Most of us are familiar with the old maxim "Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it." We're witnessing a new hybrid of that truism: those who are doomed to repeat history want to learn from it. The media have long nursed a fascination with the 1960s. Some see that decade as an example of how close we came, others of how silly we were.
At the risk of sounding shallow, you might say that the key's changed but the song remains the same. Replace Vietnam with Iraq, Communism with terrorism, throw in something called e-mail, and it's not hard to understand why people packed the Bloor Cinema two weeks ago for the opening of the documentary The Weather Underground (now showing at the Carlton).
Bernadine Dohrn, the film's central figure, offers me an explanation. "I think we're seeing the resurgence of empire in America. The type of invasion we're now seeing was not permissible for almost 30 years." Dohrn is a former Weatherman, a group that embarked on a string of bombings of such targets as the Capitol Building, NYPD headquarters, the Bank of America and a prison building. Oh, and they busted Timothy Leary out of jail.
They aimed to "bring the war home.' "We wanted to deliver the most horrific hit America had ever witnessed on its own soil," recalls one former member in the film.
There's an obvious temptation to compare that sentiment to what happened decades later in New York City. But the film resists casting the clandestine meteorologists as either heroes or villians, contextualizing rather than evangelizing. It's a welcome contrast to the reactionary froth and saccharine nostalgia of most pop-culture reminiscing. Events speak for themselves, sounding notes hopeful and disturbing in a dissonant harmony like smashing glass.
The result is that when former forecaster Brian Flanagan remarks, "The war in Vietnam made us all a bit crazy," it's understood that he's not just talking about a former group of young, white, guerillas, but about a country.
Dohrn is unrepentant. When I ask if she'd do it again, she says she would. "But I would do it smarter." At a Q&A following the premiere, someone asks if she thinks the WU should apologize. "I don't think that's required," she says, to much applause. "But I do think there's a lot to learn." The immediate lesson from this film: it's easy to blow up buildings and hide from people.
The first bombing was in retaliation for the FBI assassination of Black Panther organizer Fred Hampton. The Underground expressed solidarity with the Black Panthers, but in the film a Panther chides the group as naive and irresponsible. It's worth noting that the FBI essentially destroyed the Panthers, while the white kids went unapprehended for years.
Comparing the Panthers to the Weather Underground also raises the question of what threatens power. The Panthers were not primarily insurrectionary. While people remember their guns and unfortunate love of uniforms, the bulk of their work was community organizing: breakfasts for kids, education and such. The Panthers constructed something and defended it. The Weathermen, in typical white radical fashion, jumped right to the sexy part, hoping to build something by blowing something else up. But it's been well said that you can't blow up a social relationship.
I believe there is a place for confrontation, but that doesn't mean I'm OK with you throwing that bottle at the officer standing in front of me, and then running away. In movements confronting the military-industrial beast, exasperation and moral relativism are inevitable. The question is not how to banish these, but how to integrate them in such a way that they do more good than harm. Destroy the concrete to plant a garden.
We don't have to like the Weather Underground, even if we have to admit there's some part of us, however small, that's glad they did what they did. But we don't have to mimic them. "People look to the 60s for answers,' says Dohrn. "But it's important not to be tied down to history.'