Over the years I’ve gotten rid of most of the embarrassing evidence—the photos of us on Telegraph Avenue giving the clenched fist salute while wreathed in choking teargas; the North Vietnamese flag that hung in my front window all those years; the pistol I bought because we all believed that the FBI was coming for us. But one item from the Sixties I’ve kept—a commemorative comb brought back from Hanoi by Tom Hayden after one of his trips there to support General Vo Nguyen Giap’s shrewd perception that the war would not be won in the jungles of Vietnam but on the streets of America.

The comb is machine-cut out of the metal of a downed U.S. aircraft. It is about five inches long, in the shape of an F-105. There are patches of white paint on the unfinished side. A cockpit and insignia have been stamped on the shinier front. Just above the teeth are inscribed these words: “The American Pirates 1,100th plane shot down in North Vietnam.”

When Hayden gave it to me the comb seemed a jaunty symbol of an invincible peasant nationalism, and a challenge to us, Hanoi’s American irregulars, to step up the struggle. When I look at it now, of course, I wonder about the American who piloted the plane out of which this macabre artifact was made. Did he survive the crash? Was he killed by members of the local militia soon after parachuting to the ground, like so many airmen? Did he make it to the Hanoi Hilton and survive the barbaric captivity there?

The comb has been on my mind particularly during this fortieth anniversary of 1968, which those who continue to believe that a terrible beauty was being born back then often refer to as an annus mirabilis. The Latin phrase is usually followed with a breathless catalogue of the events that took place when the whole world was watching: Tet, LBJ’s withdrawal, My Lai, the seizure of Columbia University, the assassinations of King and Kennedy, the student uprising in Paris, the Democratic convention in Chicago, and so on.

That’s the problem with these ritualized celebrations of the Sixties: they show only part of the picture.

There are always omissions from this list of wonders. One of them is the iconic photo taken on February 1, 1968, showing a bullet fired at close range by South Vietnamese police commander Nguyen Ngoc Loan into the right temple of Viet Cong Nguyen Van Lem exiting on the other side of his skull. Along with the photo taken four years later of nine-year-old Phan Kim Phuc roasting from napalm as she ran naked down a highway in the Central Highlands, this is the most evocative image of the war. But both photos, starkly black and white in meaning back in the day, have since taken on a grayer coloration. Lem was executed not out of the mad random bloodlust that is supposed to have touched everything related to the U.S. presence in Vietnam, but because he was captain of a terrorist squad that had just massacred the family of one of Loan’s deputy commanders. And Kim Phuc, after all the skin grafts and years of being displayed as a propaganda doll in Havana and other revolutionary venues, finally made her way to Canada, converted to Christianity, and stood in quiet opposition to the Vietnamese government.

That’s the problem with these ritualized celebrations of the Sixties: they show only part of the picture. I recently happened on a brief article in The Chronicle of Higher Education by Jay Parini, a Professor of English at Middlebury College, which repeated what has now become the giddy conventional wisdom about this having been a time characterized by “a feeling of freedom from old pieties and a sense of fresh potential.” Every time I see this sentiment, more a recitation than an actual thought, I’m reminded of the statement sometimes attributed to that insufferable old charlatan Timothy Leary: people who remember the Sixties weren’t really there.

That this was a time simply of spunky homegrown prometheans making performance art out of transgression and mournfully sincere young idealists who wanted nothing more than to give peace a chance is a Soviet socialist realist view. Behind such people stood a smaller cadre of heavy hitters with an agenda: to force the transition from American Mischief to American Mayhem by whatever means necessary; to make treason of the heart evolve in timely fashion into treason of the deed. The relationship between the two groups, the soft- and hardliners, was analogous to one James Burnham had seen in an earlier time when he said that the difference between the liberals and the Communists was that the Communists knew what they were doing.

The hardcore Left knew what it was doing in the Sixties. But it forgot not long after. During the small aperture for second thoughts about the era that occurred in the mid-1980s, my friend David Horowitz and I, apostates from The Movement, tried to provoke a discussion about what that Left had done and meant and what remained after it flamed out in histrionics and impotence. In response, a stone wall.

