Thursday, October 16, 2008

Obama, the Weathermen, and the American Left

Once again, I'm out of the country during a Federal election. This is starting to become a habit.

Much more interesting is the current American campaign. It has become increasingly nasty these last few weeks; google around for some of the videos taken outside McCain campaign events. The American popular right is slipping into insanity, and it is a great deal of fun to watch.

However, that is not the most fascinating issue. One of the common McCain campaign attacks against Barack Obama is his association with William Ayers, a former member of the Weathermen Underground. The Weathermen, these days, are simply called "terrorists" and as such lumped in with al Queda and other such criminals. Barack served on a board together with Ayers, and so the attempt has been made to tarnish him as a friend of terrorists.

The response by the American left has been to downplay the association; they point out that the link is tenuous, and that Obama himself has condemned Ayers' old radicalism.

In terms of calculating and promoting Obama's electability, this is the politically "necessary" response. The actions of the Weathermen are simply too far outside the realm of public acceptability for any association with them to be politically viable.

Even more than this, it shows just how far behind we have left the glory days of the left. The Weathermen were certainly extremists and radicals in their day, but they were a part of the discussion. The left's strategy of defending Obama by attempting to erase the Weathermen is an indication that any concept of radical leftism is now excluded from the discussion, by both left and right. What we are left with is the fashionable liberal humanism, whose only resource is to shriek about "choice."

So who were the Weathermen? Old school revolutionary bomb throwers. They were the extreme end of the upheavels of the 1960s; dedicated to the violent overthrow of the United States Government, they bombed banks and police stations. They organized riots (in rich neighborhoods) and even a few jailbreaks. They engaged in armed robberies. They fought for civil rights, allying themselves with the Black Panthers and worked against the war in Vietnam. In short, they represented one of the few points in American political history when a handful of people stood up and refused to play by the rules.

In the early 1960s, a grouped called the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) was founded, based upon the non-violent model of the civil rights movement. Near the end of the '60s, internal disputes (whose dynamics very much mirred religious schisms; every community of believers faces this pitfall) tore the group apart. The Weathermen kind of staged a coup; they took over the SDS apparatus and went national. A very messy period that produced all sorts of acrimony and resentment.

From there, they took off. They attempted to form essentially military communities, disciplined and regimented. This in itself is fairly fascinating; rarely do North Americans attempt any sort of true discipline (outside the actual military, of course).

The left was always ambivilant about them. Even the Black Panthers eventually disowned them. They found themselves alone and in crisis; after several years on the run, living in ramshackle conditions, the group fell apart.

Their main insistence was that any passivity at all was itself a violence; all the failings and violence of capitalism could only exist when the people participated in it, actively or passively.

They had all sorts of failings. Their attempts at sexual liberation seemed to mostly fail in misery and tears. They considered monogamy to a primary building block of the social order. In this, they agree with current conservatives arguing against gay marriage. Whoever is correct, the Weathermen met many problems surrounding their sexual project. Another failing is the occasional element of misplaced rhetoric; at least one member publically called the U.S. the "most violence nation in history."

So I really just want to say two things in this post: first, the left needs to remember the Weathermen. Their utter willingness to sacrifice everything for an Idea is all but absent these days. Secondly, it is an utter shame that the link between Obama and Ayers isn't stronger.

Watch the Weather Underground documentary at Google Video.


dan said...

I also find the connection between Obama and terrorism to be interesting... although for different reasons. Namely, I find it interesting because McCain was flying a bomber during Vietnam and so his connection with acts of terror is far more intimate. McCain was a terrorist, whereas Obama only served on a board with a fellow who was a terrorist.

Mike said...

Yeah, that too. McCain has all sorts of nasty skeletons.

Anonymous said...

Great blog. Wandered into this post via Blood Meridian. I mean holy heck, someone with the audacity to drag philosophy into the blogosphere--good luck buddy!

I kept hearing this new catch phrase in the news cycle today, that Obama's advertising had "sucked all the oxygen out of McCain's ability to communicate his message." I think your post perfectly reflects this "sucking the oxygen" out of our historical past with regard to the sixties, not to mention the "sucking the oxygen" out of the discourse as a whole when politics lose any philosophical grounding and simply become the sport of overstretched, domineering, numbingly-normalizing, medium-is-the-message hegemonies. The discourse has been co-opted to the extent that a tax-and-spend contractarian is the virtual equivalent of Vladimir Lenin. It's just ridiculous. Comrade.

I see two-things happening as the sixties becomes mythologized in pomo-Americana culture. Basically it equates to a colonial transaction of taking all the individuality/"lib" stuff while implicitly denying the broader cultural and political impact that accompanied things which we now predicate as mere personal commodities. And there is an obvious dynamic of social regress at work, because suddenly anyone with a view that is slightly left of center (well, make that left of right) has to defend their views with appeals to a new version of conservative U.S. history that frankly never existed. A good example is the recent leak of a 2001 Obama radio interview in which he simply equated the advancement of individual rights with economic opportunity, saying that he was saddened that this logical progression toward economic rights has taken so long to occur when it is a consequence of any attempt to make a more equal society. The tape came out and it was just sad because even in this "change" election they could not defend his statements by defending the fundamental thesis they presented, that civil rights are inextricably linked to economic rights. That would have been a hail mary, at best. I don't quite recall what happened, but I believe the story got flushed simply because the statements were taken slightly out of context, or something else that was external to the view itself. I mean talk about sucking the oxygen out of real discourse. If I'd known that we were plunging back into the post-War fifties, I would have requested a nice big Cadillac to accommodate the volume of my personal ignorance. Neato!

But how would you characterize the current dynamic? And are there any tried-and-true minds out there whom you would consult in doing so?