If All Parents Are Bad Parents, What Can We Children Learn from the Children of the Revolution - Believer Magazine
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If All Parents Are Bad Parents, What Can We Children Learn from the Children of the Revolution

FOUR WRITERS’ REIMAGININGS OF THE WEATHER UNDERGROUND OFFER LESSONS FOR THE CONTEMPORARY DISCONTENTED.
DISCUSSED
The Weather Underground, The Symbionese Liberation Army, The Black Liberation Army, SDS, The Port Huron Statement, Family Circle, The Slog to Make Things Better, Stink Bombs, The Company You Keep, Dr. Spock, The Darling, American Woman, An Inverse-Domino Effect
by Gregory Gipson
Illustration by Tony Millionaire

If All Parents Are Bad Parents, What Can We Children Learn from the Children of the Revolution

Gregory Gipson
18 Snaps

Joan Didion, in a 1992 essay entitled “Eyes on the Prize,” quotes political scientist Walter Dean Burnham as she de­scribes the shift in Democratic Party campaign strategies during the Clinton years: “The Republicans,” Burnham says, “are perfectly happy to declare class struggle all the time. They are always waging a one-sided class war against the constituency the Democrats nominally represent. In this sense, the Republicans are the only real political party in the United States. They stand for ideology and interest, not compromise.”

It was not always so. Thirty-five years ago this month—on March 6, 1970—a group from the furthest left point on the political spectrum, a group that was also violently against compromise and vividly ideological, accidentally blew up the New York City townhouse in which some of its members were building a bomb. The bomb contained nails, and was intended for detonation at an ROTC event. It was built to kill people, and it did: three people died, gruesomely. The blast destroyed the house on West Eleventh Street and sent the surviving ­plotters scuttling for safety. Not to be deterred, this small cadre of fanatics and demagogues, known as Weatherman, retained big plans for the Amerika it despised.1 “The goal,” they de­clared, “is the destruction of US imperialism and the achievement of a classless world…. For socialism to be defined in national terms within so extreme and historical an oppressor nation as this is only imperialist national chauvinism on the part of the ‘movement.’” After the West Eleventh Street mishap, the Weatherman became the Weather Underground, a covert organization that spawned countless other would-be revolutionary cadres—the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA), the Black Liberation Army, the May 19 Communist Organization—each of which engaged in ­bombings, kidnappings, and other violent activities, then vanished from the nostalgic—that is, mainstream—narrative of the free-love sixties.

Recently, these underground revolutionaries have been making a comeback. In 2003, three books (two novels and a work of non­fiction) starred members of these infamous groups. Neil Gordon’s The Company You Keep and Susan Choi’s American Woman (nominated for the Pulitzer Prize), both novels, imagine the activities and aftermaths of, respectively, the Weather Underground and the SLA (famous for kidnapping and converting media-mogul heiress Patricia Hearst in 1974). Susan Braudy’s exhaustively researched Family ­Circle: The Boudins and the Aristocracy of the Left examined the familial roots of the increasingly wayward activism practiced by her college classmate Kathy Boudin—a West Eleventh Street escapee, a domestic terrorist, and, eventually, a convicted murderer. Also in 2003, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences nominated The Weather Underground, directed by Sam Green and Bill Siegel, for an Oscar in the Best Documentary category. (The award was given to Errol Morris’s The Fog of War, about the Vietnam War and its still-living architect, Robert McNamara.) Yet more books appeared in 2004: Jeremy Varon’s Bringing the War Home, his ac­ademic history of the Weather Underground and the German Red Army Faction; Thai Jones’s memoir, A Radical Line, about his Weather­parents and underground up­bringing; and Russell Banks’s The Darling, a novel about another survivor of Weather. In November of 2004, Robert Stone released his documentary Guerrilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst. Supposedly Chesa Boudin, son of Kathy, is at work on a ­memoir as well. His adoptive father, Bill Ayers, fond of the phrase “guilty as hell, free as a bird. Love this country,” published his memoir, Fugitive Days, in 2001. And David Gilbert, Chesa’s biological father, recently published No Surrender: Writings From an Anti-Imperialist Political Prisoner, a collection of his writings from prison.

