May 23, 2013
Carol Brightman on the 1960s
Posted on Jan 3, 2008
Leadership was an important tenet in SDS. Organizational, regional and sometimes chapter leaders were endowed with extraordinary powers, which had less to do with the values they had picked up from the rank-and-file membership than the ideas they shared with each other. The need for secrecy steadily grew out of this subtle distinction. As the gap between members and leaders grew greater, the secrecy about decisions being made at the top became more pronounced. Weatherman, for example, which arose from the collapse of SDS in 1969, didn’t hesitate to use secrecy about strategic planning to keep order in the ranks. The original ideals of “participatory democracy” as announced in SDS’ founding Port Huron Statement of 1962 had, by this time, become a casualty of the sectarian strife that split the organization and the Leninist ambitions of some of its most zealous activists. Oglesby, who refused to follow the Weatherman line, was, in this sense, no longer a leader of SDS. The issue of whether or not to embrace violence was at the heart of his disaffection from his former comrades.
Oglesby gives both sides of the argument against violence after the 1970 townhouse explosion, quoting radical filmmaker Robert Kramer (whose apocalyptic movie “Ice” was a fevered depiction of a fascist America which a persecuted radical urban guerrilla resistance seeks to overthrow) as saying: “We have to realize that the rulers of the American empire are not going to roll over and play dead in the face of the kind of moralistic entreaties that you seem to go for.” Oglesby retorts: “As a quick and dirty first estimate, I would say that [my view] is at least ten orders of magnitude more plausible than your pipe-bomb dreams.”
Daily events, however, kept the issue of violence in the air. Three days after the townhouse explosion came word that Ralph Featherstone and Che Payne, two field secretaries for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), were killed when a bomb exploded in their car. Then, on March 11, a large bomb blew out the side of a Maryland courthouse. And the next day, in the early morning hours, bombs exploded in three Manhattan skyscrapers housing the offices of Socony Mobil, IBM, and General Telephone and Electronics. A previously unknown group called “Revolutionary Force 9” gave the police a half hour’s notice to clear the buildings. Weatherman wasn’t responsible as it was still reeling from the self-inflicted disaster of the townhouse explosion. But this spate of bombings made it clear that the Weathermen weren’t alone in their rage and despair. Nor, clearly, were they alone in their willingness to violently resist the American imperium.
In the months that followed, the American public’s approval of Nixon’s handling of the war would drop from 64 to 46 percent; but Oglesby maintained his faith in the persuasive power of nonviolent tactics. “We started from nowhere five years ago,” he told Kramer, “and now almost half the American people are against the war.” They shared a commune in rural Vermont, where Kramer ran a firing range in the back fields. “Nixon cares what people think?” Kramer exploded. “Refusing to pick up the gun is the best possible way to make everything we’ve won so far meaningless.” And on and on it went, until Oglesby felt he had to leave. Even if the demonstrations against the war were attracting fewer and fewer people, he had faith in nothing else.
Oglesby’s view of the war’s ending is strange. Not Weatherman, or the broader movement whose nonviolence Weatherman scorned, and not outrage in Congress either; it was Watergate that did it, he maintains, beginning with the arrest of the burglars at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in Washington on June 17, 1972, and ending with Nixon’s resignation on Aug. 8, 1974. SDS, he writes, no doubt “helped” set the stage for the final act, “but by that time it [the war] had already long since been carried from the field in a body bag, dead for as long as it had been alive.” This wording is unfortunate, as if Oglesby is standing centuries away from the war’s bitter carnage.
Susan Sherman’s “America’s Child” is a book in two parts. The first, which begins in Berkeley in the 1950s, reads like a string of clichés, broken by lines such as “I can’t imagine those years without them.” The second, which follows a trip to the Cultural Congress of Havana in 1967, reads very differently. In the first part, love happens, “sudden, unexpected, sure ... a moment I knew instantly would remain recorded in my memory to the last detail.” And you’re nearly asleep when a 1961 visit home to Los Angeles arouses you. Sherman’s stepfather, who had once been the Hollywood agent for Abbott and Costello, is reading about a Berkeley demonstration against the HUAC hearings, drops his paper and announces that if she was involved in it (she was) he would be the first to turn her in to the FBI.
Her brief account of the history of her family—poor Jews who left her mother with a hunger for lying to herself—is horrific. The mother finds herself married to her second husband, the stepfather, fleeing the impoverished suffocations of Philadelphia to the beckoning glamour of Beverly Hills, hobnobbing with movie stars, and then, when it all goes south, sliding downhill, to a tiny run-down apartment on the wrong side of Sunset Boulevard, living with a now bitter old man, a box of cigars and a few pieces of silver. The mother made a virtue of forgetfulness, and Sherman, to her credit, does not.
More love, this in the chapter called “Coming Out.” “Touching Sylvia’s face, her arms, tentatively ... the passion growing from within, extending out through my fingers. ...” We’re in New York now; it’s a humid July afternoon. “... [T]he touch of her breasts, her legs, reaching slowly, hesitantly, the curve behind her ear ... as she reaches down, between my knees, my thighs, touching me as I touch her ... moist, probing inward, searching. ...” You get the idea.
In the early 1960s, when Sherman moves to the Lower East Side, she is unaware of the forces that drive her and the world around her. “I moved in a state of grace,” she says. She recalls the Deux Megots, the coffeehouse run by Mickey Ruskin, who later owned The Ninth Circle, then Max’s Kansas City, famous as a hangout for Andy Warhol. It was at the Deux Megots where she learns to write poetry. She is never sure how much she, or the others in her crowd, broke through “the cerebral fences that dictated even in that bohemian context what was expected in both our poems and our lives.”
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