HOPEFULLY WE’LL HAVE A BETTER UNDERSTANDING….(Tom Hayden, R.I.P.)

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Like most middle-class revolutionaries he was a little crazy, not infrequently misguided (usually in the direction of romanticizing violence or misunderstanding how little “social” change affects the application of power) and burned with a need to prove his street cred. Unlike most revolutionaries of any stripe, he made a real difference. Any spirit of reflection that exists in the halls where our political or military leaders now walk, is present because of the movement he helped bring into being.

Unlike most revolutionaries who taste even a little success, he was capable of reflection and remorse:

The death knell for the Movement sounded the next day. On May 4, 1970, National Guardsmen opened fire on students demonstrating on the campus of Kent State University. The bullets were real. The days of revolutionary fantasy were over. After a last, tremendous outpouring of protest–five hundred campuses and 4 million students went on strike to protest the Cambodian invasion and the death of 4 students at Kent State–the New Left collapsed, plummeting into cultural oblivion as if it had been some kind of political Hula-Hoop.

SDS had collapsed the year before. In June, 1969, the Progressive Labor Party had formally taken over SDS, leaving what little was left of its original spirit to a rump led by a group that called itself “Weatherman,” after a line in a Bob Dylan song. Their style was paramilitary, their strategy–though they kept their precise plans shrouded in secrecy–a matter of wanton violence. They took heart from the skirmishing between protesters and police in Chicago during the 1968 convention; the violence in Chicago, they declared, had done “more damage to the ruling class…than any mass, peaceful gathering this country has ever seen.” Professing their admiration for Che Guevera and steeling themselves for guerrilla warfare, the Weathermen hoped to become outlaws in enemy territory. America was irredeemably lost.

On the night of October 8, 1969, Hayden had addressed the Weathermen as they prepared to launch their first surprise guerrilla attack, again in Chicago. Armed with helmets, baseball bats and apparently bottomless reserves of arrogance and self-loathing, the Weathermen had assembled after nightfall in Lincoln Park, nerving themselves to smash through their bourgeois inhibitions and “tear pig city apart” in a “national action” they called “The Days of Rage.”

Hayden had debated joining them. “They had started, characteristically, as idealistic and benign people,” he says looking back. “And then something happened. Some of it was a response to events, in which moral suasion of the power structure seemed to be an obsolete idea. And this was augmented by a psychological thing: In existential terms, it became a matter of whether or not you were a man, which was measured by how outrageously subversive you were willing to be.”

At the time, Hayden was on trial [as one of the Chicago Eight]. One night, Hayden took a walk with Bernadine Dohrn, Terry Robbins and two other Weathermen. “‘Tom,'” Hayden recalls them saying, “‘this trial is going to end and you’re going to be jailed. You’re not going to get a conviction overturned in the higher courts, because Nixon is quickly changing their composition. And you will be killed in a prison riot.'” They urged him to jump bail and go underground. “We had such painful arguments,” he recalled in 1972. “They would say that I was not seizing the time, that I was not willing to risk everything.”

This was Hayden’s kind of talk, come back to haunt him. He fancied himself a fearless revolutionary. How could he resist a fresh dare? For nearly ten years, he had been on the cutting edge of the Movement, in the vanguard, ready to risk everything. But Hayden had reached his limit. “I didn’t want to cross that line,” he says.

Why? Had his courage finally failed him? Had common sense come crashing in?

“The political side, the Port Huron side of me, saved me,” he says. “It seemed very plausible to me that my life might end in some sorry prison cell. But as I look back on it, psychologically I also needed to believe on some level that the system worked. During the trial I became obsessive about preparing defense witnesses. I had a note pad, I could work out some logical detail every day. The judge, and Nixon, were so extreme that somehow the public, the press, other institutions would respond and see us as valid protesters, however they might disagree with our tactics and style. Maybe I was in touch with reality. I don’t say that with any pride. It could have gone the other way.”

