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Outlaws of America: The Weather Underground and the Politics of Solidarity Paperback – November 1, 2005
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The history of the group is traced from its origins through its demise. The WUO arose from the much larger SDS. The break from Students for a Democratic Society was engineered by a classical Leninist move: a small, self-proclaimed leadership circle whose extreme views set it in opposition to most SDS members expelled elements that espoused "competing lines". Its emphasis on race and "white privilege" was expressed as support for just about any and all "Third World Liberation movements". After initially denying the traditional "Old Left" class-based social and economic analysis, the WUO "platform" as defined by the group leaders, gradually morphed into conventional Marxism. In the process, virtually all sympathetic and potentially sympathetic segments of society were alienated, as were many Weather "cadres", essentially none of whom were consulted regarding this or other policies. The vitriolic attacks on those who held differing opinions was reminiscent of Stalin's tactics at their harshest.
Basically, the rapid demise of the group was largely the WUO's own fault. The entire enterprise and the political analysis upon which it was based was fatally flawed and utterly superficial. The group's strategy was hopelessly naive. Some glimmer of insight into these matters was revealed in the interviews former members granted the author, though some true believers still (David Gilbert, especially) criticize tactics rather than strategy. The book concludes with a section on "Lessons and Legacies" and an Epilogue featuring a prison visitation vignette between the still incarcerated Gilbert and the author.
In "Outlaws", Berger makes no effort whatsoever to strive for objectivity. In fact, he is quite unabashed in his expressions of sympathy for "the Cause". Berger is generally unquestioning in his carte blanche acceptance of various contemporary fringe "liberation" groups, asserting that, as one example, the Black Liberation Army was a legitimate political "vanguard". Even such preposterous cults as MOVE are elevated to Olympian revolutionary heights. Worse, Berger ignores the prominent criminal element in the Black Panthers and other contemporary separatist groups. Berger, like the subjects of his book, unabashedly believes that the U.S. is an "imperialist" power and that the Cuban regime and even Hugo Chavez's "Bolivarian" dictatorship (amongst others) are progressive, honest expressions of their peoples' aspirations. Curious in its total absence from the book is any mention of the then-contemporary Palestinian armed factions. Even more bizarre, despite reference to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Berger alludes to but does not address the obvious question of whether or not the viciously fundamentalist Islamist movements are "legitimate" national liberation movements.
Berger, along with the WUO, seem incapable of sufficient introspection and political insight to grasp the concept that, as the French Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser once wrote, "Ideology is the imaginary relationship people have with the real conditions of their existence." The blinding effects of ideology were evident throughout the book. Despite the manifest failure of "Old Left" regimes in the USSR, China and elsewhere, WUO came to espouse Old Left ideas. For example, despite the transparently obvious and accumulating evidence and ignoring compelling insights on the issue from C. Wright Mills and others on the new structure of American power, they emphasized class struggle. Despite evidence that "class interests" absolutely did not trump self-interest,they failed to adjust their approach from appeals to revolutionary solidarity (to class, against "imperialism", to the Third World) to "what can the Revolution do for me, personally?" Despite the fact that most Americans, once the Vietnam War (and the draft) had ended no longer cared for "revolution", and that "revolutionary action theater" would not be "the spark that starts a prairie fire", they continued to conceive of themselves as an elite Revolutionary vanguard. Finally, they failed to articulate a final goal short of "socialism". All these mistakes rendered the group increasingly marginal in its appeal, domestically and in the "Third World". The WUO was seemingly "dazed and confused" throughout the brief period of its existence. In modern parlance, in an effort to remain relevant, the group justified its continued efforts by "mission-creep". Incoherence in ideology, strategy, group structure, interpersonal relations and numerous other areas is the salient problem set that Berger does make explicit.
One issue addressed in some detail by Berger does deserve commendation and that is the deplorable and outrageous incarceration policies first implemented in the Sixties and now in full deployment. The "privatization" of prisons and the public adulation of such perverted law enforcement agencies as the Maricopa County (Arizona) Sheriff's Department is a shameful chapter in American history, as are the accompanying criminalization of a wide spectrum of victimless crimes, draconian sentencing "guidelines", racist incarceration policies, imprisoning children and lack of inmate "rehabilitation" programs. It is probably also true, as Berger asserts, that prisoners such as Gilbert are paying the price for the entire movement. This is a heavy burden for men such as Gilbert but, to his great credit, he remains committed to his ideals (whether you agree with them or not), having tempered them by years of introspection, self-criticism and contemplation.
I would be remiss in failing to point out one other, at this point minor, problem with the book: Berger mis-attributes the "foco" theory of revolution to Regis Debray, rather than to its actual author, Che Guevara. This approach to initiating revolution in a Third World society worked in Cuba; it was manifestly unsuccessful in Bolivia and in The Congo, a mistake Che paid for with his life.
So, Berger asks, Why did the WUO rise to such prominence and what is its legacy? Given the zeitgeist of the 1960s with the vastly unpopular Vietnam War, the draft, racial tensions and the rise of the counter-culture", a real sense of radical social change appeared in the offing. Romantic revolutionaries such as the self-denying and photogenic Che captured the imagination of the student movement. WUO rode on the coattails of this phenomenon. By promoting their "outlaw" image, they usurped the role previously occupied by Ho, Che, Fidel and Mao as avatars of Revolution. At the time, it was easy to accept all of that since, after all, the life of privileged white students could be rudely interrupted by a sojourn in a leech-infested rice paddy.
The really perplexing aspect of all this is the return to "above ground" society by the WUO leaders themselves. After making reputations based on the denial of "white privilege", they were damn quick to exercise that same privilege in their post-revolutionary careers. This is an irony apparently lost on both them and Berger, as well.
I poured blood on draft files in 1967 and spent 21 months in prison.
I think the "Plowshares Chronology" by Art Laffin is the best, in my opinion- in that it shows how the struggle continues in no uncertain terms,
I would also like to mention the play "Something You Did" which is about Cathy Boudin (roughly)(with many liberties).
Berger has done us a great service with this, as another reviewer says, "meticulously researched" book.
When you consider the Weather bombings- they hurt no one but were strategically placed to demonstrate how such American institutions as the capitol, pentagon , bank of america, itt, anaconda, kennicott, certain police hqs, departments of corrections creater REAL violence that makes our struggles in the peace, civil rights and anti war movements seem noble indeed. Persons like a nixon or bush have killed over and over again- thousands- and yet Americans (I'll capitalize that in that I look for the good in them) will criticize the Weathers and others of us as "violent".
"Lame stream" media, to borrow a phrase from the tea party and Sarah Palin (altho from a polarly opposite position- my position is on the left) can but indoctrinate and mislead Americans into thinking that our never ending wars are serving bona fide purposes. Plainly, logically, ethically, they are not- and the contents of Berger's book- the quotes from David Gilbert (who is still in prison when he killed no one while a george bush or two roam free giving interviews) sets the record straight.
The book raises crucial questions- such as how successful can the tactics of violence be? Obviously the North Vietnam's Army's tactics were- but what kind of state did they accomplish? We can be thankful they stopped the us of a. which never stops engaging in wars of imperialism and aggression.
But again- as the book makes clear- the Weathers' tactics were nonviolent. The only people they killed were themselves!...sadly.
This book deserves a far greater audience and, in time, hopefully- it will come- or will we just destroy ourselves by nuclear war or green catastrophes? While amazon my concern itself with making money selling books on the ny times best seller lists- books like this fly under the radar.
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