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Thursday, December 6, 2007

The Weather Underground

The Weatherman organization, variously known as Weather Underground, etc., existed in the United States for roughly ten years, from about 1969. But it was actually only for a few months that it had a viable existence; after its members inadvertently blew up a townhouse at 18 West 11th Street in Manhattan (March 2, 1970), killing three of their own, it was all downhill. Together with its allies in the Black Panther Party, Weatherman was the most violent American opposition to the Viet Nam war. It adopted Ho Chi Minh as its ideological father.

The video shown above is but one of a number of such treatments by a largely sympathetic press. Weatherman is most often pictured as idealistic, devoted to human betterment, but as using unacceptable methods, i.e. violence.

The most informative description of Weatherman is probably that by Kirkpatrick Sale in his book "SDS," published in 1973. SDS, Students for a Democratic Society, was the large student organization of the 1960's which later morphed into Weatherman. Like most writers on the subject, Sale writes as a sympathizer of this larger "Movement," but he writes with absolute realism about the darker side of Weatherman: its violence, blind fanaticism, hopeless self-righteousness, ridiculous posturing.

We now have a new account by one of the former Weathermen, or Weatherwomen, who were in that townhouse on 11th Street when the bomb went off. In fact that building belonged to Cathy Wilkerson's father. Her book is entitled "Flying Close to the Sun," Seven Stories Press, 2007. It adds very little to our knowledge or understanding of the movement. It does have a useful table of Weatherman bombings (taken from a 1974 book by Jonah Raskin), most of which took place after Sale's book was published. Wilkerson can also tell us, as Sale could not, what it was like to be a rank-and-file member. It seem that the leaders had (literally) caviar while the followers subsisted on peanuts. And it also appears that Weathermen considered themselves above all the laws of human restraint. Wilkerson participated in a sexual orgy with fellow members (but the sex was not good) while the love of her live was in jail for a few weeks.

Wilerson lived in hiding for years and also served time for her part in the bombings, but she has now repudiated her violent past. Her account is wooden and formulaic. Ho Chi Minh, after all that has happened to the international movement of the Communist dictatorship, is still her hero. Her book is much more recent, and is written by a participant, but it lacks the understanding, the descriptive power, and yes, the intelligence of Kirkpatrick Sale.

Weatherman will continue to be of interest to students of social movements. For one thing, it invites comparison to the movements of our day.

a) Weatherman was one of the most conspicuous opponents of the Viet Nam war. Today we have the Iraq war, and a variety of movements to oppose that. One contrast, well illustrated by Weatherman, is that today's war opponents do not champion the other side. There are no "Sadam, Sadam, Sadam Husein" chants that could be compared to Weatherman's "Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh."

b) Weatherman believed in direct action, violence, and the use of dynamite. In that it invites comparison to the terrorists of our day, say the Islamists. The contrast could not be more stark. Weatherman was careless in its use of bombs, but any loss of life, it would seem, was inadvertent. This surely cannot be said of the Islamists.

Weatherman, if not the only home-grown terrorist group in American history, was probably the most spectacular, certainly in modern times. But its fanaticism and violence were soon spent. It seems that there were no deep cultural American roots to sustain it in the long term.

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