Perhaps Hayden’s hesitation finally came down to his own visceral recoil from the Weathermen’s relentless, remorseless, absolutely resolute cultivation of hatred. “They were cold,” he says looking back. “They were at best–what’s that Brecht poem? ‘Judge us not too harshly….'”

The poem is “To Those Born Later,” “Hatred, even of meanness/Contorts the features,” wrote Brecht in 1938. “Anger, even against injustice/Makes the voice hoarse. Oh, we/Who wanted to prepare the ground for friendliness/Could not ourselves be friendly/But you, when the time comes at last/And man is a helper to man/Think of us/With forbearance.”

Hayden knew Brecht’s poem well. It had been posted in the offices at the Newark Community Union. He had quoted some of its lines in the course of one of his own defenses of guerrilla warfare.

“The Weatherman took that poem literally,” says Hayden softly. “There’s a lot of truth in it. But once you take it completely”–he pauses, momentarily lost in the thought–“it justifies anything. You have no flaws. They’re all written off to historical necessity.” Perhaps the lapsed Catholic moralist–the existentialist with a cause–was finally a stronger part of Tom Hayden’s soul than the revolutionary nihilist.

As the Weathermen huddled against the cold that October night in Lincoln Park, warming themselves before a bonfire built out of park benches, Hayden, wearing tennis shoes, with his shirt tails out, as always, picked up the bullhorn. He had come, he said, to tell them that he and his colleagues who were standing trial for conspiracy supported them. He welcomed, he said, their effort to “intensify the struggle and end the war.”

As he spoke, the throng readied itself for its rampage through the streets of Chicago. The architect of The Port Huron Statement realized that his words were irrelevant. Putting down the bullhorn, he stole back into the night. He had nothing more to say.

(“Democracy is in the Streets”–From Port Huron to the Siege of Chicago, James Miller, 1987, Simon and Schuster, pp, 310-313)

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WELL I WAS GONNA WAIT FOR THE NEXT WORD WAR…(EVERYTHING I REALLY NEEDED TO KNOW I LEARNED FROM ROCK AND ROLL: Lesson #3)

…But with 75 and counting dead in France, a Not-Just-For-Trust-Fund-Babies-Anymore “Day of Rage” scheduled across America tomorrow, Donald Trump announcing his intention to declare war on something or other if he’s elected (just heard it on O’Reilly, it must be true!), and the Democratic Nominee unable to get a basic security clearance if she were anything less, this seems like as good a time as any to dedicate a song to the future. If I’m going to do that, it might as well be the one song that, when I first heard it, made me realize how much I didn’t miss the Hundred Years War…Happy Bastille Day.

ROCK AND ROLL SCREENINGS (Take #6: Baby It’s You)

Baby It’s You
John Sayles, Director (1983)

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[Note: I shopped this briefly but, alas, no takers. Hence it wasn’t ultimately written with the usual screen grabs in mind and, except at the very end, I’m not up to inserting them. So let your imagination (or memory) run wild!]

The first time I saw Baby It’s You was on VHS, shortly after it’s 1983 general release and box-office death. I rented it a year or two later with appropriately modest expectations and it blew by me like a cool breeze.

The second time I saw Baby It’s You was on DVD in the Year of Our Lord, 2015, and it ran over me like a truck.

Here with my nose pressed to the pavement, struggling mightily to rise, shaking my head to clear it, I can see how I sidestepped it earlier…or it sidestepped me.

At twenty-four, I wasn’t ready to let it get under my skin and if Baby It’s You isn’t under your skin it’s just a movie.

If, on the other hand, it is under your skin, its absolute lack of reassurance let’s it run around in the bloodstream, equal parts depression and liberation, intertwining mythic space and human space so deftly one becomes indistinguishable from the other.

Always a heady place to be, that.

I better write about it before I have time to reassemble my defenses, here in my own little human space.

It should be easy. I mean, John Sayles wrote and directed it. I haven’t seen a lot of Sayles’ movies but the few I have seen, including Eight Men Out, which is the only one before now that I’ve seen more than once, are enough to make me feel like I know what I’m getting when his name comes up under “Directed by.”

