Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Days of Rage review


    The Vietnam anti-war movement of the 1960s and 1970s was a mixed bag, populated by individuals who were pacifists, socialists, activists, young, old, mainly white, but with strands of people of color, since its roots, though tangled, were deep in the Civil Rights movement that preceded it.  Days of Rage, though, is not mixed at all. It covers only the violent side of the anti-war movement, beginning in 1969 with Sam Melville, “the man who started it all,”a white, thirty-something, long-haired New York City bomber, famously gunned down two years later during the Attica prison revolt.  It’s a curious place to begin, but one must start somewhere.

    Bryan Burrough has published five other books, three covering financial figures, one on NASA, another on the early years of the FBI.  He is an odd author to tell this tale, given his attachment to the magazine Vanity Fair (he effusively thanks its editor, Graydon Carter, “the best in the business”).  VF has perfected a sort of celebrity journalism featuring the rich and the powerful behaving badly.  There’s a lot of that going on.  But Days of Rage doesn’t escape VF’s personality-centric style.  The book lists a “Cast of Characters,” 54 people, members of six groupings Burrough’s assembles, such as the Weather Underground, the Black Liberation Army, the FALN (Fuerzas Armadas de Liberaction Nacional Puertorriquena), and others, some little known.  Given the span of history the book covers (roughly late 60s, early 80s), this is actually a small amount of people; Burrough seems to ascribe to the theory that history is driven by individuals, rather than so-called larger forces.

    Indeed, Burrough’s object, he states, was to write a “straightforward narrative history of the period and its people.”  He means to keep his judgments “to a minimum.”  Earlier, he criticizes John Castellucci’s dense book on the Brink’s Robbery of 1981, The Big Dance, for being “so loosely structured it is often hard to follow.”

    The world of the not loosely, but tightly, structured, straightforward narrative, is meant to be fast-read history – if any book of nearly 600 pages can be said to be read fast. A number of odd revelations stand out with this method.  Burrough alternates white groups followed by black groups and Puerto Rican groups (the FALN), then mixed racial groups, concluding with the strange (though all the stories are strange) account of two white couples, plus children, merry bombers and eventual cop killers.

    Being so schematically structured, Days of Rage presents the White/Black/Puerto Rican worlds as separate, occasionally invaded by the practically all-white FBI, and other law enforcement groups with sparse minority representation, looking for the diverse underground perpetrators. Burrough thus sets up, perhaps unconsciously, a weird race-based story.  Succinctly put (which he seldom attempts, brevity-being-the-sister of art not being his strength), he shows that the white radicals went to college, the black radicals went to prison, and the Puerto Ricans did a bit of both, for their sessions of radicalization.   

    That’s the trouble with fast-read  history; it often leaves out nuance.   Burrough’s caused cause for all the depicted mayhem is White students’ guilty solidarity with Black struggles: “What the underground movement was truly about – what it was always about – was the plight of black Americans.” He downplays the Vietnam war, the draft, etc.; but the history is more complicated than he allows.  He never notices, it seems, that righting wrongs heaped upon Black Americans was not so much the reason for the conduct described, as it was a justification. Not coming from the generation he writes about, Burrough misses other motives, including the effect of WWII’s Holocaust, being fitfully revealed as these kids grew up, on their consciences.

    So, beyond the great “man” theory of history, we get the violent theory of history, which is that nothing of importance happens in the world without violence.  It’s the “American as cherry pie” analysis of social change, from the street philosopher and former head of SNCC H. Rap Brown, whom Burrough’s quotes. In Days of Rage you will read the Top 10 quotes of the era; he doesn’t miss those beats.  His book has been assembled from research, other people’s books, a lot of memoirs, and a few important interviews he undertook with prominent movement veterans.  This is the method of magazine journalism, yet Burrough’s most important contribution is those interviews – especially the ones with Liz Fink (nomen est omen), a radical lawyer active in the circles described since the late 1960s, Cathy Wilkerson, the Weatherman who survived the 1970 11th Street townhouse explosion, Ron Fliegelman (Burrough’s chief scoop), Wilkerson’s partner in crime and father of her child, and a few peripheral others, plus a handful of talky former FBI agents.

    From a writer of three books dealing with the modern financial world, I was surprised Burrough didn’t have any sort of political economy analysis to offer, even of the Freakonomics sort: Why were all those college kids able to drop things and run off to protest, both in the Civil Rights arena and the anti-war movement?  He still doesn’t seem to know.  It’s the economy, stupid.  The 60s and early 70s still had enough surplus capital floating around to allow for youthful leisure, this being before Ronald Reagan made sure all that money went into the right hands. It’s one of the larger forces Burrough neglects.

    Burrough keeps saying throughout, in one version or another, that the world the underground bombers occupied, began to “change”.  No one cared anymore, “America yawned.”

