31 May 2009

Watch the Parking Meters

  • Mark Rudd. Underground: My Life with SDS and the Weathermen. William Morrow. April 2009.

The title is slightly misleading. Of the book’s 322 pages, which cover 1966 to the present, Mark Rudd spends almost half of them over-ground—at Columbia, helping lead the famous occupation of 1968. The years underground are a disappointment: unlike his comrade-in-arms and fellow memoirist, Bill Ayers (Fugitive Days), who was a main architect of the “Days of Rage” in 1969 and the infamous bombing campaign, Rudd went sour on the Weathermen early, doing little as a fugitive except trying not to get caught. Scenes of Rudd running from FBI agents dressed as hippies make for fun reading, but they are only interludes in a chronicle marked mostly by episodes of deep regret and self-laceration. 

An angled picture gracing the book’s jacket shows Rudd bellowing into a megaphone—the image that gave Garry Trudeau the character of “Megaphone” Mark Slackmeyer in Doonesbury. From the memoir, it is clear that Rudd has almost entirely lost this booming self-confidence. He appeared throughout the excellent 2003 documentary The Weather Underground (dir. Sam Green), but more than most of the members, he seemed pained by his own recollections. A voiceover read passages from his then unpublished memoir, and from Rudd’s attitude in the film it seemed likely that it would never see the light of day. When the ending credits revealed—as all ’60s documentaries do—that the dispersed violent revolutionaries had settled into peaceful activist life, Rudd stood out: he had ended up inexplicably as a math teacher in a community college in New Mexico, and he had visibly gained more weight than nearly all the other members combined (Ayers and his wife, Bernardine Dohrn, for their part, remain in trim street-fighting form, and they teach at the University of Illinois and Northwestern respectively). Rudd reflects on this fact in the prologue to the memoir:

The closing images of the movie show me as a befuddled, gray-haired, overweight, middle-aged guy observing that thirty years later I still don’t know what to do with my knowledge of who we are in the world; then the film cuts to aerial shots of carpet bombing in Vietnam, and, finally, to a close-up of a skinny twenty-two-year-old kid, the same guy, with the same grief-stricken look on my face. This ending hits audiences like a blade going right to the existential gut of our problem.

“This is not a heroic story,” Rudd writes. “If anything, it’s antiheroic.” The success of the documentary suggested otherwise, and for a brief period afterwards, sympathy for the Weather Underground as quixotic heroes increased dramatically. It meant that Rudd was invited to give talks at campuses and teach-ins all over the country. “The simple astonishing fact that we existed” was what, Rudd reports, reinvigorated enthusiasts found exciting. Americans love a good outlaw story—q.v. the fawning but essentially authoritative history of the group, Dan Berger’s Outlaws of America: The Weather Underground and the Politics of Solidarity—and Rudd’s cohort delivered, without all the nasty casualties that their coevals, the West German Baader-Meinhof gang and the Italian Red Brigades, tallied in their time. This, after all, was the height of the Bush years, when the avenues for some serious change in political direction appeared to be closed off, and a new catastrophic imperialist war was quickly replacing the memory of its ancestor. Where no massive anti-war movement seemed to be forthcoming, it only made sense to hide ourselves in the nostalgia for one already finished.

That a group could express its rage in much the way that a handful of amateur pilots expressed theirs without the loss of life seemed to fulfill a certain national need on the left, something that a steady proliferation of novels on the topic seemed to confirm: Neil Gordon’s The Company We Keep, Russell Banks’ The Darling, Susan Choi’s American Woman, Dana Spiotta’s Eat the Document, Peter Carey’s His Illegal Self, Hari Kunzru’s My Revolutions.1

All of these books make the Weather Underground (or some equivalent violent New Left group) into a crucial component of our national unconscious by giving us characters who hide their radical experiences into middle age. But they also make these experiences exciting; as they condemn their creations by resurrecting stale, shrill rhetoric (“OFF THE PIG!” “SMASH CAPITALISM!” etc), they sympathize as well. Elegies for a past politics that could never return, they discounted the possibility of politics in the world they now inhabited.

