If, like me, you were around for the birth of the SDS and its unhappy child, the Weather Underground, you might wonder what happened to the likes of those who did not go to pieces in a Greenwich Village townhouse. One of the group’s survivors, years after emerging from life on the run, having settled in to a more regular way of living, has offered the story of his days in the movement and of his journey from the life of a student radical, through years as a fugitive to a life as a more or less regular political citizen.
We begin with demonstrations at Columbia University, in protest against the Viet Nam war and against Columbia’s real estate expansion into the surrounding community. This is pretty interesting material, and gives a real feel for the zeitgeist. It was a very volatile time, and young people really believed it was possible to change the world. They were not wrong, but while progressives like Pete Seeger chose a less confrontational, more educational direction, into ecological work, there were plenty of people who thought a better way was to seek a larger overthrow, and part of that was not only to demonstrate, but to stage sit-ins at university buildings. We might call it Occupy Columbia today. Rudd offers a vibrant description of the activities of the students, the organizers and the police, who did what police often do and went out of their way to bust some heads. The mainstream press did not manage to report on that somehow.
Rudd offers considerable detail into where and when the leaders led and where and when they were dragged by the rank and file protesters. He also goes into some of the mind numbing internal politics. There were plenty of factions, each espousing a particular political line. And there were groups within groups, infiltrating, undermining, competing. I got to see some of that personally back in the day, so can attest that the sort of ridiculousness Rudd describes is quite real. Some blokes from across the pond lampooned the tendency of powerless political forces to splinter in their quest for ideological purity. I have included a script excerpt from Monty Python’s Life of Brian at the bottom of this review. What, you haven’t seen it? Wanker! The sort of thing the Python crew mocks was unfurling big time during the Columbia shutdown, and picked up even bigger time as time and tide opened a host of new wounds.
It is pretty clear that despite his calls for armed insurrection, Mark Rudd is not someone with whom you would want to share a foxhole. He cites several instances in which his physical courage is shown wanting. No actual bomb-thrower, Rudd. His projectiles were of the verbal variety. I suppose there is a bit of courage involved in so clearly admitting that he was a coward when it came to physical combat. As there was never a case made by the government against him for any involvement with the real bomb-makers of the Weather Underground we take him at his word that he was not a part of the more explosive splinters of leftist activism. It is clear, though, that among other emotions, he felt admiration for those willing to go to extreme lengths to change the direction in which the nation was heading, however misguided they might have been. Perhaps a contemporary echo of that sort of feeling is the public joy expressed by some Muslim populations at the horror of 9/11. If one has identified one’s enemy as evil, it does make a bit of sense to wish him dead. Personally, I am not up for popping a few rounds into those I consider representatives of the dark side, (in reality, that is, but a guy can dream) but I would certainly cheer should Cheney’s medical device suddenly fail, Putin fall off a horse and break his neck, or Bashar al-asad find himself on the receiving end of his thugs’ assaults.
The Weather Underground, and the SDS functioned not just as political organizations at the bleeding edge, but as cults. The same sort of top-down decision-making wound up becoming de rigeur, with criticism of decisions clearly not welcome. There was also an insistence on discarding monogamy, which made for a pretty lively sex life, (and resulting medical unpleasantness) particularly for the leaders. Such cultish entities often breed a sort of bubble mentality that is capable, eager even, to ignore outside opinions and even actual reality. Believing one’s own bullshit is neither good for the effectiveness of one’s organization, or for one’s mental health. Turns out it is not so good for one’s physical health either.
The most interesting part of Rudd’s story for me was his time underground. It was detailed and offered a very compelling portrait of the joys of never being able to settle down anywhere, of not being able get too close to anyone who was not already part of your movement, and even then, having to wonder who might be a government agent and which smiling old comrade might turn you in for a sentencing advantage.
, Rudd comes across as an arrogant, entitled, middle-class kid from a nice suburb who had an enlarged sense of his own importance, and impact on the world. On the other hand, if you can do it, it ain’t bragging, and he did, for a while. It is humanizing that he is able to portray himself as less than a heroic figure. He has moved past his legal and extremist issues, and has found a way to do good without putting himself or others in peril. Would that were true of our corporate overlords.