I know it will be tasteful. I know it will be meticulously crafted. I know it will be more readily admired than loved. I know it will be good for me.

What could be easier to digest, dissect, defend against than one of those?

Nothing, actually.

Except Baby It’s You is none of those. Not even meticulous. No movie that breaks free and runs down lost roads, trucking the unwary, like this one can be limited that way, even if everyone involved threw themselves into getting all the details associated with craft just right.

And, for all I can tell, they did just that. All of the minor characters–the nerdy high school professor, the bullying, “get-to-class-right-now-mister” principal figure, the clueless parents, the caring drama teacher, the various high school and college friends and acquaintances–are stock and played that way. Never with anything less than finely nuanced sensitivity mind you, but they aren’t running free down lost roads. They’re in a John Sayles movie, one and all.

I won’t say it doesn’t matter. All that craft doesn’t go to waste. It’s the woop and warf of the structure after all and a fine one at that.

But this movie is only about two people: Rosanna Arquette’s Jill Rosen and Vincent Spano’s Albert “The Sheik” Capadilupo. Everyone else is a shade. Any brief attempt to give them real-life dimension, as opposed to abstract force, now temporal, now ghostly, in the lives of the two principles, comes a held-breath cropper. The more any one of them tries to care about Jill or the Sheik–no one’s ever really concerned about both–or otherwise threatens to stand out, the sooner they fade to black.

And the more it’s possible for us to care.

I can’t say the caring is imperative. I’m not forgetting this barely ruffled my hair when I was close enough in age to fall for Jill myself and spare a sneer for pretty-boy Sheik, so clearly going about it all wrong!

So, no, not imperative. But possible.

Twenty-something or fifty-something, that isn’t a chance many movies offer.

And there’s where time has come around and run me down from behind.

I stuck a movie in the DVD player and now, suddenly, at what was supposed to be a safe distance, I find myself caring about Jill and the Sheik. Two characters in a movie. Two characters I have next to nothing in common with, as it happens, but that’s not the sticky wicket here.

The part that won’t go down is, I care about them….and I have no idea what happened to them.

Disorienting to say the least.

Caring and then knowing are the fuel movies–or maybe just narrative art–run on. Knowing who they are. Knowing why you care. Knowing they have arrived on some safe shore, even if it isn’t the shore you wanted them to reach, or that, if they went down, they went down with a purpose even if the purpose was purely cautionary, a life lesson for those watching from the cheap seats or the beach.

I mean, if you’re not going to tip the balance toward the comforts of assurance–Jill will be fine even if she really sheds the Sheik and the acting thing doesn’t work out, the Sheik won’t steal any more cars, knock over any more liquor stores, stage any more fake kidnappings, get himself thrown in jail finally–then at least give me some of the usual convention of false ambivalence. That’s well enough established as a narrative trope that it carries its own assurance.

So okay, I’m in an art movie. Nothing wrong with that. I’m not entirely immune to art for srt’s sake.

But it doesn’t get under my skin.

Normally, no one is better at pandering to my near immunities than your average indie film-maker in general unless it’s John Sayles in particular. I mean, when he bitched about having the editing taken away from him on this one because it had a Hollywood budget, I sort of assumed he found the final product insufficiently ponderous.

Oh, maybe his preferred cut was even more of what Baby It’s You ended up being: maybe it was even looser, bolder, freer to associate, freer to not associate, more prone to run right off the rails and then be set straight back on by the particular way the Sheik (or is it his partner, the Rat?) throws down on the owner of the store he’s robbing when he should have been taking Jill to the prom and then refuses to shoot him, or the pregnant pause when Jill asks the “I-wasn’t-blonde-then” girl who used to be in her gym class if she’s “been going out with…Rat, long?”

Those little half-pauses are everything.

