on October 6, 2011
For a memoir, this is a thrilling page-turner. Zimmerman demonstrated enormous personal courage in numerous exciting adventures and confrontations in the world of sixties activism.
Even though he was an important participant, Zimmerman provides lucid analysis and accurate context for many of the major convulsions of the 1960s and 1970s -- the civil rights movement and the reaction to the change in the social conventions of race; the war in Vietnam and the movement against it; the rise of drug use and the change in sex roles; the battle within the Democratic Party in 1968 and the destruction of President Johnson's re-election bid; and the conflict between the Nixon Administration and its critics.
I am more than a decade younger than Zimmerman. I was a college freshman of six or so weeks experience when I attended the famous 1967 demonstration at the Pentagon. When Zimmerman was there, he already had his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago, was teaching at Brooklyn College and was a very experienced activist, organizer and protester, and committed to his life's work for social justice. The youthful experiences I have long been proud of -- my Quaker anti-draft work in the late 1960s -- completely pale in comparison to the sophistication and longevity of Zimmerman's work.
One of the best features of this memoir is the revelation of Zimmerman's continual self-analysis and commitment to effectiveness. This is a model for all of us who think about how to accomplish social change and to achieve justice.
When one considers the activist careers of so many of Zimmerman's peers, his seriousness and intelligence shine brightly by comparison. Even if your political perspective does not align with Zimmerman's, you are likely to be richly entertained by his well-told accounts of his audacious confrontations. You can't help but admire his courage facing the defenders of segregation in Mississippi, outraged whites as Martin Luther King marched in Chicago, or university presidents (and club wielding police) as the representative of student demonstrators occupying university buildings.
Zimmerman's courage while photographing U.S. bombing raids while touring bombed hospitals in North Vietnam, for example, should dispel old unwarranted generalizations about the destructiveness or cowardice of war protestors.
Zimmerman does an excellent job describing the passions of his colleagues, and those of the various political factions he rejected or worked against.
For the past two decades, Zimmerman has been working closely with numerous key figures of the Democratic party. I want to read the next volume of his memoirs! His keen ability to gracefully write an entertaining story and to provide accurate context and analytical perspective should provide many fascinating tales about the politics of Bill Clinton, Al Gore, John Kerry, Barack Obama, and numerous other important political actors from Sacramento to Washington.
No matter what your experience was in the convulsive 1960s and 1970s, this great book provides accurate and colorful detail that contrasts with depictions of the sixties that are often drawn in generalities or skewed by ideology.
If you are a student today -- in high school, college or graduate school -- and idealistic about facing the daunting challenges ahead, you should find this book to be profoundly inspiring.
on May 12, 2011
Troublemaker is one of those rare books that gives distant political events a compelling personal touch; and why wouldn't it?--its author was at the center of some of the most important movements and events of the Sixties, from the civil rights struggle to the fractious fight against the Vietnam war.
It's full of great stories--the Wounded Knee air drop is worth the price alone!
But more than just a recital of the times, it also delivers important lessons in the value of troublemaking, and in the lasting effects of building movements. The Sixties had an enormous influence on the politics of today, and not just as a foil for the right. This book makes that very clear, and refuses to accept the right-wing idea that it was all for nought.
Troublemaker operates on several different levels, personal story, narrative of the Sixties, good political analysis, and practical manifesto for the future. It will reward you in many ways.
on July 7, 2011
As I write in my review at Left Eye on Books, Bill Zimmerman is a strategic thinker. His experience of happiness and fulfillment comes from planning tactics in pursuit of a larger strategy, and then acting on those plans. He never planned to harm anyone, as bomb makers do, nor did he ever harm anyone. His plans were always to do good for others, despite whatever personal risks there may be. His acts, often heroic, have been mentioned by other reviewers; so, I won't list them here.
