Thursday, June 30, 2005

Book Review--Jeremy Varon, Bringing the War Home

Interesting--the book's whole title is Bringing the War Home: The Weather Underground, the Red Army Faction, and Revolutionary Violence in the Sixties and Seventies but Blogger wouldn't let me make a title this long. I guess it's good that we don't use lengthy 18th century style titles today...

This is one of the most interesting books I've read in a long time. In part this interest comes from the fact that I don't really know all that much about the intricacies of the New Left, something that is odd considering my own history and interests. But my knowledge of the Weathermen was limited and I was completely ignorant of the Red Army Faction, a West German radical organization, though I do have very vague memories of western European left-wing terrorist organizations from news stories as a child.

In any case, both groups are pretty frightening. I had no idea about the Maoist self-criticism and bizarre sexual practices of Weatherman nor of the complete moral bankruptcy of the RAF. But although my knowledge of this part of history is less than intricate, the book did remind me of several of my own experiences on the far left and the lessons that Varon thinks these groups have for activists and issues of terrorism today are ones that I think are valuable.

Among the most important points is the way that so many activists in the late 60s and 70s substituted slogans for analysis. Don't we see the same thing in discussing Iraq today? Instead of any kind of historical analysis of the situation that we're in, so many people on the left simply denounce those they disagree with, using the chickenhawk slogan or whatever else is handy. Of course there are many good arguments made against the war when it started, the way the war has been fought, the places it is being fought, and whether we should stay over there at all. But too often these arguments are diluted by extremist language, sloganeering, and cheap rhetoric. The Weatherman did the same thing by comparing the US in Vietnam to the Nazis. American actions in Vietnam were reprehensible, but Richard Nixon was not worse than Adolf Hitler. That looks absurd today, just as some of the anti-war rhetoric made today will look absurd in 2035.

This reminds me of the time I was recruited by the Maoist organization Freedom Road. When I lived in Tennessee I knew several members of this organization. They are good, well-meaning people. But they also don't really promote free and critical thinking. I didn't put two and two together until later, but once I was having lunch with a couple Freedom Roaders and they asked me what I thought about the idea of a Black Belt nation that would be all-black and would necessitate kicking out millions of whites. I said that this was about the stupidest goddamn idea I had ever heard of and listed the many reasons why that would never work. It was also clear that they didn't know that the reason it is called the Black Belt is not because there are lots of black people but because of the soil. But maybe that's a common mistake. Anyway, I later found out that this is a central tenet of Freedom Road and that I was being tested to be a potential member. I still worked with these people after this and enjoyed doing so. Again, they are committed activists who have made life on Earth better because of their work. But the level of self-imposed ignorance for a principle was shocking to my academically-trained mind.

And this brings us to the issue of race. Varon shows how white leftist organizations, and particularly the Weatherman, felt the urgent need to prove themselves worthy of revolutionary movements of people of color, particularly the Black Panthers and the Cuban Revolution. This was the real start of the Che myth. As those movements advocated violent overthrow of the state, so did the white organizations. But they had to go one step further because to not meant that they were not fully rejecting their white privilege. It's a good thing to recognize and reject white privilege. But the problem here, and I have seen this problem to in my days on the left, is that through trying to reject their whiteness, they put movements of color on a pedestal and refuse to criticize or even think critically about them. Once we do that, we both allow ourselves to be taken for suckers and to compromise our own potential for social change.

This book has also further convinced me that the second greatest social movement coming out of post-World War II America is the women's movement. (The first of course being the African-American civil rights movement). Progressive organizations were rife with sexism on a level that is incredible to the modern reader. From the treatment of amazing women like Ella Baker in the civil rights movement to the way women of the New Left were used as sexual partners by both black and white movements and how their real job in the movement was to clean house and get coffee for the men it is absolutely shocking. Even in the Weather Underground, women were basically used by movement leaders as sexual conquests for the revolution. While women faced the same demands for personal revolutionary sacrifice as the men did, too often their sacrifice included use as a sexual object. This treatment played a major role in spawning the women's movement in the 1970s that has transformed progressive politics in America. That was one of the most shocking things about the attacks made upon me by Steve Gilliard and his followers. I thought we were over this hyper-masculine bullshit. I guess we aren't. But we've come a long way.

Finally, I'd like to talk briefly about the left's fetishization of violence. This was obvious among groups like the Weatherman and especially the RAF. But even today, we see this. The fetishization of completely meaningless property destruction and worse forms of violence is especially acute among the anarchist movements that rose out of the WTO protests in Seattle. I came to New Mexico soon after these protests and tried to get involved in a student organization at the University of New Mexico. This was a complete disaster for many reasons. One of the most important reasons was the absurd fetishization of violence which I could not abide. There may be places where violence is a completely acceptable act. The Sandinistas for instance were totally justified in their guerilla war. But to think that graffiti is a revolutionary act in Albuquerque, New Mexico when no one knows what the hell you are talking about is totally absurd. My wife and I spoke out against this and, well, let's say it didn't end well. To this day I loathe anarchists and modern-day "anarchism," which I put in quotation marks because my experience shows that those who claim to be anarchists have at best a very hazy notion of what it is actually is and have probably never even heard of Emma Goldman or Alexander Berkman.

This fetishization of violence relies on the idea that somehow the masses support you. New Left groups in the 60s in Europe and America made this mistake. The Weathermen thought that students and others would rush to their side, which of course didn't happen. When we advocate some kind of revolutionary change in America today we often do the same thing. Talk of "the people" and "the masses" is almost by definition amorphous and symbolic. But neither people nor revolutionary violence is simply symbolic. It's real and has real consequences that need to be understood before we undertake or even advocate for violence. The Black Panthers had some understanding of this because of the routine treatment blacks are given by whites and especially the police. Middle-class white kids didn't have this understanding in 1969 and they don't today. If we are going to make change, we have to have real connections with real people and not just talk a bunch of bullshit about the masses. There are many wonderful progressive groups in America that are doing this very thing but there are also a lot of organizations, especially student organizations that don't. And oddly, like my friends in Tennessee, there are groups and people who manage to do both at the same time.

In any case, read this book. It's a great discussion of leftist violence and its implications for today, especially in the post-9/11 world.