This movie runs on beats. Sharp, quick rhythms that eventually turn into elongated rhythms that reach the breaking point without quite snapping. Rock and roll into rock into a lost country. Sam the Sham into Procol Harum into the Velvet Underground, with the Shirelles on the title track joining the Supremes and Dusty Springfield and whoever else could be properly licensed (the Toys in the original movie credits, the Chiffons on the present soundtrack and it’s all perfect) providing continuity and a constant, gentle-but-firm push-back against those consummate invaders of the movie’s intimate girl talk space. That would be Jersey boys Bruce Springsteen and Frank Sinatra, each, of course, completely incongruous in a movie that’s not only set in the sixties but very specifically about the sixties. and, oh-by-the-way, each as completely, absurdly, perfect as the Shirelles.

And that’s just the soundtrack, cruising along underneath dialogue that sounds like the kind songwriters make songs out of. Did “Everything’s fine Ma, go back to bed,” come out of “It’s alright Ma, I’m only bleeding” or was it the other way around? Did the school guidance counselor intoning “Every year we have one or two tragedies,” make “Leader of the Pack” inevitable or merely imaginable?

Baby It’s You doesn’t bother to answer those kind of questions. But it keeps asking them. Then it let’s us ponder the possibilities. And keep right on pondering.

Me, of course, while I’m trying to recover from being trucked. Easing up on my elbows, ever so gently.

The central question, of course, as in all Beauty and the Beast stories, is what exactly they see in each other? Oh, we know generally what every Beauty sees in every Beast and vice versa. But what about this particular scenario. What does Jill Rosen, sixties-era Jewish American Princess swept up in her times, see in Albert Capidilupo, fifties-era Italian Sheik, caught out of time?

And vice versa.

The movie doesn’t give answers. It gives clues.

We know their worlds don’t collide (and not just because they never meet each other’s parents…heck, I didn’t even register that little detail until the movie made me actually think about it, slow it down, hit the pause button so I could write down the dialogue I just quoted).

Jill dreams of being an actress and The Sheik isn’t going to acting class. Not unless he barges in on rehearsal, unannounced, uninvited and unwanted, just because Jill’s there.

His father isn’t a doctor.

He isn’t applying for college.

The movie tells us these things, eventually, but they’re all knowable right off, long before any given scene codifies them. It’s there in the way he carries himself. A loser trying to be a winner just by acting like one, knowing all along that she’s his way up, if only he can make her believe he’s her way out.

What the movie does reveal, what isn’t available in the first scene, where the Sheik stares at Jill like she’s from a dream he’s been having and she hurries off, surrounded by smart-ass girlfriends who act like a shield against everything the boy staring at her is likely to stand for, is whether the Sheik is bound to keep on losing.

He is as it turns out.

And it’s possible Jill not only knows it but knows it before we do.

After all, everybody in her world is telling her it’s so, telling her to be sure and stay on track, to not let this loser (nobody uses the word, not the girlfriends or the parents or the acting teacher, but they don’t have to and they know they don’t have to because Jill is one of them and the loser is a loser in part because he isn’t one of them and never can be) derail her!

But she’s drawn anyway. Resistant to the beats at first, then…not.

So how does she relate anyway?

Maybe because she senses what he sees in her, the part nobody in any group she already belongs to really gets:

“The object isn’t to have the biggest part,” Jill’s mom says.

“Yes it is,” Jill says, the day before she gets the biggest part and finds the Sheik in the parking lot, standing next to his hot rod (the Rat has the pink slip, it’s not even the Sheik’s style, but it’s his anyway, in the moment, because, like him, we don’t yet know how deep his losing streak will run), saying it’s too bad she didn’t get the lead.

“Kitty is the lead,” Jill says.

Five minutes later she’s handing her car keys to one of her waiting girlfriends, saying “You better drive,” because she and the Sheik have taken the first step on their journey, a whirl in the Ratmobile, and the air’s already getting thin.

