Monday, August 17, 2020

Review of Collier & Horowitz’s "Destructive Generation"

Peter Collier and David Horowitz (CH) were among the leaders in the Sixties “Radical” movement. But when its fruit became apparent to them over the next decade, they converted from the Left. Destructive Generation is a useful history of the late 1960s and early 1970s in America. The authors’ applications to the 1980s are provocative, even when not convincing. (The parallels to today are more impressive.) And their story of intellectual and ideological transformation is compelling.

The first four chapters are mini-biographies of some key players during the Sixties. Chapter 1 relates the sad tale of Fay Stender—a lawyer and activist whose story turns out to be a catalyst for their conversion. Chapter 2 covers “Billy” Ayers, Bernadine Dohrn, and the Weather Underground. Chapter 3 is about an obscure pair of Marine Corps buddies in Vietnam who end up on different sides of the law when they return. Chapter 4 discusses Huey Newton and the Black Panthers.

The second quartet of chapters speaks to some of the reasons for their conversion: some absurdities of the Left (Chapter 5); the McCarthy era on the Right with applications to the Left in the Sixties (Chapter 6); a history of Berkeley (Chapter 7); and the Left’s positions in the 1980s on foreign policy (Chapter 8). A final trio of chapters is more directly auto-biographical—a chapter written by each author and then a closing chapter describing their “journey” so far.

CH open with “epiphany”—a popular term among radicals in the Sixties: “it tended to elevate life’s commonplaces…part of the decade’s transcendental conviction that there was something apocalyptic lurking behind the veil of the ordinary, and that just a little more pressure was needed to…[break] through to the other side.” (14) But it’s a later epiphany which leads to their break from the movement. As they wrote about Stender, who was viciously attacked by African-Americans she had defended, they were appalled that she was “taken advantage of and debased by” her previous allies on the Left (303). Not surprisingly, CH were then pilloried by the Left for describing this history, further speeding their exodus.

The Stender episode illustrates a common progression of legalism and fanaticism within idealism.[1] Who is pure enough? Who is willing to sacrifice for the Cause? Strict standards often lead to hypocrisy, legalism, fanaticism, “sectarian ecstasies”, and ultimately “cannibalism” of the movement (61, 156). When Stender was shot multiple times and paralyzed, some of her friends were suddenly worried about a criminal getting out on technicalities, while others defended her attacker and called her defenders racist (57). Even the Weather Underground were later labeled “racist.” (114)

Vietnam also persuaded CH to leave, since it didn’t turn out nearly as promised by the Left. After America left the field, “what we had dismissed as impossible was happening with dizzying speed.” Occupation, bloodbaths, re-education, boat people, Cambodian genocide, and an aggressive USSR moving into the foreign policy vacuum. More people were “killed in the first two years of the Communist peace than in the thirteen years of American war.” (174)

CH and others “challenged the survivors of the New Left to live up to their claims to be partisans of social justice and the rights of the oppressed.” (175) Many doubled down instead. But the convicted began to meet and find their voice. CH and others formed a “Second Thoughts Conference” where future luminaries like Richard John Neuhaus, Ronald Radosh, Michael Novak, Michael Medved gathered to discuss their past and the future (350-358).

A Destructive Generation Then

CH describe 1968 as “the great unraveling of the Sixties”—from Tet and the assassinations of MLK Jr. and RFK, to LBJ’s withdrawal from the presidential race and the riot at the Democratic Convention in Chicago (“the Kristallnacht of the New Left” [291]). Among other things, faith in democracy was supplanted by a passion for radical change. “By the end of the Sixties, participatory democracy was a language no longer spoken on the Left. Its slogans had changed…” to ideologies like Marxist-Leninist (171). “But while we wanted a revolution, we didn’t have a plan.” (15)

CH’s book overlaps with subjects in Tom Wolfe’s writing. Whites, especially Jews, were instrumental in helping many of the “Black Power” groups start. But then they were kicked out in the name of self-determination (28). The Black Panthers were a notable exception (29), leading to the wonderful moments described by Wolfe in Radical Chic. CH provide the picture of well-dressed Black Panthers patrolling the streets with guns—“irresistible, especially for white New Leftists.” (147) Huey Newton was invited to co-lead a seminar on racism at Yale (153). And after mentioning Bernstein’s party, BH describe the Panthers as “one part model for radical self-sacrifice and one part house pet of radical chic.” (149)