To speak of a comeback, though, is perhaps to overstate the case. Based on brief interviews conducted with a randomly se­lected pool of friends and acquaintances, I discovered that people my age or so (mid-twenties and youn­ger) do not tend to know much—if anything—about the Weather Underground, the SLA and BLA, COINTELPRO, and less often, My Lai and the Pentagon Papers. To a great many people who did not live through the pe­riod of “protest and upheaval”—which encompassed not only the sixties but a majority of the following decade and even a smidgen of the Reagan coma in which so many of us grew up—the fact that a few hundred people thought they could destroy the U.S. government through force of will and arms is not just laughable but poignantly futile. (We remember watching the FBI gun down ostensibly right-wing separatists at Ruby Ridge.) The Weather Underground and the FBI’s highly illegal and prosecution-destroying program of coun­ter­intelligence infiltration (CO­INTELPRO) are simply two more lacunae in our image of the recent past. So why have these ra­dicals come back to haunt us, why now? It might have something to do with the current anxiety about terrorist attack, or it might be that we’re finally ready to heal over the Vietnam era’s scars, particularly since we’re cutting new ones. ­Perhaps we, the most famously apathetic generation in America’s none-too-participatory past, simply feel the charismatic pull of anyone desperate to be righteous.

Coincidentally or not, the new perspectives of radical violence in America that Choi, Gordon, and Banks open up novelistically, and Braudy and The Weather Underground do regretfully, are synergistic avenues to understanding not just the historic chaos of what is now a muzzy collective past, but a strange present in which, once again, surveillance is for the common good and the lines in the (oil-rich) sand are very deep and dark indeed. In such a climate, what Weatherman or the SLA stood for may be less important than how they appear in retrospect, and Choi, Braudy, Banks, and Gordon are surprisingly unanimous in their nuanced assessments. What were they, then, Weatherman, SLA, May 19 Communist Organization? Terrorists. Freedom-fighters. Idiots. These same, tired labels as usual hide the facts inside a narrative. Before anything else, then, the facts.

*

Weatherman emerged in 1969 from the self-ignited pyre of SDS, Students for a Democratic Society, whose history is long and inter­esting but not germane. Suffice it to say that, beginning in 1962 with a then-famous manifesto known as the Port Huron Statement (written mostly by Tom Hayden, future state representative of California), SDS articulated the basic values which the so-called New Left would attempt to implement for the next eight or so years. Decidedly middle-class and white, the rhet­orical pitch of the document re­mains strikingly heartfelt and well-intentioned. While disavowing Marx­ism or Communism as its sole critical point of origin, neither was the Port Huron Statement shy about disdaining the Cold War’s danger-fraught paranoid stand-off (and this before the Cuban Missile Crisis). “We regard men as infin­itely precious and possessed of unfulfilled capacities for reason, freedom, and love,” this group of mostly men declared, and “seek the establishment of a democracy of individual participation, governed by two central aims: that the individual share in those social decisions determining the quality and direction of his life; that so­ciety be organized to encourage independence in men and provide the media for their common partici­pation.” SDS earnestly meant to create a society in which every voice could be heard, and every person be a member. (And, I think, meant “media” to scan as “means,” though I remain not entirely sure.) It spent the rest of the decade slamming its metaphorical head against the very real brick wall of forces arrayed against such a society.

In addition to its involvement with every phase of the civil-rights movement (until the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee expelled whites from its mem­bership), SDS established a network of community volunteers in inner cities throughout the United States. A few young people would enter a community and ­be­gin organizing its members for better access to welfare aid, schools, safe streets, and anything else seen as steps toward creating an equal society. Kathy Boudin spent some time in Cleveland from 1965 to 1966, accompanying unemployed white women to welfare offices and helping them navigate the complicated and deliberately un­helpful bureaucracy. Diana Oughton (one of the three ­Weather casualties in the townhouse blast), Bill Ayers, and Bernardine Dohrn, all future Weather leaders, passed similar internships with SDS.

