Sam Green and Bill Siegel’s nuanced documentary The Weather Underground (at Film Forum; see review) surrounds its subject with the archival film-clipped social context of its era: demonstrations, assassinations, COINTELPRO undercover government subversion, the never ending war in Vietnam. In the film, the Weathers stand in for the larger story of ’60s politics, but they’re just one of the fragments that cracked off when the New Left cracked up. “Violence didn’t work,” Mark Rudd admits late in the narrative. Yeah, but it still gets you in the movies.
Underground bombers, Maoists, neo-Trotskyites, correct-liners, factory workers, and communalists, all burned brightly and then turned to ash or glowing embers in the ’70s. Only the gay and women’s movements survived, with their successful reformulation of the New Left mix of personal empowerment and social and political critiques of straight-male domination—critiques that were extended to the movement, but by definition could not engage the questions of the movement as a whole. The New Left’s gone, not as an attitude or memory, but as an institution. Why?
The film suggests that we were driven crazy by the war in Vietnam and in our craziness destroyed ourselves, and that’s true, but there was more to it than that. Not raised are the problems caused by organizational structure (or lack of structure) and the I’m-more-militant-than-you-so-shut-up shaming culture of the left. But we are given some film-clipped clues about another problem—the rise to power of the right.
The New Left defined itself as different from the Old Left and from the liberal establishment, but it never understood the right. It depended on the liberals as a power structure to expose and influence. When LBJ was influenced on civil rights, this dynamic worked. With Vietnam it didn’t. When Nixon-Reagan-Bush replaced the liberals, the New Left didn’t have a way of dealing with this change. In the movie, activist Kathleen Cleaver points out that the organized destruction of the Black Panthers started when Nixon was in office. But that important fact didn’t adjust anyone’s perspective. And here we go again. Who would have thought that self-disciplined Ralph Nader would transform the well- intentioned Greens into a self-destructive drive to punish Al Gore? Radical loses influence on liberals, flips out, burns out, doesn’t notice that the right has gained control.
The Weather Underground remains a useful metaphor for a time long gone yet still around. Bernardine Dohrn remains as photogenic as she was in 1969, and there were other faces of the dead and living in the film I remember with affection. But the images I most noticed were of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. How did those guys get into this movie? It’s time to take a closer look at the role they played in our collapse, and the role we played in their ascension.