[sixties-l] Prairie Radical (fwd)

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Date: Wed Oct 03 2001 - 00:07:00 EDT

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    Date: Mon, 1 Oct 2001 22:53:06 -0400 (EDT)
    From: John C Mcmillian <mcmill@fas.harvard.edu>
    To: sixties-l-digest <owner-sixties-l-digest@lists.village.virginia.edu>
    Subject: Prairie Radical

    pages, $15) by John McMillian. NEW YORK PRESS, Vol. 14, No. 35
    (August 29-September 4, 2001), p. 28.

    Veteran activists from the 1960s are a lot like Harvard graduates.
    They're usually decent, honorable people, often enough you like them, but
    deep down, in your heart of hearts, you know that they are simply never
    going to get over it. Typically, the impulse is just to let them
    reminisce, politely punctuating their tired stories of bygone glory
    days with the occasional "Oh?" or "Uh-huh," and - in rare instances, if
    it's someone you really care about - "Gee, I wish I could have been there
    for that!"

    But every once in a while you encounter a retired New Left politico who
    approaches the decade with more thoughtfulness than braggadocio, who
    earnestly tries to communicate not only the frothy exuberance and pitched
    moral drama of the 1960s, but also the frustrations, difficulties, and
    disappointments of antiwar activism. Their stories unfold naturally and
    with the best of intentions; soon enough you realize that they're eager to
    share their life with you, not in return for hurrahs and hosannas, but
    because they have to.

    This is the sense one gathers from Robert Pardun's SDS memoir, PRAIRIE
    RADICAL: A JOURNEY THROUGH THE SIXTIES (Shire Press, 376 pages, $15).
    Pardun was born in Kansas, grew up in Colorado and studied mathematics as
    a grad student at the University of Texas (UT) - an unlikely pedigree for
    someone who also served as a national officer in SDS at the height of the
    antiwar movement, and emerged as a key target of J. Edgar Hover's FBI.
    But his experience in Austin-SDS meant that, unlike youth activists on the
    coasts, he simply saw no distinction between the cultural and political
    rebellion of the 1960s. By far the South's largest activist outpost,
    Austin was like a world unto its own, a place where the New Left's
    strategic agenda and its freak subculture seemed melded together.

    Although not untouched by the gauzy idealism of the Port Huron generation,
    Pardun always identified with the "prairie power" faction of SDS: a group
    that was louder, more irreverent, more pleasure-loving and (here the
    inevitable sobriquet) more anarchistic than the well-heeled progressives
    who founded the organization. No Todd Gitlins among them, this crowd
    aspired less to sophistication and urbanity than a freewheeling joie de
    vivre, and when Pardun and his peers arrived on the SDS scene in summer
    1965 with jeans and workshirts, outlandish mustaches and no small amount
    of grass, they injected a heartland ethos into the movement that forever
    changed its character.

    Pardun came to the decade unceremoniously enough, arriving by bus in "hot
    and sticky" Austin in fall 1963. "A one-year commitment to graduate
    school" at UT, he reasoned, seemed indispuitably easier "than a four-year
    enlistment in the Air Force."

    Although the civil rights movement was by this point in full blossom,
    Pardun supported it only "intellectually" and from a distance (which is to
    say, not reallly at all). But it wasn't long after his arrival at UT that
    he encountered segregation firsthand and signed himself onto Mississippi's
    stored Freedom Summer project in 1964, which promoted voter registration
    and education in the South's most venemous state. By the summer's end,
    Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner had been buried in a mud dam, many other
    black bodies had been dredged out of local swamps without much fanfare and
    the Democratic party's support for civil rights was revealed to be, as one
    activist put it, "puddle deep."

    Meanwhile, Pardun began paying attention to America's nasecent involvement
    in Vietnam, assuming at first that the conflict there owed its origins to
    "the basic American values of freedom, democracy, and the right to
    national independence" - values that he, too, believed in, and that had
    long been championed in history textbooks as the unassailable rationale
    for the American Revolution. Only everything was fucked up the other way
    around. "The United States was playing the part of the British while Ho
    Chi Minh was playing George Washington... The United States was on the
    wrong side!"

    Finally, just as his political awakening was unfolding, Pardun started
    experimenting with peyote buttons. His first trip his stomach churned
    until he finally vomited, after which his legs gave way and he crawled to
    a couch, only to find "thousands of miniature multicolored characters,
    like cartoon figures, [crawling] from behind the molding along the top of
    the wall and ... chasing each other around the ceiling."