But the way Rosanna Arquette says “Kitty is the lead,” is the key in the lock. There’s no hint of arrogance or dismissal of the Sheik’s ignorance. Jill senses instantly that the boy who spotted her in the hallway and stalked her in the lunchroom gets how important “the lead” is, in a way that her mother–and by extension, her mother’s world–doesn’t. She knows you can’t reach a dream by settling for second best and the boy who doesn’t know Kitty from catnip is becoming interesting because she’s starting to realize he wants her the way she wanted Kitty.

So it’s not “Kitty is the lead” you moron or “Kitty is the lead” how could you not know that. It’s “Kitty is the lead”….how did you know how much it would matter if she wasn’t?

It wasn’t an accident that plenty of smart people assumed Arquette would be the Actress of the Age based on this performance and neither she nor they can be faulted for not realizing, in 1983, that there would be no Age, that the new boss would simply go on being the old boss and the Eighties would never be allowed to either breathe or end. To see her here isn’t so much to cry for the career she might have had (a pretty good one actually) as for the world we might have had if we hadn’t been frozen and debilitated by a series of events which Baby It’s You implies does not necessarily preclude those common versions of “The Sixties” so often romanticized.

Unlike a lot of look-back movies made before and since. including Sayles’ own The Return of the Secaucus Seven, Baby It’s You isn’t nostalgic for lost idealism or even lost youth. It can’t be, because its characters not only don’t yet have a past to lose (that was true of American Graffiti, among others) they aren’t even certain the future will have a shape (as Graffiti’s did, even if that shape included real tragedy).

Upshot?

That future is all they can lose.

This being the case, nostalgia loses its appeal and even its considerable, if dangerously seductive, worth.

Baby It’s You isn’t merely alive to memory. It’s alive, period.

Given all that, I don’t know if there’s a certain irony in Arquette, a child of the sixties who literally played in the mud at Woodstock, embodying someone who is struggling to keep pace with a culture that’s changing at light speed, who senses how stunted and unfulfilled her world will be if she doesn’t manage to hold what the times have brought within her grasp.

It might be that having Woodstock in her memory bank was the key in her own lock. Baby It’s You takes place in 1966 and ’67, the last moment before the world Jill Rosen grew up in divided itself into a past that was closing in on itself and a future that never quite arrived, a division that was already clearly irreconcilable when Baby It’s You was being made and has only sharpened in the decades since.

Watching the movie now, it’s hard to miss the sense that this division was unavoidable. That the dreams Jill and the Sheik were nurtured on were unsustainable at any speed, let alone the headlong rush with which the culture Jill wants to join and the Sheik is determined to reject is not merely changing but falling apart.

Certainly the film does not let the sixties off the hook. By putting its finger on that precise Summer of Love moment when the first wave of era-defining Proper Nouns had passed (March on Washington, JFK Assassinated, Beatles on Sullivan, Dylan at Newport) and the cataclysm (Tet Offensive, RFK and MLK Assassinated, Chicago ’68, Days of Rage, Woodstock, Altamont) was still a held breath away, Baby It’s You let’s us in on the decade’s secret. There were a whole lot of Jills and not a few Sheiks, who lived their lives being hit by those events and whose own lives, liberated and betrayed in equal measure, were defined by their inability to hit back.

Just how remote that Official History could be is evident from none of these events being mentioned in a movie that defines the sixties like no other–as something not merely experienced or remembered but deeply felt and impossible to shake off, in either the individual or collective sense. Just how close by that History can still be is evident from our awareness of what the movie feels no need to mention.

To that end, the most poignant moment may not be the ending, when all of us, Jill, Sheik and anyone who’s been trucked in the watching, have to accept that dancing to a bad bar band’s version of “Strangers in the Night” at the Sarah Lawrence Spring Mixer with the crazy guy who was into Sinatra in high school and definitely going places until he realized he couldn’t even cut it lip-synching for the blue hairs in the Miami Beach resorts Jill’s parents once vacationed in, might be the best memory either one of them will ever have.

That scene is lovely and mysterious and open-ended, as fine as any not-quite-ending you’ll ever see. But once I started treating the movie like a favorite album, keeping it next to the DVD player for quick reference when the playback in my head started to skip or blur, it’s another scene, the one that’s most purely joyous on first contact, that soon becomes the saddest.

