Sunday, January 29, 2006

Oh, What The Hell?

Weather Underground, Redone in Pomo, Rises from the Ashes
by Jesse Lemisch

I attended part of a January 20 "day workshop of interventions" -- aka "a day of dialogic interventions" -- at Columbia University on "Radical Politics and the Ethics of Life" (see below for program). The event aimed "to bring to light... the political aporias [sic] erected by the praxis of urban guerrilla groups in Europe and the United States from the 1960s to the 1980s." (See below for the postmodernist context indicated by the language.) Hosted by Columbia's Anthropology Department, workshop speakers included Bernardine Dohrn and Bill Ayers of the Weather Underground, historian Jeremy Varon, poststructuralist theorist Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak and a dozen others. The panel I sat through was just awful.[1]

What seems to be happening is that veterans of Weather are on a drive to rehabilitate, cleanse and perhaps revive it. (Consider, too, Bill Ayers's 2001 book, Fugitive Days; also the 2002 film, "The Weather Underground," which while well intended seems to offer the viewer a Hobson's Choice between Weather and Todd Gitlin. I didn't know whether to shit, or go blind!) Despite the substandard product that Weather veterans are peddling, a sympathetic response to a bowdlerized Weather may not be so hard to achieve in the present frustrated mood of the left. In addition, many undergraduates, graduate students and faculty have been infected by postmodernism in this, its terminal phase, and therefore have little concern for concrete reality. Weather can be discussed in appealing-sounding abstractions, without reference to the destructive inanities of their role at the June 1969 Chicago convention of Students for a Democratic Society, the October 1969 Days of Rage, the bombings, the bombing fuck-ups, etc. (Nobody wants to talk about Bill Ayers's classic September 11, 2001 New York Times interview lauding Weather violence, published under the headline, "No Regrets for a Love of Explosives.")

Bernardine Dohrn served up all the hoary platitudes about the everyday violence of the standing order -- all true -- leading inevitably to a justification of violent response by a minority substituting itself for a mass movement; at the same time, she offered a rhetorical parenthesis rejecting armed struggle. Neither the efficacy nor morality of Weather tactics were scrutinized, nor any inquiry made into how you construct a majority radical democratic movement by denouncing and writing off the majority. Dohrn's defense of Weather included the remark that in the face of terrible oppressions and injustices, it is necessary "to do something about it, it almost doesn't matter what." But it does matter, if we are interested in building rather than tearing apart a new left. Clearly, almost forty years after the Weather disaster, she hasn't gotten it. Indeed, she says that the actions of the Weather Underground "made people smile."

Weather killed and buried Students for a Democratic Society -- a catastrophe for the left. Dohrn passes lightly over this, saying that SDS wasn't worth saving by the time Weather came on the scene. An anarchist in the audience made the important point that how you make the revolution will affect the kind of revolution that you get. Partly agreeing, Dohrn insisted that, while underground, Weatherpeople not only practiced participatory democracy, but also got closer to the working class and to various minorities.


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