    The book ends with a Where-are-they-now? Epilogue.  I enjoy that sort of thing as much as anyone, but still there is no hard reckoning of how the world changed. That might have forced the author to make “judgments”.  But, Burrough should know:  His most recent previous book is titled The Big Rich.

    Days of Rage is full of period highlights and if one is well versed in the history Burrough doesn’t cover, it’s easy to add context. (The name Berrigan isn’t found in the Index or the text, though Burrough refers once to the “Catholic underground,” though that too missed the Index.)

    Fresh ruminations, though, can arise from his depictions:  One: The black, violent revolutionaries were among the first to be globalized, to travel abroad, to see their plight in a geo-political context (see Malcolm X, Eldridge Cleaver, etc.).   Two: That as the underground and the bombings continued for over the decade of the 70s women became more central, yet remained at the beck and call of the men – their feminism increased, but remained paradoxical because of what they would let the men get away with.  An early form of this was Weather-woman Bernardine Dohrn’s hybrid persona of sex-pot and conflicted proto-feminist. This internal volatile dynamic finally helped implode the remaining straggling violent groups.   

    Heavy on facts and light on analysis, readers not familiar with this material will read Days of Rage chiefly as a lurid tale, a text-movie un-spooling before their eyes: The sexual revolution as adapted by radicals, the boyfriend/girlfriend world of political motives and decisions (though Bill/Hillary are not discussed), the fun of blowing things up (Made it, Ma, top of the world!), thrills and chills, the Patty Hearst circus revisited once again, wild ironies on display and jaw-dropping episodes of coincidence, how drugs fueled so much of the late violent manifestations, and all along the “feckless” FBI fumbling through. Burrough, preposterously, speaks admiringly of J. Edgar Hoover, but the FBI doesn’t come off well, as usual, in this account. But, however flawed, I hope Days of Rage secures a wide readership, especially among the uninformed young.

    Though Burrough’s book doesn’t tell you, the Black Panthers’ outbursts led to the militarization of our country’s police forces. The flirting with violence of the Catholic Left led to the Catholic Right’s attacks on abortion clinics and physicians. History was upended; those most prone to violent protest switched sides.

    Burrough’s central thesis is all this past has been “forgotten”.  But by whom? 

    America’s talent for forgetting can be salubrious. The problem is not what we forget, but what we remember. That propensity produces many grim examples, one being what the recent Stars-and-Bars-waving young killer, Dylann Roof, chose to remember in Charleston, SC.  He murdered nine – no radical bomber in Days of Rage killed nine people at once.   Look out for what you remember.

A shorter version of this review ran in the October 23-November 5, 2015 issue of the National Catholic Reporter.



Tuesday, July 28, 2015

To Kill a "Second" Novel

Most of what has been written about the “To Kill a Mockingbird”/”Go Set a Watchman” controversy has been wrong — at least in one important way. Harper Lee’s second novel, just published, “Go Set a Watchman,” keeps being referred to as an early draft of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” It obviously isn’t a “draft,” as almost any published writer could tell you.

It’s clearly a first novel, a first book. And it was sent in 1957 to an editor who, though not wanting to buy it, suggested Lee write another book. A draft is an earlier version of the same novel, one eventually published. It may often have a different title. Authors are not always the best title-ers.

But the editor wanted a different book. Most editors, strange as it may sound, want books that sell. Tay Hohoff, Lee’s editor, thought “Go Set a Watchman” wouldn’t. Why? Even from the reviews, it is quite clear why: Who in the late 1950s wanted to read about a young woman who fled to New York City from a dreary Southern town with a racist father and unpleasant friends? But, Hohoff saw a way out. There was this character Scout, the book’s protagonist when she was a young girl. A novel in her voice might do the trick.

Back in the 1950s/60s, Southern racism was in the news and wasn’t news to many. Large numbers of Americans do not like to read realistic fiction about the unpleasant here and now. I should know, since I published one of the earliest anti-Vietnam War novels in 1974, while that war still raged. No one, as I wrote long ago, wants to discuss fire in the middle of a conflagration. There were a number of advantages Lee’s editor saw in a novel told with a child’s precocious voice. The events recounted moved back in time, whereas “Go Set a Watchman” was too contemporary, too much of the times in the late 1950s.

Lee’s editor functioned as some modern editors do today. Writers I know have, occasionally, succumbed to them. When a manuscript is offered up and these (mainly) young editors see talent and possibility, they will ask for “revisions.” But what the editor really wants is a different work: a novel that will sell. In extreme cases, like Lee’s, that creates an entirely new book. New last chapters. New first chapters. New characters. New protagonists.

Hack authors of the past have been accused of writing to formula: westerns, police procedurals, etc. Today, it is the editors who want to impose a formula: likable characters, happy endings, general uplift, rather than dour downers.

They think they know what sells. Look at the tables of trade paperback novels at the bookstores. Do their covers all look alike? They do. There’s a reason.