QUOTES - a few passages
P 97 – The New York Times
was intimately entangled with Columbia at all levels, from the board of trustees on down, and became the house organ for the Columbia administration. Times publisher Arthur “Punch” Sulzberger, a Columbia graduate, was a trustee of the university. Many of the editors were Columbia Journalism School graduates or teachers. My favorite tale of New York Times
complicity with Columbia was its lead piece in the first edition of the April 30 paper. The newspaper reported that the police has peacefully removed all the4 demonstrators from the buildings. However, that early edition hit the newsstands before the bust had occurred. The Times had been tipped off to the plan the afternoon before the bust by police leadership so that the story could be written ahead of time. In later editions the< i>Times barely mentioned that one of its own reporters, Robert Thomas, Jr., was severely beaten by New York City cops using handcuffs as brass knuckles; that fact didn’t square with the story of violent students and peacable police.
P 162 [ re self-criticism]
I did not realize at the time that we had unwittingly reproduced conditions that all hermetically sealed cults use: isolation, sleep deprivation, demanding arbitrary acts of loyalty to the group, even sexual initiation as bonding. It’s strange that these practices can arise without any conspiratorial mastermind or leadership cabal.
On a hot Saturday in early August at the Mall in Central Park, I was among a contingent of several dozen New York Weathermen who marched up onto the stage at a rally commemorating the twenty-fourth anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. We elbowed aside the surprised organizers from the fifth Avenue Peace Parade Committee and seized the microphone. Jeff Jones, my comrade in the Weather Bureau, commenced to rant at the several thousand peaceful protesters assembled. “It’s not enough to be for peace, like the liberals who organized the rally; you’ve got to be for revolution. And that revolution will be violent, so get ready.” As he continued, the audience just drifted away; we had destroyed the rally more effectively than any right-wing counter-demonstrators of government agents might have.
P 226 [regarding breaking Timothy Leary out of jail]
We were opportunistically glomming on to the counterculture. For years SDS had stood to the side, criticizing the hippies for not being political enough. The Leary jailbreak appeared to me to be a transparent attempt to insinuate ourselves with our potential base, the flower children.
The culture of this country in the first decade of the twenty-first century is fundamentally different compared to that of forty years ago. There’s no draft, so young people don’t need to pay attention to the war, as we had to. (which explains why a draft is not on the war planners’ agenda.) The seductions of the entertainment and consumer cultures, fueled by cheap goods and easy credit, have achieved almost total hegemony as the purpose of individual life. To top this off, the cost of a college education, even at public institutions, is so much higher than it was forty years ago, when no one graduated with anything like the level of debt that students have now.. huge student loans keep young people so shackled that it never even occurs to them to stray from the career path for a protest or a meeting.
=======================THE MONTY PYTHON BIT
BRIAN: Are you the Judean People's Front?
REG: Fuck off!
REG: Judean People's Front? We're the People's Front of Judea! Judean People's Front. Cawk.
BRIAN: Can I... join your group?
REG: No. Piss off.
BRIAN: I didn't want to sell this stuff. It's only a job. I hate the Romans as much as anybody.
PEOPLE'S FRONT OF JUDEA: Shhhh. Shhhh. Shhh. Shh. Shhhh.
JUDITH: Are you sure?
BRIAN: Oh, dead sure. I hate the Romans already.
REG: Listen. If you wanted to join the P.F.J., you'd have to really hate the Romans.
BRIAN: I do!
REG: Oh, yeah? How much?
BRIAN: A lot!
REG: Right. You're in. Listen. The only people we hate more than the Romans are the fucking Judean People's Front.
FRANCIS: And the Judean Popular People's Front.
P.F.J.: Yeah. Oh, yeah. Splitters. Splitters...
LORETTA: And the People's Front of Judea.
P.F.J.: Yeah. Splitters. Splitters...
LORETTA: The People's Front of Judea. Splitters.
REG: We're the People's Front of Judea!
LORETTA: Oh. I thought we were the Popular Front.
REG: People's Front! C-huh.
FRANCIS: Whatever happened to the Popular Front, Reg?
REG: He's over there.