Thursday, July 10, 2008

Stupid Hippies
I'm now a bit more than halfway through Nixonland, and it's doing something I didn't expect: making me far less sympathetic to the "New Left" than I previously was.

I don't think this was by any means the intention of author Rick Perlstein, a proud liberal who obviously sees his title character as the villain of the piece. (And it's probably worthwhile to note that the book isn't bringing me toward a greater sympathy for Richard Nixon himself, whose dishonesty and bad faith truly was breathtaking.) But the antics of groups like the "Yippies," particularly at the infamous 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago, are indefensible; I would have wanted to beat the shit out of Abbie Hoffman myself.

[The Yippies'] bravura was inspiring. Their arrogance could render them little better than punks. In New York, the Lindsay administration enlisted Abbie as a community liaison to keep the peace in the East Village. Part of the deal was that the cops weren't allowed to arrest him. So he marched into the local precinct one day and made himself increasingly obnoxious. The captain who was his police handler, refusing the bait, retreated to his office. Abbie followed him inside and smashed the precinct's prized possession, the tropie case containing the precinct's service citations, sending the cop into the hoped-for rage. (p. 290)

What Hoffman and Jerry Rubin and their colleagues presented at Chicago as a "Festival of Life" reads to me forty years later like nothing more than a nihilistic glorification of anarchy, predicated largely on making the grown-ups (even more) miserable. (And Pete Townshend wins infinite points with me for shouting Hoffman down and bashing him in the head with his guitar at Woodstock.)

The Yippies probably weren't the worst actors, though; I'd leave that for some of the purely idiotic student radicals that Perlstein describes (again, with at least some sympathy). He sets up the campus conflicts of 1968-69 as "pukes versus jocks," using each side's derogatory term for the other. The lefty students--taking over buildings, harassing administrators and faculty, vandalizing libraries, destroying property--frequently faced off against fellow students who essentially wanted to keep going to classes and rejected the idea that these long-haired loudmouths spoke for them, as the media culture of the time constantly asserted. To my amazement, as I read this account, my sympathies are with the squares.

There's a strange tradition in liberal politics of left-leaning individuals who have more disdain for those further to their left than their real adversaries on the other side. Maybe that's what I'm feeling here. But I think it's more that the tactics of these attention-seekers were so destructive to the admirable causes they ostensibly championed. Perlstein describes a standoff at Cornell in 1969 in which an African-American student group bullied and manhandled fellow students, visiting parents and above all a dean who, over the course of the decade, had worked to increase black enrollment from about 80 to nearly 300 and had committed to establishing an Afro-American Studies department. They wanted more--and ultimately they didn't want anything:

Perkins [the Cornell dean] thought he was negotiating. He couldn't realize his adversaries were playing an entirely different game.

The militants had embraced a revolutionary dialectic. Escalating demands, impossible to meet, served "the objective of raising the level of awareness among blacks" to that of the vanguard, which would come to share with the vanguard "another objective, the destruction of the university, or at least its disruption." Issue unreasonable demands, and "the beast we are dealing with will use all the means at his disposal to maintain control of power." That would reveal the fascism behind the liberal facade. (p. 376)

Of course, when you start off assuming that an institution is a "beast," and refuse to be moved from that assumption, then beast-like tactics on your own part are self-evidently justified.

Perhaps the Democrats weren't able to pull off the admittedly tough political trick of endorsing the protesters' ostensible aims while strongly condemning their actions. Perhaps--this is the section of the book I'm now getting to--they didn't do nearly enough to differentiate between themselves and the fringe groups, making it that much easier for Nixon et al to disingenuously link them ("the party of amnesty, abortion and acid"). Either way, the Republicans have been running, and mostly winning, on the culture war ever since.

As I wrote recently, I don't think this is going to be as much in evidence this year (though the McCain campaign is evidently trying). That said, I'm starting to wonder if the real parallel might be not between the Democrats of 2008 and their predecessors four decades ago, but the fanatics of the left back then and those of the right today. The common thread is the arrogance and certitude: just as the Yippies and student radicals were absolutely free of self-doubt about their course of action, so too are the fanatics, in and out of government, who believe the current administration can do no wrong and that any action against "the beast"--government--is justified. It would be a fitting irony if their own hubris turned the tide back.


Rick Perlstein said...

This is a great post. It thrills me to read people thinking through my book in real time. No spoilers here, but: yes, I indeed have little but contempt for the late New Left and the Yippies.

David said...

Is this a joke?

David said...

Evidently not, unless someone got to Perlstein's Blogger account... very cool. Thanks for the kind words. Your books are tremendous.

The Navigator said...

I haven't read it yet, but... things looked different back then. MLK worked for change; got totally stymied in the north, and got killed. Liberals held all three branches of the federal gov. and used it to prosecute a senseless war. It might have been a lot easier to think that extreme measures were the only real solution - I think that's wrong, but I think it would have been a lot easier to perceive that to be the situation in 1968.
As for this Cornell dean - I think you'd have to know more to say whether students ought to have credited this guy with a sincere desire and effort for change. 80 to 300 - over ten years' time? Out of how many thousand students? Was that really much more than the typical school had changed since the late 50's? And a research center - those can just as easily be a way to buy off protestors as a genuine response. Maybe this dean really was doing the best he could - or maybe he just thought he was. Or maybe he just said he was. I don't know. I do know that I once heard that the U.S. Ambassador to Honduras in the 80's was considered by regime insiders to be really tough and insistent on human rights - this while Reagan was funding near-genocide. If you asked the ambassador, he's say "oh, I did everything I could." If I were a Honduran, I would have burned down the U.S. Embassy.

the Navigator said...

Again, just to emphasize - that doesn't mean that burning down the Embassy would have accomplished anything, or that bullying other students and making intentionally unreasonable demands at Cornell was a good, admirable, or productive strategy. Just that... I find it hard to come down too hard on them. It was a dumb and counterproductive strategy, but I can see how they could have thought it was the only strategy left open.

Brian said...

I think the nostalgia of the 60's often makes us forget how tumultuous the times were. Both sides geared up for revolution or the prevention of it. Both sides also used whatever ends justified their means.

David said...

Yeah, that's kind of where I've come out on this. Obviously, a lot of people have made a lot of money (and continue to do so) on '60s nostalgia. But I wouldn't want to see much of that myself--at least from the '68 assassinations onward.

That might have been the moment when a tipping point was reached in terms of working within the system vs. the more apocalyptic mindset posited above by the Nav.

Brian said...

It's weird, we glorify how the Hippies cared and stood for something but make fun of anyone who has any passion in today's political environment. We call any one with a stolid POV an extremist, or leftist wacko or fundamentalist. As much as we complain about polarization in politics todays, we shun the fringe and ignore the truly right or truly left agendas.

David said...

That's true. But I think the complaint about polarization has to do more with style than substance--there's a truism in political science that the smaller the substantive differences between two parties, the more viciously they'll fight over those differences. With a few arguable exceptions (torture? global warming?), the Democrats and Republicans agree on most of the big stuff these days.

As they did 40 years ago, for that matter (even Vietnam mostly was a fight over tactics, not principles). So the New Left back then, or the Ron Paulites or Dominionist Christians today, feel that much more alienated from the mainstream.