Lee’s editor was ahead of her time. She wanted Lee to write then what today is one of the few flourishing fiction genres left. A Young Adult novel, a YA. One with uplift. Uplift is important. The Pulitzer Prize in fiction historically is given only to uplifting works. Novels thought to be leading candidates for the prize, even when presented to the board, have been denied the prize for supposed lack of uplift. Thomas Pynchon’s “Gravity’s Rainbow,” for instance.

Nonetheless, quite a few second books published by young authors don’t achieve the same success as the first. That is because the second book published is often the first book written, published because of the success of the first book. It happened to me. My first book (“The Harrisburg 7 and the New Catholic Left”) was successful enough to cause my second (“The Meekness of Isaac”), which I had written before the Harrisburg book, to be published. It happens enough to be noticed as a second-book letdown. It’s because the second book was actually the first.

But that didn’t happen to Harper Lee. In her case, her (unedited!) second novel, actually her first, is a flabbergasting success, over a million copies sold. But that is only because she waited — if that’s the word — over 50 years to let it be published. She got that right.

A version of this ran Sunday, July 26, 2015 in The South Bend Tribune.


Monday, January 12, 2015

Torture? What Torture?

Torture? What Torture?

Americans have a rather baroque view of what constitutes torture.  That is easily seen in the 2 - 1 endorsement of the conduct that went down under the Bush II administration at various CIA black sites during the first two wars Bush and Company ran.  So many fellow Americans are ready to agree with Dick Cheney, and a small segment of the legal community, that all of that was merely enhanced interrogation.  All societies, it seems, define torture with some specificity, based on their own ideas of cultural norms, what the general public thinks is cruel and unusual punishment. And our country’s moderate and modulated response to the early December release of the Senate CIA torture program report bears this out.

When I was a very young man, hardly a teenager, some decades ago I used to look at so-called men’s magazines that some older boys and fathers had left around.  These were not girlie magazines, but men’s magazines, full of manly subjects.  One of the most compelling was the often used spread on “Arab” crime management, the cutting off of hands and sometimes heads for minor infractions, or what I thought of at eleven as minor.  Now that was what I would have classified as torture.

What the Saudis may think of such acts I do not know, though they apparently continue to this day.

No, what Americans think of when they think of torture usually involves chain saws, or sledge hammers, or the like.  Walk though any of the mega-hardware stores of the modern period, as Hollywood producers often do looking for new ways to kill people in movies, and you can gather what constitutes torture to most of the population.

It’s usually entails cutting, smashing, gouging, body parts lost, whatever carnage that  has appeared over the last couple of decades at the local multi-plex.

I have always thought it curious that waterboarding has taken pride of place in the torture sweepstakes that have been roundly condemned of late.  Americans have very conflicted views about water and it has been seldom looked at as outright torture.  True, it has been seen as a vehicle of catastrophe, of peril, but not necessarily as an instrument of torture:  Hurricanes Sandy and Katrina, for instance. But that of course, is weather. Various myths about water have taken hold in the American psyche: parents, particularly fathers, throwing children into pools as a means of instruction to either sink or swim.  Sharks in the ocean are scarier than the ocean itself.  Backyard pools were always a luxury to aspire to.  Everyone, or a lot of people, have found themselves at one time or another choking on too much water, either learning how to swim, or because of some other mishap when at play. Water water everywhere.

Former Vice President Cheney on Meet the Press made one odd concession to our country’s most recent form of waterboarding, in order to differentiate it from the WWII Japanese sort, for which perpetrators were hung by the neck till dead, Cheney said that we “elevated” the feet of the waterboarded, so they wouldn’t actually drown.  I had never heard that before, the elevated feet business, and I’ve paid attention over the years to the placating statements that the overly involved have made.

And all the business of slamming people into walls, and other sort of rough treatment.  Americans seem to give that a pass too, as official torture, given that NFL stars are knocking out their wives in casino hotels’ elevators and beating their children with switches, to say nothing of all the non-stars bad treatment of wives and children we all see about us.  Torture?  Almost usual behavior of some alarmingly high percentage of our fellow Americans.

But it is the waterboarding that people keep coming back to.  Somehow water’s properties are too conflicted, so many good, so few bad, for Americans to see water as real torture.  It is something: EIT.  Enhanced Interrogation Techniques.  George Orwell is spinning in his grave. Hanging from ceilings, sleep deprivation, so much of that sounds too familiar to too many people, something they have put up with. Rectal feeding?  Apparently, some folks have enemas for fun.

It does seem that Americans, at least 2 - 1, roughly 70 percent, are ready to give the CIA and the Bush II administration a pass on the torture question, as long as they don’t turn up at their doors someday with chain saws and sledge hammers, or gardening scissors and red hot pokers.

A version of this ran in the South Bend Tribune, January 10, 2015: