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Wall Street Journal

 

Days of Rage Recalled

March 28, 2009

By Stefan Kanfer

PRINTER FRIENDLY

An unrepentant 1960s radical recounts his past as protester and fugitive

Underground
By Mark Rudd
William Morrow, 325 pages, $25.99

Mark Rudd was a prominent student leader in 1968 when the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) occupied several buildings at Columbia University in New York. I lived across the street at the time and well remember their collective tantrum. Taking over the administrative offices by force, they issued a roster of demands. These included (a) the abandonment of plans for a gym that Columbia intended to build in Harlem -- even though community leaders had approved the proposal seven years earlier; (b) a break between the university and the Institute for Defense Analyses, a weapons-research think tank; (c) official denouncement of the Selective Service System, which was drafting college-age men for military duty in Vietnam; and (d) total amnesty for Mr. Rudd and the Ruddlets.

Police were brought in and hundreds of students rioted, trashing the campus along with parts of the surrounding neighborhood. In Mr. Rudd’s “Underground: My Life With SDS and the Weathermen” -- a series of rationales for the autobiographer’s toxic behavior as a young man, followed by one of the most unconvincing mea culpas since Bernie Madoff turned himself in -- he cluelessly describes the collision of authority and adolescence at Columbia. “It certainly didn’t help that we antagonized the cops by calling them ’pigs’ and ’m---------ers.’ ” (Mr. Rudd doesn’t bother with the hyphens.) He goes on to describe his behavior following an argument with a professor. The prof actually wanted to teach students rather than help them destroy an institution of higher learning: “Breaking away . . . I ran down the street, picked up a brick I saw lying around, and, in a puny gesture, shattered the post-office window next door. Throwing that brick gave me no solace.”

Not to worry. There were many other balms for self-styled militants. Mind-altering drugs, for example, group sex, visits to Cuba for training in revolutionary tactics and, in later years, grabbing credit for ending the Vietnam War. (In fact, because the Nixon administration worried about appearing to bow to the radicals’ pressure, they actually helped prolong the conflict.) “To this day,” Mr. Rudd writes, four decades after the uprising on the Upper West Side, “I encounter people who tell me the Columbia strike changed their lives: a woman who gave up French literature to study law and work for welfare clients; a male career community organizer who found direction for his life during the strike.”

Unmentioned by Mr. Rudd are Columbia students who were pleased with the direction of their studies but whose classes were shut down and whose Ph.D. theses, in a some cases, were burned in the riot (a disaster in the days before the ubiquity of the copying machine). A more significant casualty of the Columbia violence: the suffocation of civilized debate on campus.

The university has never fully recovered from the traumas of 1968. Over the years its presidents and administrations have tacked one way and another as the winds of political fashion dictate, lest “the kids” get upset again. In September 2007, when Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was invited to speak at the university, criticism from outside Columbia that Mr. Ahmadinejad hardly merited the school’s hospitality prompted two ludicrous screeds, one from the president of the university, the other from the president of Iran. Both Lee Bollinger and Mr. Ahmadinejad essentially defended the Iranian’s right to free speech in America -- this for the representative of a country where speaking freely is often rewarded with prison time. (And, of course, the U.S. military that defends free speech at Columbia is denied a campus presence in the form of the ROTC.)

By contrast, a year earlier another invited Columbia speaker -- Jim Gilchrist, founder of the Minuteman Project, an independent group that patrols the border between the U.S. and Mexico -- was mugged onstage by student intimidators in classic SDS style, and the school authorities issued only the mildest rebuke.

A trailblazer of that style, of course, was Mr. Rudd. After fomenting the Columbia brawl in 1968, he moved on to help found a more violent organization called the Weathermen (later renamed the Weather Underground). At Indiana University in September 1969, he exhorted students to follow his lead. In “Underground,” he quotes from an FBI file that he says “all too accurately” captured his remarks that day: “Some people will get hurt, some killed, to build the revolution. We want whites to take risks now -- affinity groups will be the main tactics. Whites in twos and three will off” -- that is, murder -- “the pigs. . . . Don’t have non-violent marches.”

