Thursday, July 28, 2011

new left - book - 1989 - Destructive Generation: Second Thoughts About the '60s

Destructive Generation: Second Thoughts About the ‘60s
Peter Collier and David Horowitz
Summit Books
352 pages

The suburban square-dom represented on the television series, MadMen, may represent what was actually the predominant mode of being for American's during the 1960s.  That was the world of the man in the grey flannel suit, one-dimensional man, organization man, the air conditioned nightmare, the mechanical bride, the paranoid style of American politics, these were the metaphors used to describe the prevailing social conditions by the sharpest critics of the era.  With some exceptions, popular culture has most frequently represented the socio-cultural features of that era produced in reaction against the dominant cultural order.  A new counterculture emerged to react to the suburbs, professional life, valorization of the military, religious and social tradition, family structure and political structures.  The era also gave us the term “counterculture”, invented by historian Theodor Roszak in 1968.  Roszak's term extends to social movements well beyond the 1960s, however that period has become the centre with all other aspects of countercultural history trapped in its orbit.  

Peter Collier and David Horowitz were there, in the 1960s, as active participants in the New Left.  Specifically, they were editors at Ramparts magazine which was one of the premiere leftist periodicals of the era.  Since the 1960s the pair have moved to the right, to the far right actually, and this book represents a look back upon their radical activities from their newfound ideological perch.  David Horowitz is now best known as a neoconservative bigot whose website, is a popular purveyor of anti-Muslim ideas and rhetoric.  Horowitz (and to a lesser extent, Collier) is a practitioner of the paranoid style of American politics which can be read in his recent work that shows a failure to distinguish between radical Muslim groups and any other form of being for America’s tiny Muslim population, and also in his view that America is in danger of infiltration by radical Muslims who are uncritically supported by American leftists and academics.  Horowitz’s view is a paranoid fantasy that has less ground in reality than that old cold war fear that the US was in danger of communist takeover from the inside.  

Horowitz current project, as exemplified by the content on is to construct America’s Muslim population as a threat to the United States for the purpose of creating a cultural climate that is dangerous to America’s Muslim population.  Horowitz’s recently published commentary on the attacks in Norway by right-wing anti-immigration extremist, Anders Behring Breivik, suggesting that ‘The Left’ is already cynically  using this atrocious event to criticize anti-immigrant hate-bloggers for binding Islam to terrorism in their rhetoric.  The issue, clearly, is that these bloggers construction of terrorism as a Muslim (or leftist, alternatively) phenomena is threatened by Breivik’s rampage and therefore they must scramble to defend their chief weapon in the campaign to intimidate a tiny religio-ethnic population through symbolic violence.

The reason why I mention any of this is in part because its timely, Breivik’s day-long terror campaign has brought Horowitz’s name into my news feeds, but also because the roots of Horowitz’s bigotry and lack of intellectual consideration (despite an impressive education) can be found in Destructive Generation.  Some aspects of the book are quite interesting.  The first essay, titled ‘Requiem for a Radical’, about a lawyer named Fay Stender who dedicated her career to working with prisoners, and was particularly focused on the case of late Black Panther Party leader, George Jackson was especially fascinating.  Stender was a ‘movement lawyer’ focused on changing a corrupt political system through the courts.  Ultimately, however, a follower of Jackson shot her five times during a home invasion, and Horowitz and Collier represent the situation as the lawyer’s leftist values turning on her.  The authors extend this principle values gone awry to Stender’s milieu of movement lawyers who came to her defense when someone representing the people they helped almost killed her.  ‘Requiem for a Radical’ tells a story of the values of the sixties destructively colliding into one another and exploding across the new spaces created by the short-lived radical culture.  