But the omission of ideas has consequences, too. When his “authoritative” advocacy history of the era first appeared, for instance, Todd Gitlin forgot to mention how the Black Panthers had developed into a sort of New Left-sanctioned Murder Inc. operating out of the Oakland ghetto. It is not surprising that a few years later, David Hilliard, the former “chief of staff” of the Panthers and the only leader left standing after the deaths of Huey Newton (1989) and Eldridge Cleaver (1998) and Bobby Seale’s wise decision to trade revolution for the barbecue business, was running a successful enterprise leading Potemkin bus tours to all the Oakland landmarks associated with the Panthers’ “civil rights” triumphs. (“Stop 2: Traffic Signal, corner of Market and 55th. A small cadre of armed Black Panthers stopped motorists and personally escorted children across the busy intersection. Installation of the traffic signal begun Aug. 1, 1967.”) Local school districts now sign their children up for this educational experience in “community organizing.”

Because it is still so unassimilated—“a cadaver,” soixante-huitard André Glucksmann recently said, from which people of all political points of view break off chunks at will—the Sixties continues to shadow our politics like a mean dog. John Kerry got bit when he cluelessly decided to “report for duty” in 2004. More recently the Sixties lunged at Barack Obama in the person of the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, negrifying him when he wanted to be post-racial and ideologizing him when he wanted to be post-partisan, and ending abruptly his attempt to hope-a-dope an electorate desperate to believe.

If Wright’s rancid ideas about Amerikkka, right out of the Sixties Black Power play book, were not burden enough, Obama also had to account for Billy Ayers, who helped found Weatherman out of SDS after a series of carcinomic political cell divisions had gorked that organization. This nihilistic group, which took its name from Bob Dylan’s line “You don’t need a weather man to know which way the wind blows,” inspired some opposition from the ancien régime of the New Left (one of whose members famously said, “No, and you don’t need a rectal thermometer to know who the assholes are”). But in constantly “upping the ante,” Weatherman expressed the temper of the time. And no one in the group better embodied the era’s penny-ante Neitzscheanism than Ayers himself. (“Guilty as hell, free as a bird, America’s a great country” was how he summarized his life in the Sixties and after in a talk with me and David Horowitz not long after emerging from the terrorist underground and heading toward the tenure track at the University of Illinois.)

There is justice in Obama’s plaintive objection that he was, after all, in knee pants in the years when Weatherman was on its little bombing spree. All he knew about Ayers was the conventional wisdom about all such unreconstructed “activists” from the Sixties: that they are solid progressives with social consciences who, like the candidate himself, believe in change. Indeed, given the way the era is portrayed by Professor Parini and all the others, why should Obama have thought anything else?

Hillary Clinton was also blindsided by the Sixties, although in a slightly more roundabout way. The hit came from Obama-supporter Tom Hayden, who as the New Left’s acknowledged Everyman, was uniquely qualified to pronounce the anathema. After Hillary’s victory in Pennsylvania, Hayden reminded readers of The Nation of her own “roots in the Sixties”—how she had chaired a Yale Law school movement against the Vietnam war; joined the defense of Bobby Seale during his New Haven murder trial in 1970; and, after law school, spent her summer vacation in the Bay Area working in the fellow-traveling law firm of Robert Treuhaft, which specialized in defending Black Panthers during their war against the cops. Then, having finished this little exercise in Sixties red-baiting, Hayden stipulated that these causes she had once espoused were, of course, “noble,” and charged that she had betrayed her former self by dissing a man, the Rev. Wright, “who represents the very essence of the black radicals Hillary was associating with in those days.”

Staining her with the Sixties and then rubbing in that stain by accusing her of betraying the Sixties: it was one of those sinuous intellectual maneuvers that shows why Irving Howe once said of Hayden that he gave opportunism a bad name.

A whiff of this opportunism accompanied Hayden to Berkeley when he arrived in the miracle year of 1968. (What was he thinking when he showed up teary-eyed at Bobby Kennedy’s funeral at a time when the rest of The Movement was contemptuous of RFK for co-opting dissidents back into the System, the same charge that had led to the New Left’s defamation of Martin Luther King as an “Uncle Tom” in the months before his assassination?)

But there was no denying that Hayden was the Movement’s indispensable man—co-author of the Port Huron Statement, Magna Carta of the New Left; a freedom rider in Mississippi in the dangerous early civil rights days; a community organizer in the Newark ghetto when it exploded in a bloody riot in 1967 (and the author of the lengthy essay on that event in The New York Review of Books whose front-page illustration showed the recipe for a Molotov cocktail); leading representative of the Movement in its shuttle diplomacy with Hanoi and promoter of the notion that what was happening there was nothing more or less than “rice roots democracy”; architect of the riots at the Democratic convention in Chicago.