Rudd’s memoir could be tempted into this error as well, except that Rudd complicates the history of the old politics to the point that this history becomes nearly unsalvageable. Every positive event is recalibrated in the light of new information and rethinking, so that their old impulses appear mixed at best. A case in point is his evocation of the occupation of Columbia in 1968—a powerfully iconic event that has weighed like a nightmare on all later attendees of that university (including myself). After his arrival at Columbia in the mid ’60s, Rudd’s work in Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and his promiscuous reading outside the University’s vaunted core curriculum lead him to raging youth status. A chaotic few days of protests against the University’s “imperialist” plan to construct a gym on Morningside Park in the heart of Harlem leads—quite spontaneously in Rudd’s recollection—to the occupation of two, three, many campus buildings.

It starts out as “a disaster,” Rudd tells us, in typically self-deprecating fashion. Pressure among students for civil disobedience had been building over time, and, as Rudd tells it, it finally came to a head when he took shaky control of a group of 500 protesters at the campus sundial (the center of the campus quad), and ordered a group of them to attack the gym site. It was a mistake, because it led to an unnecessary dispersal of forces, which  a leader from the Society of Afro-American Students was able to forcefully redirect towards the university buildings. The resulting occupation of the campus was one of the major triumphs in 1968, and also the spur to developing a newly confrontational left in the years to come. Against his tendency to regret, Rudd is thankfully faithful here to the ecstasy of communal life and the glimmerings of a “new society” present in the occupation. However, though he does not deny taking a leading role in these actions, he is careful to deflate the positive aspects of this role, giving more weight to the African-American radicals who worked behind the scenes, and whom subsequent histories have washed out of the picture. At any point in the memoir, when one is tempted to look happily upon the achievements and passion of the students, Rudd reminds us that racism and sexism were always at play. Other New Left memoirs like to remind us “what it was like,” the zesty combination of tear gas and pot smoke, the inarticulate passion that we postmoderns lack the courage to summon up. “Remember!” they cry. Rudd, by contrast, persuasively asks us to forget.

Then there is the matter of the Weathermen themselves, the most famous of the violent New Left groups that sprung up in the early ’70s. They emerged from the crack-up of SDS at their 1969 meeting in Flint, Michigan. Or rather, as Rudd confesses (confirming what SDS founders like Todd Gitlin had been saying for years), the “crack-up” was essentially a palace coup. It was, Rudd admits, “a crime.” The charge seems indisputable. Already riven by the growth of the Maoist Progessive Labor group within their ranks, who were calling for clean-cut groups of Red Guard-style bands to draw their strength from the masses, SDS finally succumbed to a group of radicals who advocated guerrilla warfare within the United States, who (as everyone knows) took their title, and apparently the wrong message, from Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues”: “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.” For anyone who has spent time among activist groups of any stripe, or just spent time reading about them, the factionalism that Rudd describes will seem wearyingly familiar. These are some of the duller portions of the book, and it would have been dishonest for Rudd to make them exciting.

Still, it’s hard not to mourn, as Rudd does, as so many do, the loss of SDS. While he makes clear that it suffered from rampant sexism and a lack of theoretical discipline, it may have represented the best organizational hope for white bourgeois students to transform US politics. Nearly alone among far left groups, it had a number of extremely articulate representatives, giving the lie to Joan Didion’s repeated charge in those days that young people had lost control over their language. Both Rudd and Ayers make much of hearing SDS co-founder Paul Potter’s magnificent speech at the Vietnam Day march in 1965, in which he asked supporters to “name” the system that “justifies the United States … seizing the destinies of the Vietnamese people and using them callously for its own purpose”: “We must name that system. We must name it, describe it, analyze it, understand it and change it.”

What was new about late ’60s politics was the insistence, of the Weathermen and many, many left groups like it, on a sense of solidarity with the peoples of the world. Among the students, there was a powerful sense of there being “one oppressor,” as Bill Sales, leader of the SAS at Columbia, says in the book. “To strike a blow at the gym,” he goes on, “you strike a blow for the Vietnamese people.” Activists were convinced of the global nature of any local action (a slightly more obscure argument than the “think globally, act locally” slogan of the times), which led to the erasure of national difference in political thinking. It was with such a mindset that Ernesto “Che” Guevara waltzed heedlessly into the Congo, and to his death in Bolivia, believing that the whole world was like the Sierra Maestra. It goes without saying that Che figures prominently in the book, but as a cautionary, reckless figure, rather than the hero status he occupied for the budding guerrilleros of Norteamerica. There is an amazing anecdote that one of Rudd’s Weather comrades Gerry Long tells about meeting Castro in a “solidarity” trip. Castro greets the students, speaks casually and nonchalantly about Vietnam, the inevitability of an American failure:

“He wasn’t really paying us much attention. His mind definitely seemed to be elsewhere. … Finally he just stopped, and we were quiet for a short time. Then he blurted out, ‘You know, something very troubling has just happened. A friend in the Bolivian government sent us a package; it arrived yesterday. Che’s hands, his very hands, preserved. Before they destroyed his body, they just chopped off his hands to prove they had him. They were definitely his hands, I recognized them. I don’t know what to do with them.’”