Unfortunately, this book is not without blemishes. One of them is that Zimmerman gratuitously and inexplicably digresses to savage the hippie movement. Unable to empathize in the least with its spirit, he denigrates it as focused exclusively on "sex, drugs, and rock and roll". Seeing the hippies as socially irresponsible hedonists, he declares that there was an "activist/hippie divide" during the 60s - a divide like that between responsible adults and socially irresponsible kids. Having been a member of both sides of this supposed "divide," I must record my own observations.
The hippie movement, as I knew it, was an extension of the beatnik's anti-war, anti-materialism sentiment, and a critique of our society's obsession with commercialism. Both beatnik and hippie saw our post-WWII consumerist culture as reducing the human individual's value to its mere economic use-value, and upholding the making and spending of money as the meaning of human existence. Unlike the rest of America, the beatniks identified this as a loss of human value and meaning. But the hippies went beyond mere critique, and actually dropped out of that society in the hope of building one more in tune with the deeper needs of the human spirit. These include the need to live in a peaceful and caring community, and to pursue spiritual aims long forgotten by power-crazed organized religions.
In this sense, hippies were more active than what Zimmerman calls the "activists." The latter accepted the materialism and commercialism and sought political justice by working within the system. The hippies were far more radical; they walked away from the whole ball of slime entirely. As fate would have it, the slime proved too sticky to shake off, and the Hippie Movement soon failed.
Zimmerman's interpretive density and false reporting of history degenerate into meanness when he turns on his old friend Rennie Davis, a hero of the anti-war movement, and one of the Chicago Seven. Once the Viet Nam war was over, Zimmerman pursued the profitable business of political consulting. But Davis, seeking spiritual fulfillment, found the Hindu Guru, Maharaj Ji, from whom, like me, he learned to meditate. Stubbornly pushing his misunderstanding of what moved the hippies, Zimmerman harshly characterizes his old ally as "the zombielike disciple of an East Indian mystic."
With these criticisms, Zimmerman reveals his failure to understand that other, and more subtle, forms of human happiness can be had. True enough, the thrill of action - that is, pursuing a carefully planned strategy for doing social good - can, as he concludes, result in "an honorable and happy life". But the practice of meditation, using techniques fashioned by the wisdom of millennia, can fill a person, who is just sitting, with a sense of joy, excitement, and completeness that even the ecstasy of victory can never match.
While activism is essential to building a more human and humane society, this does not require turning a blind and contemptuous eye to the vital spiritual message of the beatniks and hippies. We can have both a good society and spiritually fulfilled individuals. I hope its not too late for Bill Zimmerman, an honorable man, to hear this message.
on January 12, 2013
A biting account tracing the author's disenchantment with the American system from 1960-1975, his activism in
the civil rights movement, against scientific research utilized by the Pentagon, over the bombing of North and South Vietnam, and against the violation of American Indian rights. Zimmerman, Chicago born, developed an advanced 'detector' for government hypocrisy on Federal, State and local levels. Although he earned a Phd in psychology, he lost his university teaching jobs because of his support of students rallying on campus, and his disdain for war-related scientific research. In the early 70's he flew in food supplies to relieve the Federal siege at Wounded Knee in South Dakota. He worked with major players in the effort to stop US bombing in Vietnam ( and in the 1980's Reagan's support of the right wing regime in El Salvador) as well as working tirelessly to raise funds for medical aid to both these victims of US intervention. He especially sought to raise funds for the rebuilding of the Swedish-built Bach Mai Hospital in Hanoi that was bombed by US war planes in 1972, and he supplied proof of this devastation, an act that had been denied by Washington.
He also details government surveillance and attempts to indict him.
This is a swell read, never dull, and one can only admire Bill Zimmerman's energy, motivation, and determination to fight the self-serving interests of the "military industrial complex" and its mean-spirited players, as personified by Richard Nixon, whose downfall in Watergate helped to speed the end of the US war against Vietnam.
In later years Zimmerman became a supporter of selected political candidates and worked for ballot initiatives and advocacy organizations.