Whatever his quirks, Hayden had certainly been there, done that. And by 1969, with revolution now so palpably in the air that Newsweek had a cover story considering its possibility in America, he had become one of its canniest tacticians. He helped design the People’s Park riots that spring and conceived the idea of turning places like Berkeley, Cambridge, and Madison into “liberated zones” which would hook up virtually in a revolutionary America with the Black Panthers, who did not have white radicals’ qualms about “picking up the gun,” functioning as a vanguard “Americong.”

In 1971, some members of the Red Family made a high-profile trip to North Korea to praise the living hell that Kim Il Sung had created there.

Over the next couple of years, as the revolution got more serious rhetorically and more fantastical as a practical possibility, Hayden helped form an affinity group called the Red Family. It was very much influenced by Weatherman, whose “heavier the better” antics were causing status anxiety among old New Leftists and a bit of organizational penis envy as well. The Red Family talked revolutionary violence and did some target practice in the Berkeley Hills led by one of its members, a man whom Hayden eulogized as their “Minister of Defense” after his early death from cancer. But most of the group’s energy was directed inward in self-lacerating sessions about the doomed-in-advance imperative to smash monogamy and whether or not it was “bourgeois privatism” to close the door when using the bathroom.

In 1971, some members of the Red Family made a high-profile trip to North Korea to praise the living hell that Kim Il Sung had created there. By this time Hayden had been expelled from the collective for transgressing against the ban on charismatic leadership and had moved to Southern California where he eventually met and married Jane Fonda, whom he directed in her greatest role as Hanoi Jane. They had a son, Troy, purportedly named after Nguyen van Troi, the Vietcong martyr who had tried to assassinate then-Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara when he visited Vietnam in 1966. They pooled their talents in building an “economic democracy movement” and in getting Hayden elected to public office so that he could function as “an outsider on the inside.”

He won a seat in the California legislature in 1982, and served both in the Assembly and Senate until 2000, when he was term-limited out. He and Jane divorced. Adrift in the new century, he entered a Harold Stassen-like period when he became a perennial political candidate, running unsuccessfully for Governor of California and mayor and city councilman of Los Angeles. He wrote about his Irish heritage and about Native Americans. Then he was gone from the spotlight he had sought for close to four decades. (But not forgotten: in an episode of The Simpsons, Homer, trying to make sense of an odd-shaped piece of a jigsaw puzzle, muses, “This is either an old coconut or Tom Hayden.” And next year, he will be portrayed in a film about the Chicago Seven trial to be directed by Steven Spielberg, although the script apparently focuses on Abbie Hoffman, the unsheathed id of the Sixties, who once told me that he regarded Hayden, always somberly preoccupied with his selfhood, as something of a drag.)

I am recalling all this now and wondering how this past will turn out because Hayden’s latest book, Writings for a Democratic Society,1 happened to arrive in the mail shortly after his piece bludgeoning Hillary appeared in The Nation. A collection of his writing since his days as editor of the Michigan Daily in the late 1950s, the book is a legacy project for the author and the Movement he helped create, a sustained exercise in case-making for the Sixties and its earnest effort to make democracy “participatory,” and an attempt to identify pieces of that past in his and our present. The fact that the book is published by City Lights Books, whose big hits were the Beat classics Howl (1956) and Coney Island of the Mind (1958), and that the most recent pieces were first written for blogs and internet sites rather than publications like The New York Review, requires an explanation: the “mainstream media” now marginalizes him, Hayden says, making two misstatements in one sentence, because “the spectrum of what’s considered legitimate editorial opinion has drifted far to the right since the Reagan and Bush eras, even when public opinion moves to the left.”

Hayden’s own picaresque tale is only hinted at in this book, although (or because) he is very interested in re-inflating his old heroic persona. He reprints the Port Huron Statement in its entirety and confesses that he still feels the existential yearnings and need for authenticity that made this document a generation’s call to arms. Comparing himself to James Baldwin, he writes, “I have found it necessary to embrace my alienation as the only way to discover radical traditions usually hidden from white Americans. Otherwise I would have adjusted to the system’s relentless demands long ago and as a writer would be a stranger to my own estrangement.”