The grotesque consequences of Che’s foquismo strategy—relying on a band, or foco, of guerrillas in the countryside to foment revolution—were, of course, utterly lost on the Weathermen. They read Regis Debray’s treatise on guerrilla warfare Revolution within the Revolution? obsessively and applied its dubious insights to the poorly understood American scene. Debray, who traveled with Che’s small band in Bolivia until he was arrested, abjured Che’s tactics later in life, as he abjured the politics of solidarity that it (and the students) evinced. “In France,” wrote Debray, commemorating the events of May ’68, “all the Columbuses of modernity thought that behind Godard they were discovering China in Paris, when in fact they were landing in California.” A story in Underground suggests a similar sense of confusion: the month after the Columbia occupation, Rudd received a telegram from Paris, “WE’VE OCCUPIED A BUILDING IN YOUR HONOR. WHAT DO WE DO NOW?” “I don’t remember our answer,” Rudd tells us. Presumably there wasn’t one.

Underground’s dialectic of diminishing returns is one of “organizing to building a movement” (the antiwar movement) to mere “self-expression” (the Weathermen). For Rudd, the latter was intimately bound up with a perverse sexual politics. In Ayers’ unfiltered memoir, this still appears lurid and exciting, but for Rudd it is merely silly, if not objectively harmful. Underground opens with Rudd visiting a psychiatrist (the visits are funded by his family), to whom he complains that Columbia isn’t affording him enough promiscuous sex. In a painful twist, the record of these visits end up as a mark of psychic imbalance for the military draft board, keeping Rudd from being sent to Vietnam—only to push the burden, as Rudd honestly points out, onto the less fortunate, who could not afford the psychiatric appointments that saved him. His celebrity after Columbia solves the problem of sex rather well, inducing a number of women, excluded from the active political life of the left, to latch onto his charismatic figure. “The [sexual] encounter would seem to both of us to be kind of political event, an encounter with the revolution in bed”—the brighter side of the coin to Eldridge Cleaver’s “Rape was an insurrectionary act” in Soul on Ice. The Weathermen’s desire to “smash monogamy” produces one of the most incredible images of the book, when Rudd opens a closet door in a Weathermen apartment to find an enormous pile of women’s hair-dryers, silently testifying to the sloughed-off selves of past lives. Again, he is careful not to valorize these attempts in any way, and one emerges from the book realizing that the results of the New Left’s heady combination of aggressiveness, sexism, and weak internationalism became best embodied in a women’s magazine: Cosmopolitan.

Everything Rudd does both over- and underground appears as a site of irresolvable contradiction. Speaking to reporters at a press conference after Columbia, Rudd explains that the elites who run the country would “one day be smashed by the power of the American GIs and American people fighting together for their freedom.” He accentuates the point by breaking an officer’s swagger stick in half—which he had “pre-broken” and taped back together the night before, to ensure that it didn’t go wrong the next day. Wealth girds the whole underground operation: Rudd is arrested, and stockbrokers put up shares of IBM to get him released on bail. And Vietnam is never far from the picture. In order to stay alive underground, Rudd takes a job in the port at San Francisco, packing up unmarked crates to be sent to Southeast Asia. It only occurs to him later that these might be munitions shipments for the war he hates. Hitchhiking around the west coast under a false name, among the communes and coffeehouses that represented the ’60s most characteristic political gesture, The Great Refusal, the “calculated withdrawal from the life of the Republic, from its machinery” (Pynchon), he arrives at a collective of shacks and tepees, where he finds one of the participants “covered with open and weeping sores.” The man explains that he is on an all-raw-vegetable cleansing diet. “That’s just the poisons coming out of my system.” At this point, Rudd escapes to New Mexico, then to Pennsylvania, only finally to turn himself in.


