In 1975 Sissy Spacek, Art Carney, and Henry Winkler starred in a made-for-TV movie with the rather tranquil title Katherine. Though you can find the film on YouTube, it's little known today, in part because it is a TV movie that lacks sufficient ridiculousness for the standards of younger cinema cultists and lacks sufficient sentimentality for those of the generation the film depicts. Rather than an idealistic and campy rendering of a notable period of American culture, it is a bleak and sober retelling of one person's life story that is riddled with bad consequences and drained almost entirely of optimism.
Katherine tells the story of an all-American debutante who descends from her upper class manor to an underground collective with the ambition to overthrow the United States government. Her descent is prompted by a variety of things: the witnessing of class conflict in Guatemala as an aid worker; the failure to run an experimental elementary school in the urban Midwest; the escalation of the war in Vietnam; the failure of the nonviolent movement against the war in Vietnam; the meeting of a charismatic activist-boyfriend; and, lest filmmakers be accused of negligence, classic white guilt. Her choices to forsake the comforts of her upbringing in order to create a different kind of world leads her into nihilism and self-destruction, culminating in her accidental death by a bombing. There is no redemption, no uplifting moral; it is the equivalent of a rough draft of a ghostwritten suicide note.
The film is based on the life of Diana Oughton, member of the militant leftist group called the Weathermen, whose invisibility on the cultural and political scene runs contrary to the impact a single event that derailed all the goals she wanted to achieve as well as the movement through which she wanted to achieve them. Upon her death forty years ago this past March, Diana Oughton became a peculiar icon for a version of a cause that was unfashionable then and even more so now. She is now under an inconspicuous headstone in her home state of Illinois, though she might be better memorialized buried under rubble and flame as the result of a bomb-building mishap in the sub-basement of a posh Greenwich Village townhouse.
Oughton along with four other collaborators occupied the townhouse, owned by the father of one of the group's members, Cathy Wilkerson, with the intention of planning and launching aggressive attacks. Having unsuccessfully experimented with Molotov cocktails, they set about drafting plans of such violence as to traumatize the American people into seeing the error of their ways. The plan that led to her death and the death of two others revolved around setting off a nail bomb at a non-commissioned officer's dance at Fort Dix, a plan that if carried out would have taken many lives while scarring the survivors with shrapnel.
What Oughton had meant to be a prelude to a spree of terrorism was really an endgame of desperation as means for political change. Whereas many of the people who shared her cause are remembered, honored even, for having died in some manner of valiance, she is faintly remembered for having died in a more human manner, the kind of death which makes up for its lack of glory, glamour, and dignity with shame, gore, and isolation. Though her barely famous 1969 mug shot clearly displays a righteous chilling anger absent from the posturing of colleagues such as Bill Ayers, she ended up being notable for misdirected anger, and her cause—now remembered under the umbrella term “New Left”—notable for malignancy, miscalculation, and failure. It is one of the few movements in American history that the public can look upon with stark fatalism.
To be sure, the radical left of Oughton is not the radical left of aging baby boomers who tend to emphasize the rightness of the causes they fought for and justness of those means they choose to remember. To the boomers' knowledge they did not hole themselves up in urban “collectives,” stewing in filth and paranoia; they did not profess admiration for Ho Chi Minh or brandish the flag of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam at demonstrations; they did not accuse American soldiers of murder or genocide; they did not “smash” monogamy; they did not vandalize gravestones; they did not try to insight fights on beaches, in restaurant parking lots, in high schools or with the Chicago police; they certainly did not build or set off bombs. They did do copious amounts of drugs, and they probably made it a point to insert the word “bourgeois” whenever possible into conversation, slogans, debate and maybe even pillow talk. But that is the extent to which they'll admit to having in common with the Weathermen.
In the four decades following Oughton's death, many of us claim that we learned all there is to learn about the townhouse collective, the Weathermen, and the overall cause of radicalism, including the lesson that in this age of all-out war on terror, to go down avenues of radical militancy would be an unequivocally misguided choice. Even the surviving Weathermen concede, often in their back-pedaling memoirs, that while Oughton was largely right in regards to the cause she was fighting for, that does not mean that she wasn't also very wrong in the means with which she fought. Sound judgments in hindsight, but judgments that have little to offer the radical young. What, the current generation should rightly ask, is worth fighting for? How should we fight?
The chief problem that renders radicalism in such an abhorrent light is the very motivation behind the existence of many of the most radical groups. Organizations like the Weathermen existed almost entirely for political purposes. They went about fulfilling those purposes in a way that seemed simple at best, lobotomized at worst. The Weathermen's politics—mix parts of Mao, Mills and Marcuse; shake violently and serve—were neither new nor fascinating, and all the group seemed to invite was endless infighting before and after its founding. The Weathermen were almost a faction of a faction, evolving out of the Jesse James Gang—of which Oughton, Ayers, and townhouse victim Terry Robbins were original members—which was a violence-friendly branch of the Students for a Democratic Society.
If it seemed that the New Left's substance was comprised almost entirely of emotional havoc-raising, a kind of cocktail of anger, exuberance, imagination, intolerance and distrust, that is less than a stone's throw away from the basic truth. Any semblance of a political vision seemed to have been created out of incident or to obscure their greater drive for primal confrontation, just as the U.S. seemed to have been doing at the time but with more sincere intent: making America's democratic vision seem compatible with waging the kind of war in which each passing day saw a tactic that breached a previously held rule or crossed boundaries into decidedly less democratic territory.