Of course, Mr. Rudd was not alone in portraying the U.S. as an imperialist, sexist, racist society led by Caucasian male oppressors -- in a word, “Amerika.” There was, for example, Bernardine Dohrn, who styled herself as a valorous antifascist fighting the Fourth Reich. Speaking alongside Mr. Rudd in Chicago in October 1969, she told a crowd: “We refuse to be good Germans. We live behind enemy lines.”

On March 16, 1970, Mr. Rudd’s life as a revolutionary took an unexpected turn. At a townhouse on 11th Street in Greenwich Village where five of his “comrades” were preparing an attack on a dance at Fort Dix in New Jersey for noncommissioned officers and their wives and girlfriends, a bomb loaded with dynamite and nails exploded prematurely. The blast killed three Weathermen; two others survived and fled the scene. The group’s leadership went underground to avoid arrest.

Mr. Rudd, it should be noted, was fully aware of the planned attack: One of the bombers who would die in the explosion had told him a few nights before that they were going to “kill the pigs at a dance at Fort Dix.” The military officers, of course, were meant to “pay for the American crimes in Vietnam,” Mr. Rudd writes. As for their dancing partners, well, “at that point we had determined that there were no innocent Americans, at least no white ones.”

He stayed on the lam for seven years, dodging federal charges in the Fort Dix bombing conspiracy and other crimes. Mr. Rudd was unhappy with the revolution’s failure to accomplish much of anything, but he certainly did not repudiate its methods. In “Underground,” he describes participating, a few weeks after the Greenwich Village explosion, in a “fund-raising” event that would be colloquially described as armed robbery at a restaurant, and he recounts a bungled attempt several months later to bomb the Marin County Courthouse in California. But he also fell from favor within the organization, which was rife with political infighting, and drifted into the “insanely boring” life of a simple fugitive from justice. Still, he had talked his long-suffering wife into joining him underground, and in 1974 they had a baby, a son “born under an assumed name.”

In 1977, Mr. Rudd finally surfaced in a well-hyped, thoroughly lawyered surrender to federal authorities. He gloats that at his arraignment he was “treated more or less as a V.I.P. rather than a bail jumper and an accused felon revolutionary.” Another delight: Most of the charges against him were dropped, and he got off with two years’ probation and a $2,000 fine.

Since then, the memoirist assures us, he became a sober community-college math teacher in New Mexico (he retired in 2007), rueful about the Weathermen’s violent history -- though only faintly so. He is hardly contrite about trying to sow revolution. The U.S. is still a racist, imperialist stronghold, Mr. Rudd claims, and “there’s no shortage of organizing work to be done.” The awakening youth of America, he says, give him hope.

The real value of “Underground” is not its feeble repentance or its sham modesty. (“My part in the destruction of the Weather Underground was actually very small.”) Mr. Rudd’s essential contribution is his self-portrait as a youth who persuaded others to wreck rather than create -- and his snapshots of like-minded contemporaries.

Consider the aforementioned Bernardine Dohrn. In the 1970s, a “Revolutionary Committee” of fanatical leftists who had deposed her Weather Underground leadership group released a tape of the contrite Ms. Dohrn’s confession of her antirevolutionary sins. On the tape, she owned up to “naked white supremacy, white superiority, and chauvinistic arrogance,” Mr. Rudd reports, and to “denying support to Third World liberation. . . . She even named names of her co-conspirators.” Among the “leading criminals” she denounced, the author notes, was Bill Ayers.

As the world knows, Mr. Ayers and Ms. Dohrn are now man and wife -- and professors well respected in some quarters. Such are the after-lives of revolutionaries. During the presidential campaign, because of Mr. Ayers’s connection to Barack Obama, the names Ayers, Dohrn and Rudd were in the air again, occasioning wistful admiration from the left and fresh anger from the right. Few noticed that the superannuated rebels now operate at a safe distance from the barricades. The main activity of these “activists” is offering alibis, teaching the naïve and writing books about the days before Amerika got wise to their party line.

Original Source: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB123819009072860721.html

 

 
 
 

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