Shock, Horror, Film At 11: The Wall Street Journal Doesn't "Get" '60s & '70s Radicalism
Reading this book reminds me of a comment in 1971, a documentary recently aired on PBS about the Citizens' Commission to Investigate the FBI -- a group of activists whose break-in of the agency's satellite office in Media, PA, unmasked the agency's COINTELPRO program...and its snooping into millions of Americans' lives, to an unprecedented degree: in short, more or less like today's climate (just substitute the names of Edward Snowden, and the National Security Agency). Anyway, one of the former activist burglars makes a telling point by saying that, in many ways, he feels that America has never gotten over 1968.
The Wall Street Journal's review of Days Of Rage makes me feel the same way. Reviewer Peter Hellman co-authored Chief! with the late Albert Seedman, the New York Police Department's own Chief of Detectives, who spent a fair amount of quality time pursuing the era's radical bogeys -- including the Black Liberation Army, the FALN, and the Weather Underground, who get much of the ink here.
It's always fun to read what establishment voices think, and Hellman's review is no exception. Consider how Hellman characterizes the book's more significant scenes -- such as the November 4, 1984 capture of Ray Lavasseur, ending the bank robberies and bombings of his own United Freedom Front (whose fugitive partners also raised children on the run -- ponder the implications of that one for a moment). As Hellman writes, "Two days later, the United States reelected Ronald Reagan in a landslide. So much for Lavessur's dream of fomenting popular revolution."
To which I would humbly retort, "Um, not so fast, grasshopper." While a massive effort to overthrow the U.S. government didn't materialize, it's a stretch to imply that the Gipper's re-election invalidated concerns about America's social ills, which seem more noxious than ever (unprecedented levels of social equality, jobless recoveries, massive expansion of state and federal power at citizens' expense -- need I say more, or go on?). At that time, barely half the U.S. population voted -- so, when considered in that light, Mr. Reagan's so-called "mandate" looks far less impressive.
Hellman also misses the mark with this observation: "Arriving on the 50th anniversary of Selma, this book provides a rare chance to appreciate the true radicalness of Martin Luther King's non-violence, a strategy for creating social change that was scorned by the radical underground." His review glosses over the reason why groups like the Black Panthers and the Black Liberation Army ridiculed the idea -- because the feds didn't respond with love and kisses to anyone seeking to stop the Vietnam War, or halt any of their crazier schemes (as even a casual listen to Nixon's many infamous White House recordings will quickly attest).
Similar responses occurred around the world, especially in Germany, where the Baader-Meinhof Gang/Red Army Faction rose in response to the federal police's excesses -- such as the June 1967 shooting of Benno Ohnesorg, a student demonstrator whose wife was pregnant with their first child. New research by federal prosecutors and Der Spiegel shows that a) police didn't shoot in self-defense, as claimed; b) the medical examiner was ordered to falsify the post-morterm report; and c) subsequent investigations covered up key points that implicated the responsible parties. Naturally, none of these facts will prove sufficient to hold any of them accountable.
While these facts weren't common knowledge among the German New Left of '67-'68, sufficient grounds existed to suspect them. The presence of numerous ex-Nazis in lower- or mid-level government positions and unrelenting hostility from a conservative media establishment also did nothing, one suspects, to dissuade radicals from believing that peaceful dialogue was possible...or desirable. Ulrike Meinof presumably had this climate in mind for her spring 1969 article, "Columnism," which offers a cogent critique of the mass media space that she herself occupied as a noted journalist: "My criticism is aimed at the way publishers internalise the conditions of the market, and at the way editors internalise the publishers' focus on profits. We are not looking for saints. We simply want an oppositional stance. We do not want our subjugation to market demands to be presented as free journalism, or the art of meeting deadlines to be confused with the of presenting people with the truth. We do not want editorial democracy to grind like sand in the gears, and we want the columnists' freedom to be recognised for what it is: a prestige and profit factor, a fraud for the readers, a self-deception, a personality cult."
Whatever you think of Meinhof's subsequent murderous odyssey, the article offers a glimpse into her thinking -- which, by now, rejected the idea of working within the system, or trying to influence it in a non-militant way:
"It is opportunistic to claim to be struggling against the conditions that one is actually reproducing. It is opportunistic to use the methods that stabilise a system and claim to be seeking change. It is opportunitistc to clamp down on editorial freedoms and the extra-parliamentary opposition and cave in to the market, i.e., to profits. It is opportunistic to limit the anti-authoritarian position to the authoritarian form of the column."
Of course, the radical leftists made numerous mistakes. The biggest came in assuming that Maoist- or Stalinist-style Communism could simply be transplanted, root and branch, into consumer societies that had not experienced traditions of revolutionary violence (except Germany, perhaps). Also, it's hard to think of a successful radical group that didn't have a political wing -- as exemplified by the African National Congress, or the Irish Republican Army.
At least Hellman acknowledges that the government committed plenty of excesses in pursuing these small radical groups, though it's curious that he doesn't see fit to question the John Wayne Complex that often grips law enforcement. A good example is the so-called 1974 siege that led to the Symbionese Liberation Army's demise. It's curious that police never entertained the idea of simply blockading Donald DeFreeze and his would-be revolutionaries until their food, water and ammo stocks ran out...then again, it probably didn't sound as attractive as the full-scale operation to kick weirdo butt on live TV.
Naturally, Hellman does dwell at length on the middle- or upper-class backgrounds that characterized radical poster children like Bernadine Dohrn -- but, far from discrediting their ideology, it only makes the whole story more poignant. If people from monied backgrounds doesn't think they have options, what does that mean for the rest of us? The answers aren't pleasant to contemplate.
Finally, Hellman also ignores one other point: if the nation's radical business really is a finished affair, done and dusted, why do so many conservatives and ultra-right-wingers continue running so hard against it? Think back to the 2008 election, when Obama's Democratic and Republican opponents tried to tar him with the Weather Underground brush. If those ghosts really are dormant, why do commentators like Pat Buchanan continue to resurrect them, when the need arises?
Read Hellman's review and draw your own conclusions -- though, per usual, it seems like a missed opportunity for the substantive discussion that the subject deserves. Perhaps he missed the implied memo of JFK's famous 1962 quote: "Those who make peaceful revolution impossible make violent revolution inevitable." Then again...what else can we expect from the Paper Of The One Percent? --The Reckoner