Sometime in the middle of the decade, though, the effort began to putrefy. Between the unresponsive Kennedy administration and the escalating and inexplicable war in Vietnam that was, furthermore, accompanied by gruesome tele­vision and print coverage (America had never seen a man set himself on fire before, much less a bullet delivered straight to the brain), the nice middle-class kids started to lose faith in their good-natured slog to make things better. Their politics skewed harder to the left, their ideologies became more hard-line, and liberals—the Kennedy-­Johnson Democrats—became their worst enemies. The original SDS manifestos, which stressed the in­terconnectedness of the nation’s troubles and incompletely de­livered government promises, now viewed the Vietnam War as a manifestation not just of American imperialism but of the racist pro­ject which imperialism necessarily creates (according to the analysis). Varon points out that the constant references to imperialism allowed the future Weathermen (and -women) to see themselves as a new vanguard for revolution, since the proletariat, traditional seedbed of Marxist theory, was too an­esthetized by consumption and material comfort to react. After 1968’s Democratic National Convention violence (Kathy Boudin and her compatriots dropped stink bombs in the delegates’ hotel), and 1969’s Days of Rage efforts to “bring the war home,” this soon-to-turn-terrorist SDS faction (al­ready known as Weatherman) won control of the larger organization in a contentious vote, which at least one ex-member has since admitted to stealing. Every faction was committed to a different revolutionary project. SDS dissolved quickly, leaving the newly minted Weatherman (though the leadership was hardly exclusive by gender) in control of the SDS national office, some printing presses, and a bit of cash. Shortly thereafter the West Eleventh Street bomb went off and the revolutionary romance began.

“Violence against the state is not supposed to happen,” Varon tells us by way of introduction to his book, “…not, certainly, at the hands of well-educated youths of the middle or upper classes who have seemingly everything to lose and little to gain from attacking societies that have endowed them with great privilege and promise.” Yet violence against the state did happen; bombs went off in police stations, the Pentagon, the U.S. Capitol Building, a Wisconsin mathematics laboratory (subject of an entire Simpsons episode), and elsewhere. “I was twelve in 1970,” Gordon told me, “so I’m just old enough to remember the romance of the Weather Underground—you know, there’s an enormous ro­mance associated with them.” Si­milarly, Braudy recalls that Kathy Boudin first struck her as an “extremely charismatic person,” someone in whose fate she re­mained perennially interested. “I cried,” she writes, “as I read in the morning paper about Kathy fleeing naked from an exploding townhouse in Greenwich Village.” In the early days of the Weather Underground, the bombers, while not exactly heroes, achieved revolutionary credibility and counter­cultural chic; many of the New Left sympathized with their aims, if not their methods.

Within a few years, however, this sympathy would diminish, but the goodwill—or fascination—survived long enough to make the ever-prescient Joan Didion’s novel A Book of Common Prayer a sensation in 1977. Her novel was in­spired by Didion’s meeting of Kathy Boudin’s mother, and narrates the slow decline of a woman whose daughter has disappeared underground after participating in radical violence. The novel’s revolutionary, Marin (named after Kathy Boudin’s downstairs neighbor, according to Braudy), appears only rarely in the book, and her revolutionary guise is absent. Philip Roth’s American Pastoral, published in 1997, similarly declines to inhabit its revolutionary daughter, who bears a certain resemblance to Kathy Boudin; Roth is concerned with the effect Meredith Levov’s bomb-planting has on her father and mother, not on how she came to that work herself. Most of the novel, in fact, revolves around her agonized father’s efforts to grasp just what went wrong: “Hate Am­erica? Why, he lived in America the way he lived inside his own skin…. Yes, everything that gave meaning to his accomplishments had been American. Everything he loved was here.” For Roth’s Swede Levov, a man who bends over backwards to oppose the Vietnam War in a li­beral, participatory way, who adores his daughter and longs to regain her affection, nothing can be salvaged from her past to explain her present. In The Company You Keep, American Woman, and The Darling, however, Gordon and Choi and Banks each investigate the personal consequences of the political ac­tions their characters have taken themselves. Braudy’s Family Circle provides a historical account of a living radical who went from organizing welfare mothers to planting bombs to robbing banks. These four books, in other words, deliver the historical lecture course “Radical Leftism in America, 1969–1983” from the perspective of the ones who broke themselves on the wheel of the cause, the ones who used violence as a way to bend history into their notion of a peaceful shape.

