Looking back on one's past generally evokes one of two responses. Either a) "Wow, wasn't that a great time!" or b) "Dear God, what was I thinking?" Occasionally one can summon up a bit of both but at the very least we look back with a degree of bemusement. When self-professed "New Left radicals" Peter Collier and David Horowitz look back at the 1960s their reaction is decidedly "what was I thinking" sort. The result is that this book has essentially two speeds: bitchy and cranky.
The bitchy parts comprise some of the most enjoyable reading of the year for me.
Since this is a tale of apostasy the cranky parts are to be expected. The authors went from the New Left to embracing anti-communism in a big way, they're looking back in bitterness. Because they were insiders the perspective Collier and Horowitz aren't giving us the Woodstock and tie-dyed Sixties, they're telling stories that range from ironic ("Post-Vietnam Syndrome") to heartbreaking (Fay Stender) to verging on self-parody (The Weather Underground) to just flat out hilarious (the Berkeley City Council). The little known story of Fay Stender alone makes this book worth reading. How can the story of a nice Jewish girl who embraced every cause of the 1960s, became a major force in a prison rights, joined the feminist movement, found true love only to become the target of an assassination attempt by the very prisoners for whom she once so tireless fought have not been made into a movie yet.
The Weather Underground chapter, on the other hand, could make a fine absurdist comedy. What's more hilarious than upper middle-class white boys declaring themselves "crazy motherf*ers" devoted to "scaring the s* out of honky America"? I'll tell you what, it's an ENFORCED orgy that generates this morning after comment "I'm sure they have to do it this way in Vietnam." No dummy, they didn't. Say what you will about Ho Chi Minh, no one has accused him of directing the sex lives of the Vietnamese people like Benardine Dohrn and company. You'll hear less exhortations to arm yourself at an NRA convention than you will from a few pages of the WU. I guess polishing one's, ahem, gun helped pass the time between those required orgies. We find that, just like the Baader-Meinhof gang, the WU leadership had more in common with the Three Stooges than Marx or Lenin.
Nothing, however, prepares one for the laughs that are generated by the proceedings of the Berkeley city council. No since Eric Hobsbawm called Marie Antoinette "chicken-brained" have I laughed so hard at a serious history. The highlight is undoubtedly when the council, irked at having to tear themselves away from formulating their policy on Nicaragua, must deal with the growing issue of the homeless in the city. Those pesky homeless people just don't get the dialectic. Their rowdiness at a council meeting inspires the "radical" mayor to tell them "if we can't have order here, we'll just end the meeting and go home."
Guess what the homeless people said in response to that.
This isn't a single narrative but a collection of previously published magazine pieces (broadsides?) and essays on the author's journeys (literal and metaphorical), and as this was originally published in the 1980s quite a bit of time is spent on Nicaragua. When Collier and Horowitz are taking the humorless, gullible and inept to task, they're at their best. When they're on one of their anti-communist rants, well, it just feels dated.
What hangs most over this book is not regret, but the ghost of Betty Van Patter. An accountant that Collier and Horowitz persuaded to work with the Black Panthers as a bookkeeper in one of their community projects, Van Patter was apparently murdered by members of the group after she uncovered evidence of embezzlement. Their crushing disillusionment with their own actions and their own illusions stems from this tragedy yet the authors don't oversell this story, they don't excuse or pity themselves. These are two very talent writers who can create a compelling narrative like few others.
Yes, they have their opinions and they couldn't be more up front about them. I enjoy diverse opinions but given a choice I'd rather read a balanced history book than one slanted to any political persuasions. There are exceptions, of course. Paul M. Johnson is an enjoyable writer who isn't afraid of a bit of research and he is a man of fixed opinions but he's quite upfront about his point of view. He doesn't pretend to be unbiased or dispassionate so even though I frequently disagree with his views, I enjoy reading his work. He makes his case and dares you to disagree. He's also frequently laugh out loud funny. The same goes for Eric Hobsbawm, Christopher Hitchens and Susan Jacoby. The tell it as they see it never forgetting to inform and engage along the way.
On occasion I found myself disagreeing with the authors' too sweeping dismissiveness of the possibility that anything positive came from the Sixties. The New Left represented only a portion of the events of that decade and while Collier and Horowitz effectively dismantle any illusions that might remain about that on occasion they write as if the New Left was the only story from that time. I kept coming back to the comments one interviewee made of Fay Stender "It should count for something that she wanted to be a force for good in this world." He could be speaking of a generation.
If you like smart writing with an eye for the absurd and are willing to read and decide for yourself whether or not you agree with the author, this book is highly recommended.