Wolfe wrote about the limited connection between the radicals and the community they claimed to represent. CH tell us that they “had no base in Berkeley’s black community, which in fact was deeply suspicious of the radicals and resented what it regarded as their manipulation of racial and ethnic issues.” (224) A telling example: the community was not excited about the radical push to rename an historically important street name to “MLK Way.” They didn’t want to lose the former name and recognized that “many of those now pushing the name change had dismissed King in the Sixties as a sellout and a ‘Tom’.”[2] (228)

CH discuss the parallels between the Far Left and the Far Right, but note a key difference: the Far Left are utopians with a “religious confusion and moral corruption that defines [it]…If self-righteousness is the moral oxygen of the radical creed, self-deception is the marrow of its immune system.” (247) They quote Arthur Koestler here: “Clinging to the last shred of the torn illusion, is typical of the cowardice that prevails on the Left.” (347)

Good intentions easily trump good results. Wishful thinking: if we only had more competent people in charge, better plans, purer purpose—always, the next time. “Stalin’s reign was the consequence of a bad man rather than a bad theory and a bad system.” (250) Blame evasion—whether earnest and blind, or as a cynical grasp for future power. “They manufacture innocence out of guilt: it is the eternal work of the Left…For Leftists, there are only tomorrows. They never talk about the evil they have done, except superficially, to imply that it has increased their moral sensitivity. But they are always anxious to discuss the utopia to come.” (245)

This also leads to the ends justifying the methods—to accomplish goals “by any means necessary.” (173) And they are willing to define “the truth” strategically: “the radical willingness to tinker with the facts to serve a greater truth.”[3] (37) One manifestation of this: the use of “the political defense” for criminals—not denying the crime, but blaming the system: “an attack, rather than a defense, by charging that America’s law enforcement was homicidal and its criminal justice system infected with racism.” (147)

A Destructive Generation Now

As they wrote this in the late 1980s, CH saw an impending renaissance of the New Left (15, 266). But the ascendancy was still 20 years in the future—perhaps superseded by the transcendence of the USSR’s implosion a few years later. One aspect they saw—which was true then and continues today—is a romanticized view of the 1960s and Socialism. The 1960s continue to be re-cast as “a golden age” with “energy and excitement…commitment and belief.” (243) Socialism is imagined as bigger government, rather than its bloody history and the State owning the means of production.

The connections to today are more obvious. The “liberated zones” and “a bloody war with the police forces of several cities” are reminiscent of this year in Portland, Seattle, Chicago, etc. (34) Smashing windows, setting cars on fire, and “trashing the famed Chicago Gold Coast” sounds familiar (88-89). Nothing has equaled the Weather Underground’s bombing of the U.S. Capitol, but the year isn’t over yet (105).

Something akin to “cancel culture” was in play with McCarthyism in the 1950s and its sequel on the Left in the 1960s. CH saw glimpses of it in the 1980s—e.g., Roger Wilkins calling Thomas Sowell “an enemy of his people.” (196) In those days, the only thing “out of bounds in the political debate” is whether you “are or were or might have been” a Communist (197). But CH were prescient in imagining a resurgence in our times with the Pharasaism of political correctness—and now, the fascism of cancel culture. Even then, they saw this illiberal impulse as “a way of embargoing ideas that the Left dislikes and invoking cloture on debates that it doesn’t want to have.” (197)

CH argue that “the history of McCarthyism actually shows how alien the witch-hunt mentality is to the American spirit…brief in its moment and limited in its consequences. And it was complete in the way it was purged from the body politic. [McCarthy’s] strut on the stage ended in a crushing repudiation by his colleagues…and [he has] an enduring obloquy in the rogues’ gallery of American history”, along with Benedict Arnold and a few others (195-196). But with cancel culture’s power and popularity today, one might wonder if McCarthyism is so aberrant after all.

[1] We see these tendencies today on the Left today with “cancel culture.”

[2] Another example of Berkeley’s heterogeneity: By 1985, 22% of its students were in private schools—twice the state average (234).

[3] “Faith and terror are the twin pillars of the revolution’s defense.” (249) This is reminiscent of the two Beasts in Revelation 13—the State and False Religion.


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