Most people in the US do not need Rudd’s regrets to know that the Weathermen were often worse than useless, that the history of the New Left and the larger antiwar movement (the most hated political entity at the time) is not rosy in the least. Yet this casual dismissal has been repeatedly countered by the nation’s unconscious in recent years, suggesting a pervasive inability to disregard and to forget. Rudd’s own memoir received a sizable number of spiteful reviews, by authors who wondered what young person left in Obama’s America still believed that politics lay in a thrown brick or a ticking bomb. (Compare, if you would, the rapture which greeted former Secretary of Defense Robert S. MacNamara, a textbook case in the “banality of evil,” upon his mournful half-confession in his memoir In Retrospect and Errol Morris’ Fog of War.) I have mentioned the “hidden lives” conjured by the spate of “Weather Underground novels,” and it should have come as no surprise that these fictional stories would turn into a real-life political smear tactic when the McCain-Palin campaign attempted to associate then-candidate Barack Obama’s past with one of the Weathermen’s most prominent members. (The canny publisher of Bill Ayers’ memoir rushed it back into print with a new afterword.) Before that, there was the 2005 revelation that “Deep Throat,” the government informant who gave Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein their best Watergate information, had been none other than Mark Felt—the FBI agent in charge of leading illegal surveillance over the Weathermen. His blatant disregard for the law meant that none of the Weathermen could be tried for their crimes, but it also meant that, since he had “acted on high principle,” he had would earn a pardon from Ronald Reagan.

Pardon: it was one of the few truths of Schindler’s List to point out that saying “I pardon you” is the purest expression of political power. President Ford pardoned disgraced former President Nixon, and President Obama struggles to maintain his unofficial pardon of CIA agents guilty of torture. Over all these larger, minor forgivings hovers the great pardon the US has been tacitly offering itself over its conduct in Vietnam—a similar (though by no means equivalent) self-forgiveness partly rules over the war in Iraq and over the logic that allows the war to be shifted substantially to Afghanistan. Rudd concludes with the declaration that we need “a truth and reconciliation” process in order to exorcise Vietnam from our ruling order, a process that might free the many political prisoners who still suffer from the war’s consequences. But, unlike South Africa, no transformation has expelled the architects and supporters and criminals of the Vietnam War from our political life; the United States is far from capable of indulging that kind of auto-critique. In such a climate, we could only be reconciled to the truth that already governs our ruling ideologies.

My own knowledge of who Mark Rudd was came in first week at Columbia, when a group of activists screened the Newsreel film Columbia Revolt, but I became obsessed with the Weathermen when I began working after finishing university. The wars filled me with rage and incapacity; the only way I could explain it to myself was by learning about Vietnam. It was the Weathermen who seemed—on the most naïve and careless of readings—to have a terrible clarity to their actions. “This bomb is for Salvador Allende; this bomb is for Cambodia.” Everything was connected to everything else, and every violent disturbance was an act of “education.” Why not now?

To read any history of the Vietnam War is to read what appear as the exact same lies and rationalizations; it is also to feel effortlessly those paranoid connections between disparate nations and peoples that constituted the New Left’s disastrous understanding of “solidarity.” Internationalism across time and space is an artifice; it is only a way of coping with processes instead of understanding them, and it is effectively a means of inducing consent. When our local actions appear to be participative in some larger “struggle,” the sublime clarity that results is only an illusion, and we should be glad to fall back into ourselves from that frenzy of terror and beauty: to realize that not all such actions are international, that “every little action helps” does not help at all.

This is why the attempts of the crustier and more arrogant surviving members of the New Left to make the young of today feel inadequate are so corrosive. Mark Rudd does everyone a service in putting to rest the myth of the “greatest generation” of political activism. There is much to learn from his era—but not that much. If an alert memory is a virtue, then so, too, is a certain willful forgetting. More dangers can be found in the present, and among the living. We should worry that the calculated withdrawal may have become an equally calculated reinsertion; that our current President, who roused so many of the youth from slothful indecision to convulsive activity, has vindicated public institutions that we were once right to despise. But we should not worry that our efforts pale in comparison to a past generation, whose insights into our present are great, but limited. It was for this reason that, when I saw Rudd give a talk on his book at Berkeley several weeks ago, seeing an audience composed almost exclusively composed of aging, white radicals filled me, strangely, with relief. He signed my book with a caution: “Don’t try this at home!” Ha ha, Mark. Not a chance.

1 The only deaths the Weathermen were responsible for were among their own ranks, when four members were killed in an accidental bomb detonation at 18 West 11th Street. Intended for an army ball at Fort Dix, the bomb and its grim results shook the Weathermen into issuing warnings for every future bomb placement, to avoid (successfully) the loss of life.

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