It’s just after Jill and Sheik’s first date. She’s driving those smart-ass girlfriends around and they start teasing her about the new guy, the hot guy, the mysterious guy, the guy who’s not part of their world (who, I should mention here, Spano plays with a verve and heart that guarantee Arquette will always have something to play against, no matter how deep she goes). Finally, they get around to chanting “Go-ing to the chap-el and we’re gon-na get ma-a-a-a-ried.” After a chorus, Jill joins in and the look on Arquette’s face goes every place. “Ridiculous!” that face says. “Not in a Million Years!” that face says. “As if!” that face says.

“Maybe…” that face says.

Maybe what?

Maybe a moll? Maybe somebody who can ditch high school and make the big bad world her oyster? Maybe somebody who could let her girlfriends in on the dizzying whirl from the metronomic haze of high school geometry to “Oh, come on, what am I supposed to be afraid of?” to “You are such a dope!” to “Come on, Rat’s waitin’ on us,” to “You hardly said two words to me all night,” to “You never been out with anybody like me, huh?” to first kiss to “See you in school then?”

Maybe somebody who won’t be a virgin too much longer if she can figure out how to keep the adults out of the equation?

Turns out that last part takes a year and not just any year but the one where you start out accepting that if you don’t find your dreams in high school there’s always college, and then discover that if you don’t find your dreams in college the world might turn out to be a whole lot bigger and badder than a place where the worst that ever happened was your girlfriend, who looked like a Shangri-La, tried to slash her wrists on prom night before confessing she slept with your boyfriend the night you played Kitty-the-lead.

Yeah, she finally makes it with the Sheik in Miami, by which time the beats–her life’s and the movie’s–have begun slowing down. And, instead of quickening, they begin to falter. Soon after, and not by coincidence, Jill’s back at college, getting high and banging frat boys she knows in her heart can’t hold the lip-syncher’s coat and banging even harder on him (“He’s such an asshole!”), using him for motivation in the therapy sessions led by her acting class’s Visiting Director (“one of the people who is reshaping American theater!”), who could care less if she makes it or gets the biggest part, just as long as she forgets everything she learned in high school before he cashes the semester’s last check.

Having seen the movie more than twice, that moment when the “maybes” are still in the air now lingers over everything. The limited dreams of going to the chapel, once deemed within every girl’s reach, have been replaced by the unlimited dreams which are bound to be reached by only a few and are no less enticing for that because, just like the small dreams, the big ones are kept right next to the nightmares, even if the sixties aren’t going on all around you.

And, as all of us, boy, girl or country, have discovered in the long night since, anything you survive, fades to gray with time.

Baby It’s You is definitely in my head.

I think I’ll try to get up now.

Maybe get back to watching old westerns and Gloria Grahame movies and reassembling my defenses.

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JULY BOOK REPORT (7/13–The Sixties…Straight Up)

…And somehow rendered lifeless:

Flying Close to the Sun: My Life and Times as a Weatherman, Cathy Wilkerson (2007)

Wilkerson was a prominent leader in Students for a Democratic Society throughout most of the sixties.

She witnessed or participated in numerous significant events of the period, including the street battles at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago and the “Days of Rage” the following year.

At the end of the decade, she was one of a relatively small handful who joined the violent splinter group that formed in the wake of SDS’s collapse (after having helped precipitate said collapse) and called itself Weatherman. In the spring of 1970, she and four other members of a local “Weatherman” cell were staying in her father’s New York townhouse when one of the bombs they intended for an officers’ dance at Fort Dix accidentally exploded, killing three of Wilkerson’s friends, including her boyfriend.

She subsequently spent nearly a decade “underground,” participating in at least one other bombing, before eventually turning herself in, serving a brief prison sentence and reintegrating herself into the middle-class society from whose more comfortable end she–like most of her fellow “radicals”–had initially sprung.

Irrespective of how one feels about her politics, you might at least assume nobody could possibly make a life like that seem deadly boring.

