly. I remember most of the other ones of the last 50 years. Certainly in part because at the time the focus was more on the death of George Moscone; he was a shining liberal hope, and indeed, he might have gone far and brought important changes to this country. Milk's importance is clearer in retrospect.
So I poke around a bit. Here's a little history lesson, in case you've forgotten or never knew:
Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple was by any standard a cult. It was also a "rainbow family" before it was fashionable, or even very safe. Jones and his people took care of the poor and the hurting and the vulnerable in all sorts of ways, including food, housing and helping to get access to social services. They were also extremely active politically; they raised money, they doorbelled, they got out the vote. They were instrumental in getting George Moscone elected Mayor of San Francisco in 1975, and in getting the voting rules changed in the ways that allowed Milk to be elected Supervisor in 1977. After Moscone's victory, he appointed Jones to the Chairmanship of the San Francisco Housing Authority Commission.
Things started to go bad for Jones, more and more reports of coercion and other disturbing activities in Temple groups; he purchased land in Guyana and started talking about moving to Paradise. In 1977 demands for investigation grew, and Jones moved to Guyana. Moscone refused to allow any internal investigation of the Housing Commission, and Milk wrote a letter to President Carter praising Jones and calling his detractors liars.
November 17, 1978 U.S. Congressman Leo Ryan, members of his staff and a number of journalists flew to Jonestown and interviewed people there. Several asked to leave with Ryan, and he agreed. On November 18, as the party was preparing to board a small plane on a jungle strip, members of the Temple opened fire, killing Congressman Ryan and four other people. The plane took off, leaving several wounded behind.
Remember: this was before cell phones, or the internet. News was significantly slower, especially from distant locations. When the plane landed, a party was sent back, but it took time. By the time Guyanese authorities reached Jonestown, over 900 people were dead, mostly suicides by poison. The first issue was to deal with the huge number of bodies in a tropical climate; understanding what happened and why -- or at least as much understanding as we're likely to get -- took months.
Moscone and Milk were shot on November 27, 1978. Nine days after Ryan was shot. That's why I don't remember their deaths very clearly. The media was completely dominated by the news from Jonestown, the unbelievable pictures of all those bodies, all those children, those vats of cyanide-laced koolaid, the sheer stunning surprise and horror of it.
And I'm sure that Jonestown dominated the talk at City Hall. They knew those people, they'd worked together on public issues. Did the sheer barbarity and scope of the deaths help trigger something in Dan White? Who knows? But Jonestown has to have been the main topic of conversation the last week of Harvey Milk's life. There's not a hint of it in the movie.
Do I think it should have been in the movie? I don't know. Would it have made the movie stronger, or weaker? I don't know. I think it would have made the movie truer to who Harvey Milk was, and I think therefore more powerful, but it would have weakened the primary "first openly gay politician" message. It was the filmmakers' choice. But at least I figured out why Moscone and Milk's deaths hadn't loomed as large in my personal history.
Coda: I think "1984" is one of the most powerful, and most important, books of the 20th century. The image of Big Brother Watching You is the message people usually take from the book, and god knows the technology for Big Brother has only gotten better and better. But I think the core idea is the manipulating of the thinking process of a group or an individual. Partly by the degradation of language -- IMHO a double plus bad. And partly by the rewriting of history to make us more comfortable. People have always done that, of course. But there seems less struggle against it today, and less attention paid.
I've told my husband I'd like this on my tombstone: "She still remembered when we weren't at war with Oceania."