First off, a comment on the hypothetical question of "what if" more people in
the movement had thrown in their lot with Humphrey -- would that have
actually hastened the end of the war such that the movement's broad goals
would have been better served? With hindsight, then, was the decsion to all
but abandon the mainstream of the Democratic Party and, notwithstanding the
limited push for McCarthy, the entire electoral process in 1968, a "mistake?"
I am, for what it's worth, a "professional" historian, and we do puzzle, at
a methodological level, over the value of counterfactual analyses and the
question of "what if." Part of what is so exciting about history is to
appreciate, despite the power of structures, how much agency people retain
and the extent to which "events" are driven by contingent choices. The study
of history, then, is a study of roads not taken, which can lead you either to
lament bad choices, to try to rearticulate and revive supressed
possibilities, or to view history with some combination of regret and hope.
Nonetheless, there are constraints on choices, rendering some hypotheticals
all but irrelevant. The case of Humphrey raised here may be one. So many in
the anti-war movement had developed an intense antiptahy for LBJ and regarded
him, with some validity, as a "baby killer," a "war criminal," or even a
genocidal maniac. It's hard to imagine such an activist then seeing Humphrey
-- who presented himself as the steward of Johnson's legacy -- as the prudent
choice for peace. That's like asking someone to jump over their own shadow;
can't be done. It reminds me also of a lovely line Raskin had of Abbie
Hoffman: (something like) "Blaming Abbie for being merely a cultural
revolutionary is like blaming a cheetah for having spots." If something
would have been so utterly alien to the consciousness and sensibility of an
historical actor -- like an anti-war radical seeing Humphrey as a progressive
choice on the Vietnam issue -- then it ceases to be all that productive to
wonder "what if" said actor had felt, thought, and done otherwise. There are
good and bad hypotheticals, and what separates them is a judgement call . . .
Now, to defend myself briefly against charges of the inadequacy and naivete
of my tentative "framework" for activist awakenings, without at all meaning
to be defensive. I in fact appreciate the comments. Nonetheless:
-- I proposed it as only a VERY general and far from comprehensive outline.
In addition, I wanted to keep the post short out of concerns voiced on the
list about posts that run way too long (I was, on two occasions, very guilty
of this -- belated apologies -- and tried to impose self-restraint). So,
yes, I left a lot out.
-- The cultural dimension is of course important, as is the whole issue of
transgression. The ideological and cultural experimentation of the era
entailed, I think, an ethos of "going further," of pushing and transgressing
limits, of shocking, offending, disturbing, and scrambling all kinds of
normative expectations -- all of which had a potential price. Part of what
makes the Weathermen so fascinating is in fact their gravitation towards --
or even celebration of -- extremes and forms of radical transgression. We're
all familiar with the most notorious forms that took -- the Manson comment,
the mania of Flint, plans for lethal attacks, Kamikazee actions, etc.. For
a time, transgression was deeply embedded in the culture of the whole
organization, which was itself just an intensification of tendencies and
sensibilities present throughout the movement. The movement as a whole is so
fascinating in the tension it sustained between limits and limitlessness, the
defiance of norms and attempts to build a new, more humane normativity,
edifying experimentation and eerie forms of excess that threatened to pull it
back into the pathologies that defined the mainstream of American culture.
Also fascinating, but rarely discussed (especially with reference to
Weatherman), is the process by which individuals and groups re-drew limits
and, both through the power of events and as the result of choices,
reasserted the need for norms. Too often and too easily are the "excesses"
of movement culture woven into tales of sensation, "true crime," madness, or
In stressing in my initial model the less controversial (or exciting!)
aspects of "the path," I meant neither to be naive nor to disregard the
importance of transgression -- and its serious political consequences. I
would love, in fact, to hear more from people about the process of "going
further," losing (and regaining) control.
The madness and depravity of the Establishment deserve sustained mention too.
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