Wilkerson–evidently unassisted–manages it.

The title of her book points to some of its basic problems.

The fact that it gets two things fundamentally wrong in the space of eleven words (a bit less than a third of the book describes her “life and times as a Weatherman,” which leaves about a hundred thousand words that describe something else, not one of them involving a flight that carries anywhere near anything that could rationally be described as “the sun”) is a harbinger of larger literary sins to come.

Which is maybe not surprising.

With that kind of moral and intellectual vacuousness already established before the reader reaches the beginning of the first sentence, it can’t really come as a shock that a distinct lack of moral clarity–or even the hell-fired political passion one has a right to expect from a nihilist’s memoir–follows immediately and relentlessly on.

None of that is really what keeps the book from being entertaining, though.

That part is taken care of by a couple of other factors. The first is Wilkerson’s deadening prose, which operates at a level but ever-so-slightly above the See Spot Run brain-trauma inducement so familiar to public school children of the era and from which I always thought the revolution was supposed to rescue us!

That quality alone is enough to make the eyes glaze, but it’s as nothing next to the author’s complete inability to craft a narrative of even the most basic sort. (Just as an example, the fifth person in that exploding townhouse, besides the three dead and Wilkerson herself, was Kathy Boudin. Boudin appears in the book right after the explosion, when Wilkerson, never having mentioned her previously, stumbles through the smoke and debris to rescue her from the shower and lead her, bleeding and naked, to the street and then to a nearby home, from whence they were later able to make their escape in the confusion. As soon as they separate a short time later, there is no further mention of Boudin, except to include her in a generic list of radicals who were “helping” people in some way or other. How did Boudin come to the townhouse? What was her role in the cell? Was she involved in the arguments about the wisdom of the newly violent approach and, if so, how deeply? Inquiring minds want to know! Wilkerson does not tell us.) If this had been a single oversight it might be understandable–there was a lot happening after all. But dozens of characters appear and disappear in Wilkerson’s account with little rhyme or reason and any presumably close or complex relationship is always described in some version of the “we had a long talk and were very honest about our feelings” vein.

Wilkerson had a lot of long talks, incidentally, and did lots of hard thinking–then and later–about the direction and consequences of her actions.

Generally speaking, it seems she was in it for the love of freedom and the good of all mankind.

To which I can only respond: Aren’t bombthrowers always?

To wit, see if you can recognize the ethos humming through this brilliant bit of self-rationalization (on the occasion of an important meeting of radical minds in Flint, Michigan at the very end of the sixties):

The next few days seemed to unfold with a relentless, monotonous glorification of violence. The convention packet given out to all who attended stated, “Our strategy has to be geared toward forcing the disintegration of society, attacking on every level, from all directions and creating strategic ‘armed chaos’ where there is now pig order.” I could see the logic behind the idea that our strongest weapon was our ability to create chaos. Chaos might weaken and eventually bring down the government from the inside while third world countries extricated themselves from US control. If we couldn’t weaken the government, very likely we would have race war, sooner or later, I thought, so chaos now was better than the race-based chaos later on. Even then, however, I knew that chaos left a terrifying vacuum of leadership, in which the behavior of human beings under pressure could quickly degenerate into the most random violence. Surely we didn’t want that. I assumed that the leadership at Flint had thought about this and had a plan to introduce us to weapons and fighting in a way that would avoid this disintegration. They must be making provisions to wage war responsibly.

Speakers denounced those who did not join us, saying that “if you are not with us, you are against us.”

Gee, stop me if anything looked familiar in there.

Turns out Weatherman met the enemy and nobody could tell a bit of difference.

Thugs are, after all, the same everywhere–up to and including their undying need, even years after the fact, to repeat ad nauseam the old, familiar assurance:

“You see you needn’t worry. For ours will be a more principled and honest tyranny.”

If these are lessons you feel you need to learn, then this is the book for you.

Sorry to say this was all I had time for in July…I look forward to returning to cheerier things in August!