*

Robert Stone, discussing his film Guerrilla in the Brooklyn Rail, explains that “the film is really about the relationship of mass media and terrorism and seeing the birth of the media becoming an extension of the entertainment industry.” Spectacle was in many ways at the heart of the revolutionary movements of the 1970s: Varon points out the Weather Underground’s reliance upon Régis Debray’s theory of “exemplary violence [which] did not have to produce tactical victories to be successful.” In the in­terests of spectacle, Weather freed counterculture guru Ti­mothy Leary from prison and placed a solidarity bomb in the front yard of a Brooklyn judge who was trying a Black Panther. After their own casualties, however, the Weather Underground pointedly took great pains to avoid the taking of human life. (So far as I can ascertain, no one has ever proved that they failed.) By contrast, the SLA’s debut was the assassination of ­Marcus Foster, a black man and superintendent of Oakland’s schools (he supported an ID card for students as a safety measure for a rough-and-tumble school district). Its kidnapping and conversion of media-mogul heiress Pa­tricia Hearst proved the ultimate meld of spectacle, irony, and tragedy (the deaths that resulted were mostly SLA’s own). As Jon­athan Lerner, an aboveground Weather liaison, commented in a 2002 Washington Post Magazine article, “the actions I liked best involved image and media, and in those days were called guerrilla theater.” Spectacle is not, however, much in evidence in The Company You Keep, American Woman, or The Darling. Absent, also, is the sometimes painful, often simply embarrassing arrogance that shines through in writing by former Weather members. If the language of revolution sounds dated to our jaded ears, more appalling must be Lerner’s belief that because “we gloried in our violence… we helped to create the atmosphere in which, to some inhabitants of the planet, terrorism now seems like right action.” Banks, Gordon, and Choi do not indulge such self-aggrandizing; their characters are haunted by their revolutionary pasts, and are no longer able to care exclusively about “where they stand in relation to the United States as an oppressor nation, and where they stand in relation to the masses of people throughout the world whom US imperialism is oppressing,” as the first Weather Bulletin put it. Gordon’s Jason Sinai is one of a slew of characters who are living in fear, and inter­ested, in one way or another, in putting their pasts away and catching up to the present. Susan Choi’s Jenny Shimada wonders frequently how to explain to herself her past bombings and present complicity, even as she realizes “that her most carefully rational acts had been shot through with rage.” Hannah Musgrave, the narrator of The Darling, is most bitter of all. “Just another fantasy of self-sanctification,” she says, early on. “It was futile then, and probably futile now, all of it.”

