Street Fighting Men

Sifting through a recent flurry of books about Sixties radicals and student demonstrators.

Book Cover I actually lived through and participated in the era unimaginatively referred to as the Sixties--there was war and drugs and madness and dancing in the streets, assassinations and a presidential resignation and Woodstock and Watts, the Black Panthers, the White Panthers, the Grey Panthers, and, well, you know, a lot of action. And there were some heroes and villains. Recently, a few books have been published that add some small pieces to the incomplete historical jigsaw puzzle. In 1968, Mark Rudd, author of Underground: My Life With S.D.S. and the Weathermen (William Morrow, excerpt) was a Columbia undergraduate and a member of the radical Students for a Democratic Society. Rudd soon transmogrified into a more militant radical--one who founded the S.D.S. splinter group Weather Underground, which was responsible for the post-1968 "Days of Rage" and a string of bombings.

The Baader-Meinhof gang (Red Army Faction) were '60s era radical Germans-turned-lethal terrorists who continued operating into the '70s and '80s, keeping various European intelligence agencies fully occupied. The monograph Baader-Meinhof: The Inside Story of the R.A.F. by Stefan Aust and Anthea Bell (Oxford University Press) fills in the huge blank spaces behind the newspaper accounts.

Chesa Boudin's parents were radicals who were imprisoned in the early 1980s and entrusted his upbringing to Weatherman William Ayers (you know who he is) and Bernardine Dohrn. As a response to his parents' (real and surrogate) beliefs on issues of economic and labor justice, Boudin crisscrossed Latin America. In Gringo: A Coming of Age in Latin America (Scribner, excerpt), Boudin travels through 25 countries and melds his personal hegira with perceptive observations of the ongoing ecological devastation, intermittent economic crises, and the development and struggles of various indigenous movements.

Book Cover And then there is subversive satirist and gadfly (or as he describes himself, investigative satirist) Paul Krassner, author of Who's to Say What's Obscene: Politics, Culture, and Comedy in America Today (City Lights, excerpt). Friend of martyred comic Lenny Bruce and the editor of Bruce's autobiography, How to Talk Dirty and Influence People, Krassner was also publisher of The Realist magazine from 1958 to 1974, and co-founder of the Youth International Party (the Yippies) with Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin. He has now been inducted into the Counterculture Hall of Fame (created in 1997). Here's Kurt Vonnegut on Krassner: 1963 created a miracle of compressed intelligence nearly as admirable for potent simplicity, in my opinion, as Einstein's e=mc2. With the Vietnam War going on, and with its critics discounted and scorned by the government and the mass media, Krassner put on sale a red, white and blue poster that said FUCK COMMUNISM.

At the beginning of the 1960s, FUCK was believed to be so full of bad magic as to be unprintable. In the most humanely influential American novel of this half century, The Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield, it will be remembered, was shocked to see that word on a subway station wall. He wondered what seeing it might do to the mind of a little kid. COMMUNISM was to millions the name of the most loathsome evil imaginable. To call an American a communist was like calling somebody a Jew in Nazi Germany. By having FUCK and COMMUNISM fight it out in a single sentence, Krassner wasn't merely being funny as heck. He was demonstrating how preposterous it was for so many people to be responding to both words with such cockamamie Pavlovian fear and alarm.
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