He sees his life as divided into three movements. First was “youthful radical idealism”; then came the “purposeful and pragmatic” electoral years; and finally today’s “reflective period” when his work turns back toward the “social movements and large concerns of my youth.” Reconnecting with the meaning of the Sixties, he says, not only brings symmetry to his life, but “is important to social movements of the future and the suppression or distortion of that meaning is vital to the conservative agenda.”

Billy Ayers said in the notorious interview about his underground days (that had the bad luck to run in The New York Times on the morning of 9/11) that “we didn’t do enough.” (Did he mean by this that the bombs he and his wife Bernardine Dohrn set off in trash cans in the empty bathrooms of Federal buildings should have been deployed instead in crowded areas?) Hayden, though, feels that we did just fine. He summarizes the accomplishments of the Sixties as follows: “American democracy became more participatory. Political access and power was redistributed. . . . New issues and constituencies were recognized in public policy. . . . The war in Vietnam was ended and the Cold War model challenged. The Sixties gave birth to new technologies, including the personal computer.”

This last point sounds like an editorial suggestion from Al Gore; the others, at minimum, need a warning that things may seem larger than they actually are when seen in the rear view mirror of history. And this take on the Sixties is bound to leave some of the era’s aging true believers in cognitive dissonance. If these moderate accomplishments were all we were aiming for, why did we spend so much time back then in our seamy Berkeley apartments glorifying the homicidal maniac Che Guevara, pushing the theory of repressive tolerance, and attacking the myth of the vaginal orgasm? Was all that quivering attention paid to revolution and were all those clandestine nighttime meetings to determine where to hide the Panthers’ guns so the cops wouldn’t find them just a dumbshow to achieve these paltry reformist ends?

Writings for a Democratic Society tries to be a forward-looking book, not a nostalgic one. So, if democracy was “in the streets” in the Sixties, where is it in the new century? Still there, according to some of the more recent pieces in the collection—especially in the anti-globalization movement (“Seattle was bigger than Chicago,” Hayden writes, bestowing the highest praise possible on the fight against the World Trade Organization). It is in places he has visited as an unreconstructed internationalist: Chiapas with Subcomandante Marcos and the Zapatistas (“the latest manifestation of the same dream” dreamed in the Sixties); Bolivia with Evo Morales (who is “writing a new Bolivian diary” like the one Che wrote for “the indigenous people” here when he organized his guerrilla base). And of course Cuba, whose leaders, he finds on a visit to Havana, continue wryly to endure “Yanqui imperialism.”

But Hayden’s causes and the lifeless way he espouses them suggest that the Sixties has suffered a fate worse than death as its anarchic brio dissolves into a glutinous mixture of revisionism, political correctness, multicultural clichés, and progressivism. Then there is the popular-fronting solidarity—with affirmative action, queer studies, animal rights, and the fight to save endangered species; solidarity too with a “spirituality” that is one part Greenpeace and one part Pelagius, evoking a “sense of reverence and kinship toward the inherent worth of the natural world”; and most solemnly, solidarity with Native Americans. This last incidentally allows Hayden to complete the tape loop joining old and the new: “Ho Chi Minh should be viewed less like Joseph Stalin and more like Sitting Bull.”

The man who negotiated with world historical figures such as Madame Binh and Pham Van Dong now engages in solidarity meetings in the Middle East under the auspices of Code Pink with the likes of Cindy Sheehan. He extracts this weird causation from the shock and awe of 9/11: “Osama bin Laden set the stage for a political shift to the right by targeting civilians.” Even the idea that the personal is political, one of the cherished principles of the Sixties, has become a wizened concept: “One of my fantasies is to mobilize heart patients like myself to demand the legalization of coca for medical purposes. . . . [This] blow against the drug war would be hugely beneficial to Bolivia.”

Some things Hayden has gotten right, of course. One of them is that “the final stage of the Sixties, the stage of memory and museums, is underway.” But this raises a question. When the exhibits are finally installed, will there be a place for that comb he brought home from a foreign war in the good old days when we were all so bad?

  1.  Writings for a Democratic Society: The Tom Hayden Reader, by Tom Hayden; City Light Books, 450 pages, $21.95.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 26 Number 10, on page 4
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