Retrospection is the dominant mood of all of these novels; The Company You Keep is narrated en­tirely from afar by a succession of characters whose nostalgias are not unanimous. The novel opens with Jason Sinai’s June, 2006, email to his daughter, Isabel, as he begins to try to explain to her why he abandoned her in a New York City hotel room in June, 1996, at the age of seven, to flee a nationwide manhunt. The explanation consumes the rest of the book, as a variety of supporting cast members—the re­porter who unmasked James Grant as Jason Sinai, radical fugitive; the adopted daughter of the FBI agent who surveilled Sinai in Ann Arbor in the sixties; and a fellow fugitive who now runs marijuana up the Baja coast to California—recount their intersections with the story, and collectively ask a rather large favor from Isabel. If the structure of the book is thriller-ready, though, the thematic weight refuses to lighten into mere entertainment. Be­sides the opportunity Gordon gives himself—and bravely takes—to refract the Vietnam era’s political and moral conundrums through a wide range of ideological biases, the book curls around a stone of almost desperate melancholy. No one re­members happily the circumstances that brought them together; no one makes more than a de­sultory attempt to justify him- or herself. Though all pay lip service to their past ideals, no one sounds any less than mightily weary of re­tracing his or her rhetorical steps. Several different characters iterate the point that Benjamin Schulberg, the aforementioned reporter, articulates early on: “Nine times out of ten, the reason Americans went to Vietnam is because of the company they kept,” and not due to a particular ideological commitment. Lerner, of all people, bears this point out when he recalls that “the glue that bound groups together was not so much ideology as a collective identity based on feeling different—superior, that is—continually reinforced by our state of escalating battle.” For Jason Sinai, the sorrow is rolled into his first words to Isabel: “All parents are bad parents.” Sinai threw aside his entire past for his daughter, and the most radiant passages in the novel concern his love for her, and his sense of moral failure as a parent.

The agony over parenting lends a note of tragedy to the proceedings, as if people who expended so much energy against their parents and their parents’ mores have dug the same grave, yet this tragedy is continually undercut by the very obvious, even obsessive devotion of Sinai, his Republican lover, and most every parental figure introduced in the plot. The plot, in fact, hinges upon an act of colossal sacrifice for the good of a child, and pays homage to Gordon’s impression that “all of the people I met from Weather were very, very good parents.” Braudy concurred in conversation; she feels that at least some Weatherparents have concluded that “the way [to change the world] is through children.” That conclusion is especially poignant when you consider that Braudy’s book is written primarily out of her belief that Kathy Boudin’s father, famed leftist attorney  Leonard Boudin (Dr. Spock, accused of helping young men violate draft laws, was just one of his high-profile clients), and his intense personality, led her to spend her life competing via her politics for his affections and approval. Braudy makes much of Leonard Boudin’s love affairs (sometimes with Kathy’s friends), his legal victories, and his pride in his son Michael’s achievements as a (very conservative) lawyer and later judge. This at-times-reductive tack may not ex­plain everything, but it certainly makes a plausible case. Todd Gitlin, former head of SDS and social historian, recalls in his massive survey of the era, The Sixties, that many of the members of SDS, even in the era of American nuclear bliss, were children of divorce or unstable homes.

Russell Banks’s Hannah Musgrave, however, is the daughter of a Dr. Spock–like pediatrician and author, who, like the real Spock, was a vigorous and public—but never illiberal—opponent of the Vietnam War. Hannah does not feel any parental warmth from him: “Because all the world’s children were his, none was…. I felt less his child than his test case,” and thus her sense of family is twisted by distance. “One’s awareness of guilt,” Hannah explains, “was a barometer of one’s virtue,” and this puritan leftover guides her even in The Darling’s present, when Hannah has returned to Liberia, where she ended up escaping the underground and marrying a government minister. Much of the action of the novel consists of Hannah’s return to Africa to locate the fates of her children, who had joined the battles of civil war when she left a decade ago. Her quest is mysterious to her and to the reader because she admits to being a cold mother, and shows herself to be the same in her descriptions and recollections of her family. Much more important to her are the chimpanzees she cared for and was forced to abandon when she left. She prefers to call her chimpanzees “dreamers,” as if to suggest that she’s more loyal to ­mental confections (ideological, fantastical, impossible) than to people. Invariably, however, she depicts her comrades in Weather and in the revolution as arrogant and egoistic, failures as radicals and as people, with no loyalty to the true dream of freedom for all. The acerbic death of her faith suffuses the book like some particularly pungent incense, coloring everything in acrid tones of self-loathing and self-delusion.

