Sunday, May 5, 2013

Looking Back on an Era: Peter Collier and David Horowitz's Destructive Generation (1997) & Paul Berman's A Tale of Two Utopias (1997)

In a 1994 episode of Law & Order called "White Rabbit," assistant D.A. Jack McCoy (Sam Waterston) is prosecuting a political fugitive from the Sixties who is found guilty in the murder of a policeman years earlier. When he shortly after reflects on the sentencing deal he offers her, he becomes rather wistful. "She'll be in jail until 2003," he comments to his younger assistant Claire Kincaid (Jill Hennessy). "I think the Sixties should be over by then." Now ten years after that former fugitive presumably won her freedom, it's doubtful that Jack McCoy got his wish. The decade turns out not to be so easily put to rest. Most of what we experience today politically, socially and culturally is still being measured by the turbulence of that decade. I'm not suggesting this in any paternal way to those in the present, as if it's just too bad that you weren't there. It's simply that it's hard to think of any other decade (aside from perhaps the Thirties) that has divided as many people as the Sixties did. (A new film from Robert Redford, The Company You Keep, proves the point by continuing to stir up the pot with a story about a contemporary journalist who is on the trail of a Sixties anti-war fugitive.) Nobody ever argues with any passion about the Eighties or Nineties, just as nobody really argued about the Forties and Fifties. (Although many said they were glad to have survived them.) And though history has wrought numerous contentious periods, no other decade this century seems as alive with prickly debate as the Sixties. The decade may be a half century behind us, but it isn't dead and buried as Jack McCoy had hoped.

The continued life of the Sixties is not just a matter of seeing ongoing baby boom nostalgia for oldies tunes, or occasionally seeing John Sebastian on television in a cardigan encouraging us to remember Woodstock; there are real political issues that haven't gone away. Every decade since then has seemed more like a reaction to it. Considering the current agenda of the Tea Party and its right-wing constituents, they have gained their momentum by attacking any issue that had its roots in the Sixties. Their idea of progress is the opposite of the Sixties: they choose to slash, rather than build on what came before. What I suspect also makes the Sixties so volatile a subject, even today, is that it was the last decade in which people felt the urgent promise of possibility. They had a feeling of boundaries being stretched, history being made, wrongs being addressed, and alternatives being tried. And these possibilities were being shared by diverse groups who also shared a utopian vision. It was a time, as critic Greil Marcus once said (in writing about The Beatles), when you could join a group and find your individuality.

But this period also had its shadow side. The utopian promise of The Beatles was soon blighted by the Manson Family. The militant non-violence of Martin Luther King Jr. was transformed into the violent revolt of The Black Panther Party. The Students for a Democratic Society ultimately abandoned democracy, and embraced bombs, as the Weathermen. And Woodstock's peace and love would be shattered by the violence and death months later at Altamont. Promises were broken and promises were dashed. Two books from the late Nineties, Paul Berman's A Tale of Two Utopias (1997) and Peter Collier and David Horowitz's Destructive Generation (1997), are impassioned attempts to come terms with those broken promises. Both books, in their radically different ways, are important works in understanding why the decade lingered.

Destructive Generation, which was first published in 1989, appraises the Sixties as a time in which "American mischief fermented into American mayhem." For Collier and Horowitz, who once manned the barricades as editors of Ramparts magazine, only to become in the Eighties "Lefties for Reagan," the Sixties was an acting out of the political psychopathology of Dostoyevsky's The Possessed. Political terror became inevitable, according to Collier and Horowitz, in an era in which they saw the political ends justifying the means. That view is explored in a number of powerful, vivid essays on some of the key political activists of the period. This includes a chilling portrait of the Jekyll/Hyde persona of the late Black Panther co-founder, Huey P. Newton, and a compassionate one of radical lawyer Fay Stender, who defended black revolutionary George Jackson, only to reap a horrific conclusion for her efforts. Collier and Horowitz also demonstrate acute psychological deftness in their reading of the evolution of the Weathermen movement, which sought to bring down the American government through violence, but only succeeded in destroying itself.

co-author David Horowitz
At its best, Destructive Generation shows how student radicalism turned into a crude form of anti-Americanism (just as Stalinism a generation earlier corrupted the American democratic left). The Vietnam War was dividing the country and ushered in a period of self-hatred in which America (in its own eyes) became the personification of evil – and Ho Chi Minh became a savior. But Collier and Horowitz fail to show how the assassinations of the Kennedys and Martin Luther King also darkened the hopes for benign social reform movement and, as a result, it turned sour as radicals began to embrace criminality. The other central flaw of Destructive Generation is that, while presenting the political struggle of the Sixties as a litany of horrors, they exclude much of the government corruption that inspired it. (As they were once leftist ideologues, they have now become ideologues of the right, as attested by Horowitz's Front Page magazine which has become the doppelganger of Ramparts.) By embracing the policies of Ronald Reagan when writing their book because he "acknowledged the fragility of American democracy," they neatly avoid an honest appraisal of how Reagan exploited that fragility with deregulation and Iran-Contra. Their selective conclusions deny Destructive Generation the larger meaning it might have had.

Paul Berman is a Sixties radical who hasn't recanted –  although since 9/11 he has certainly grown more skeptical of the left's continued romanticism with totalitarianism. His A Tale of Two Utopias also tries to make sense of what went wrong in the Sixties after 1968. Like Destructive Generation, A Tale of Two Utopias is made up of a collection of essays but because Berman is still trying to sort out the confusions of what he calls the moral history of the baby boom generation, the book lacks the focus of Collier's and Horowitz's. Berman sees a link between the revolutionary activity of the Sixties and the struggles of the later Velvet Revolution in the Czech Republic, and some of the liberal philosophies espoused by Francis Fukuyama in France. But Berman, while acknowledging the communist corruption of the democratic left, doesn't bring the psychological nuances required to show how the left actually matured through that painful process of corruption into a new form of democratic liberalism. At times his arguments read like he's still shuffling position papers, rather than clarifying the dramatic shape of a movement.

Berman's writing is at its smartest in A Tale of Two Utopias when he illustrates how the American left grew to admire the communists of China and Vietnam (over the Soviet Union) not just because of politics, but because – being non-white – they represented the oppressed like American blacks. He also writes a very perceptive account of the awakening of gay activism, and how it, after the Stonewall protest of 1969, survived divisive ideological wars, to embrace a wider diversity. And in a witty account of how the simultaneous arrival of two very different American figures – Shirley Temple Black and Frank Zappa – to Czechoslovakia in 1990 was greeted by the Czechs as a common happening, Berman shows how American culture is not viewed abroad as a nation at war with itself. But it has always been at war with itself. It is a country whose politics were born in a revolution that freed them from colonialism, but whose psychological roots were built of the whims of Puritans escaping religious persecution in England and who came to America to carry out "God's Will." 

author Paul Berman
From its very beginning, America has been torn by that legacy. And this lineage (which includes a costly and divisive Civil War) has been played out on the world stage for many years. If both Destructive Generation and A Tale of Two Utopias, in their very different ways, show a country in the Sixties looking for transcendence while continuing to relive its formative conflicts, these two books' strengths and failings are perfectly in keeping with America's own divided heritage. 

Kevin Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of Zappa,Randy Newman's American Dreams33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask ReplicaArtificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles Utopian Dream). Courrier teaches part-time film courses to seniors through the LIFE Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto and other venues. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.                

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