25 February 2006

Running Dog Revisionist Lackeys Of The Psychotic Hippie Brigade

Ron Jacobs is one of those guys who showed up at the tail end of the hippie scene and, perhaps only vaguely aware that he had missed most of the crucial action, tried desperately to make up for lost time by re-doing every dumb thing the original hippies had done and then compounding the crime by writing articles and books arguing that his pale rehash of the 60s was somehow imaginative and "progressive."

Needless to say, drugs played a large role in skewing the vision of hippies-come-lately like Mr Jacobs; how else could someone squint their eyes sufficiently to look at Berkeley's drug-dealing and bum enclave and see "one of North America's few liberated zones, People's Park"? Yeah, sure, lots of people were peddling that rhetoric in 1969, yours truly included, but Jacobs was still sticking to that story in 2005.

Most of the time Jacobs's writing reads like a clunky prose version of R. Crumb's "The 40 Year-Old Hippie" comic, and as such can be mildly amusing, but it's harder to laugh when he jumps on his favourite hobbyhorse, the rehabilitation and near-canonisation of the psychotic hippie brigade known as the Weather Underground. Jacobs wrote a book glorifying the exploits of what by any measure today would be considered a straightforward terrorist organisation, and writes an approving review of Outlaws Of America, a new book published by AK Press, the punk-anarchist corporation that has been doing a land office business at turning chaos into cash.

As Jacobs points out, the author of Outlaws Of America wasn't even born when the Weathermen were running around blowing up buildings, people, and, in one particular stroke of good fortune, themselves. I refer of course to the (infamous at the time) Greenwich Village townhouse explosion where three Weather members levelled a building and lost their own lives while constructing an anti-personnel bomb to be used in a terrorist attack that might have killed dozens or even hundreds.

I spent a few days working with Diana Oughton, one of the three Weathermen killed in the townhouse, and like many who met her in the late 60s, thought she was incredibly beautiful and powerful. In fact, I'll admit having quite a crush on her at the time, and when I discovered she'd blown herself up, it hit me pretty hard. But as the years passed and the drugs wore off, I realised that it had been for the best. The Diana Oughton I'd met had been hard-edged but passionate, but the Diana Oughton making bombs had, like the organisation she was part of, gone psycho. Maybe she could have come back in from the underground like Bernardine Dohrn and Bill Ayers and, like them, got her rich parents to buy her way out of prison and back into a privileged upper-class lifestyle, but who cares? The Weather Underground played out just like mainstream society: the rich white kids got away with murder (as Ayers casually and callously brags at the end of his deeply dishonest memoir; the working class members ended up dead or in prison for a long, long time.

It's curious that apart from a few heavy metal fans and serial killers, no one has tried to rehabilitate or glorify the Manson family, yet there seems to be no end of authors and filmmakers willing to do the same for their political counterparts in the Weather Underground. There was nothing remotely "revolutionary" about the Weathermen. They were founded and led by spoiled, overprivileged children of the ruling class whose megalomaniacal tendencies were magnified to psychopathic proportions by the massive intake of psychedelic drugs. That's all. If they hadn't been rich kids, they would have ended up in institutions for the criminally insane instead of as poster children for a new generation of spoiled brats with similar fascist tendencies and a similarly petulant lust for power.

In his review, Jacobs cites a number of novels which feature approving takes on the Weather Underground. Not surprisingly, he doesn't mention Philip Roth's American Pastoral, which, while it doesn't reference the Weathermen by name, provides one of the most articulate and damning indictments of the bomb-throwing nuttiness that was the dark underside to the phony peace-and-love foofaraw of the 60s.

P.S. I'm guessing that young Berger took the title for his book from the Jefferson Airplane line, "We are all outlaws in the eyes of America." Not to disillusion him, but about the only "outlaw" thing the Airplane were doing at the time was zooming around in limos consuming massive amounts of cocaine. Technically illegal, yes, but not exactly the best foundation for a revolution. But on the other hand, for those who take this "let's relive the 60s" thing seriously, perhaps hard drugs are the best solution. Better that than another round of mad bombers.