American Woman, though more focused on Jenny Shimada’s psychic recovery than on the casualties she left behind, also draws on the theme of familial attachment. Wendy Yoshimura, the real-life counter­part to Choi’s Jenny Shimada, was born in the Manzanar internment camp for Japanese Americans in World War II. Likewise, Jenny grows more and more obsessed with unwinding the origins of her own radical politics from her father’s sense of betrayal by the United States. As Jenny grows progressively uneasy helping a bedraggled cadre of revolu­tionaries (modeled on the tatters of the SLA) and their Patty Hearst–like captive-turned-convert, Pauline, she turns inward to reassess her past. “Concerns she would have shrugged off as recently as one year before, like the peace of mind of her father, and her own future relationship to him, were gaining legitimacy.” When, eventually, her legal defense is provided by funds donated from within the Asian-­American community (just as in Yoshimura’s case), a community to which she feels none but the imposed ties of ethnicity, she is left chagrined and even guilty. In the end, her willful political estrangement from her past leaves her wiser only to the value of the same.

Of all of these books, Choi’s is the most pleasurable for the quality of its prose and introspection. She thus has time to mull over some of the most glaring holes in the “political analysis” of groups like the SLA, and the ways in which these “revolutionaries” were still middle-class white people at heart.2 At one point, “Juan,” the leader of the group, tells Jenny that as a member of a nonwhite race she is intrinsically a more credible revolutionary than he, a charge she finds she cannot refute because she can’t operate logically within the narrowness of his political language. Kathy Boudin and her former Weather comrades followed a similar assumption when they dedicated themselves to helping the Black Liberation Army as support staff only, because their race barred them from direct apprehension of the African-American experience. Even “You Don’t Need a Weatherman to Know Which Way the Wind Blows,” the first Weather policy statement, had declared that black militancy was a separate and necessary component of international revolution:

It is necessary to defeat both racist tendencies: (1) that blacks shouldn’t go ahead with making the revolution, and (2) that blacks should go ahead alone with making it. The only third path is to build a white movement which will support the blacks in moving as fast as they have to and are able to, and still itself keep up with that black movement en­ough so that white revolution­aries share the cost and the blacks don’t have to do the whole thing alone. Any white who does not follow this third is objectively following one of the other two (or both) and is objectively a racist.

Stylists the revolutionaries were not, and neither does their dia­lectical “objectivity” wear well ab­sent the physical charisma evident in photographs of, say, Bernardine Dohrn or Kathy Boudin. Yet ex­actly by exploring the inner world of would-be revolutionary spec­tacles do Banks, Choi, Gordon, and Braudy return a sense of moral agency to the actions of the ­Weather Underground, the SLA, the May 19 Communist Organization, and so very many others. None fails to condemn the tactics and activities in which these groups engaged, and Family Circle is ­harshly critical, from the beginning, of Kathy Boudin and her associates’ ethical and philosophical contortions—as well it should be. Nonetheless, these books—three fictions based in reality, and a his­tory of political fictions—press the point that the ­people who went underground and hurled bombs, the ones who thought they were beginning an apocalypse of a revolution, were in­dividual humans who were and re­main responsible for their own be­havior. They were not faceless killers, nor were they merely bear­ded, dope-smoking stereotypes. They were, at last, children of the middle class grown older—if not quite up—who have become malignant to the culture which spawned them.

So careful are the books to establish context and character that you would be tempted to think—I was—that not only Gordon’s and Braudy’s, but Choi’s and Banks’s books as well were written in direct response to the fallout of Sep­tember 11, as a means of rethinking the boundaries between “terrorist” and “freedom-fighter.” Interestingly, you would be wrong. Braudy worked on Family Circle in one way or another for about ten years, and Gordon and Choi both started their books in the late 1990s. Stone began collecting in­terviews in 2000, but recounted in a Village Voice interview last fall that on September 11 he was near the World Trade Center. “So here I was, not only in the middle of a terrorist attack, but also in the ­middle of this media feeding ­frenzy. I think I went even further examining the role of the media in the SLA’s story because of that.” Neither Gordon nor Choi recalls difficulty (or sudden ease) in selling their books due to their subject ­matter, though both were privately a bit worried. Braudy recalls that when she showed her manuscript to her sister, she commented, “You make [Kathy Boudin] sound awful!” but that after September 11 her editor at Knopf called and agreed: “Well, she’s a terrorist.” Now, of course, the question of dissent and its appropriate limits in the face of a government gone awry are startlingly relevant in a way that few wished to foresee in the wake of September 11, not to mention after the Clinton-ap­proved anti-terror bill of 1996.