Bickering and the forming of what basically amounts to extreme cliques has been a mark of authenticity for the left since the First International, but clearly a mark of severe weakness. The New Left did have a decent run, but it had splintered off into more focused special-interest groups—feminism, gay rights, multiculturalism, critical legal studies, etc.—and thriving in the academy well into the 1990s. The unity of the New Left grew more abstract over time, while at the same time the unity of their foes was becoming more concrete, almost unbreakable. The right, having learned from its mistakes in 1964, had reached an ironclad consensus that has bore them great political influence and success, and any dissent from within it was roundly ignored.
But if our current political climate is anything to go by, their defeat was not so much the result of a resurgent right as that of a resurgent Old Left—focused on corporate culture, labor relations, and globalization—which was led by the likes of Naomi Klein and Thomas Frank. When compared to the resurgent, modernized Old Left, the New Left seems too rabid, too fevered to manage power; their cultural passions and political theories seemed only to ignite within its followers a classic Socratic corruption of youth. While Bill Ayers wanted so much to replace the current system of government with something “more humane,” as he put it in The Weather Underground, that was not to be. Even if the radicals were successful in replacing our republic with their version of a people's republic, it would be a spectacular misuse of their energy and a waste of their potential.
The possibilities of radical political change in the United States are as dim as they've ever been, but for the New Left, they are practically pitch black. The ideas and policies of the Old Left represent the extent to which Americans will tolerate such an ideology. For whatever useful advice they may have in revising, correcting, or even abolishing capitalism when it is at its weakest, these will fall dramatically out of favor once the economy rights itself, as far as a center-right public sees it, and they will be sidelined almost entirely until the next economic downturn, appearing only in movement journals or if they're needed to make some sense of the WTO or G-20 protests.
Still, society's sporadic and begrudging respect of the Old Left seems preferable to the state of exile the New Left now finds itself in. The recently revitalized SDS does not have the presence it once had, despite the fact that the circumstances that drove—but also destroyed—the original organization have reproduced themselves in our time. Many sincere political efforts have been overshadowed by activist stunts that amount only to embarrassment, such as the takeover of an NYU food court in February of 2009 by radical students who appeared to be more interested in sensationalizing the inconvenience they posed to authority figures than in making coherent demands. Meanwhile other radicals are getting more exposure to the anarchist libertarianism of Murray Rothbard and Karl Hess, both of whom were aligned at one point or another with the New Left.
What remains then is the temperament, the New Left's greatest asset and a resource current countercultures have yet to tap. From a cultural and social standpoint, the advent of post-punk has come closest to giving the anger of the New Left a greater sense of purpose while retaining, if not intensifying, its core attraction to the youth. Rather than preoccupy themselves with warfare in order to change “the Establishment,” punk subcultures attempted to secede from it, better embodying the term counterculture. Though it was only a slightly longer period of time until even this movement became reintroduced back into the mainstream on the terms of the mainstream, leaving those most passionate wondering whether there was ever a point to any of it. Perhaps the most appropriate test groups then are the remnants of punk's identity politics and their close allies, those too unattractive or not apolitical enough to be fully accepted for general consumption.
A new Riot Grrl movement can vigorously challenge the current crop of young feminists, who take overwhelming interest in analyzing pop culture for blog page views, polemicizing the cover of Elle, or Sarah Palin's Facebook notes. These contrarian feminists could ably rebuke the snark-laden pop feminists by focusing less on matters of empowerment through pop culture and more on the why of oppression rather than the how with a matter-of-fact brutality recalling some of Andrea Dworkin's best rhetorical damnation. Homosexuals with a more subversive streak can also benefit. They will have an outlet in taking on the pressures of the liberals to put their sense of victimization first, the pressure of the pro-gay marriage conservatives to assimilate and to confront the general public with the view that homosexuality is human, capable of genuine rage and not the cartoon hedonism many make it out to be. These are to name but two out of many possibilities.
I am hardly demanding that every seemingly freethinking young person take a role in the Weathermen's idiosyncratic Theatre of Cruelty, or to Xerox the sincere vitriol of the New Left, or to “take back” our own ironic, impish times. In any case, if the influence and strategies of the New Left in general and the Weathermen specifically find life in future Leftist movements, they are submissive to the varying degrees of sincerity and self-interest of their new leaders which must be reconciled with the best response to address the conflicts of their times.
This is not to say that I don't have hopes for such endeavors. Perhaps those who are more sincere in perpetuating the New Left's principles will learn to say things with the same gravity with which the Weathermen acted. Perhaps in doing so they will blur the line partitioning the mischievous and the sinister to such a degree that riots need not be incited. Dread alone can remind whoever the bourgeois are these days that there are still Others out there. Whatever may come, the simplest lesson we can take from the movement is that to be adversarial in a society that perpetuates a social humidity of center-right compromise is unambiguously good. It is imperative that radical young aggressors can counter the arrogance of the center-right with ideals that become demands that become actions, and can do so knowing the difference between hostility and hysteria.