The New Left and Me, Part 3
Previously, on The New Left and Me: I posted about the Baader-Meinhof gang and the strange impact of 60s “radical chic” on my own Bay Area upbringing (part 1); and essays on a couple of documentary films, one on the Weather Underground and the other on the Symbionese Liberation Army (part 2.) This is a subject I’ve thought a lot about over the years, and written about here and there, including on my old blog. And as one of the objectives of this Medium account is to preserve some of this writing in anticipation of the day when the old blog finally crumbles to dust and blows away, here’s another “chapter,” in which I review Bill Ayer’s memoir Fugitive Days and Jeremy Varon’s Bringing the War Home. Both were written in late 2004.
I just finished reading Bill Ayers’s memoir, Fugitive Days. It’s a puzzling book. The first 2/3 tells a straightforward and more or less typical story of the “making” of a 60s radical consciousness (all-American privileged childhood; stint at an oppressive prep school; a subsequent struggle to fashion the Catcher in the Rye escape into a more or less permanent lifestyle loop; institutionalized adolescence; white guilt; Vietnam angst; free love with a variegated crew of “movement women”; disaffection from American society expressed through a naive and sentimental reflexive identification with America’s enemies.) Yet the treatment of the alleged subject of the book (i.e., the fugitive days) is frustratingly cursory. If you’re looking for insight into the psychology of the hip radical in “revolutionary” mode, or a thoughtful reckoning of the process through which activists can turn to terrorism, or an honest exploration of the limits and ethics of “armed struggle” within a liberal democracy, you won’t find it here. Nor is there much in the way of a narrative of events. Ayers somehow manages to leave out all the interesting parts of the story, that is, most of what he was up to between 1970 and and 1981.
Leaving stuff out is, I suppose, the intentional and rather perverse game plan of this “memoir.” Absence, dearth, ellipsis; haziness, sketchiness, vagueness; an existential state where nothing is concrete, where no subject can be described or examined but only alluded to — these, rather than “fugitive days,” are the themes of the book, summed up in the book’s constantly-reiterated initial sentence: “memory is a motherfucker.” In the hedging preface, he admits his account is “not exactly” the truth. But, fortunately, it “feels honest” to him.
There’s a popular term for this narrative and analytical mode: denial. Ayers tells his story as he feels it ought to be remembered rather than as he actually remembers it, his excuse being that it’s not possible to remember things right anyway, so why not? His book is not so much a memoir as it is a memorial, a commemorative monument posing as a quasi-historical subjective narrative. That’s not uncommon, to be sure, but few authors are as explicit about their own deceptive program. “What is truth, anyway?” is an interesting, if clichéd and exhaustively chronicled, question as a general matter. In specific contexts, though, particularly where violent crime and culpability are at issue, it can sound very much like what they used to call a “cop-out.” I doubt such a defense would have stood up in court, had Ayers ever had to answer officially for the activities deliberately obscured by his “memoir.” More importantly, though: it sure doesn’t make for a compelling or informative story.
Ayers struggles to avoid coming off as smug and self-regarding. In this he is only occasionally successful, but at least he’s trying. He pronounces himself “guilty as hell, free as a bird,” adding: “it’s a great country.” He does cop to naivety, lack of seriousness, stupidity, arrogance, even elitism when reflecting on his sixties self. He is unrepentant about the terrorism, though, and not only in the platitudinous “if I had it to do all over again, I’d do it all over again” formulation. (He denies he’s actually a terrorist, of course: America and its government are the “real” terrorists, he insists, in yet another defense that would probably not stand in court.) In the notorious September 11-eve promotional interview in the New York Times he said: “I don’t regret setting bombs. I feel we didn’t do enough.” Moreover, in the book’s post-9/11 postscript, he pointedly refuses to rule out a return to the principles and praxis of his fugitive youth:
I can’t quite imagine putting a bomb in a building today — all of that seems so distinctly a part of then. But I can’t imagine entirely dismissing the possibility, either.
I just hope he doesn’t blow up my building, should the not entirely dismissible possibility arise.
In fact, these sentences are in a sense a good encapsulation of the contradictory aims of Ayers’s apologia. On the one hand, the theory and practice of urban “armed struggle” is presented as more or less a lark, one further curious element of the sex and drugs and rock and roll lifestyle, “part of then,” a whistle-stop on the long strange counter-culture trip, crazy, perhaps, but well-meant and, you have to admit, colorful. On the other hand, the Weather Underground’s activities and rhetoric are granted a moral weight that belies this breezy characterization. Ayers wishes to leave the impression that these activities were mostly harmless, and thus not entirely unethical; yet he clings to the equally dubious notion that they were also not entirely pointless. I don’t believe, in the end, that he manages to square that circle, but it’s not for want of trying.
The twists and turns of this downplay-and-celebrate method yield some amusing absurdities. My favorite occurs in chapter 26, where Ayers appears to be trying to leave the impression that the primary activity of his organization, in the aftermath of the townhouse explosion, was to travel around the country searching for people who were planning bombings, in order to talk them out of it.
All in all, I was unable to determine the degree to which Ayers’s denial is sincere as opposed to merely literary or contrived; maybe that, like the truth, is supposed to be unknowable, too. I can say that I do recommend this book to anyone interested in the subject: it is deeply, hence fascinatingly, dishonest.
BURNS LIKE A RED COAL CARPET
I just finished reading Bringing the War Home, by Jeremy Varon. It’s a parallel narrative and analysis of the story of 60s-radical terrorism in the US and Germany, and it’s by far the best thing on the subject that I have ever read. Many accounts of the phenomenon suffer from either an over-abundance of polemical bile, or from a sort of retrograde romantic infatuation with the “urban revolutionary” conceit. Though Varon appears to be broadly sympathetic to the notion of “social change” in its 60s articulation, this is no mere apologia. The dispassionate tone and absence of histrionics, in my view, render the story more rather than less dramatic and absorbing, though that may be a matter of taste. At any rate, I learned many details I hadn’t known, and I found myself agreeing with many if not all of his readings.
Much of the Weather Underground material is drawn from recent interviews with the WU alumni. Many of the allusions and quotes reflecting these interviews are tantalizingly brief: I hope this material is published in full one day.
The account of the notorious 1969 WU “war council” in Flint, Michigan (the one where Bernardine Dohrn praised the Tate-La Bianca killings — “dig it! they killed those pigs!” — and where the young “revolutionaries” debated whether or not killing white babies would be a justified revolutionary tactic) manages to evoke the spirit of the event in a way achieved by none of the dozens of other accounts I have read. This results from the interleaving of plainly-expressed narrative with contemporary and retrospective comments from the participants in the context of a serious analysis of the collective psychosis at the heart of this segment of “the movement.” (Whether and to what degree or extent this psychosis reflects something essential about “the movement” itself is a major theme of the book, which the author does not shy away from.) It’s rather impressive.
Plus I learned some details about Flint that I hadn’t been aware of:
[a] the hall had a giant papier maché gun hanging from the ceiling.
[b] there was a group sing-along of popular tunes with “revolutionary” lyrics. Example: “White Riot,” sung to the tune of “White Christmas””
I’m dreaming of a white riot
just like the one October 8
when the pigs take a beating
and things start leading
to armed war against the state.
[c] there were karate classes taught by Tom Hayden!
Varon quotes a contemporary account from the Berkeley Tribe on the event: “I wanted to write an article on how to think about Weatherman. It can’t be done.” Actually, 35 years later, someone has in fact done it. For anyone who is at all interested in this topic, I strongly recommend this book. It is a fine piece of cultural and social history, and in some ways the quintessential book on the 60s.