By the time in which American Woman is set—the mid-1970s—most of the revolution was petering out. The Vietnam War, which had created the Weather Underground, was ending (at which point ­Weather would officially disband), and despite Nixon’s well-earned humiliation, the American public was not rising up in arms against its imperialist leadership. Groups like the SLA robbed banks, ostensibly to raise money for the revolution; later in the decade Tupac Shakur’s parents and their associates would, with Kathy Boudin, Judith Clark, David Gilbert, do the same—though eventually much of the money would go toward cocaine rather than the revolution. Though, while reading about the period from a thirty-year remove, one might be tempted to envision guerrilla armies in every backyard in Berkeley, this seemingly widespread revolution never came. The New Left burned out, leaving a frazzled and disorganized centrism in its place, a Left whose greatest post-Vietnam leader, Bill Clinton, was the most adept at heisting Republican causes, like welfare “reform” and NAFTA. Even so, his presidency can seem downright radical today, with COINTELPRO II in full swing and environmental-protection legislation a gutted ruin. Choi herself recalls her college days in the Reagan era, when “there was something tattered” about participating in demonstrations, and “I never had the sense that the young Republicans thought that way at all, because [the political climate] was what they wanted… [and] they wanted things that to me were so unwantable.” For her, the idea of left-wing political engagement was barely plausible in the first flowering of America’s ongoing rightward drift.

Now, with a Vietnam veteran who protested the war having lost to a war president who dodged military service, it seems that the Vietnam War and the social violence it wrought in America have come full circle: this time it is a Republican president pursuing a policy of containment, an “inverse-domino effect,” and an elaborate suspension of civil liberties in the name of protecting the country. (Johnson began what Nixon drastically expanded.) The situation is by no means identical, and the terrorists are not so familiar or do­mestic. Nonetheless, when the civilian attorney who defended the accused in the My Lai case is defending the soldiers accused of torturing and humiliating Iraqi prisoners, and a vice president who received five (!) draft deferments in the years between 1963 1967 publicly lectures a decorated presidential candidate for protesting a war he had experienced directly, no one can fail to see that Vietnam and its era haunt us still, coloring our behavior in a new war just as tenuously justified. I don’t expect to see libertarian cadres detonating ex­plosives in government buildings—again—or anarchist assassinations in the name of antiglobalization as a direct result of the war on terror, but something is bubbling up like crude in an Iraqi derrick. The sold-out shows of The Battle of Algiers [Dir. Gillo Pontecorvo, 1965] at New York’s Film Forum, the appalled awe which reviewers lavished on The Fog of War, and the surprise locomotive force of Howard Dean’s aborted candidacy all point to a hunger amongst those not too cynical to vote for a politics of engagement, an opposition party with some clarity and moral force, and a chance to avoid being shown once again just how badly we have been behaving in the world. And if, as Susan Choi writes of Jenny Shi­mada, “she’d longed to be morally perfect… [and that] was either self-denying, or vain, or perhaps it was both,” we can look about and see no shortage of equally deluded ideo­logues claiming the same ­clarity—from George W. Bush to Osama bin Laden to Bill O’Reilly to Ralph Nader—to remind us of the risks.

1. Initially known as “Weatherman,” the organization was later called, variously, the Weatherman Underground, Weather Underground, or just Weather. In addition, its members often punned on the name, so that the central leadership was sometimes known as the Weather Bureau, and communiqués as Weather Bulletins. I’ve preserved some of this confusion and punning deliberately throughout.
2. A term which Weather’s analysis explicitly refuted, by the way, on the grounds that it implied a softening of class lines into one, all encompassing group which could not be radicalized. Which, come to think of it, might be true.
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