    Soon enough, Pardun was a New Left activist of the highest order,
    organizing locally against the war and counseling against the draft, but
    he was also helping to launch countercultural celebrations like "Gentle
    Thursday," an Austin innovation that spread like magic to college towns
    across the country.

    Predictably, as Pardun's activism increased, so, too, did the FBI's
    attempts to destroy the antiwar movement. In language redolent of his
    increasing paranoia, J. Edgar Hoover branded the New Left as "a new style
    of conspiracy ... reflected by questionable moods and attitudes,
    unrestrained individualism, by non-conformism in dress and speech, even by
    obscene language, rather than by formal membership in specific
    organizations." From this, Hoover extrapolated that the movement couldn't
    be intimidated by traditional FBI smear tactics held over from the Red
    Scare, when political dissidents were called "druggies, commies and
    perverts." (Calling 1960s youth activists "druggies, commies and
    perverts" was probably too close to the truth to really injure their
    dignity; this would be a little like trying to discredit bankers by
    calling them "greedy manipulators of money.") So Hoover pioneered new
    tactics: FBI agents instigated personal feuds within the movement, set
    loyal activists up to look like informants, sabotaged their property and
    posted ominous letters to their parents, neighbors, employers and
    university officials. Most unsettling, by 1968 Pardun had earned a spot
    on the FBI's "Rabble Rouser Index," a select list of activists who, it was
    said, would have to be "neutralized" if the antiwar movement were to be
    disabled. Predictably, the precise meaning of this creepy term was left

    I suppose it's by now something of a cliche for New Left veterans to
    contrast the utopian promise of the early 1960s with their alienation in
    the movement's later years. But sometimes the cliche fits, and with the
    destruction of SDS, the National Guard killings at Kent State, the
    townhouse explosion at 18 W. 11th St. and the police murders of the
    Panthers, Pardun had had enough. Retreating to commune life wasn't easy
    for him (in fact he makes it sound like a lot of work), but the "back to
    the land" movement wasn't entirely apolitical, either. Pardun simply
    "didn't want to become complicit in what America had become."

    "The fabric of America had been torn in a way that can only be matched by
    looking at the Civil War," Pardun writes. "the people responsible for
    mass murder in Vietnam, who destroyed the people's trust in the government
    by wrapping themselves in the flag as they shredded the Bill of Rights,
    were still in power. These people lied to congress, the press, and the
    American people about a war in which millions of Vietnamese died ... and
    half the population of South Vietnam fled to the cities to escape Napalm,
    poison gas, and bombing [from] the U.S. military. The war took away much
    of the funding for domestic programs and poor people all over America
    suffered because of it. In the face of this moral tragedy, the government
    tried to shift the blame onto those of us who protested what they were
    doing by saying that we were the ones who had destroyed the moral fabric
    of America with sex, drugs, rock and roll, and disrespect for authority."

    Sixties scholars might have a few quarrels with Pardun's failure to
    recognize the pervasive sexism and homophobia in SDS; indeed, in an
    impressive feat of acrobatics, Pardun suggests that SDS should be credited
    with providing a platform for the emergence of early feminism, when in
    fact the women's liberation movement practically got its start because so
    many men in SDS treated women terribly. As scholar/activist Jesse Lemisch
    has observed, this notion "is a little like saying the Democratic Party
    should be credited for giving birth to the anti-war movement of the
    sixties ... (or that Catholicism should be praised for giving birth to

    Others might wish the memoir were more self-critical and reflective;
    Pardun capably tells his own story, and he was witness to some of the key
    events in the movement's history. But he has less to say about the
    cultural forces that animated the youth revolt. What were the common
    behaviors, manners and memories that allowed the New Left, a fledgling
    activist campaign in the early 1960s, to blossom into the largest
    grassroots movement for social change that the United States has ever
    seen? Or, to spin it differently, how did so many young people manage to
    inflate their democratic expectations to such disastrous proportions?

    These scholarly quibbles aside, PRAIRIE RADICAL is an admirable endeavor,
    and I hope people read it. Pardun capably balances the well-placed
    idealism that animated the New Left with the unfolding trauma of the
    Vietnam War, and with the treasonous conduct of the federal governement,
    which (it is shown) spared no coast, and overlooked no opportunity, in its
    efforts to suppress legitimate dissent. America didn't lose its innocence
    in the 1960s, if only because it didn't have a lot of innocence to lose.
    But so many Americans were bruised by the 1960s. This was the decade when
    they opted out, finally and forever, from America's ever-present
    self-celebration. Pardun was among them. The book's last sentence reads
    like a defiant confession: "I am proud of what I did in the sixties and
    look forward to continuing to work for a better world with people of all

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