The second essay ‘Doing It’ treads across nearby thematic ground to ‘Requiem for a Radical’.  It focuses on leftist values gone wrong, this time by examining the phenomena of the ultra-left group Weather Underground, an ultra-left group that broke from the larger national leftist organization, Students for a Democratic Society.  Horowitz and Collier provide details for the inner-workings of the group, describing how the WU's efforts to smash state power were frustrated by internal power struggles.  Furthermore, the authors describe behavior that, in their telling, the Weathermen considered subversive even though it was merely boorish.  An example was their description of a scene on an airplane where WU leader ‘J.J.’ (probably referring to Weatherman John Jacobs) while flying with Weatherwoman Bernadine Dohrn, began walking up and down the aisle to take food from other passengers.  Horowitz and Collier quoted Dohrn as stating “They (passengers) didn’t know we were Weathermen, they just knew we were crazy.  That’s what we’re about - being crazy motherfuckers and scaring the shit out of honkey America.”  This sentiments of the previous statement are not exactly revolutionary although they may echo through the actions and statements of a myriad of contemporary activist movements.  Horowitz and Collier successfully argue that the Weather Underground’s commitment to violence brings them into contact with the spirit of their book title.

After its first two essays, Destructive Generation becomes an articulate but mean spirited series of anti-left rants.  The book was published during the denouement of the Cold War era and it appears to speak about the 1960s as though they had never ended, as though the legacy of the 60s radical-left/commie-sympathetic zeitgeist was at a high-point during the 1980s.  In reality, those sentiments were never dominant although history has caused them to loom larger in the social memory.  Horowitz and Collier's rantings exemplify the paranoid style - their assertion that the spirit of the sixties was a continued threat during the Reagan years, despite America's fierce turn to the right during that decade, is made repeatedly by the authors.  ‘The sixties’ has become such a huge field in the study of counterculture, holding everything else in its orbit, that I appreciate when I find a text that is not purely laudatory of the period.  The authors 'critique' is seldom more than conspiracy theory as they speak of the left as an eternally unified movement that is fixed solely on the destruction of the United States - meanwhile they managed to grow up into people with changed perspectives.  They speak of the left as a social phenomena that is a threat to American freedom while never explaining what is threatening about it, which indicates that they were writing for a readership that already takes the dangers of the left for granted.  Furthermore, in an essay titled ‘McCarthy’s Ghost’ the authors argue that McCarthy was, current to their writing, being exploited by leftists who evoke the term ‘McCarthyism’ as a means of shutting down dialogue pertaining to a socially relevant issue.  This essay gives a glimpse into the ideological perspective of the authors, as anyone who has ever witnessed the evocation of Commie persecutor Senator Joseph McCarthy’s name in argument knows that it is always brought up in defense against an effort to shut down communication.  Horowitz and Collier end ‘McCarthy’s Ghost’ by arguing that many of McCarthy’s victims were genuine communists, and therefore the senator was doing good work.  The authors printed this statement without explaining why the ideals American freedom could not accommodate an American who was also a communist.

Destructive Generation is not so much a critique of the radical sixties as it is a work of Cold War era propaganda, against leftist political activity, that gives the surface appearance of being a wide-ranging critical-historical study.  Horowitz and Collier use their status as former New Left insiders to invest their neo-conservative anti-communist rantings with the credibility of people who have been there.  While they, at times, cite the criticisms American leftists had of the Soviet Union, for example, they mostly attempt to lead the reader to believe that American leftists were unified in their unquestioning support of the USSR’s struggle with the United States for global dominance.  Horowitz cites his own father’s break with the Soviet Union despite his lifelong adherence to Marxism, however everyone else on the political left is a secret soldier waiting for activation orders from Moscow.  The willingness to associate all leftists with America’s enemies, shown by Horowitz, is repeated in his current work where he and his editorial colleagues at put all leftists, academics, and Muslims in league with radical Muslim terrorists.  It is such loose and acritical study of the flows of political sympathies that gives Horowitz his current status as a neo-conservative bigot.

My comments above are only a sampling of the contentious issues found in Horowitz and Collier’s book.  Destructive Generation is teeming with racist undertones, paranoid ravings, contradictions, historical distortions, and just a general meanness that indicates Horowitz and Collier have at least preserved a sense of humourless self-righteousness from their radical-left days.  This book is not a critique of the radical past to be read by other former radicals, instead it is a thin reminder to the people who voted for Regan that leftism is wrong, performed from a stage set with distorted figures and objects that resemble the forms of the 1960s.  Overall the book is not really useful as a history of 1960s radicalism although it is interesting as a study of attitudes towards the 1960s and of neoconservative attitudes towards leftist politics.

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