Nick G. said...

the interesting this about the whole weathermen thing to me is that my english teacher is Rick Ayers (brother to bill ayers). He has such a huge connection with the whole weather underground (briefly being a part of it himself), yet he never tries to glorify it, and i really appreciate that. in all of the years that i have known him, he has never even tried to bring it up unless someone asked about it. and when he talks about it, he does in a very matter of fact, this is what happened, it was a long time ago, and im not that person anymore kind of way.
the whole situation just fasinates me, and while it makes me sad that he hasent gone into anymore detail about the movement, i just want to say again that i appreciate that fact that he never tries to glorify it in any way.

about JA, while i agree that they never did anything too outlawish, they were very outspoken politically against the government in a time of war, which could be considered treason, or sedition, because as we know, the government has the ability to take away any privileges (like the freedom of speech) if they feel it represents a clear and present danger to the united states. (this tends to be especially true in times of war)

Dr. Frank said...

Great post, Larry. I hadn't heard much about Ron Jacobs till now, but I have read his dreadful, semi-literate, cranky book on the Weather Underground.

As for the AK Press book, there's comedy whenever left activists attempt to ressurrect the "ideas" of these characters, so I'm definitely going to read it.

I love this bit:

*At times, his words may seem too uncritical, but as another historian who was accused of the same thing, it is my belief that most of those who make this criticism are either fundamentally opposed to WUO's politics and analysis or are still stuck in a past that most Weather members have apologized for over and over.*

Come on, Todd, it's not like they haven't said they were sorry! (I'm assuming he's talking about Todd Gitlin in that last part.)

Actually, Ayers hasn't. Quite the contrary.

Patrick said...

I took what was supposed to be a 'scary' walking tour of the Village on Halloween 2004. It mainly ended up being a tour of places where famous murders occurred or murderers lived (or, as in one case, where Buddy Holly lived since he is a famous dead person).

The guide pointed out the brownstone where the Weather Underground blew themselves up.

What was interesting was that (according to the guide anyway) the building sat vacant for a long time. Somewhat recently, a couple bought it and wanted to rebuild it. They decided to pay tribute to what had occurred there by having the front of the building jut out at an odd angle, meant to represent the explosion. They also keep a Paddington Bear in the window and dress him for whatever the weather is that day.

Larry Livermore said...

Frank: Interestingly enough (or perhaps not), Todd Gitlin was one of my professors when I was a student at Berkeley. He was teaching a course called "The Sociology of Culture," whatever that was, and I had a few chats with him about "the 60s." I still don't claim to know much about "the sociology of culture," but I learned a great deal about what the British refer to as "weasel words." When it came to assigning or accepting responsibility for the psycho branch of "the Movement," Gitlin was an absolute master of saying nothing at great and portentous length.


One of us may have been misinformed. A friend of mine lives on that block, and showed me where the townhouse had been. According to her, it's the only modern building on the block, because it's a historical district, and nothing can be torn down or substantially altered (unless your local mad bomber brigade are helpful enough to level it for you). So my impression is that what was left of the building was torn down completely and replaced by a not particularly attractive modern building. As I say, one of us may be misinformed...

Dr. Frank said...

Interesting, Larry. I know what you mean about the "weasel words." Still, he has adopted the anti-WU stance, and he talks sense on that topic these days.

Though I imagine part of the motivation is to salvage the reputation of The Movement of which he was a part and on which he based his academic career. When you disavow the Devil, you can sometimes get away with consorting with a few minor demons. The SLA is sometimes used in a similar way to hint at a silver lining in the WU, e.g., the SLA made even less sense than the WU (the implication being that the WU made at least some sense.)

Patrick said...

Larry, I think we've both got parts of the story. It is possible to get exceptions made in historic districts, so (now that you've reminded me) I believe they sought to put up a newer, bigger building, but could only get permission from the neighbors and the Landmarks Preservation Commission by building it in that way to reflect the building's past.

I interned at a Historic Preservation group for close to a year and exceptions drove them crazy.